Language Changes Especially Common in American Folk Speech

by Frederic G. Cassidy

Language is always changing. Within both standard and nonstandard vocabulary, certain changes of sound, form, and syntactic structure occur unpredictably, though following known processes. Many of these changes occur more often in folk usage than otherwise, to the point where they become characteristic of folk speech. They fall roughly into four main types, which are not mutually exclusive and are sometimes concurrent. These types are changes of word form, grammatical changes, derivational changes, and changes in pronunciation.

I. Changes of Word Form

1. Metathesis: The interchange of sounds within words, or, in compounds, the reversal of the component words. This kind of change has been present at all periods of the language. Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) had acsian and crudd. In the course of time the sounds [ks] and [ru] were reversed to [sk] and [ur], ultimately producing Modern English ask and curd. However, the ancient forms ax and crud survive in folk speech today. Other folk examples: calvary cavalry, crips crisp, cupalo cupola, waps wasp, purty pretty, lectren lectern, aglore galore, prespire perspire, dientical identical. Examples of reversed compounds: hoppergrass grasshopper, peckerwood woodpecker, ticktacks tactics, right-down downright, pick-tooth toothpick, pourdown downpour, everwhich whichever, cropout outcrop.

2. Metanalysis: The result of a shift in the juncture point or syllable division within a word so that a sound belonging to one word is lost or transferred to an adjoining word. Middle English a nadder became an adder; similarly a napron became an apron and a numpere, an umpire. The shift can go in the other direction: Middle English an ewte became a newt; then once produced the nonce; an eke name became a nickname. Modern examples are disguised by established spelling, but pronunciation-spellings, such as not-a-tall for not at all and I-mo(n) + infinitive for I’m going (or gonna) + infinitive, reveal that the process is still active. Other examples: an aggie (marble) has produced a naggie; a nigh horse has produced an eye horse. A good current example is the common phrase, “That’s a whole nother ballgame.”

3. Iteration or reduplication: The kind of word-formation in which a first component is echoed in the second. This process is found all over the world. In English there are three distinct types: simple, in which the same sound is repeated, as in pooh-pooh, goody-goody; graded, in which the internal stressed vowel changes, as in ding-dong, tick-tock, zigzag; and rhyming, in which only the initial consonants of the two parts differ, as in hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo, roly-poly. Examples from folk speech: dumdum, flip-flap, hokey-pokey, jeepers-creepers, streakity-strikity, super-duper.

4. Redundancy: Adding to a word or phrase another that is synonymous or nearly so, as in plentiful abundance, musical tune, period of time. The purpose is to ensure that the communication is made, or to give emphasis. Redundancy is a property of all natural language structure, but since it is easily overused it is often condemned by stylists. Examples from folk speech: bare-naked, cabbage-kraut, dry drouth, ford crossing, grape-vineyard, hawk-bird, horn bugle, ocean sea, rifle-gun, tooth-dentist, tumbler-glass, viper snake, widow-woman.

5. Stretching: Lengthening the pronunciation of a word by adding heavy stress to the initial syllable, which normally is weakly stressed. This is a device for emphasis, and examples are recorded from the past, but it has not permanently affected the written forms of words. Some current folk examples: bée-yútiful, dée-líghted, ón-réasonable, ré-díckilous.

6. Folk-etymology or popular etymology: The change of an unfamiliar word or phrase into a more familiar form by semantic reanalysis (not always logical). Many examples from the past are found in plant names, as Old English wermōd becoming wormwood, Latin ros marinus (sea dew) becoming rosemary, but the process is in wide current use. Sometimes it is indulged in humorously. Some current folk examples: high-bred hybrid, our beauties arbutus, shoemake sumac, very close or very coarse veins varicose veins, sandy Pete centipede, a fist-to-cuff fight fisticuff, brown kitties bronchitis, colored marbles cholera morbus, gamble (stick) gambrel.

7. Aphetism or aphaeresis: The cutting off of a weakly stressed initial syllable from a word. Many words so shortened have become standard, as fence from defense, tend from attend, cute from acute, sport from disport. This process was formerly common in poetic use: neath for beneath, lone for alone, spite for despite. Folk examples are still numerous: casion occasion, lasses molasses, ceptin excepting, pinion opinion, deed indeed, timidatin intimidating, larmin alarming.

8. Epenthesis: The addition to a word of an “inorganic” sound, that is, one unsupported by etymology. Such a sound (also called intrusive, excrescent, or parasitic) usually develops as a byproduct of the phonetic environment but may also come in by analogy. This type of change has been in progress throughout the history of English; many words so produced have become established, standard forms. Intrusive sounds are generally homorganic with adjoining sounds: they share one or more features of articulation, though differing in others. Thus b and m are bilabial, though b has no nasal quality. Examples of intrusive consonants:

ȳmel is now thimble. Present folk words: chimbly chimney, fambly family.

