Accents and Anachronisms: What did people sound like in 18th century America?

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Today we’re tackling a popular subject: What’s going on with all the different accents in TURN? It’s one of our most-requested topics! The questions we’ve received range from skeptical commentary to pure curiosity (which tends to be the case with every topic, not just this one). We’ve chosen one example from each category below.  The greater takeaway is that among TURN viewers, there’s clearly a lot of interest in what people in the 18th century sounded like when they spoke. There’s a wealth of scholarship on 18th century linguistics out there, but for purposes of answering these TURN-related questions, we’ll try to tackle one small slice at a time — with plenty of links for further reading!

Question 1: “Yeah,” “Okay,” and Other Aggravating Anachronisms

Q1: “I am curious about the recent devolution of the King’s English this season. “Yeah”? “Great!”? Seems disappointingly anachronistic.”

Well, yeah! Great question. (wink)  Although as we can see from the pictures below, anachronistic speech has been present throughout TURN’s entire run.

slang1 slang2

(Once again, Caleb Brewster takes first place as the most egregious violator of 18th century standards: a quick script search shows that “Yeah” is one of his favorite replies to just about anything.)

While the words and responses above are good examples of modern words that are inappropriate for 18th century speech, just how “disappointing” they are is a good subject for healthy debate. Most modern viewers don’t even notice anachronistic words, inflections, and turns of phrase like “yeah” and “that’s great” because they’re so deeply ingrained into our everyday conversations. If you find your ears perking up at the sound of modern words in a historical setting, your historical spider-sense is finely tuned, indeed! (Readers: Are you bothered when you hear modern words and phrases in historical TV shows? Do you even notice them at all? Let us know in the comments!)

Your question brings up a very interesting larger point, however: Should a period TV show or movie aspire to linguistic purity as one of its goals? Of course, like everything else in historical fiction, it’s more than just a simple yes or no question; there’s a huge range of historically-informed possibilities to consider. Modern audiences would likely be lost if TURN used nothing but meticulously reconstructed 18th century American accents and vocabulary. However, words like “yeah,” “okay,” and even “hello” are pretty obvious anachronisms (well, obvious to anyone who’s studied the 18th century in depth) that could easily be swapped out for other period-correct alternatives.

The writers of TURN have touted the show’s very sporadic use of 18th century slang (like “chunder bucket” in Episode 8 of Season 1) – but while those occasional trivia tidbits are certainly fun, viewers shouldn’t be fooled into believing that the dialogue in TURN is a faithful representation of how people conversed in 18th century America.

Interested in more word histories? Want to try hunting down linguistic anachronisms yourself? Try searching online dictionaries like the extremely thorough Oxford English Dictionary or free sites like dictionary.com to look up the etymology (historical origins) of common words. Most etymologies specify a date range when the word in question was first observed in common use. Then, if you’re really ambitious, you can even search online transcripts of TURN (or any other historical show) to see if and when they pop up in the script!

words-1-001
Historical clues: What might a proper Englishman have sounded like in the 18th century? Click to see a full list of “Words written very different from their Pronounciation” written by Richard Hall, an 18th century gentleman living in England.

In order to try and piece together accurate vocabulary lists and speech patterns of the past, historians have to cross-reference as many letters, journals, diaries, schoolbooks, and other documents as they can find. It’s no easy task! (Yet another good reason for Hollywood to hire — and actually listen to — reputable historians as behind-the-scenes consultants.)  If you’re feeling ambitious, you can browse through Samuel Johnson’s famous 1755 dictionary for a better idea of how English speakers used certain words. For those who might be intimidated by total immersion in 18th century sources, Colonial Williamsburg has a fun, light, and very readable guide with greetings and phrases appropriate to the Revolutionary era.

Question 2: Anomalous Accents

 Q2: “What kind of accent would people [in colonial America] have in the 1770s?”

In lieu of using 18th century language, it seems like the strategy on TURN has been to give the main characters distinct accents in order to subtly remind viewers that the show takes place in the 18th century. Apparently this strategy has been very successful, if the volume of accent-related questions we’ve received about accents is any indication! While all of the colorful shades of English, Irish, and Scottish accents featured in TURN are pleasing to the modern ear, how appropriate are they for the historical characters and places depicted in the show?

setauket
Setauket, New York, as depicted in TURN. Many of the main characters’ families had been living in the American colonies for generations before the American Revolution began.

