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Monitor Board of Contributors: The ‘New Hampshah’ sound

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, left, is greeted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, prior to their talks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Tuesday,  Nov. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Toshifumi Kitamura, Pool)

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, left, is greeted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, prior to their talks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Toshifumi Kitamura, Pool)

Moving to New Hampshire from the Midwest was a linguistic adventure for me. Not only was there a French-speaking foreign country just a few hours away and a burgeoning population of immigrant and refugee languages in the cities – there was also a close encounter with a variety of English I had heard lots about but rarely encountered: the New Hampshire accent. Since I spent most of my life in rural and small-town Illinois (teaching about English dialects and language history), no one would mistake my pronunciation for a New Hampshire native, even though I have lived here for eight years. (I might just get away with pretending to be from Vermont or Connecticut, though – more on that later.)

Everybody is familiar with the most outstanding characteristic of New Hampshire speech, something shared with Boston and Maine. It shows up humorously in a Seacoast restaurant advertising “Lobstah” with the spelling not corrected to “er”; the same thing occurs in a Hanover restaurant offering a “New Hampsha’” sandwich. This rendition of a final /r/ as a vowel rather than a consonant (some inaccurately call it “r-lessness” ) possibly began in 18th-century London, with the merger of word pairs like “spa” and “spar,” or “sauce” and “source.”

This “lobstah” kind of /r/ was at one time a prestige marker, both in upper-crust London and the American Northeast. We can hear it in Queen Elizabeth, or in President Roosevelt talking about the “wawah” (war) in 1944, or in Boston Brahmins saying “pahk the cah.” As a result, years ago, people who trained for careers in radio or theater tried to talk this way. You can hear it in a lot of 1930s movies like The Thin Man, or in recordings of old radio shows – listen to the announcers. Even some American English dictionaries published as late as the 1920s would record “r-less” pronunciations as normal.

Years ago, I encountered copies of a 1930s journal named Correct English, published and almost entirely written by Josephine Turck Baker. The journal loudly promoted the New England way of speaking as the only proper model, one that everyone in America should be trying to emulate. One of Baker’s pet peeves was not only the consonantal final /r/, but also what she called the “Midwestern flat a,” which is part of your speech if you have the same vowel in bath and trap. ( This “Midwestern” designation is also misleading – I don’t say “bahth” as Baker might desire, but I don’t say “BEE-uth” the way someone from Chicago might.) The militancy of Baker’s journal reflected, I am sure, a growing fear that the prestige value of these features might be threatened.

In any case, the vocalized final /r/ survived as an eastern New England feature even when things started to change. At one time, you could draw a dialect boundary though New England which delineated the way people pronounced this /r/. In Hans Kurath’s Linguistic Atlas of New England, published by Brown University in 1939, the boundary line runs along the Green Mountains of Vermont, then follows the Connecticut River down through western Massachusetts and Connecticut. East of this boundary you would hear the vocalized final /r/, where west of the boundary final /r/ would be a consonant, the way I pronounce it. The /r/ pronunciation of western Vermont and upstate New York likely came with settlers from northern and western parts of England, as well as Ulster Scots, who were not /r/-less.

But according to research by James Stanford and others at Dartmouth (reported last year in the journal American Speech), that boundary seems to be moving east, with more Vermonters, and even some New Hampshire natives, pronouncing their /r/s in ways their grandparents might not have done. The same thing is happening in Connecticut.

One cause is that speech norms began to change just before World War II. The second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, published 1934, eliminated “r-less” pronunciation as a norm. The same fate awaited other ways of talk previously thought to be prestigious and associated with eastern New England: the vowel in words rhyming with “bath,” for example. To people from my part of the country, Boston or Harvard speakers – like the Kennedys – would say what sounds to us like “bahth.” Less obvious but still markedly New England would be the pronunciation of “father” and “bother” as words which do not rhyme (in my dialect, they do).

The energy for this change probably came in part from the rise of a highly mobile, professional and managerial class of workers in the emerging industrial cities of the Great Lakes, including Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. Linguists call the dialect of this area “Inland Northern,” but the dialect’s promoters misleadingly called it “General American,” even though its homeland is confined to a narrow strip of the country bordering the inland lakes. The “General American” label was given academic sanction by John S. Kenyon, who taught at Hiram College near Cleveland, and who authored 10 editions of American Pronunciation beginning in 1924, then became the pronunciation editor for the second Webster’s and a highly influential consultant for the NBC Handbook of Pronunciation which first appeared in 1943. By the 1950s, most radio and TV announcers and younger Hollywood actors began to talk like white, middle-class people from Cleveland.

The phoniness of the idea of a monolithic “General American” dialect can be seen by anyone who visits the Midwest and listens. Although I grew up close to Chicago, I can identify a Chicago accent different from my own. People in Ohio might say “warsh the clothes” or “the baby needs fed” while folks in Minnesota sound a little bit Scandinavian. Go very far south in Indiana or Illinois, and you hear what sounds like a Southern accent. People in southern Illinois, even some college graduates, might say “he come over to my house yesterday,” which would horrify anyone from Minnesota or Wisconsin, where the children of German or Scandinavian immigrants would learn their English in school.

Yet the promotion of Inland Northern as a universal form of American English has taken a toll, with some of the damage in New England. In that same study by Stanford and others, 22 Claremont residents were interviewed for their degree of “/r/-less” pronunciation. All of those over the age of 60 had at least some /r/-lessness in their speech. But the 15 residents aged 22 or under pronounced all of their /r/s as consonants – in other words, just like people in upstate New York and farther west (also just like me). The /r/-lessness was more common in the Merrimack Valley, but still much less frequent among younger speakers.

But eastern New England features which are less obvious still survive. On her University of Toronto website, Naomi Nagy reports that speakers in western and northern New Hampshire still retain different, that is, unrhyming, vowels in “father” and “bother,” as does “virtually everyone who lives in the Boston area.” Strangely, though, younger speakers in southeastern New Hampshire merge these vowels the way I do. Nagy found that among speakers in the Manchester area, all those older than age 50 had different vowels, but only 64 percent of those younger than 50 did so. In Concord, again, all over those in the survey older than 50 had distinctive vowels, but only 42 percent of those younger than 50 did so.

What is going on in the Merrimack Valley? Nagy concluded from her interviews that her younger respondents did not want to be identified with the Boston urban area – they wanted to think of New Hampshire as different. So, unwittingly, the younger speakers in the survey began to speak more like the NBC Handbook – not because they wanted to talk like a dictionary, but because they wanted to be different from Boston. “Live Free or Die” can take us in some strange directions.

(Tim Frazer taught linguistics and literature at Western Illinois University before retiring and moving to New Hampshire with his wife, June.)

Legacy Comments3

I'm from Nu Hampsha' and we talk funny up heah! Easy to tell us natives from the flatlanders.

Very interesting and thought-provoking piece, Mr. Frazer. Thanks.

Interesting. I have felt that my accent has faded over the years but when I travel to the west coast people always say "are you from Boston?"

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