On Virginia colloquialisms

This article, from long-ago 1990, is about how the speech patterns and the folk-sayings and beliefs of Virginia reflect the English origins of the Virginia colony.

The writer of the article, Parke Rouse, uses as a reference a book called A Word-Book of Virginia Folk-Speech by Bennett Green, from 1899. I’ve perused the book, and it is to be found online, on Archive.org among other places. The book does make for fascinating reading. especially if you are interested in history, folklore, language and Southern culture.

From Rouse’s article:

Occasionally around Tidewater, you’re apt to hear an elderly native use remnants of Shakespeare’s English, the language spoken by Virginia’s early settlers. If he’s “right tired” or “mighty afraid,” or if he “reckons” he’ll go to church, he’s using some of the currency of Shakespeare (1564-1616) and of the King James Bible (1611).”

Certainly, if you are conversant with the King James Bible and with old-fashioned (now-dying) Southern American English, you recognize the influence of the former on the latter, or more correctly, you recognize that they derive from the same culture and the same people.

And of course it’s obvious to anyone who knows Southern culture that many of the same time-honored expressions and idioms are common across the South. I heard many of the sayings and folk-beliefs growing up in Texas.

Ben Green spent his happiest years in compiling a book he published in 1899, “A Word-Book of Virginia Folk-Speech.” It has recently been reprinted and is used in college language courses.

Green’s thesis is that most Virginians learned language by imitating their parents rather than by reading books. He went to England’s rural counties and made notes of similarities between the words, pronunciations and colloquialisms he found there with those used on the Peninsula in his day.

English speech patterns remained strong in Tidewater in the 19th century. For example, Green spoke of a Williamsburg contractor, Humphrey Harwood, as “Umphrey Harrod” and pronounced many names in Old English fashion – Warick for Warwick, Burl for Burwell, Randuff for Randolph and Tolliver for Taliaferro.

Many of the old-stock Southrons in the rest of the South are familiar with the same idioms and folk-beliefs as those cited by Green as being Virginian, via England. That’s because many of the current White populations of the other Southern states are descendants of Virginian colonists, as are just about all of my ancestors. From Virginia they went to several other Southern states (then colonies) and eventually to Texas. During my childhood there, I heard many of these linguistic carry-overs from my older relatives, along with folk-sayings such as ”the devil’s beating his wife”, said when sunshine and rain occur simultaneously. Some of my Northern acquaintances said they had never heard that expression.

Sadly the old-fashioned Southern dialect is dying out and few people seem to notice it. The younger generations have little to no discernible Southern accent, and the younger the speaker,  the more ‘neutral’ is their speech. Young people from coast to coast in this country seem to speak the same sort of youth-dialect, which sounds more ‘Yankee’ or specifically West Coast. That’s incredibly sad to me; I loved the way the older generations spoke, and I enjoyed their colorful metaphors and way of expressing themselves. In another generation or two there will be no Southern accent or idioms, no surviving Southern folklore or traditions — and consequently our connections to England, our mother country, will be further obscured.

Actually we would need to be very optimistic to even assume that English of any sort will continue to be spoken in North America unless things change very soon.

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