In most cases, not very. For example: in TURN, Robert Rogers’ Scottish brogue is so thick you could cut it with a knife. The real Robert Rogers, in marked contrast, was born in Massachusetts and raised in New Hampshire – two colonies with overwhelmingly English populations in the 18th century. And the original ‘Major’ Hewlett (meaning Richard Hewlett, of course, not the “wait, never mind, we decided to call him Edmund, he’s a completely different person now!” Hewlett revealed to viewers during last week’s episode) was a Long Island-born American loyalist who certainly wouldn’t have spoken with an impeccably crisp high British accent. Indeed, many of the most heavily-accented characters in TURN were, in reality, American-born men and women whose families had been anchored in the American colonies for generations. Their families weren’t “fresh off the boat” from England, Scotland, or anywhere else. The Woodhull family alone had been anchored in Long Island for over a hundred years before the Revolution began!

All right, then: So what did American colonists from New England and New York sound like in the 18th century?

First of all, there’s no one right answer to that question. It depends on a number of factors, like the heritage, location, and education level of any given person. In some bustling colonial port cities, an 18th century traveler could find himself surrounded by several strange and exotic-sounding accents all in the course of a single day, as one itinerant doctor observed while traveling through New York in 1744. It would be just as hard to argue for one single representative “Colonial American” accent as it would be to argue for one single representative “Modern American” accent today. (Try getting a Texan and a New Yorker to agree on that!)

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have SOME ideapaul revere's ride cover of what colonists sounded like in the 18th century! Colonial Americans, especially in the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies, had a remarkably high rate of literacy, even among women – but few received anything more than a rudimentary education from home or a local tutor or grammar school. These modestly-educated people, for the most part, tended to spell words phonetically – i.e. how they heard them spoken. So, perhaps ironically, the documents left behind by these less-educated colonists are often more helpful in determining the sound of local speech than those written by educated elites!

Take Paul Revere for example. In his (excellent and very readable) book Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer helps us imagine what it might have been like to converse with the famous (and modestly educated) Boston patriot:

“His spelling tells us that Paul Revere talked with a harsh, nasal New England twang. His strong Yankee accent derived from a family of East Anglian dialects that came to Boston in the 17th century, and can still be faintly heard today.

When Paul Revere’s friends wrote in defense of their cherished charter rights, they spelled “charter” as chattaer… and probably pronounced it with no r at all. All his life Paul Revere spelled “get” as git. His mother’s maiden name of Hitchborn was written Hitchbon in the town of Boston, which was pronounced Bast’n. His friends wrote mash for “marsh” and want for “weren’t,” hull for “whole” and foller for “follow,” sarve for “serve” and acummin for “coming.” …This was the folk-speech of an Anglo-American culture that was already six generations old by 1775, and deeply rooted in Paul Revere’s New England.”

Notice that Fischer states that this proto-Boston accent had been in place long before the start of the Revolution!  (Fischer expands on this concept in his book Albion’s Seed.) Indeed, British soldiers and European travelers had been noting since the mid-18th century how odd the speech of American colonists sounded compared to the King’s English.

childscompaniontitleThankfully for historians, Revere and many of his peers weren’t “over-educated” to the point where they stopped spelling words like they heard them. But while that fact makes modern historians happy, it was a thorn in the side of Early American pedants and schoolmasters who saw it as their mission to popularize “proper” spelling and punctuation. As a result, we can find some pretty amusing “corrective” lists well into the early 19th century! We’ve included one such list below for you to browse through and/or download and enjoy. Published in 1808, Caleb Brigham’s “The Child’s Companion” spelling book contained the following appendix of “Improprieties in Pronunciation common among the people of New-England.” While this dates from after the Revolution, you can spot several overlaps between Brigham’s list and Fischer’s description of Revolutionary Boston speech above. I’ll bet some of you New Englanders can find some overlap with modern Boston accents, too!

