Investigating Outlander’s Americans – Post 1
Spoilers! If you aren’t up-to-date with Outlander don’t read this. But also, if you’re not up-to-date with Outlander, don’t read anything! Go catch up on Outlander!
Recommended for Time-travelling Bishes, Outlander Observesses, Historical Linguistics Hunnies, and American Dialect Divas.
This series is about the Starz melodrama Outlander, based on the books by Diana Gabaldon, about a woman from the 1970s who time travels to the 1770s to be with her hunky Scottish beau. If you don’t care about any of that, but are interested in learning about early American English, you’ll do fine. This series discusses what we know about how early Americans spake. But I really think you should watch Outlander though.
If you missed the introduction to the series follow this link to go back and read it. If you’re not sure why I’m writing about Outlander, it might help?
It is canon in TV Land that all period pieces use various English accents to show The Past and it would truly be jarring to viewers to aim for linguistic accuracy. I get it and I’m fine with it.
However, from Outlander’s season four premier America the Beautiful, I couldn’t stop wondering “Is this American accent anachronistic?” Was there already a distinct dialectal difference between England and the New World before America was even a thing?
Sure there had been several generations of colonists living in what was to become America, but wasn’t there some pop-linguistics circulating that claimed that colonists preserved their English more than their compatriots back home? And that British English changed faster than American English and so the English in the present-day colonies is actually closer to Shakespearean English than that spoken in modern UK?
This long list of questions spurred me to the world wide web for answers. The first source I found about this is my favorite contributor to JSTOR DAILY, Chi Luu. She asserts that there was a distinct American dialect of English by Outlander times. She also points out that it was actually viewed with approval. This is surprising due to the low-key insecurity speakers of American English have when compared to many UK English dialects.
She quotes an Englishperson from 1770 who said it was weird that colonists came from every language background across Europe, but still manage to have an English that was ”uniform, and unadulterated.”
So when Claire meets a young George Washington at a party, and his English is sort of East-coast-boarding-school-proper, it might be accurate.
Another weird thing from that time, is that one couldn’t easily guess where a colonist was from by the way they talked. One piece of evidence for this is that there are wanted ads for escaped indentured servants from the UK that include which UK dialect they spoke. This shows that their speech stood out against the standard American dialect of the time (Luu, 2017).
As we know from Outlander, colonists had to move around a lot for colonizing reasons. You know, like when you sell your daughter’s husband to the first Indigenous people you see and they march him up to New York and then your daughter’s like, “But I wanted to keep him!” and then you have to go all the way up there and try to buy him back?
They also had to continuously interact with other colonizers of all classes. Back home, they might have stayed within linguistic boundaries, but that was not an option in the New World. Outlander’s scenes of Wilmington show people class-mixing all over town! That’s an environment ripe for linguistic leveling. This is a phenomenon I touched on in Joining the Western Region: Sociophonetic Shift in Victoria.
So what did it actually sound like though? We don’t and can’t really know for sure, but apparently it was still very similar to British English. I’ll tell you more about that next time on Investigating Outlander’s Americans – Post 2.
Longmore, Paul K. “‘Good English without Idiom or Tone’: The Colonial Origins of American Speech.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 37, no. 4, 2007, pp. 513–542., doi:10.1162/jinh.2007.37.4.513.
Luu, Chi. “When Did Colonial America Gain Linguistic Independence?” Jstor Daily, Jstor, 4 July 2017, daily.jstor.org/colonial-america-gain-linguistic-independence/.
S, R. “Accents and Anachronisms: What Did People Sound like in 18th Century America?” TURN to a Historian, 4 May 2015, spycurious.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/accents-and-anachronisms-what-did-people-sound-like-in-18th-century-america/.