American English in 3-D

It’s a great moment for expanding our knowledge of American English. The great Dictionary of American Regional English completed its run through the alphabet this month with the publication of 1,244-page Volume V, Sl-Z. And last December, a much smaller but likewise unprecedented book was published that manages to capture American English in three dimensions—without the need for special glasses.

This 3-D view is presented in the Oxford University Press book Speaking American: A History of English in the United States by Richard W. Bailey.

It’s not the first book to tell the history of American English. Nor is it the first to survey the regional variations of our language. But it is the first to combine the two ways of looking at American English, in an ingenious system. Each chapter covers 50 years of language history, focusing on a different place:

Chesapeake Bay, before 1650

Boston, 1650-1700

Charleston, 1700-1750

Philadelphia, 1750-1800

New Orleans, 1800-1850

New York, 1850-1900

Chicago, 1900-1950

Los Angeles, 1950-2000

Place and time are two of the dimensions. And the third? Variation by ethnicity and social class.

Thanks to Bailey’s patient, thorough, and indefatigable research, at each station we are brought right into homes and streets to experience at first hand people speaking with each other and the variety of languages and accents we would encounter there. Rather than a tidy bird’s-eye overview, he sets us down in the midst of the cacophony of local speech. And then he stays with us to explain what’s going on.

We find ourselves in a Massachusetts court, listening to testimony about an Indian who frightened a colonist’s wife: “Nimrod became bold asking her, the said Edmund’s wife, if she have husband. She say yea. He said where he walk. She said little way fetch pigsack.” Bailey, the Virgil guiding us through this strange language, explains the pidgin grammar as well as the ack plural suffix (from Algonquian) for English pig.

In Philadelphia, we encounter the botanist John Bartram telling of “the Yohay, a particular Indian expression of approbation, and which is very difficult for a white man to imitate well.”

In polyglottal New Orleans, we encounter a New England Irish dialect: “Wall, sir, you can walk right strait hum, cors I won’t have nobody than aint for Clay—that’s flat.’ And an African American creole: “De happy millennium what de African preacher talk about—when de plowshear be turn into sword, den no more plow corn all day.” Along the levee, Bailey offers us flatboatmen known as Buck eyes, Hooshers, and Snorters.

In New York City, Bailey takes us to Five Points and the theatre and shows us excerpts from newspapers and novels, all the while explaining the language and the context.

We visit Chicago in the early 20th century, aiming for linguistic purity on the one hand and down-to-earth language on the other; and Los Angeles in the latter part of that century, constructing positive and negative ways of speaking for the movies and thus for the English-speaking world. And much more, in each of these cities.

Bailey has chosen wisely, for the cities were key locations for the development of American English at the chosen times.

The unprecedented thoroughness of the information in this book comes not only from Web databases but from sources not available on the Internet. Bailey’s perigrinations took him to libraries and historical societies in most if not all of the places he writes about. In his preface he acknowledges assistance from 10 such institutions, ranging from the Maryland Historical Society to the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. He spent years on the project, and it shows.

Richard W. Bailey died much too soon, at age 71, nearly a year ago. Among his many accomplishments, he collected and edited the papers of Allen Walker Read, the discoverer of the true origin of OK, and Bailey’s predecessor as the leading scholar of historical American English.

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