So, while there’s no single correct answer to “What did people in Early America sound like?”, we can get a fun glimpse of what common New England speech might have sounded like in the late 18th to early 19th century thanks to primary sources like the one below. This is just one of many books, diaries, and journals out there that give us a colorful glimpse into the sounds and speech of Early America. If you have any favorite sources, share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below! Enjoy your browsing, and keep those questions coming!

-RS

Caleb Bingham’s “Improprieties in Pronunciation common among the people of New-England”

Click on the thumbnails to view and/or download the full sized pages. If you’re not used to reading Early American print, keep in mind that many of the “f” characters are actually a lowercase “s.” Google Books has a full copy of Mr. Bingham’s spelling book online, if you’d like to save or view it as a PDF form.

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21 thoughts on “Accents and Anachronisms: What did people sound like in 18th century America?

    sleehauser said:
    May 4, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Thank you so much! That was fascinating. I reckon I hadn’t noticed the “yeahs” of Caleb before! The accent question was very interesting–particularly some similarities I “heard” in the pronunciation guide between New England and the part of the South that is my home. Of particular interest I noted the use of “ax” for “ask,” which I very frequently hear in the African-American community. Thanks for another great post!

    Kandice Keene Bridges said:
    May 4, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    I am so glad I found this blog. I adore TURN and am fascinated by colonial America, the American Revolution and our country’s founding. I had wondered about the accents and use of certain words on the show. Thank you for the blog AND the links – I’ve added to my reading list.

    Donna Thorland said:
    May 4, 2015 at 7:50 pm

    These are always tough choices. Dorothy Dunnett gets away with her characters talking about “melodrama” in the 1540s, but it works because emotionally it’s true to the story. Joanna Bourne (anyone who loves historical spy fiction should try her excellent Spymaster’s Lady–don’t be put off by the cover) will not use the term “silhouette” but I’m willing to bend on that one in my books because it conjures an instant image, whereas “corset” drives me bonkers, but many popular authors like to use it and their readers don’t complain.

    On SALEM I’m pretty sure we’ve never used “OK” but I could be wrong (and the show is obviously fantasy). And we delight in “behagged” and other 17th century peculiarities. If I had an excuse to employ “chunder bucket” I probably would.

    My first priority, whether it’s books or TV is to try to tell a good story. Second, is to try to paint a vivid picture of the times. When period detail gets in the way of clarity–using a term that my readers/viewers won’t be able to glean from context–when it diffuses their immersion in the story instead of deepens it, then I’m inclined to reach for more modern and familiar language.

      spycurious responded:
      May 5, 2015 at 2:24 pm

      Thanks for the great insight, Donna! (For those who might not know, Donna is a writer for “Salem” on WGN.) I definitely empathize with the need to weigh pure historical accuracy against how much it might subtract from the show’s ability to tell a story without distraction. I imagine you’re faced with a lot of tough calls. Just exactly where someone sets the bar for accuracy definitely varies from person to person and show to show!

      I was actually a bit (pleasantly?) surprised to receive multiple questions from readers about the accuracy of speech in TURN. While historical language is a fun topic and a wellspring of historical trivia, it’s rather far down on the list of things I tend to look for first when considering the accuracy of a period show (especially when a show contains so many massive historical blunders about big, important events). Not that I’m complaining — I think it’s fantastic to hear from so many viewers who pay attention to detail in TURN and are curious to learn more!

    J. Tan said:
    May 4, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    One modern expression that ruined the movie Amistad for me was “Yes!” followed by a fist pump. This happened when Matthew McConaughey and their team received a favorable final decision from Judge Coglin.

      Iain Inkster said:
      November 17, 2015 at 6:02 pm

      Yes is ancient!!!

        Jason said:
        January 9, 2016 at 5:57 pm

        But the Michael Jordan-esque fist pump is 1990s.

