April 02, 2008

Pennsylvania blather?

With the Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania still three weeks away, political reporters have a lot of column inches to fill and are no doubt looking for creative ways to combat the campaign trail's proverbial fear and loathing. Take Michael Powell's recent article for the New York Times about how Barack Obama is "grounding his lofty rhetoric in the more prosaic language of white-working-class discontent, adjusting it to the less welcoming terrain of Pennsylvania." Powell hauls out an unusual reference to support his essentialized depiction of Pennsylvanians (all of them?) as no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth types:

Pennsylvania’s culture, as the historian David Hackett Fischer noted in his book “Albion’s Seed,” is rooted in the English midlands, where Scandinavian and English left a muscular and literal imprint. These are people distrustful of rank, and finery, and high-flown words. It should come as no surprise that the word “blather” originated here.

Kudos to Powell for making the attempt to provide background on "Pennsylvania's culture" from an academic source like Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). But he has misread Fischer, at least when it comes to the putative origins of the word blather. And the linguistic evidence presented in Albion's Seed is problematic enough without injecting further misinformation.

Fischer's thesis is that the "folkways" of four British regional groups shaped the cultural development of key settlement regions in American colonial history. One of these regions is the Delaware Valley, colonized by Quakers and others coming chiefly from the North Midlands of England and Wales. One legacy of the North Midlands migration to the Delaware Valley and beyond, Fischer argues, is linguistic, found in American "speech ways." He bases this assertion on surveying dialectal glossaries:

Not only the pronunciation but also the vocabulary of the England's North Midlands became part of American midland speech. In the word lists of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire we find the following terms, all of which took root in the Delaware Valley: abide as in "can't abide it," all out for entirely, apple-pie order to mean "very good order," bamboozle for deceive, black and white for writing, blather for empty talk ... and wallop for beat. [Fischer lists 75 vocabulary items in all.] None of these words was invented in America, though many have been mistakenly identified as Americanisms. All were carried from the North Midlands of England to the Delaware Valley, and became the basis of an American regional vocabulary which is still in use today. (Albion's Seed, pp. 472-3)

So Fischer is clear enough that blather did not originate in the Delaware Valley, contrary to the claim of the Times article — it was merely transplanted, along with all the other North Midlands vocabulary he itemizes. But even ignoring this journalistic blunder, I'm a bit suspicious of Fischer's overarching "speech ways" argument here. To be sure, it's easy to verify the presence of blather in the relevant British dialectal sources (e.g., here, here, here, and here). In northern England and Scotland the form for the noun and the verb has historically been blether (though they all go back to Old Norse bladhra), so the regional variation is significant. But how do we get from there to the Delaware Valley and thence to "American midland speech" in general? I find no documented evidence supporting the idea that American blather (or many of the other items on the list) spread from a Delaware Valley locus, and Fischer provides no sources to substantiate this. In the case of blather, two nineteenth-century dictionaries of American English (John Russell Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms and Maximilian Schele De Vere's 1872 Americanisms: The English of the New World) merely label it "Western," with no indication of how it got out West.

Fischer's reliance on dialectal data, mostly from sources much later than the colonial era when the migrations took place, has been sharply criticized. Charles Joyner is largely dismissive of this evidence in his review of Albion's Seed for The Journal of American Folklore (Spring 1992, pp. 238-40):

Such early data as he has are mainly anecdotal evidence from nonlinguists, less systematic, less reliable, and less useful for comparative purposes than one would wish. Finally, support for Fischer's thesis rests most heavily upon the least stable area of language, the comparison of word forms. Vocabulary is the area of language most easily borrowed and spread across social, ethnic, and geographical boundaries. Available sources reveal much too little about grammar, the area of language least susceptible to change from contact with other languages or dialects.

Moral of the story: beware of those who would derive telling cultural insights from individual lexical items. Even if it spices up the inexorable grind of the primary season.

[Update: Two readers have suggested that "here" in the sentence "It should come as no surprise that the word “blather” originated here" could actually refer to the English (North) Midlands, mentioned earlier in the paragraph, rather than to Pennsylvania. That seems unlikely to me. The article is all about Pennsylvania, where the correspondent is reporting from, so it would be very odd indeed for the deictic grounding of "here" to shift suddenly to the other side of the Atlantic. If the writer had intended that, I would have expected "there" instead of "here" in this context. (Or who knows, maybe "there" got changed to "here" by an inattentive copy editor.)]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 2, 2008 01:15 AM