Investigating Outlander’s Americans – Post 2

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.

Hunky 1770’s beau, Jamie, leans sulkily and sweatily against a wall baring his sculpted pecs.

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.

Welcome back!

If you missed Post 1 of this series, follow this link to go back and read it. If you’re not sure why I’m writing about Outlander, maybe the introduction to the series will help?

Sir John Grey blushingly confesses how good it is to see you.

Last time we learned that the American accent in 1770 was definitely a thing, but it wasn’t too far off from British dialects. We also learned that because they were all wandering around and class mixing, their speech wasn’t a marker of social status in the same way it had been in the old world.

For example, “Paul K. Longmore’s “Good English without Idiom or Tone”: The Colonial Origins of American Speech notes that many colonists pronounced “cover as kivver, engine as ingine, yesterday as yisterday, yes as yis, and Sarah as Sary.” While these would have been low class pronunciations in England, colonial Americans didn’t care about all that baloney anymore.

A flummoxed Sir John Grey declares “Dear God in heaven.”

Ya, but what did they sound like?? I know, but we can’t ever really know for sure for sure. On Spycurious, a website devoted to a show called TURN: Washington’s Spies, contributor, ‘RS’, points to sources that claim that there were different American dialects then as there are now. He points out that colonists had a relatively sparse education despite fairly high rates of literacy and due to this (and fewer spelling conventions) people often spelled phonetically.

This is a great clue. Another great clue from RS is David Hackett’s book about Paul Revere’s life and the letters of the time which show the characteristics of the modern Boston accent we’ve come to know and feel some kind of way about.

So there was the beginning of a Boston accent, was there? I had to learn more.

Sir John Grey, his interest piqued, suspects there is more to this story.

So I found online resources compiled by historical linguist, Prof. Edward Vajda, at Western Washington University. He said that there were four main migrations of English speaking people to American before 1776.

I will tell you about one of those migrations now, but you’ll have to wait for future posts to read about the other 3.

The first were the Puritans starting in 1629. They came from East Anglia to Massachusetts and gave us the Bostonian dialect. This is interesting because Claire keeps telling everyone that she’d been in Boston for the last 20 years, and Brianna is a true Bostonian native, and no one’s like, really? You don’t sound like it. Here are a list of the features from Prof. Vajda that Claire and Bri totally don’t have.

The Puritans (1629-1640)

Migration: From East Anglia to Massachusetts
Feature 1: Caught or bought had an [o] sound instead of a low [a] sound
Feature 2: Deleted R at the end of syllables. Far sounded like fah
Feature 3: Added R after a final schwa. Cuba sounded like Cuber
Words & Expressions: Cuss from curse, conniption fit, pesky, snicker, cool as a cucumber, three sheets to the wind
Influence: Affected dialects from Maine to Wisconsin especially Chicago and New York English
New York English: After the British took possession of the Dutch colony
of Nieuw Amsterdam (Manhattan you guys) in 1664 there was a rapid
conversion of Dutch speakers to English
Shared features: caught or bought had an [o] sound instead of a low [a]
sound. Deleted R at the end of syllables.
Unique feature 1: th sounded like d → them, these were dem, dese
Unique feature 2: er => [schwa + y]  thirty purple birds = theuty peuple
beuds uh in final position  were = wuh
Unique feature 3: [oi] → [er] oil = erl (a later development)
Unique feature 4: I want you to (do something) → I want you should (do
something)

These are all features of the distinctive modern Bostonian dialect too and yet Brianna and Claire don’t have any of them. And fine, Claire’s a Brit and so was Frank, so Brianna wouldn’t have all of them, but would she really believably have none at all? And, if she lacks all Bostonian features because her parents are English, she would definitely have a couple Britishisms like “at the weekend” or “the loo” or something. But nah, she just speaks general, standard, non-regional American English. Now that’s something to think about.

Brianna and Sir John Grey look anxiously at each other. They know we’re on to them!

Next time on Investigating Outlander’s Americans – Post 3, I’ll tell you about the second group of immigrants that shaped American English.


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/.

Vajda, Edwards “The Dialects of American English.” Linguistics 201: The Origin of Language, pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/ling201/test3materials/AmericanDialects.htm.

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