How British Are You?


There were at least four great migrations. From the Puritan East of England came the pious families of Massachusetts Bay. Their numbers were small. But the twenty-one thousand emigrants who arrived between, roughly, 1629 and 1640 were sufficient to dominate the social, religious, and political life of the Northeast. Eastern England was close to the Netherlands. Dutch influences can be found in the region’s architecture and religion, in its burgher life of small towns and crafts and devotion to learning. This heritage is still very much alive in New England today. Much of the Massachusetts economy is based on educational institutions that grew out of the Puritan tradition.

Ever since the seventeenth century New Englanders have cultivated an indifference to high fashions, preferring “sadd” colors and sensible shoes.

Virginia’s character stems not from the frail founding of Jamestown but rather from a later time: 1640-80. During and after the English Civil War, younger sons of gentry households tried to create in Virginia an aristocratic order, to reproduce the style of life in which they had been raised. Historians still have it wrong: They deny any validity to the Old South legend of shining knights and “Cavaliers.” Of course, there was nothing very glorious about these Royalists, but they did set the style for Virginia life. They also imported large numbers of indentured sevants—about 70 percent of the population—from the South of England.

The Quakers of the Delaware Valley appeared later in the same century. Unlike the Puritans, who belonged to the middling ranks, Quakers came from the lower end of the social order. But not from the very bottom. Like the Puritans and the Cavaliers, they sought a haven from an unsympathetic government. They chiefly emigrated from the English North Midlands and Wales.

The fourth great migration brought people from the British borderlands—Ireland, Scotland, the North of England, and Wales. Hundreds of thousands poured in from 1720 to the American Revolution. These people endowed the hinterlands with a culture that Americans associate with the Wild West—the frontier spirit.

All these groups had much in common. They all spoke English, lived under British laws, and cherished British liberties. But they also differed in many ways: their separate dialects; wedding, child-naming, and child-rearing customs; attitudes about rank, age, gender, work, and leisure. These discrete folkways, as I call them, are perpetuated in our own regional cultures.

How about some specific examples for each of these regions?

Take speech, for example—something we all are aware of. New Englanders have a noticeable twang. It is a way of speaking that developed from the dialects of eastern England, such as the “Norfolk whine.” Or clothing. New Englanders have long cultivated an indifference toward high fashions, preferring “sadd” colors, sensible shoes, and so on. This attitude was brought to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. It survives in the famous Harvard crimson. It’s really a muddy color, not blood red at all.

New Englanders thought that one should always be working hard; to Virginians the “gentleman of leisure” was a figure of high respectability.

Now contrast these two patterns with Virginia's. Yankees chose to say “I am,” “You are,” “She isn’t,” “I haven’t.” Virginians, even the wealthy, preferred to say “I be,” “You be,” “She ain’t,” “I hain’t.” They often dropped the “as if” in favor of “like": “He looks like he’s dead.” They dropped or softened their R’s. No respectable Puritan would say “book learning,” but in Virginia, where intellectuality was not so highly regarded, that was the preferred term for education. These peculiarities of vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and accent were derived from the South and West of England. In dress the Virginia elite mimicked the styles of London. Women wore bright red cloaks, men seldom went without a sword. It was a symbol of their claim to being “gentlemen.” Commoners were denied that equipage. Many upper-class Virginians displayed coats of arms and stamped their books, silver, and coaches with these emblems of their genealogical lines.

Most interesting is the speech of the Delaware Valley. It was here that arose the flat accent, which linguists call midland speech, stretching from mid-New Jersey all the way across Middle America to Utah and beyond. Appropriately enough, that dialect is derived from the North Midlands of England—Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, et cetera. An amusing example is the way people translated the noise their horses made. In East Anglia and New England they neighed —related to the Dutch neijen . In Wessex and the Chesapeake they whickered , but in midlands of both countries they whinnied .