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  • Linguistic Genealogy

    As an avid genealogist, I thought I would be particularly equipped to review my family’s linguistic history. After all, I know the names and vital statistics of all 16 of my great-great-grandparents. However, I quickly realized that language is not something to which the average family historian gives significant thought. For even close relatives, like my paternal grandparents, it was difficult to remember how they spoke because they died when I was in my teens. It’s unfortunate that we do not preserve people’s speech, the way we save their images in photographs. I have often thought that I need to get my living grandparents on tape or video, because they talk in a way that you just don’t hear anymore. Fortunately, as the family historian, I have inherited several old letters from a few ancestors, which provide some clues as to how they spoke.

    Nearly all of my ancestors came from English-speaking countries. In addition, most of my 16 great-great-grandparents immigrated to the United States in the 1850’s. So even the few family lines that did speak a foreign language (German) mastered the English language over 100 years ago. These circumstances leave me as the only person in my family that speaks a second language (Spanish). However, my maternal grandfather can remember his father speaking German sometimes. Apparently, the language was retained for 2 generations after my g-g-g-grandfather arrived in Missouri from Wurtemberg, Germany. I imagine that the language was saved as a part of their culture, like their Lutheran bible, German naming customs (they often go by their middle names) and German recipes.

    My father’s side of the family was 100 percent Irish. They, too, all immigrated to Missouri between 1850 and 1865 and settled in an area of St.Louis called “Kerry Patch”. Kerry Patch was a very poor neighborhood where all the Irish congregated. Today, you would not drive through there even in the daytime. St. Louis in the late 19th century was very segregated by ethnicity. Thus, the German’s lived in Soulard, the Italians lived on “the Hill”, and so on.

    Family legend says that my paternal grandfather only got through the 4th grade. As the oldest of 10 children, he had to work to help support the family. This didn’t stop him from being involved in politics and he constantly wrote letters to politicians and to the editorial page of the newspaper. My paternal grandmother was pretty much orphaned at the age of eleven (her father abandoned his 10 children when their mother died), so it’s doubtful that she finished school either. Nevertheless, education at the turn of the century must have been excellent since both my grandparents were good writers (or perhaps it was that the nuns beat “good” grammar into them). Here is an excerpt from a letter my grandmother wrote in 1968:

    I am the kind of grandmother ‘that just happens to have a 8x9 photo on my person.’ Don thinks I spoil them, but I feel that we can all stand a little “spoiling” in life. No one receives it after one gets out in the cold, cold world, and after all, that’s what grandmothers are for…”

    Not bad for someone who may not have finished the 6th grade. My grandmother was rather fastidious about things, including her writing and speech. She would read the dictionary and take classes in punctuation and grammar. She sincerely believed that good grammar was a way to get ahead in the world.

    Since everyone in my family was from Missouri, I did not think that any of us had an accent. (Now, of course, I know better. For example, if you are from Missouri, you say “Missurah”, not “Missuree”.) However, I can remember two things my grandmother said that struck me as odd. Grandma always said slippers instead of shoes, even though she had worked in a shoe factory for years. I could never understand how you could refer to tennis shoes as slippers. When we grandkids were misbehaving, she would jokingly threaten, “I’m going to give you a whippin’!” In contrast, my parents always spanked us. Perhaps her use of these words was a legacy from her Irish grandparents.

    Both my maternal grandparents grew up on farms in southwest Missouri. Pulaski County, Missouri is very close to Arkansas, so my grandparents use phrases typical of the south like “I’m fixing to…”, “I reckon’”, and “them there cows”. However, they do not say, “ya’ll”. When I look at letters my grandmother has written, I see that she frequently uses rule extension or leveling with her verb tenses. From a letter dated January 2002, she writes: “I don’t know what Jack and Claudia done...”, “I would liked to see…” and “I have it setting on the stereo.” I love the way my grandparents talk. Although I realize that language change is inevitable, I’m afraid that soon we will all be talking like the people on television. (In fact, I think I do talk like the television!) I’ll miss the funny phrases my grandma uses. In the same letter referred to above, she wrote, “I would liked to see the planet Jupiter, but decided it was too cold to stay up for it…I have had people to tell me – it wasn’t much to see.”

