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American Speech 76.1 (2001) 30-41

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"Live Free or Die" as a Linguistic Principle

Naomi Nagy
University of New Hampshire

I knowed you wasn't Oklahomy folks. You talk queer kinda--That ain't no blame, you understan'. . . . Ever'body says words different, . . . And we seen a lady from Massachusetts, an' she said 'em differentest of all. [Steinbeck 1939, 352]

The first aim of this paper is to describe some ways in which the Massachusetts speech varieties are "differentest," specifically with respect to the unmerged status of several vowels which are merged in most areas of the United States. The second aim is to explore how Boston has maintained its linguistic distinction--as a result of NON-BOSTON speakers, notably the New Hampshire neighbors of the Boston metropolis, not adopting the distinct features of the Boston accent. While it is popularly believed that regional dialects are being leveled, numerous studies have indicated that, in fact, cities retain distinct phonological patterns (cf. Labov 1994, 29). Rural varieties have received less sociolinguistic attention.

In order to determine how linguistic patterns evolve and diffuse outside the domain of a metropolitan center, this paper begins exploration of a rural and small-town region of the United States that has not been thoroughly studied since the 1930s. The findings contradict Trudgill's (1974) proposal that linguistic innovations diffuse from cities to the neighboring towns and villages, as Boston is the closest metropolis to all of New Hampshire. A social explanation is offered: the lack of appeal to New Hampshire residents of the "big city" life offered by Boston.

Attitudes and Identity in New Hampshire

In order to interpret the linguistic data presented below, it is important to understand the local identities of New Hampshire (NH) residents and their attitudes toward those in Massachusetts (MA). The clearest evidence that I have observed in my four years of living in southern NH comes from state-issued vehicle license plates, which bear the slogan "Live Free or Die." Residents use this slogan frequently in conversation as a means of explaining [End Page 30] why people do (or don't do) some particular thing in this rather libertarian state.

I have also been struck by the high percentage of personalized license plates in NH. 1 They are a readily available and affordable means of expressing one's identity, costing only $25 more than a standard plate. Although some personalized license plates show just names, nicknames, or initials, many illustrate aspects of life in NH. Many show how people spend their free time (e.g., SKIERZ, NEIGE, KAYAK, SUNSEA, ESCAPE, SKIHSE 'ski house', NATUR, and PADDLE) or what they do for a living (e.g., DIGGA 'digger' and LUMBA-1 'lumber-one'). Some exhibit regional pronunciation patterns, providing "phonetic" transcriptions of common words (e.g., MAHNY for the name 'Marny'). Others more directly illustrate locally oriented identity (e.g., YANKEE and LOCAL). Some combine the attitude and the phonology (e.g., HEEYAH 'here', WUTEVA 'whatever' and DALIFE 'the life', a possible Franco-American pronunciation; see Ryback-Soucy and Nagy 2000). Their license plates suggest that people who have chosen to live in rural NH do not have "big-city" values, but rather appreciate the rural and small-town lifestyle offered in NH. Keeping this attitudinal focus in mind will allow us to interpret the data collected for this research project.


The data presented here are a small subset of data being collected for a larger research project to learn how linguistic changes disseminate in nonmetropolitan areas. The McGill-New Hampshire-Vermont Dialect Survey, directed by Charles Boberg, Julie Roberts, and myself, is collecting data in this underdocumented area and examining the effects of social distinctions such as age, sex, ethnicity, and locally relevant factors.

DATA COLLECTION. An important component of the project is that we engage college students from New England in the research, further contributing to preservation of disappearing speech patterns by increasing interest at the grassroots level, as well as providing an opportunity for our students to gain experience in field research and data analysis. The...


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pp. 30-41
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2005
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