How did colonial Americans speak?
May 26, 2014 2:25 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to write a story that takes place in 1660s Massachusetts. I have a great plot and characters, but the action stops when they open their mouths. I simply don't know how they spoke. How can I find examples of 17th century English as spoken by ordinary people?

I think we all have a stereotype in our minds of how early Americans spoke. Lots of thees and thous. I need my characters to sound like people, not cartoons, so I am looking for more.

Speech is obviously hard to come by, since it couldn't be recorded, but surely some enterprising linguistics grad student has come up with something I could go on.
Transcripts seem to be my best bet, and I am reading through the Salem witch trial transcripts, since they contain lots of dialog.
Diaries and letters could help, if they were written by ordinary people, and not highly educated ministers and the like.
I am looking for vocabulary, sentence structure, popular turns of phrase, anything that gets my characters closer to sounding like they belong in 1660.
Obscure books are fine, I have a good ILL system.
posted by Biblio to Education (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have any sources for you beyond the ones you mention, but I would strongly urge you to tread very lightly with the period-dialect stuff. Immerse yourself in the transcripts for a while to get the feel of them, but don't try to reproduce it. You will inevitably do it badly and the readers who actually have a feel for the period will be upset. What you want to aim for is the kind of thing Hilary Mantel does in her Thomas Cromwell books (so far, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies): a sense of the period without the musty thee/thou stuff that makes it impossible for the modern reader to truly enjoy the story. If you were writing a novel set in Germany, you wouldn't have the characters speaking German, right? I think that's how you need to think of it.
posted by languagehat at 3:24 PM on May 26, 2014 [13 favorites]

Actually, I do have a recommendation for you: the writings of Roger Williams, which are lively and often sound conversational; check out, for instance, George Fox Digged out of his Burrowes (Boston, 1676).
posted by languagehat at 3:31 PM on May 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

I agree with you, languagehat. I don't want full-on dialect, but I don't want readers to be jarred by too-modern language, either. I will check out the titles you mention.
posted by Biblio at 3:44 PM on May 26, 2014

People didn't always "thee" and "thou" in the seventeenth century unless they were Quakers. Those are the t-form second person pronoun, and just like the French "tu" (as opposed to "vous") was used in very personal settings. (I've read a LOT of seventeenth century documents, including letters, but they are mostly formal business letters and use formal "yous", never thee/thou).

If you want to get a sense of more personal language, you could look for collections of love letters or family letters.

But more than the pronoun usage, maybe you'd like to capture some of the rich ways people wrote then - they had a way of expressing themselves that was very earthy and corporeal. I would immerse myself in writers like Daniel Defoe (his Moll Flanders is delightfully informal language c1700). Body imagery is rife in so many things: rivers are veins, trees have arms. Many things we would describe mechanically they described organically.

One modern novel that I think did a brilliant job of capturing Early Modern English (more early nineteenth than seventeenth, but more like seventeenth than 20th) is Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I was reading it after a day at the archive, immersed in 17th century language, and it felt just like it had been written c1800.
posted by jb at 3:45 PM on May 26, 2014 [10 favorites]

If you are near a University, you can look up what sort of primary source documents they have available for the time period. Your specific intent should be to find papers that record actual legal proceedings, as they sometimes include bits of actual dialogue with everyday folk (even with all the inherent problems of using such a text). I like diaries and letters but be aware the author is educated, and sometimes purposefully using stylistic devices because they are writing to entertain an imagined/actual reader, so the documents are not as representative of the everyday person as you would hope. Remember for your time period it was not as common for average folk to be keeping written documents, as it would be once you get into the 1800s. I find if you read literary material created inevitably by the educated in your time period, you will end up with very flowery, formal language. This would not approximate the manner in which everyday people actually spoke.

