The Language Of New England

If you study a map of New England you will see that the names of the towns, the counties, and the political divisions generally, the States only excepted, are English. The early settlers, remembering their homeland, plastered New England with the names of places from which they had emigrated.

Thoreau in his “Week on the Concord” writes: “The white man comes with a list of ancient Saxon, Norman, and Celtic names and strews them up and down this river,—Framingham, Sudbury, Bedford, Carlisle, Billerica, Chelmsford,—and this is new Angle-land, and these are the West Saxons, whom the red men call, not Angleish or English, but Yengeese, and so at last they are known for Yankees.”

So we find the Roman castra,—Colchester, Worcester, Lancaster, Gloucester, Dorchester, Manchester; the English counties,—Essex, Kent, Derby, Norfolk, Suffolk, Hampshire, Berkshire, Somerset.

The map of New England brings to mind grand old English cathedrals,—York, Winchester, Wells, Salisbury, Peterborough; delightful little hamlets, Wilton, Lyme, Newport, Woodstock, Bolton. Biblical names—Goshen, Canaan, Rehoboth, Bethlehem, and Lebanon—are frequent. Providence and Concord remind us of Puritan thought. Winthrop and Brewster perpetuate the names of Puritan leaders.

In the State of Maine one finds the most incongruous agglomeration of European place names. In strange proximity lie Denmark, China, Paris, Naples, and Peru. Some of the towns that sprang up later were named for English statesmen popular in America,—as Walpole, Barre, Pittsfield, and Sunderland. A few town names have only local significance,—Fairfield, Springfield, Middleboro. Only a few retain the Indian names, as Kittery, Ogunquit, Norridgewock, and Scituate.

The names of the States show great variety of origin. Two are Indian, one is Latin, another good old English, still another probably a corruption of the Dutch, and the sixth is French or what you please.

The natural features, on the other hand, the rivers,—Connecticut, Merrimack, Housatonic, Kennebec; the mountains,—Monadnock, Wachusett, Hoosac, Taconic; the bays,—Casco, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot; the lakes,—Winnepesaukee, Asquam, Waramaug, Mooselookmeguntic, Molechunkemunk, Chaubunagoungamaug,—are all the original Indian names.

Old English geographic terms survive locally. On the southern coast of Massachusetts, in the region of Vineyard Sound, every channel between islands, or an island and the mainland, through which the tide rushes is called a `hole,’—Woods Hole, Robinsons Hole. On the eastern coast of Massachusetts a similar channel is called a `gut,’ as Hull Gut and Shirley Gut. Farther north, on the coast of Maine, the term similarly used is `thoroughfare,’ or `reach,’ as Eggemoggin Reach.

The word `gulf’ in the Miltonian sense, as applied to an `aweful chasm,’ a deep, rocky valley, survives on the map in Vermont, the only place where it is known today,—Williamstown Gulf, Ottaquechee Gulf. The native Vermonters speak colloquially of such as a `gulch,’ but when interrogated, self-consciously correct themselves to `gulf.’ In the California of the `forty-niners,’ `gulch’ appears as a geographic term on the map, and is perpetuated in literature by Bret Harte’s tale of Dead Man’s Gulch.

`Branch,’ as applied to a tributary of a river, is a good old English term, surviving generally in the southern States. In New England it is to be found only in parts of Vermont and Maine. Similarly, the term `run’ for a small stream that dries up in summer survives in only one locality in New England. George Herbert Palmer in writing of Boxford, Mass., says: “Our largest current is the Topsfield river; in the second grade of things that flow we put our many brooks; and that which runs swiftly a part of the year, and shows a dry bed for the remainder, we fittingly call a `run.’ I do not know if the word occurs elsewhere between us and Bull Run.”

All the `brooks’ of America are in New England. To quote Professor Palmer again: “West of New York everything that runs is called a `creek.’ Brook, as a spoken word, is gone—the most regrettable loss the English language has suffered in America. , With us a creek does not run, but is a crack or inlet of the sea.”

The beautiful term `intervale,’ as applied to the meadowed floor of a mountain valley, is used in northern New England and particularly along the upper Saco river in the southern White Mountains. There it also gives its descriptive name to a specific locality famed as a summer resort.

Not only have the Indian place names for the natural features generally survived in New England, but the New England Indian names of many animals and plants new to the settlers have been adopted into the English language. Some of the most characteristic are skunk, chipmunk, woodchuck, squash, cascara. Succotash, mugwump, moccasin are also Indian. Many expressions adopted by the early settlers are of similar origin,—Indian file, Indian summer, Indian corn, `to bury the hatchet,’ `the happy hunting grounds.’

Colloquial New England speech shows many characteristic survivals of Elizabethan usage. New England not only has its characteristic dialectical peculiarities, but many local varieties. Some of these show traces of the dialect of those English counties from which the settlers came, which in turn can be traced back to Danish, Saxon, or Norman sources.

The summer boarder, the telephone, and the schools are fast eliminating these local colloquialisms. The dialect of “The Biglow Papers” is now difficult to localize; yet rural research will reveal many delectable bits. The old lady who, on being asked if she were going to a village entertainment, replied, “No, I don’t never go to no such places,” was using the Elizabethan double negative in a way perhaps not peculiar to New England, but you are certain she meant what she said.