/d/ Middle English soun is now sound. Present folk words: oild oil, gownd gown, liard liar.

/l/ Present folk speech: conflab, dumbfloundered.

/m/ Present folk speech: ampron apron.

/n/ Present folk speech: agnate agate, antic attic, minety mighty, minge midge, spink and span.

/r/ Added internally: crursh, daurter, horspital, porched egg, warsh, womern. Added finally: ager ague, chinar, dror draw, Emmar, potater.

/s/ Prefixed to words beginning with /k/ or /t/: screak, scringe, scrunch, squench, strollop, strull.

/t/ Added to words ending with /f/, /s/, /š/, /k/, or /n/: acrost, attackt, chanst, orphant, skifft, varmint, wisht.

/w/ twang tang, twile toil, twill or twell till, wooze ooze, wuxtry extra.

/y/ million melon, year ear, yearly early, yearth earth.

Examples of intrusive vowels:

/ǝ/ spelled a: a-growed, a-make, a-many, athaletic, cycalone, parairie, thataway, thisaway.

/ǝ/ spelled e: umberella.

/ǝ/ spelled u: ellum elm, fillum film.

/ɪ/ spelled i: grievious grievous, heinious heinous, mischievious mischievous.

9. Ellipsis or telescoping: Omission of internal sounds from words (rather than of words from syntactic structures). This phenomenon of phonetic simplification is responsible for the present standard form of many words: Old English hlǣfdīge became lady, hēafod became head; for centuries boatswain has been pronounced bosun and forecastle, fo’c’sle. Pronunciation-spellings show that the process is much alive in present folk speech: a’ter after, cal’late calculate, cap’m captain, chirren children, consid’able, comf’table, gov’ment, pres’dent.

10. Malapropism: The blundering substitution, for the intended word, of another similar to it in sound but having an altogether different meaning. Malapropism has seldom furnished new words to standard usage, but a number are found in folk usage: emancipated for emaciated, surrogated for corrugated, ministrating for menstruating, expire for perspire, mitigate for militate; calvary for cavalry (which also illustrates metathesis).

11. Euphemism: The substitution of a softer word or phrase for one considered painful, obscene, profane, or otherwise offensive. Examples of avoiding the subject of death are very numerous: instead of die people say pass over, join one’s ancestors, cross the great divide, cash in one’s checks or check out, kick the bucket, and so on. Another type works by “mincing”—that is, by altering the offensive word or phrase just enough to avoid actually saying it. Examples: I vum I vow (nineteenth century), goldurn, jeepers criminy, son of a biscuit.

12. Onomatopoeia or echoism: The formation of words by imitation of sounds heard in nature. This is a basic word-forming method in all known languages. Standard English contains thousands of examples, and new ones are created every day in both speech and literature. Folk examples (some of which have rapidly moved into broader popular use): barf vomit, burp belch, chookee the orchard oriole, ooch push or slide sideways, whop strike hard, zap smack or squash suddenly, zoon fly with a humming buzz.

13. False-learned words: Learned words, frequently from medical or legal Latin, adopted into folk speech, are altered, sometimes with conscious humor. Examples: affidavy affidavit, collywobbles or golly marbles cholera morbus, epizoodick or epizooty epizoötic, gumbo whackum gum guiacum, maniaporchia mania à potu, suppeeny subpoena.

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II. Grammatical Changes

1. Multiple negatives: The use of negative words added to an already negative statement to intensify it is present in all historical phases of the language. It had literary status in the past: Chaucer: “He never yet no vileynie ne sayde... unto no maner wight.” Shakespeare: “Love no man in good earnest; nor no further in sport neither.” In the eighteenth century, however, under the influence of Latin grammar, this was replaced in the standard language by the “logical” principle, according to which “not never” is equivalent to “sometimes.” This principle is the basis of the widespread belief that “two negatives make a positive” (as in algebra), which is sometimes used to condemn even such unexceptionable examples of litotes as not unfriendly and not unlikely.

The multiple negative, though now nonstandard, survives as one of the chief markers of folk speech. It serves to give emphasis, to show determination, and the like. Examples: “I ain’t got nary none”; “I ain’t never seen no men-folks of no kind do no washin’ ” (1926 Kephart Highlanders 361); “I can’t do nothin’ ”; “It’s not here noplace.” It is also found in some single words: unthoughtless, a blend of unthoughtful and thoughtless; irregardless (since ir- means not).

