Volume 1, Number 11
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, after her victories over Spain, England was becoming greatly overcrowded. With returning soldiers and the hard times of the working classes, people began to look for opportunities elsewhere. So there began a big migration to the new world. At this time, there was very little communication between England and her colonies, and the conditions in the colonies for literary development were very poor. They fell behind in the growth of the English language. One critic reported that the Harvard college library in 1723 had "nothing of Addison, Steele, Bolingbroke, Dryden, Pope, and Swift" and had only recently obtained copies of Milton and Shakespeare.
Therefore, although the English language was changing rapidly during this time, very little of it affected the American usage. By the end of the eighteenth century it was already being pointed out that many Americanisms were just survivals of old or provincial English. Since that time, how ever, American English has started more or less imitating the current English spoken and, as the western states followed the eastern, English began to catch up everywhere.
But when the great tides of immigration swept westward, the backhills section of the Ozarks was passed by. Here there was no melting pot. The people retained their original purity, and remained that way for some time before the outside world began to influence this part of the country.
It is not surprising, then, that people from the cities are often struck by the frequent uses of archaic words and phrases used by the hill folk. Many enthusiasts have called the Ozarks speech "Chaucerian", and made references to "Shakespeare's America" and "our contemporary ancestors." I am inclined to think that this is a bit of an exaggeration. Thomas Hart Benton once said, "The Ozarks people do use a lot of Elizabethan expressions, but the general effect is not Elizabethan because their speech is mixed with modern slang and wisecracks." This, too, may not tell the whole story. The old usages have drifted out, but there is no denying that the pure Ozark dialect is a survival of older English usage--what basically was once the common country and village speech of old England.
So many of the archaic words and phra-
ses, as well as many of the tall tales and folklore and even folksongs, are
the same as those used and heard in England that it is quite surprising.
Living instances keep pouring in. Many Ozarkers still tarry awhile to spend an opinion as Hamlet did. Our common word varmint, for example, is derived from vermin, and preserves an older English pronunciation. Surely the hillman's pronunciation of wrestle---he makes it sound like wrastle-- is very near Chaucer's wrastelying and wrasteleth in his Canterbury Tales. The word dare, often pronounced dar is standard in England and also was used in the Canterbury Tales spelled dar.
The word et, which is considered bad English but which is often heard in Ozark speech, is a pronunciation still common among Englishmen, and is defended by the Oxford Dictionary, which gives the pronunciation as et. In the hillsman's speech, one almost always hears the participle et instead of eaten, and it has been in good use for centuries as found in the literature of Shakespeare, Pope, Dickens, Tennyson, and many others.
Chew is almost always chaw to the Ozarker as it was to seventeenth century England; poor is pore as it was to old England; slick was used for sleek by Beaumont and Fletcher as it is used in the Ozarks today. Both heerd and deef are common pronunciations today as they were, and still are, in some county dialects in Eng land.
The words boil and join are often pronounced bile and jine as Shakespeare used them, and the same vowel substitution occurs in point--p'int and disapp'int; also in poison which was commonly p'ison in old England. And it is said that English noblemen almost always pronounced yellow as yaller.
The Ozarker will often use an "l" sound instead of the "n" in chimney so that it sounds like chimley or chimbley. This is an old pronunciation, for Sir Walter Scott in Rob Roy refers to a "kirk with a chimley in it."
The noun gal, replacing girl, is still used in some parts of England. Where most Americans use "anyway", an Ozarker uses the adverbial genitive anyways, and is soundly condemned by many grammar books. Yet the Book of Common Prayer published in England in 1560 has: "All those who are anyways afflicted... in body, mind, or estate."
The Ozarker has a tendency to use weak verbs rather than strong ones, and from this comes such words as beared, ketched, drinked, throwed, and many others. The same thing can be seen in the Canterbury Tales with growed; in Wyclif's Office of Curates with costed; in Caxton's Sons of Aymon with hurted; in The Tempest with
shaked, becomed, blowed; and in Milton's Paradise Lost with catched.
In Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, we find: "Let your highness lay a more noble thought upon mine honor, than for to think I would leave it here." In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: "...the holy blissful martir for to seek", and ". . .well loved he for to drink strong wyn." And in the Bible in Luke 7:24, we read, "What went ye out...for to see?" Often we hear this use by the hillsman, as in "Why for did you come?"
The Ozarks verb doesn't always agree with its subject in number, but a like disagreement is often found in Elizabethan English. Spenser said in Faerie Queene, referring to people "...whose names is hard to read." In Shakespeare we find such sentences as "...here comes the townsmen", "...his tears runs down his beard", and "... my old bones aches".
Other uses of words can be found in Shakespeare's writings which are often used by Ozarkians. Mind in the sense of intend, misdoubt and disremember; the use of ruinate for ruin; and the word which is often given as ary is the pronunciation of e'er a as in "Has the old man e'er a son?" So it is with nary, a corruption of ne'er a.
Shakespeare's works are full of such adjective forms as worser, more hotter, more unkindest, more worst, certainer, as well as others which are common with the Ozarker.
And so one can go on for several volumes of likenesses between the speech of the Ozarks and old England. You can find in the Ozark hills, among its true natives, some of the most beautiful and most true-to-life tales and stories to be heard. It has been said that the true Ozark storyteller puts across his tale with a song of words which have the quality of oaths at times, and at other times the quality of tears.
"Ozarkers Speak English" by Nancy Clemens, Esquire, April 1937; John S. Kenyon's American Pronunciation 1942; The American Spirit in Literature by Perry Bliss, 1918; Randolph Vance's The Devil's Pretty Daughter, 1955; Down in the Holler by Randolph Vane and George P. Wilson, 1953; A History of the United States, Vol. 1, by R. G. Thwaiter and C. N. Kendall, 1922; Charles Morrow Wilson's The Bodacious Ozarks, 1959.
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly