December 11, 2005

Elizabethan English: Undead in Appalachia?

The myth that pure Elizabethan English, as in Shakespearean English, is spoken in Appalachia lives on: I just heard it from a folklorist on NPR, who reported that isolated English settlers in Appalachia maintained Shakespeare's English -- an example, he claimed, of the nonchanging periphery of the spread of a tale or language variety, vs. its alteration in the place it came from, in this case Merrie Olde (16th-century) England.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. There are said to be features of Shakespeare's English that are preserved in Appalachian English but not in Standard English; but they would be noticeable only because they have vanished from Standard English. The many features of Shakespeare's English that remain in Standard English are not noticeable: they're just ordinary -- though they are of course what makes it possible for American high-schoolers to read Shakespeare today. I bet Appalachian English has lost some Shakespearean linguistic traits that Standard English has retained, too. Differential retention of inherited linguistic features is one thing that characterizes divergent dialects of the same language. It's not a surprise, and it's not evidence of super-archaicness in any dialect.

Posted by Sally Thomason at December 11, 2005 05:53 PM