Nonstandard Were and the Nonstandard Forms of the Preterite Negative of to Be in Nineteenth Century New England Civil War Letters and Literary Dialect Portrayals

Article excerpt


The present paper presents the preliminary results of the study of were in nonstandard positions as well as nonstandard preterit negative forms of to be in mid- and late nineteenth century New England folk speech. More specifically, the aim of the study is to investigate whether the grammatical feature at issue, deemed to have been confined to the Mid- and South Atlantic states in several scholarly publications, is also attested in the verbal repository of New Englanders of the mid- and late nineteenth century. The analysis relies mainly on the scrutiny of two types of primary sources: informal Civil War letters penned by less literate individuals, and fictional portrayals written by New England regionalists. The data retrieved from the inspected body of material confirms the presence of were/weren't/wa'n't (and other spellings) in nonstandard contexts, preponderantly in the literary dialect portrayals, whereas Civil War correspondence seems rather devoid of the traits at issue. As indicated above, the paper presents the preliminary results of the study: it is believed that an analysis of a bigger corpus of Civil War material, which is currently being compiled, might identify more instances of forms at issue in nonstandard environments.

1. Introduction

The nonstandard usage of were/weren't has been attested in several nonstandard dialects of English, both in the British Isles and on the American continent. However, when it comes to American English, this phenomenon is claimed to have played a minor role in the development of the English language in the US (Wolfram--Schilling-Estes 2003a: 213), and its history in North American dialects has not attracted much scholarly attention thus far; in order to fill the gap in the linguistic investigation, the following paper focuses on the "nonstandard" usage of were allomorphs both in affirmative and negative constructions in two types of American sources: the letters written by New Englanders during the perils of the Civil War and literary dialect portrayals. (1)

Since were(n't) in nonstandard positions was definitely not a salient feature of (British or American) Early Modern English, one may wonder whether this phenomenon appeared in the New England dialect of the second half of the 19th century--and if so, whether there might be a connection between nonstandard were(n't) in the New England territory and nonstandard were(n't) in the Mid- and South Atlantic states, the latter described in the subject literature (see sections to follow for a detailed discussion). (2)

2. Analyzed sources

Civil War Letters. 224 letters (amounting to approximately 134000 words), representative of the whole of the New England territory, have been selected; the chosen body of correspondence contains the material which is down-to-earth, "not meant for the public and hence linguistically less monitored" and written by less (or semi-) literate individuals (Pable--Dylewski 2007: 155, see also: Schneider--Montgomery 2001). While selecting the relatively "vernacular" correspondence for analysis, heed has been paid to the following: a given soldier's/person's biographical data, unorthodox spellings, nonstandard grammatical features as well as relatively frequent apologetic remarks concerning the "bad righting" which indicate that the letters "might have been produced by less literate writers who did not have recourse to the help of amanuenses (...)" (Pable--Dylewski 2007: 155). It ought to be mentioned that in the present study the selected letters are not solely confined to the writings of the Civil War soldiers: additionally, correspondence written by their wives and relatives to the front have been subject to inclusion; all in all, the authors have inspected 142 letters written by the Civil War soldiers as well as 82 produced by their confidants.

When it comes to the primary sources from which the material of interest has been drawn:

--following the choice of Pable (2008), 54 letters written by New Englanders from various parts of New England to their friends and families during the Civil War have been extracted from Silber and Sievens (1996 see page 24). …