Friday, August 19, 2011

Cultural Freezer Space

One of the things I like most about long hikes with school groups is the chance to talk with other teachers about education philosophy - why they value experiential education, how it fits into their work in the classroom, and what they've learned from their time as educators. Often though, the conversation will find legs of its own and wander about.

Talking with a teacher from the East Harlem School last week, somehow our conversation drifted to language and he mentioned that in Colonial America, there was no such thing as th British accent as we know it today. The present-day American accent is much closer to how everyone spoke English in colonial times. Later on, British folks, especially in the upper classes, began intentionally changing their speech patterns and it caught on.

Like most Americans, I had assumed the British accent had been around forever. Once the colonies broke free, the American dialectic split from the British and took on its own form. The British accent was the original, and the American came later.

Once I got out of the woods, I did some quick research.

"Received (British) Pronunciation developed at the end of the 18th century, during the period of the American Revolution. At that time there was no pronunciation by which people in America could be distinguished from people in England . . . When Americans began to return to England after 1800, they were surprised at the change in fashionable pronunciation" (Algeo, 2001, p.71 & 73).

Pretty wild. But then I found something even cooler. Dialects within the United States obviously differ a bit - from Coastal Maine to The Bronx to the Deep South to Southern California. But the unique dialect peculiar to Central and Southern Appalachia may be the closest living dialect to how everyone spoke in the colonies. The hills that isolate this part of the country have acted like a cultural freezer, preserving an incredible piece of history. Today, the Appalachian dialect is an outlier. But 250 years ago, it was the norm. It was how most people spoke. Modern British and American accents have diverged from it.

"(Appalachian folk speech) has preserved a record of colonial speech unequaled in any other American region, largely due to Appalachia's relative physical isolation during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Differing agreement patterns between subject and verb (as in 'We went to hunt for the horses which was lost'; 'Snails is large and common'; and 'Two files was demanded by the Indians'), which were once standard usage in the north of England and in the Scottish Lowlands, were also common in the writings of colonial America. Such constructions appeared in the speech of Appalachian natives well after their disappearance from mainstream American English" (Abramson & Haskell, ed., 2006).

One more reason that Appalachia, and the ability of mountains to isolate and preserve unique cultures in general, is so special.

Abramson, R. & Haskell, J., ed. (2006). Encyclopedia of Appalachia.
Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Algeo, J. (2001). The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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