    JL Hays said:
    May 7, 2015 at 8:20 am

    In the above example of the book of pronunciations by Richard Hall, the pronunciations have a bit of a Cockney flavor with a hint of what most refer to these days as a “country” accent in some of the words as well. For instance, the Cockney habit of pronouncing ‘H’s’ at the beginning of some words not spelled with a beginning ‘H’ like, the pronouncements of ‘artichoke’ and ‘achievement’. Of course, Cockney accents remove the ‘H’ sound on most words that are spelled with a beginning ‘H’, although there are no examples in the above photo of the books so we can’t tell from those mere 2 pages if that was in practice in any American accents at the time. The “country” accent has it’s examples in words such as “apurn” (apron), “buty” (beauty), and “buro (bureau). I’ve always been interested in linguistics and have a bit of an ear for accents, though I’ve never seriously studied those things, only read and watched informative programs for my own pleasure and edification. I plan to look into some of the resources for further info that are mentioned in the article.

    Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said:
    May 12, 2015 at 9:53 am

    What bothered me about the show was not so much the anachronisms of speech but the differing accents. I know that Angus MacFadyen who plays Rogers is Scottish but he’s quite capable of doing an American accent. And why is Abraham speaking with an English accent while his father is not? It was just too confusing for me, apart from the obvious historical inaccuracies. Which I could deal with if only the writers and producers would own up to them and stop pretending that what they are writing and producing is fact-based.

      spycurious responded:
      May 12, 2015 at 2:12 pm

      Indeed! Your comment on the odd mixture of different accents sums up what I’ve heard from most viewers. Why such an eclectic mix? The rationale (even a fictional one), isn’t clear.

      Also, I agree 100% with this: “….[Various inaccuracies] I could deal with if only the writers and producers would own up to them and stop pretending that what they are writing and producing is fact-based.” Just think — if they did this, their credibility would increase exponentially (heck, it wouldn’t even be an issue in the first place!) and they’d no longer have to spend so much time and effort twisting themselves into pretzels to justify their most extreme deviations from the historical record. (e.g. using a steampunk/colonial “lie detector,” killing off actual historical characters decades too early, etc.) Why not give the show “The Patriot” treatment and change the names of the main characters, since they’re almost entirely fictional creations anyway?

    JWarner said:
    May 18, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    How pop culture interprets our history is more a reflection of our collective values than a fair statement of the motives and character of our ancestors. By that standard alone I find TURN deeply disappointing. Fictionalizing the story wouldn’t make the message any less disturbing.

    For starters, look at the depictions of institutional torture in our nascent US military. Woodhull is tortured by Continentals. Simcoe is tortured by Continentals. Hewlett will be tortured… and again, it seems by Continentals. From the quick video cuts, it looks like his treatment will be spectacularly savage. (I won’t see it, though. I hate melodrama. I hate soap operas, and I hate being pandered to. So I’ve stopped watching TURN. Let me know if I guessed right and the dirty deed is YET AGAIN carried out by Continentals.)

    Still claiming the work is grounded in history, the writers (Alexander Rose most prominently) have made torture a procedure in Washington’s army: soldiers torture British officers and Tories, and shoot teenage boys in the head without courts martial. (The murder of Newt was torture). No one bats an eye at these depictions… Because it’s not history, it’s social commentary. The story becomes an anodyne, a myth to excuse torture post 9/11 in the same way the show 24 did.

    If TURN isn’t good history is it at least good allegory? Do they explore of the effects of torture on the victims or the perpetrators? No. Abe harbors no resentment at being water boarded. Simcoe is evil incarnate, a Man of Blood (caricature). Not only does he deserve torture, but he also has a gleeful masochistic enjoyment of it, and uses it as an excuse to “act-out.” General Scott is completely unfazed, as if he blows children’s brains out every day. Brewster beats a tied-up Simcoe to a bloody pulp, yet is one of the most-beloved characters. Poor Major Hewlett (like Poor Ensign Baker and Poor Mr. Sackett) is a melodramatic cheat. Another good man, a Man of Reason (caricature again), he’s looking a lot like cannon fodder, to be destroyed to elicit a powerful emotional response.

    In the world of TURN, this is all status quo. I’ve read the posts on Twitter and Facebook. Many viewers believe this is history. Great. So we can all feel better about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and secret prisons? Because “Oh well! It’s what we’ve always done. It’s what we’ve had to do.” Except it is a lie. We learn nothing about the American Revolution, and what we learn about ourselves is something quite ugly.

      spycurious responded:
      May 18, 2015 at 5:31 pm

      This is one of the most excellent pieces of cultural commentary I’ve ever seen regarding TURN (and as you might imagine, I’ve seen many). Concise and direct, with plenty of food for thought. Thank you for sharing it here — I hope many more people get the chance to read this.