I agree with languagehat that if you write your story in a truly authentic way you will alienate readers. If you get a hold of popular stories from the 1700s and1800s intended to appeal to the literate masses, such as those in the Gothic genre which remains relatively popular and accessible to us today, you will probably find the dialogue tedious and hard to follow unless you have a strong background in the time period or the literary style. Also the style falls prey to the same issue I mentioned with diaries. Similarly, and more relevant to your period, Shakespeare was quite witty and appealing to the everyday people of his generation and shortly after. Nowadays what seemed to his intended audience slangy, witty and jokey, is incomprehensible to the average reader of today without having seriously studied his works and the period itself.

If you cannot find primary source material at your local university with the words of average people, I would suggest looking for academic (but still highly readable and fun) books in the history field that examine people on the "margins"... Stuff by Natalie Zemon Davis, such as Women on the Margins or the famous The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzberg (the latter not quite your time period, but Women on the Margins is).
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 3:58 PM on May 26, 2014

Since your profile says you live in Massachusetts, have you considered visting or getting in touch with Plimoth Plantation? They run a historical re-enactment (which as far as I can tell is pretty good in terms of historical accuracy) with actors who converse with the public, set in Massachusetts in 1620-24, so clearly this is a problem they've thought a lot about.
posted by phoenixy at 4:19 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Transcripts of the Anne Hutchinson trial might also be useful - pretty sure Williams was tried as well and there might well be transcripts of that as well. So you shouldn't have trouble finding discussions of heresy, at least! They sure did like to transcribe trials about heresy. If you're in the eastern part of Massachusetts, you might want to try contacting your local historical society or public library archive. I know that the archives of the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers, MA (once known as Salem Village) has letters and other manuscript documents.

Also try to pay attention to the way they thought... the 17th-century Bay Colony Puritan worldview looks pretty exotic post-Enlightenment, post-Great Awakening, etc. If you haven't read The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, I'd really urge you to check it out (I don't remember how detailed the references are, but they might be helpful as well).
posted by mskyle at 5:30 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are 17th century letters from non-elite people with little education. I don't know colonial sources well, but British archives include documents such as "poverty petitions" - letters written by poor people to poor law overseers explaining why they need some support. There are a large collection from Northumberland c1660-1760 which have been microfilmed by the Mormons and might be available to be read at their Family history centres.

Chapbooks and other cheap print include dialogues - they may have been written by educated people, but were intended for non-elite audiences and would have to have language that was intelligible and believable to them.

Also, we often underestimate the literacy of 16th-18th century people. Most of our statistics are based on the ability to write, but at the time there were a lot of people who could not sign their name, but could read. Reading would have been especially important for any Puritan or similarly devout Protestant, as part of their religious practice. Puritans were also more likely to keep diaries, including artisans such as Nehemiah Wallington.
posted by jb at 7:45 PM on May 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

in the 1660s they would be almost all be either imigrants or the children of imigrants, so they would speak mostly like they did where they came from, then over time their accents and speech patterns would have melded. Given that accents and dialects vary considerably around England (which is itself not the only source), I suspect that even in what is to us a small area like Massachusetts there would not have had one canonical way of speaking in 1660. And of course, though the founders of, say, Boston would probably have had Lincolnshire accents, they would not have had the modern one. So, if you want to get as close as you can, choose your source population(s) and look for info on period accent etc. for them.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 8:57 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Robin McNeal did a TV documentary about the English language. I remember he said that the accent of the early colonists was similar to what we hear in parts of the south today.

Look for The Story of English on YouTube.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:04 PM on May 27, 2014

If you want to look at (end of) 18th century speech (a little later, but there are volumes upon volumes of this), look up the transcripts of the debate in Massachusetts over the adoption of the constitution. They are available at the BPL (at least they were 15 years ago, but I can't imagine them going anywhere). Also, any transcripts of the drafting of the Massachusetts Constitution, which is probably from earlier. From my memory, this will be more formal than a casual conversation unfortunately.
posted by Hactar at 2:32 PM on May 27, 2014

Nothing from America, but you might find something of interest in The Oxford Book of English Speech.
posted by BWA at 3:32 PM on April 12, 2015

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