History Lesson < 500 Words “Complexity of the Yankee Twang”
Being a native of Massachusetts, the “Bawston Accent” is something I hear about from outsiders constantly. I have never been accused of having one (at least not a significant one), but I can definitely hear the “twang” in the voices of others. Behind the “Yankee Twang” is a history that starts in England and follows the Puritans to America.
Picture it: 17th Century East Anglia, England. Folks in that area spoke with (and in some of the region still speak with) a certain high-pitched, nasal accent known as the “Norfolk Whine.” Between 1629 and 1641, English Puritans moved in abundance to Massachusetts. Fleeing what they considered unfit conditions at home, the Puritans desired to setup a new life, based on old values. The majority of Massachusetts’ Puritans came from East Anglia. The accent they brought with them mixed in with certain other influences in America, and that resulted in the accent we all know and love (or at least know and mock).
New England Puritans tended to omit the h after w, so whale would be wale, added an extra e before ou, so now became neow. Of course, in classic form, r’s were removed and added randomly, and it is all thanks to East Anglia, England. Hard to imagine the Puritans running around pronouncing Harvard, Haa-v’d, but they did. They also changed follow to foller and yesterday to yistidy. The proper image of the Puritans seems less so when you imagine them saying “Park the cawt (cart) in Haa-v’d Pawk.”
New England Puritans not only had a twang, but also a certain form of flowery speech that developed. Part of the influence came from “a layer of Latinate complexity” that was imposed upon the language, often by ministers and other public speakers. As Puritan minister Nathaniel Ward once said, in true complex form, “If the whole conclave of Hell can so compromise, exadverse, and diametricall contradictions, as to compolitize such a multimonstrous manfrey of heteroclites and quicquidlibets quietly; I trust I may say with all humble reverence, they can do more than the Senate of Heaven.” Imagine listening to such speech every Sunday at services. New Englanders of that time also coined such words as rambunctious, absquatulate, and splendiferous. This was especially true in Boston, and those from that area stuck out like a sore thumb everywhere else.
Although they accent is not quite as “twangy” or speech quite as “flowery” as it was in the 17th century, the influence of the Puritans on the accent is still audible today, especially in the cities. To those readers from Massachusetts, be proud of your accent. It is one of major historical significance.
Source: David Hackett Fischer Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America