November 29, 2003

How's your copperosity sagaciating?

Geoff Nunberg objects to the New York Times' quotation of Guy Bailey to the effect that r-lessness spread in Texas from the children of plantation owners who went to England for schooling and picked up the fashion there. I don't know whether that's what Guy really said -- it wouldn't be the first time that the NYT got a quotation or attribution garbled. And certainly both Nunberg and Bailey know a lot more about this than I do.

But in the course of putting together a lecture for an undergraduate course, I happen to have stumbled over a fascinating bit of trivia about r-lessness in 19th-century America, involving Uncle Remus, James Joyce, and the British recognition of the Republic of Texas. So here goes.

Loss of syllable-final /r/ was a change in progress in England in colonal times, variably distributed by geography and social class. As a result, the complex geographical and social patterns of r-lessness in the U.S. could logically have three sources: settlement patterns, patterns of continued contact with England, and local sociolinguistic dynamics.

The traditional account (as e.g. in (Richard) Bailey 1996 and Lass 1992) was that loss of postvocalic /r/ in England was a 17th and 18th century phenomenon. Thus r-lessness would have been widespread (but not universal) during the period when English speakers emigrated to North America, and thus settlement patterns are a likely source of influence.

However, recent research suggests that "... most of England was still rhotic ... at the level of urban and lower-middle-class speech in the middle of the nineteenth century, and that extensive spreading of the loss of rhoticity is something that has occurred subsequently..." (Peter Trudgill, "A Window on the Past: "Colonial Lag" and New Zealand Evidence for the Phonology of Nineteenth-Century English". American Speech 74(3) 1999).

If this is true, then U.S. settlement patterns are less relevant, and patterns of contact with England are more relevant. Prof. Bailey may have some evidence about this, I don't know.

However, I do want to cite one interesting piece of evidence in favor of an earlier adoption of r-lessness in the American south in general and Texas in particular.

On this web page, one Mike Schwitzgebel cites his Ohio grandfather's use of the word "copperosity". He tracks this via the OED to corporosity, "Bulkiness of body. Also used in a humorous title or greeting', with a citation to James Joyce Ulysses 418 "Your corporosity sagaciating O K? ". This in turn is apparently a reference to Joel Chandler Harris' The Tar Baby and other Tales of Uncle Remus, where "copperosity" and "segashuate" represent the African-American vernacular pronunciations of these words.

Schwitzgebel tracks the Harris/Joyce greeting further to Nicholas Doran P. Maillard's 1842 History of the Republic of Texas. Maillard was a British lawyer who lived in Richmond, Texas, for about nine months during the year 1840. His book was a virulent anti-Texas screed, published in the hope of influencing British public opinion against diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Texas. Maillard describes the infant republic as "stained with the crime of Negro slavery and Indian massacre", and "filled with habitual liars, drunkards, blasphemers, and slanderers; sanguinary gamesters and cold-blooded assassins; with idleness and sluggish indolence (two vices for which the Texans are already proverbial); with pride, engendered by ignorance and supported by fraud." Maillard also cites "How does your copperosity sagaciate this morning?" as a typical Texas greeting.

Make of it what you will. Myself, I've got a bunch of people coming this afternoon for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on a non-traditional day, and I need to go get the neo-turkey into the post-thanksgiving oven.

[Update: now that the turkey is stuffed and in the oven, and other preparations are well underway, I need to add that I don't subscribe to Maillard's description as an accurate characterization of Texans, whether in 1840 or 2003, and especially not of my wife.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 29, 2003 08:07 AM