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American Speech 76.1 (2001) 100-103

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Colonial English on a Silver Platter

Richard W. Bailey
University of Michigan

The Performing Arts in Colonial American Newspapers, 1690-1783: Text Database and Index By Mary Jane Corry, Kate Van Winkle Keller, and Robert M. Keller New York: University Music Editions, 1997. CD-ROM

In this information-conscious age, it is hard to imagine something scholarly and informative vanishing into an Orwellian memory hole. That, however, seems to have been the fate of this excellent CD-ROM; it does not appear in the MLA bibliography, and only 170 (or so) copies have been sold, perhaps because the publisher is unable to mount much of an advertising campaign. The reason seems to lie in the promise to the National Endowment for the Humanities that the finished product would be sold for less than a hundred dollars a copy.

The scope of the project brings together colonial newspapers--some 162 titles encompassing 50,719 issues--and selects from them "music, poetry (lyrics), dance, and theatre." Thus if the "Dead March" was played at a funeral (as it commonly was) and the performance was reported in the newspaper, it will be included here. A major objective was to collect information about poems and songs, and 12,061 are indexed. When these poems were long (as they commonly were), only the first four lines are entered, with an indication of how many more lines ensue. (Many of these newspapers are available in microform, and hence the extracts can be investigated more thoroughly without too much additional effort.)

Why should readers of American Speech be interested in this resource? Consider the following from the Connecticut Gazette (New London), 8 May 1767:

Here lie Dinah, Sambo wife.
Sambo lub him like he life.
Dinah die sic week go,
Sambo Master tell him so. [End Page 100]

While doubtless stereotypical, this small poem reveals an awareness in its author and probably readers of features of creolized English. The CD-ROM contains an index, and entries under "Dialect" direct users to examples like this one. Frenchified English was also popular in the era.

Addressed to a subtle British Fox.
Dou pirate, dou robber, dou dam British teef,
Now tremble to hear vat you'd never beleef.
My monarque is as angry as any March hare;
Darefore stand on your guard--Of your coast have a care.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . [7 more lines]

To discover what features appear in the seven additional lines, the user would need to look at the Boston Gazette for 19 April 1756. And the reply subsequently published illustrates that "delight in" and "fighting" were full rhymes in that era.

Linguistic self-consciousness is also amply displayed, for instance in an essay reprinted from an English magazine in the New Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth), 4 February 1774: "You will, perhaps esteem me scrupulously nice, and effectly delicate, when I tell you that I cannot bear excess or extravagance in behaviour, in dress, or in food; nor yet misapplication of words, vicious pronunciation, or ungrammatical language." This writer objects strenuously to h-insertion and h-deletion at the beginning of words: "Such pronunciation, even from the nectareous lips of the fair, is ungraceful." A similar distaste for bad language emerges in an extract from a biography of Benedict Arnold, whose accomplishments as a military commander are denigrated and whose very English was disgraceful: "His pronunciation was improper, and he seldom connected a sentence of grammar together" (Continental Journal [Boston], 18 Oct. 1781). This specimen is included because the biographer wishes to distinguish courage (which, he claimed, Arnold did not possess) from bravery (which he did), and bravery, he writes, is "excited" by music and the use of music triggers inclusion of the passage. Similarly, the following from a reply to an abusive critic is entered because a dancing school is mentioned: "Let me recommend to you as very proper, before you teach manners, point out absurdities, or grammatical errors, to go to the dancing school, and spend your vacant hours...


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pp. 100-103
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Archived 2005
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