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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.

“Repulsed with Disgrace”: The Battle of Setauket

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Just in time for the premiere of Season 2 of TURN: Washington’s Spies, we’ve got the real story behind the Battle of Setauket, the historical event that (very loosely) inspired the Season 1 finale. But wait… red-coated Continentals and green-coated Loyalists? How’s a TURN viewer supposed to tell the two sides apart? Thankfully, we’ve got a new post from Todd Braisted below to help set the record straight. He’s even dug up the story of a little-known likely British informant whose ability to blend in may have determined the battle’s outcome before the first boat set sail from Connecticut.  For more historically-accurate intrigue, read on — and don’t forget to tune into AMC tomorrow night for the two-hour premiere of Season 2!  -RS

The morning of August 22nd, 1777 dawned hot and humid over Long Island Sound. Through the early mist, vigilant sentries would have seen a small flotilla of different sized vessels approaching the area of Crane’s Neck, a jut of land northwest of the town of Setauket. In those vessels, sloops, whaleboats and other small craft, those same sentries would have espied scores of red coats, coming to surprise the garrison of Americans in the town.

…Except the men in red were Continental Army troops, men of Colonel Samuel B. Webb’s Additional Continental Regiment, fighting for George Washington – and the Americans garrisoning Setauket, dressed in green, were loyalists in Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey’s 3rd Battalion, fighting for King George.  Huh?

.hewlitt yeesh
When we last left our friends at TURN during the Season 1 finale, the British were holed up in a church in Setauket, Continental troops were trying to dislodge them, and the psychotically evil Simcoe was blowing some poor sod’s brains out.  This was their version of the Battle of Setauket, a real event which took place on 22 August 1777. Like most things in the show, however, what is seen on the screen is not exactly as it was in 1777.

The origins of what would become known as the Battle of Setauket started nearly a week before, when Major General Israel Putnam, commanding officer of the Continental troops guarding the Hudson Highlands, sent orders to Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons to gather up 400-500 Continentals from the troops under his command at Fairfield, Connecticut, joined to whatever number of Connecticut Militia he found necessary, as well as artillery, and “deplete and destroy” all parties of the enemy at Huntington and Setauket, Long Island. Besides the enemy, Parsons was to bring off or destroy all “military stores, magazines, provisions, forage or naval stores” found on Long Island. Finally, if all went swimmingly, he was to release all the U.S. officers held as prisoners on the island – which would have been no small task to accomplish, given that they were actually dozens of miles away in Brooklyn and Queens.

Samuel B. Webb, commander of the chromatically confusing Continental "redcoats."
Samuel B. Webb, commander of the chromatically-confusing Continental “redcoats.”

Parsons in turn placed the Continental troops, drawn from the Connecticut Line, under the command of Colonel Samuel B. Webb. Webb himself commanded one of the sixteen “additional regiments” of the Continental Army, so-called because they were over and above the quotas of regiments raised in specific states. Webb’s regiment would have certainly confused the majority of TURN viewers, because they were clothed in red coats with yellow facings – actual British uniforms captured en route to Canada. And given they would be fighting against green-coated Loyalists (as opposed to the red coated British depicted in the show), there is no doubt viewers without a deep knowledge of period military material culture would have been left scratching their heads trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

On the eve of the expedition, Parsons issued his orders, which in turn were read to the troops. The orders rather resembled a locker room pep talk, reminding the men of the “honor of our arms and the righteousness of our contest.” They were by no means to “distress the helpless women or honest citizen,” nor were they to plunder, leave their ranks, or talk on the march. Those violating these orders were told they would receive “the most exemplary punishment.”

"Map of Connecticut and Parts Adjacent," 1777. If you look closely you can see Suffield, CT (top center), Fairfield (central CT coast), Setauket (North shore of LI), and Crane's Point. Map courtesy of the Historical Map Collection (MAGIC) at UConn: http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/historical_maps.htm
“Map of Connecticut and Parts Adjacent,” 1777. Click for full resolution. If you look closely you can see Suffield, CT (top center), Fairfield (central CT coast), Setauket (North shore of LI), and Crane’s Point. Map courtesy of the Historical Map Collection (MAGIC) at the University of Connecticut: http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/historical_maps.htm

One of the “militiamen” that may have been mingling amongst the gathering expedition in Fairfield was a short twenty-one year old with a contracted hand and crooked finger named Stephen Pangburn. With a musket and bayonet, and wearing a brown coat and other civilian clothes, Pangburn would have looked like any other militiaman, except he was in fact a soldier in the 3rd Battalion, DeLancey’s Brigade. Pangburn was not a spy, but rather an escaped prisoner of war, captured in a raid on Sag Harbor the previous May. Lodged in a private home in Suffield, CT to assist with labor, Pangburn escaped with the arms of the house on 10 August 1777 and apparently traveled the 75 or so miles south to Fairfield, where he would have seen all the preparations for the expedition. Stealing a boat or perhaps hitching a ride with a Loyalist heading to Long Island, Pangburn returned to Setauket – and his battalion – on August 20th and no doubt gave complete intelligence of what was headed their way. Parsons’ element of surprise was gone.

