Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mid-Western Pioneer Dialect: "Them Pea Ridge folks is all hatefuls, an' if they'r a-lookin' fer trouble they'll shore get a lavish of it"

'In speech, as in blood, the Middle Westerner of the pioneer period was essentially "American" - that is, his language was a blend, with the Southern Appalachian element generally predominating. The speech of the southern highlands was a survival of Anglo-Saxon of the Elizabethan Age, with some "Scotch-Irish", "Pennsylvania Dutch", and Indian influences. Description is difficult... Strong verbs were made weak and weak verbs strong. The mountaineer "blowed", "ketched", "drawed", "knowed", "seed", and was "borned"; but he also "clum", "div", "retch", "drug", "et", "snuck", and "skun". Old forms were common. He "taken" things to town, and he "heered" or "hearn say." "Affeared" for "afraid", and "et" for "ate" were good English ancestry. Cases, moods, auxiliaries, relatives, agreement of subject and verb, as well as tense, were treated with true Elizabethan indifference: "Me and her was a-sparkin," "Hit shore is me," "She seed he and I a-comin' down the road."

'Yourn", "hisn", "hern", "ourn", and "theirn" were commonly used possessives. Adjectives served as adverbs: "I could ketch him easy"; as verbs: "I shore didn't aim t'contrary that ol heifer fr'm Hell Holler," "Hit darknin' out doors," "He'll sly outen the law"; and as nouns: "Them Pea Ridge folks is all hatefuls, an' if they'r a-lookin' fer trouble they'll shore get a lavish of it"; verbs as adjectives: "He warn't thoughted [intelligent] enough"; and as nouns: "Did you all get the invite (or give-out)?" Nouns were used as adjectives: "Them dang fool houn' dogs," and as verbs: "Don't fault th' young-un jes' fer bein' puny," "That 'ar shoat'll meat th' hull fambly a month, easy," "Waitin' so purty and patientable to bride her man."

'Beyond the knowledge of Elizabethan forms, or grammar and idiom, is required an understanding of the spirit of the folk who created this speech. The frontiersman refused to be restricted in style by law of grammar no less than law of Parliament or Congress. Clearness in expression was preferred to grammatical correctness, and brevity to clearness... Pronunciation and emphasis played an important part, but grammatical shift of parts of speech, word compounding, word coining, use of obsolete comparatives and superlatives, together with imaginative and picturesque speech figures, added appreciably to the expressiveness. Double identifying nouns such as "kitchen-room", "shootin'-iron", "rifle-gun", "ham-meat", "ridin'-critter", "man-person", and "cow-brute" were common, as well as such obvious compounds as "carrytale", "lackbrain", "wantwit", "breakvow", and "clutchfist."

'There were compounds, such as "tale-bearing" and "lie-swearing." Adjective compounds came easily: "sweet-meaty," "hind-leggy," "dumb-brutely," "sheepsy," "stuff and non-setty"; and compounded superlatives were effective: "mud-piedest," "dry-uppedest," "shut-pocket'dest," "sought-afterest," "up-and-comin'-dest," "nothin'-doin'dest," and "flea-huntin'dest." Hybrids with borrowed prefixes and suffixes were created: "disremember," "ingrateful," "onsartin'," "unproper," "unthoughtedly," "disturbment," "revilement," "sadful," "argyfy," "teachified," and so on, as well as words with diminutives or redundant suffixes such as: "tittery," "tumbly," "withery," "frecklsy," "quicksy," "slickery," "tickle-sweety," "stillsome," "patientable," and "virginous."

'Vocabularies were rich, flexible, and sometimes strong. Such words as "brash" (hasty, brittle), "bound" (determined), "beatenest" (hard to beat), "bresket" (energy), "bee-gum" (beehive), "clever" (kind, accommodating), "cazan" (cause), "crick" (creek), "dunk" (dip), "dauncy" (half-sick), "enjoy" (entertain), "fitten" (decent), "lavish" (a large quantity), "guess" (think), "heap" (a great deal), "middlin'" (fair, tolerable), "passel" (parcel, of people, etc.), "poke" (bag), "powerful" (exceedingly, extraordinary), "racket" (fight), "ruction" (quarrel), "reckon" (guess, wonder), "red up" (tidy up), "whang" (thong), "swan" (swear - "I swan," etc.), might necessitate a glossary for one unfamiliar with the speech. But "contrarious," "cumfluttered" (confused), "caterwampus," "flopdoodle," "fractious," "mozy," "ornery," "peart," "piddlin'" (trifling or puttering around), "sashay," "triflin'," and "tetchous" (touchy) are practically self-explanatory. More expressive still are descriptive words and phrases such as "fritter-minded," "gone franzy," "plumb moonshined," "buck-eyed," and "hippoed" (applied to mental states), "lickety splittin'," "lickety brindle," "gimlet-eyed," "chisted out" (swelled up), "sow-belly" (pork), "granny woman" (midwife), "woodscolt" (illegitimate child), and "lollygagin'" and "tomcattin'" (applied respectively to slushy and promiscuous sexual behavior).

'This was the foundation speech of the majority of the folk who populated southern Illinois and Indiana, predominated in parts of Ohio, and figured prominently in the settlement of the northern parts of these states as well as in Wisconsin and to a certain extent in Michigan...