    I am beginning to realize how language is inextricably tied to culture and history. I have some letters that my grandmother’s uncle wrote to her father in 1901. I find the same types of rule extension and leveling that my grandma uses. My great-uncle, Alphie (they all had weird names) wrote, “I was glad to hear from you and more than delighted to hear that you was coming home”, “You spoke of killing a deer and ruint your pants” and “Will Vanloon killed a turkey and done the same thing.” He also uses some words that apparently have fallen out of use. For example, in 1902 he writes: “John Turpin and Fred Skinner went to a dance and got in a fight and they both got their heads skinned and I got to laugh at them.” I would love to know what kind of punishment “heads skinned” refers to. Apparently, my great-grandfather was concerned about a horse he had left in his brother’s care. Alphie reports on the condition of this horse, Grace, in nearly every one of his letters. In one, he states that “She looks hard of course, but not worse than the rest. She is going to bring a mule sure and I will give you $10.00 for the chance of it.” The best interpretation I can come up with is that the horse was about to foal and Alphie wanted to buy the colt when it arrived.

    This side of the family was mainly English (although they had been in America for decades), and I find some uses of British-like phrases. In one letter, Alphie refers to “Thursday week”, meaning “a week from next Thursday”. I found another interesting use of language in a letter written in December 1902. Alphie uses the word “Christmas” as a proper name, a verb and a noun, “Well, Christmas is almost here and I wish you was here to take Xmas with us…Where are you going to Christmas? Walter said you wrote to him that you was going to take Christmas at Galveston, Texas.”

    I also have a few letters written by my great-great-grandmother, Amanda Hensley, to my g-g-grandfather before their marriage in 1874. Her spelling is very creative, she writes “bi, bi” (bye, bye), “telen” (telling), and “chang” (change). In contrast to her phonetically spelled words, Amanda used rather flowery language. In fact, she included several rhymes or short poems that are full of both obsolete language and phases that are still used in that part of the country:

    Why do you think it then so strange that a ladies mind should chang?

    I own that I frowned when I sent you away though remember that girls don’t mean half what thay say.

    Heaven hath given you beauty rare then He is kind as you are fair.“

    No one says “hath” or “beauty rare” anymore. But at the same time, I can almost hear my grandma say, “I own that I was angry” or “girls don’t mean half what they say”. This particular letter is 131 years old, but the continuity of the language remains.

    While my grandparents still speak very much like their parents did, my parents and I pretty much use Standard American English. I think this is because schools in the twentieth century have been more prescriptive in their approach to language and also because we are more and more exposed to the media. Also, my family moved a number of times as I was growing up, and I moved often as an adult. I believe that when you are exposed to other dialects, you become more aware of how you speak. You might consciously try to adopt some of the differences you hear around you, so that you don’t sound so “weird” to your new neighbors. Other times, you may try to avoid certain practices. For example, when I lived in Boston, I just could not bring myself to add the “r” sound to the end of words like idea or visa. I didn’t want to fit-it that bad. However, within days of living in Texas, I started to use y’all because it seems like such a friendly, inclusive word.

    My immediate family does not use double negatives, we don’t say ain’t, and we generally use standard verb tenses. In other words, we have internalized many of the prescriptive rules grammarians seek to enforce. At times, our word choices may indicate that we are from the Mid-west, (for example, I use coke as a general term for all carbonated beverages) but I believe I speak the dialect you hear on the television. People may complain that English is deteriorating and that standards are being abandoned, but I worry about the opposite happening. It seems to me that the language is becoming homogenized, and eventually everyone will sound the same. I admit to feeling a little sorry that my family has lost that distinct way of speaking that my grandparents retain. Nevertheless, I can not squash that little grammarian who lives in my brain, who shouts “ignorant!” whenever she hears “I don’t want none” or “There ain’t any left”.