        JWarner said:
        May 19, 2015 at 12:32 pm

        Called it right, didn’t I Spycurious?

        Continental officers as serial torturers—the myth is perpetuated.

        Honestly, I hope my thoughts are a mere storm in a teapot, that the ratings continue to tank and this THING just goes away. (It should go without saying though, I would miss your excellent blog.)

          spycurious responded:
          May 19, 2015 at 2:07 pm

          Indeed you did! I wouldn’t have bet against you, that’s for sure. All the more opportunities to live-tweet links to more historically-grounded blog posts and articles (and even your comment above, on one occasion). And thank you for the compliment — we’ll all cross that post-TURN bridge when we come to it!

          I’m not sure if you saw last night’s episode (“Valley Forge”), but it contained plenty of content that further support your excellent characterization of TURN as a reflection of modern cultural myths and values. In addition to more shocking, anachronistic depictions of torture, there was the Shakespearean-esque mental breakdown of George Washington. Perhaps most notably, the episode perpetuated the mythical image of Washington praying at Valley Forge (with a camera angle mimicking the famous 20th century painting and everything), but with a pointedly modern twist — showing a crazed Washington speaking to a hallucination of his dead half-brother Lawrence instead of Washington speaking/praying/convening with any sort of Providential power. A reflection of cultural values, indeed…

            J Warner said:
            May 19, 2015 at 4:24 pm

            I did NOT watch it. I can’t in good conscience add to their viewership. Plus I’m still mad about the 16 hours I’ve thrown away waiting for TURN to fulfill the promise of Alexander Rose’s book… 16 hours of my life I’ll never get back.

            I asked a friend how the Continentals treated Hewlett. Apparently our forefathers-in-arms were WORSE than pro-Nazis. They know he didn’t do it. They strip him naked and try to freeze him to death anyway. What the &@#$!!!! At least in the Patriot the cliched, anachronistic, pro-Nazis were the enemy, the British. WE were the good guys.

            It’s so bizarre, like an evil shade of Parson Weems, an anti-hagiograhy… yet still packaged to somehow make us feel good?! “Whoa Dude! Look at how SHITTY and NUTTY our Founding Fathers were! No wonder this country is so screwed up! But hey, by comparison we don’t SUCK as much as we thought.” Oh Heavens!

    J Warner said:
    May 19, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    Oops, I meant PROTO-Nazis, not pro-Nazis.

    amy pala said:
    May 20, 2015 at 9:59 pm

    The title of your page should be “Turn to an Historian.”

      JWarner said:
      May 21, 2015 at 9:50 am

      Actually, “Turn to a Historian” is correct usage. Chicago Manual Style 15/e (Word Usage, 5.202): When the “h” is pronounced, use the article “a.” When the “h” is not pronounced, use “an.”

      Example: We attended an hourlong talk at a historic society.

    Alicia said:
    June 1, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    My husband and I are enjoying the show and your blog and have a question for you. Did the real Simcoe speak with such a high pitch?

    Ken Giorlando said:
    May 20, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    I am enjoying TURN immensely and just discovered your site this afternoon.
    Thank you for all you put into it.
    Though I do understand that to speak totally in an 18th century manner would be a turn off for many, I am always very disappointed when “Aggravating Anachronisms” are used a bit too over the top. To hear such words as “yeah,” “hello,” “okay” and other similar words does drive me a little crazy.
    But just as aggravating are the use of handshakes. To my knowledge, a slight bow between two people with arms slightly extended from the body was the proper manner in greeting, not the shaking of hands. Verbally, a “your servant” was an acceptable spoken greeting as well. And since even the lower classes at the time strived to be higher than their lot, I would venture to guess they, too, would greet in the same.
    Anyhow, thank you once again for your very informative site – I am passing it along on my own blog that I write (Passion for the Past) as well as on my Facebook page.

    […] you believe historical reenactments in film and television, no. Many people assume colonists spoke with the same accents their families immigrated with, which […]

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