'The western man ripped out remorseless oaths, swearing a blue streak with a remarkable breadth of expression. Whereas a Hoosier described himself as "catawampously chawed up," the Yankee was merely a "gone sucker." Inquire about his health, and he tells you he is "so as to be crawlin'!" As one contemporary observed: He talks of "spunkin' up to an all-fired, tarnation, slick gall, clean grit, I tell yeou neow"; and naturally he has a "kinder sneakin' notion arter her." If she were to tell him to "hold his yawp" he would admit that he felt "kinder streaked, by golly!" He describes a man as being "handsome as a picter, but so darnation ugly"; or as "a thunderin' fool, but a clever critter as ever lived" - ugly being Yankee for wicked, and clever for good-natured...

'Naturally current events affected speech. For example, anyone knew in the 1830's that "to swarthout" (after Samuel Swarthout of New York) meant to default and flee. To "go the whole hog" meant to have refreshment or to vote a straight ticket; "to have steam up," ready to go. When political ferment or reform movements got to humming, people were warned "not to mistake the whizzing of the safety valves for the bursting of the boilers." "Have you seen the elephant?" must have originated as a result of the tour of the great pachyderm. The question (and answer) usually had connotations but remotely related to menageries. When a man had "seen the elephant" he had been everywhere, seen everything, perhaps was, in the language of a later period, "fed up"...

'Of folklore, proverbs, and superstitions, the West had no distinctive variety, and made few original contributions. The most-used gems of wisdom were those which had stood the test of time - those used in colonial times, in England, Germany, even in ancient lands. "Buying a pig in a poke," "A chip off the old block," "He cut a real swath," "A hard row to hoe," "He's been through the mill," "He'll never amount to a hill of beans," "He's come to the end of his rope," "Short horse soon curried," "It comes and goes like the old woman's soap," and hundreds of others, saws and sayings as well as proverbs, which comprised a considerable part of ordinary speech, antedate the new West.

'Nor can the habit of the smart answer or "wisecrack" be said to be indigenous to the West, although it certainly was characteristic. To his tall tales, practical jokes, and witty replies the Westerner gave his peculiar twist - and how he loved them. To the greeting "How do you do?" a keen citizen would reply, "About as I please, stranger, how do you do?" If he were asked, "Where does this road go?" he might aptly observe, "Don't go nowheres, mister, stays right there." If asked how his potatoes turned out, he would say, "Didn't turn out at all, had to dig 'em out." And so on. Such pat answers were used over and over on friends as well as strangers, and never seemed to die out as do slang and current expressions. The river boatmen, professional teamsters, later the lumberjacks and other workers with a vocational pride or esprit de corps, had their special collections; the reputations of such heroes as Mike Fink and Paul Bunyan rested as much upon their ready wit as upon prodigious feats of valor and skill. The embarrassing question, the successful baiting of a rival, above all the riposte verbale were often more decisive than a fight, and longer remembered.

'Though the common speech was less used by the educated and those of wider contacts, still there was always a tendency for even these classes to speak with somewhat less grammatical correctness and propriety of diction than they had knowledge of. Correct pronunciation and too much attention to diction was put in the same category as fastidiousness in dress, and was regarded as "stuck up." Lawyers who aspired to office, newspaper editors, even preachers, had to be careful about such matters. To many, however, such precaution was unnecessary. Not too exceptional was the legislator from Columbiana County, Ohio, who spoke of the "hebias kawus law" and referred to "Jefferson's immanuel" address. "Zelious," "magnanimious," "scurlious," "philanthripic," "embazzle," "inoquivocably," "reitriate," and "oughter" were favorites with him. He was reported as using "rise up enmassey" and saying "his garden are cut, his house are kept by the state."

'Lack of acquaintance with books and a knowledge of the classics, history, and philosophy was ordinarily no handicap to the active-minded Westerner. He relied heavily upon personal contacts, conversations, and firsthand knowledge. "Fluency of language, with an ease and power of expression which sometimes swells to the dignity of eloquence, and often displays itself in terms of originality, at once humorous and forcible, constitute the conversational resources of the western man."'


-R. Carlyle Buley (1951), The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period 1815-1840, Indiana University Press, Bloomington

4 comments:

  1. In the 1970s/80s I still grew up in Indiana hearing words like 'lollygagin', 'caterwampus', 'ketched', 'et', 'affeared', 'ornery', 'licketysplit' and 'crick'.

    My favourite word in the above passage is 'clutchfist'. Wow.

    Here in Scotland people often say 'I reckon...' or 'Do you reckon...', which always sounds a bit American Midwestern to me. They also say 'tetchy' for 'touchy' (similar to 'tetchous' above).

    A lot of the feel of the language above is also found in two of my favourite writers: R. A. Lafferty and Flannery O'Connor.

    Glad I ran into this book. Paints a picture I feel quite familiar with, even though I grew up in that region a century or more after the era described, and more in the city than rural. Interesting.

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  2. Weren't you also there in the 90s?

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  3. Ah, glad you saw this, Chris. I'm almost posted it to your wall as I wondered whether in your studies and/or writing you're ever interested language and/or regional stuff. I'm pretty into it.

    Yeah, I was there in the 90s also. I guess I was referring to my childhood, which 'officially' ended for me in '92 when I graduated high school. I feel like a 90s person too - but my most formative decade was definitely 1980-89, something like age 7 to 17.

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  4. Correction: 'I' almost posted...

    Also, Andie said she didn't really hear any remnants of that kind of language at all growing up in Southern Indiana. The book led me to believe that was one of the main regions this dialect came from.

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