As some of you may know, I am currently in the process of writing an honors thesis for my B.A. in Linguistics, entitled “Variation and Change in New Hampshire English: The Loss of Local Distinctiveness.” Over the summer, I recorded 20- to 30-minute interviews with 12 local New Hampshirites who had spent almost their entire lives in the state. These people ranged from age 20 to age 70 — the wide range was intentional, since I was trying to see what differences exist in the speech of younger people vs. that of older people, and consequently, what changes are happening to English in New Hampshire.
Before I discuss those changes, however, I think it’s important to start with those aspects of our speech that make New Hampshire unique from the rest of the country.
New Hampshire within the New England Dialects
Well, first of all, the New Hampshire accent isn’t that unique – it shares a lot features with the accents of surrounding states, particularly Maine and Massachusetts. When linguists draw dialect maps of the United States, NH is placed in the “Eastern New England” (ENE) region, and sometimes in the “Northeastern New England” (NENE) subregion. Here’s a map of New England dialect regions:
New England is divided into two major dialect regions: Eastern (blue) and Western (green). The boundary between the two largely follows the Connecticut River in southern New England, and then follows the Green Mountains in Vermont. This division actually reflects historical settlement patterns: the ENE areas share a common nucleus of colonial settlement (Boston), as do the WNE areas (New Haven). The majority of settlers in each region originated from these cities. The WNE dialect also appears to extend slightly into New York state, but stops abruptly east of the Hudson River.
Each region also consists of a northern and southern subregion, but the boundaries between these are a bit more difficult to establish due to a lack of research data. The SENE dialect is primarily centered around Providence and Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, but extends slightly into neighbouring areas of MA and CT. It is clear that Springfield is part of the SWNE dialect, but it is unclear how far into southern Vermont this dialect extends, if at all.
Of course, these boundaries are hardly concrete walls. There are bound to be “mixed” areas in-between, not to mention all the variability in each individual region. Do people in northern Maine sound like people in Boston? Those of us who live in the area can easily make these geographic distinctions when we hear someone talk, but the point is that those of us in NH have more in common with people in Bangor or Boston than we do with people in Burlington or Bridgeport, at least linguistically.
So what defines these boundaries?
Eastern New England vs. Western New England
(The Connecticut River – an important isogloss in New England)
The boundary between ENE and WNE is defined primarily by three historically different pronunciations:
1. R-dropping. Eastern New England speakers tend to show higher rates of r-dropping, as in pahk the cah in Hahvid yahd or New Hampshah, whereas in Western New England these r’s are almost always pronounced. Of course, many speakers in ENE do pronounce the r’s as well, which is something we will address later.
2. The “broad a.” Another highly recessive feature of ENE, this so-called “broad a” is often heard in words like aunt, father, laugh, half, can’t, etc. It’s also typically heard in “ar” words like car. For most older speakers, father and bother do not rhyme (the only area in North America where this is still true). For WNE speakers, father rhymes with bother and can’t rhymes with rant.
3. The horse-hoarse distinction in ENE. This characteristic is the most recessive of all, appearing only in the speech of older speakers, and is most prevalent in coastal areas (particulary in Maine). For these speakers, horse is pronounced like “hoss.” Similarly, morning and mourning are not pronounced the same (“Good monnin’” is a common greeting in the area). Speakers also show this pattern in words like orange and Florida, whose first syllables do not sound like oar or floor, but rather use the vowel in fog.
Click here to listen to a 57-year-old woman from New Hampshire reading a short passage of text, demonstrating many of the characteristic features of the Eastern New England dialect:
He would dream of leaving the cold North and moving to Florida or some foreign country to see the palm trees and enjoy the warm weather. But whenever he told aunt Mary about his dreams, she would laugh.
R-dropping can be heard in North, warm, weather, and whenever. The “broad a” can be heard in palm, aunt, and laugh. And note the pronunciation of Florida and foreign, which contrasts with the vowels in North and warm – in the most conservative dialects, however, these vowels are also pronounced the same way (“noth” and “wom”). In other words, this speaker has partially lost the horse-hoarse distinction.
Northern New England vs. Southern New England
Don’t let this map scare you. It basically points out the major distinction between the northern and southern New England dialects:
1. The cot-caught merger. In northern New England, these two words are pronounced the same, as are don and dawn and similar pairs. NNE is one of the few areas of the English-speaking world, along with Canada, western Pennsylvania, and much of the western USA, where this merger has taken place. In southern New England, by contrast, the vowels are quite distinct.
Compare the pronunciation of “hotdog” in Boston and Providence. Note that the vowels are the same in Boston but very different in Providence. For many SENE speakers, “cot” sounds the same as “cart,” whereas “caught” has a pronunciation close to that of the New York City area. NNE speakers, on the other hand, use a unique, semi-rounded low-back vowel for both; this rounded form is very pronounced in the Boston example, although not all northern New Englanders consistently produce such a rounded vowel (more on this later).
(And yes, I’m aware that a lot of people in Boston actually say “hutdog,” but that would ruin my example. The pronunciation of “hot” as “hut” is an unrelated phenomenon.)
2. The pronunciation of the “ow” diphthong before voiceless consonants. This one I’m less certain about because it hasn’t been well-studied, but my personal observation leads me to believe that there is a difference in the way words like out and house are pronounced in northern and southern New England. If you listen to the reading passage above, the pronunciation of about might stand out — northern New Englanders seem to have a somewhat centralized nucleus in this diphthong, vaguely similar to the Canadian pronunciation but still unique. Also very distinct from the pronunciation of many Americans, whose diphthong consists of the vowel in cat plus the vowel in ewe: “ab-a-ewe-t.”
This is something I will address in greater detail in Part II, as it seems like young people in northern NE (myself included) are doing very interesting things with this diphthong.
Common Features in New England
(Just wanted to add a photo here.)
So what features, then, unify New England accents and separate them from the rest of the country?
1. The raising of “short-a” before nasal consonants. Most Americans raise the “short-a” (as in mad) when it occurs before a nasal (as in man, ham, etc.) However, many New Englanders raise it even more (producing something like “mee-an” for man). This might be a bit more pronounced in coastal ENE, but it occurs throughout the region (and may be dying off, of course).
The only other region of the US where this occurs is the Upper Midwest (or “Inland North” dialect region), but there it is part of a general raising trend of the “short-a” (they pronounce mad like “may-ad.”) There is some slight raising of the vowel in other contexts in New England, but this has not been well-studied. I may address it later.
2. The “broad a” before “r.” Although this feature is also recessive, it occurs across New England: words like car are pronounced with a fronted “ah” vowel rather than the back vowel used in most other American dialects. Another feature shared with the Upper Midwest and parts of the Canadian plains, although the vowel is never raised in NE as it sometimes is in these dialects.
3. The pronunciation of “oo” and “oh.” This actually isn’t unique to NE and in fact is rapidly changing, but NE and many other Northern dialects show resistance to the fronting of these vowels (imagine how ooze and hose are pronounced in the South or California).
With all this talk of recessive sounds, you may wonder what evidence I have for these changes. Well, you’ll have to wait until I post the results of my NH dialect study in Part II – stay tuned.
To be continued…