While the strategic surprise was gone, the actual timing was still unknown, so when Parsons’ troops landed on Crane’s Neck, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett and his men belonging to DeLancey’s Brigade were not entirely ready to receive them. To be sure, Hewlett had taken great pains to fortify himself as best he could. The Presbyterian Church in town was indeed fortified as seen in the show – but not with gravestones.  The church had an earthen breastwork thrown around it, six feet high by six feet wide and thirty feet from the building itself, in which were mounted four swivel guns – very light artillery pieces meant for short range work. The church and the earthworks would safely accommodate Hewlett and his green-coated garrison. Where Hewlett fell short was in removing his sick men from town.  It must have been a chaotic scene, with the ill and injured making their way, running, stumbling, limping to the church while under fire, and some of the town’s residents pointing out their whereabouts to the invaders.

When all of Parsons’ troops assembled – 749 by one count, including Caleb Brewster – the general sent a summons to Colonel Hewlett, demanding the post be surrendered “to prevent the effusion of human blood.” The Loyalist officer, who had previously sent word of the invasion to his commander Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey at Huntington, sought to play for time to allow reinforcements to arrive. Hewlett sent his compliment to Parsons, and requested thirty minutes to consult with his officers on the matter. Parsons granted but ten minutes, when he received the reply that Hewlett “is determined to defend his post while he has a man left.” The battle was on.

A photo of the blue historical marker on the present-day Setauket Green.
A photo of the blue historical marker on the present-day Setauket Green.

After all the huffing and puffing, it was not much of a battle. Parsons opened fire with his artillery, which was returned by the Loyalists. There was no great charge, or glorious repulse. Some men were hit on both sides, by one American account Parsons himself was wounded in the left arm. Two Loyalists, Chambers Townsend and John Wilson, both privates in DeLancey’s, were killed in the fighting. At least one soldier under Webb was hit, and Loyalist newspapers reported “great quantities of blood [were] found on the ground the rebels occupied.”

Samuel Holden Parsons3
Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons. In 1780, Loyalist Judge Thomas Jones met Parsons and described him this way: “He was a plain, mean-looking old man, had more the appearance of his original occupation [shoemaker] than that of a soldier; he had long hair which hung about his ears, a brown homespun coat, buckskin breeches, a red laced waistcoat, blue yarn stockings, a pair of shoes that I fancy were made by himself, and an amazing long silver hilted sword.”
After all of three hours in the town, the firing ceased. No drama was forthcoming. Both sides were probably uncomfortably hot and tired. What was envisioned by Israel Putnam as a dramatic sweep through Suffolk County was over after it had barely begun. Parsons embarked and returned to Connecticut with his trophies: some blankets and the horses of Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett and his officers. The reinforcements sent to Hewlett’s relief, some men from the 1st Battalion DeLancey’s and Queens County Militia, never even made it to town before Parsons was safely sailing back across the Sound.

So why the hasty departure? The reason sometimes given by the Americans was that British armed vessels were in route to trap the invaders on the island, although no such ships were ever sent. The army gave the reason that their artillery fire was ineffectual against the works surrounding the church and that sound of battle would draw British reinforcements from all over. Captain Frederick Mackenzie of the British Adjutant General’s Department made note in his journal of a final letter sent by Parsons to Hewlett. Mackenzie would only comment that the entire exchange was “somewhat curious,” before transcribing in his journal: “General Parsons’s Compliments to Colonel Hewlett, and should have been happy to have done himself the pleasure of paying him a longer visit, but the extreme heat of the weather prevents him.”

For their part, the British were very pleased with the conduct of the Setauket garrison. Sir Henry Clinton, commanding at New York, issued orders saying he “desired particularly to Express his Approbation of the Spirited behaviour and good Conduct of Lieutenant Colonel Hewlet, and the Officers and Men under his Command in defence of the Redoubts at Satauket on Long Island, in which Lieutenant Coll. Hewlet was attacked by a large body of the enemy with Cannon, whom he repulsed with disgrace.”

It should be noted that, purely by coincidence, there ended up being three major attacks on the British around New York City that day, all completely coincidental and entirely uncoordinated. That fact of course was not known by the British. Some of Hewlett’s compatriots in the 2nd Battalion of DeLancey’s were engaged in fierce though small fight at Valentine’s Hill, north of Kingsbridge, who likewise drove off their attackers. Most seriously, two thousand Continentals under Major General John Sullivan landed on Staten Island, capturing about 130 Loyalist New Jersey Volunteers, but losing over 270 badly needed troops intended to reinforce Washington in Pennsylvania. And speaking of Pennsylvania… At the time of the Battle of Setauket, Captain John Graves Simcoe of the 40th Regiment of Foot was at that moment on board a transport ship with the rest of Sir William Howe’s Army nearing the Head of Elk, Maryland. It is not believe the captain arbitrarily executed any civilians on board during the voyage.

Myth busted: Simcoe was in Pennsylvania when the real Battle of Setauket occurred. (With half-hearted apologies to what is perhaps TURN's most iconic scream.)
Myth busted: John Graves Simcoe was off the coast of Maryland when the real Battle of Setauket occurred. (With half-hearted apologies to what is perhaps TURN’s most iconic scream.)

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Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject.  Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society. His newest book, Grand Forage 1778: The Revolutionary War’s Forgotten Campaign, will be published in 2016.