When I usually take to this blog, at least of late, it’s either to share an interesting historical tidbit or cheerlead for the Save Sweet Briar Campaign.  I do, after all, have a book to write.  Today’s post is therefore a first for me: A book endorsement.  I can hardly call it a review, as I’m in no way dispassionate or nonpartisan about the work, so enthusiastically do I endorse Dr. Joan Bines’ Words They Lived By: Colonial New England Speech, Then and Now (2013).  A fellow University of Virginia alumnus, Dr. Bines has been deep in the trenches of public history for some time as the director of a terrific and important site in Weston, Massachusetts — The Golden Ball Tavern, an 18th-century inn that is the only place I know that tells the story of the loyalists in the American Revolution and tells it well.

With her experience as an educator of students of all ages, her infectious love of language, and a keen talent for concise, even charming, description, Dr. Bines has provided a clear answer to a question with which I wrestled when I was chief historian at Colonial Williamsburg, dealing with a legion of first-person interpreters and other guides: What did men and women sound like in the 18th century?  Thankfully, there is no shortage of literary evidence from the period, but there is a somewhat frustrating paucity of sources that tell us much of anything about common speech in colonial America.  Sure, we can pull out a play by Robert Munford or a sermon by George Whitfield and refer to their vocabulary and sentence structure, but they cannot be considered representative by any stretch of the imagination.  I encouraged CW’s interpreters to read what I encourage my students to read — as many 18th-century Anglo-American sources as possible, especially the sort that were geared towards broader audiences, such as newspapers, novels, and pamphlets.  But I always hoped for a secondary source, written informatively and engagingly and with proper scholarly apparatus (e.g., accessible footnotes!) that could provide interpreters, guides, and, frankly, anyone interested in the daily lives of colonial Americans, with a firm foundation on which to build their understanding of the men and women of that time.

So imagine my surprise and pleasure in happening upon Dr. Bines’ book on my recent return to New England, which accomplishes all that I wished for CW’s interpreters and guests (the ultimate beneficiaries).  Do not let the title fool you: Although it nominally focuses on New England, and its primary sources are mainly derived from this place and its people, it is tremendously useful regardless of one’s region of interest, so nicely does it explore and explain basic assumptions of colonial American speech, including syntax, vocabulary, and the slipperiness of idiom.  As I implied above, it is based on the right sources and limited to a manageable chronological period so as to be reliably representative.  Of course, it does not reflect the speech patterns of enslaved men and women — for that, we must keep on searching — but it also does not presume to do so.  It does, however, draw so many of its sources from women, that gender is not really an issue.  Moreover, Dr. Bines has organized it quite well, in terms of its chapters, aptly illustrated it with her own photography, and included a quite helpful bibliography and index.

Is the book the be-all and end-all of the subject?  Of course not.  But it doesn’t pretend to be.  Dr. Bines’ work is, however, the best foundation I’ve encountered upon which to build one’s practical understanding of colonial American speech.  To even approach a vernacular understanding of the period, I’d combine it with Mary Miley Theobald’s Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, published a few years ago by CW (or just follow her blog), and then build on that with a heavy dose of Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (go with the 2nd edition of 1736, which was found in more colonial libraries than any other English dictionary, including Johnson’s) and a few servings of the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  But do start with Dr. Bines’ splendid book.  By doing so, I guarantee that you’ll not only learn much about the 18th-century world, but also a great deal about our own.

2 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words: A Capital Tool to Learn and Use Colonial American Language

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