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Slavery and Dialect in the Union Today
January 22, 2011 - By: - In: Language, Localization - Comments Off on Slavery and Dialect in the Union Today

Everything Rick Aschmann knows about the pronunciation of English on this continent fits on a single webpage―a 26,000 word webpage packed full of text like Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap.


Aschmann’s webpage includes links to 625 YouTube videos identifying particular local dialects, and an amazingly large map of English dialects spoken in North America, which requires pince-nez for proper appreciation. Aschmann describes it as “Just a little hobby of mine.”

His North America English Dialect Map marks the westward advance of an English-speaking demographic blitzkrieg that swept the continent over the course of two centuries. Those broad stripes of the eight great regional American dialects were driven by the prospect of Native American lands for the taking, but the impact of slavery on the final disposition of American dialect was just as dramatic. It’s all on the map.

The English dialect spoken here in the Empire State was channelled up the Hudson River and the Erie Canal to spread the North Central dialect throughout the Great Lakes. The Erie Canal was the break-out play for NYC, a slice of the Western Pie for the Big Apple. The language legacy demonstrates how a mule named Sal could harness the information highway on canal boat with mule-borne packets travelling at a blistering four miles an hour.

The Pennsylvanians crossed the Appalachian watershed to the headwaters of the Ohio, leaving their linguistic mark on the northern bank of the “beautiful river” and up the Missouri. But this waterborne invasion was more about black and white than micks with picks. Free states and associated accents to the North of the Ohio, while the Southern accents stayed South; thus extended the Mason-Dixon along the Ohio, dividing free states from slave states and the accents that went with them.

But the “peculiar institution of slavery” was spotty across the South, and the old map at the top of this post depicting slave concentrations in the South reflects pretty closely the boundaries of the two great Southern dialects, Inland and Lowland, and where these dialects are spoken today. Where lots of slaves once lived, the accent is Lowland, but where slaves were few in 1860, the Inland variant continues to hold linguistic sway.

Aschmann argues that the Inland Southern dialect emerged in the area of the Cumberland Gap, the South’s version of an Erie Canal bottleneck. This settlement process would have involved much mixing of populations and dialects, and it seems likely that Inland Southern was the result of this mixing, thus distinguishing it from the more settled Lowland Southern.

What seems likely is that the Inland Southern dialect spread west and south first, and then the Lowland Southern dialect was spread later by the slaveholding “aristocracy,” but never penetrated into areas unsuitable for large plantations, such as mountainous areas or dryer areas in the west. An exceptional area is Virginia, where Lowland Southern spread westward into non-slaveholding areas, and adjacent areas of West Virginia and North Carolina. Another exceptional area seems to be south Georgia and north Florida, which no Inland Southern speakers apparently ever reached.

The New York Times has published an annotated version of the 1860 slavery map as part of their coverage of the American Civil War. Beginning with a post on October 31 that speculated on Lincoln’s chances of winning the election of 1860, the Times has been providing a blow-by-blow of events as they occurred 150 years ago to the day. History told as if it were happening right now. Very interesting to any time travellers seeking their “civil wargasm” (which is how a re-enactor described the sensation of total immersion in a moment 150 years in the past).

Highly recommended. Since I don’t want to be a spoiler, I won’t tell you how it ends.

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