‑(e)st or the periphrastic more, most markers of comparison together. Chaucer: “As thilke love is the more grevous to perfourne, the more gretter the merite.” Shakespeare: “This was the most unkindest cut of all.” This is no longer acceptable in standard English but survives to some extent in folk speech. Examples: betterer, more better, more beautifuller, more lonesomer, worser; bestest, bestmost, most loveliest, best-naturedest, worstest. A famous American example, “Get there fustest with the mostest,” attributed to General Nathan Bedford Forrest, is used humorously today but was said seriously in its time as the highly emphatic statement of a practical soldier.

Examples: antses, centses, folkses, galluses, geeses, gentlemens, jeanses, mices, oxens, tomatoeses. A triple plural is feetses. (It will be noted that many of these occur with the mutation plurals, which, taken as singulars, are overcorrected with plural inflections.)

4. Pleonastic subjects: A noun subject followed by an agreeing pronoun. It is found in all stages of English and in other languages as a device of identification. Examples: “Hosy he cum down stares” (1846 in 1848 Lowell Biglow Papers 2); “Th’ ol Doctor, he’s got a gre’t cur’osity t’ see ye” (1861 Holmes Elsie Venner 2.175); “So him and Tom they hitched up the mules” (1884 Lanier Poems 172); “Jim he hid in back o’ th’ jail-house” (1927 American Speech 3.10); “My second mister, he was took” (1938 Matschat Suwannee River 86); “Maw, she knows”; “The woman she bakes us a pone” (1926 Kephart Highlanders 112, 122).

5. Double -ed and -ing: When a formerly separate syllable -ed of past tense or past participle was reduced, in early Modern English, to -d or -t (as lovèd becoming loved, leavèd becoming left) the new reduced ending was sometimes not recognized for what it was, so a new -ed was often added to make past tense or past participle. Examples are numerous in present folk speech: attackted, belongded, crepted, drownded, equipted, foalded foaled, ruinded, spaded spayed, stunded stunned, tossted; bornded is a triple participle.

Double -ing occurs in folk speech only, with the older form of the participial suffix [ɪn]. Examples: fiddlinin, fishinin, huntinin, loadinin, ridinin.

6. Use of plural for singular: A number of nouns singular in meaning are plural in form. In general American usage, a woods, a falls, a barrens, a narrows are plurally inflected though agreeing with a singular article and being singular in meaning. These are also well established in folk speech. Other folk examples: a forks of a tree, a stretchers, a teethache. (Feetsore, an adjective, is changed similarly.)

7. Use of singular for plural: In terms of measurement such as foot, mile, pound, fathom, the apparently singular form is of ancient lineage, preserving in disguise the Old English possessive plural: fōta, mīla, punda, fæþma. Folk examples: “I walked five mile”; “She gained ten pound”; “Eight foot deep.” Shakespeare: “Full fathom five thy father lies.” A very similar occurrence is found with a few other words: “He has six cartridge left.”

When mass nouns are treated as count nouns in folk speech, a singular form may be used with plural syntax: “Will you have a few cabbage or squash?” “Pass me them cabbage.” Contrariwise, a mass noun may be pluralized: “I wisht they wouldn’t give us so many of them celeries” (1941 Faulkner Men Working 198).

8. Use of adjective for adverb: In Old English such adjectives as brād broad, glæd glad, prætig pretty, prūd proud, smōð smooth, soft soft, lang long, sceort short, lȳtel little, had corresponding adverbs ending in -e: brāde broadly, glæde gladly, etc. Being so much alike, they were sometimes confused and, to avoid the confusion, -līce (like) was often added to the adjective: brādlīce, glædlīce, etc. This has survived to some extent in the folk speech, as easy-like, smooth-like, soft-like. More often -like was reduced phonetically to -ly, which has become a regular mark of the adverb in standard English.

A few words have never submitted to the pattern: He worked long (not *longly), She stands tall (not *tally), and colloquially (in informal standard usage) some of the old forms are regularly used without -ly: Take it easy, sitting pretty, cut it short. (For all of these, -ly forms also exist, but the meaning is different: Take it easily means “without difficulty”; take it easy means “without fuss or excitement.”)

In folk speech, the pattern of making adverbs from adjectives without change of form is widespread and affects many words not of Old English origin. Examples: It’s actual true, amazing good, awful nice, do it careful, love me tender. Real (good, cold, nice) has gone to the point of becoming established as informal standard usage in many parts of the country.

9. Infinitive used for participle: After the verb despise, and some others not so construed in standard use, folk speech often uses the infinitive: “I despise to go out nights” (1903 Dialect Notes 2.311); “I despise to see a fence growed up like that” (1942 American Speech 17.53); they wouldn’t mind to fight us; I admire to get letters. (This evidently depends on the use of particular verbs; it would be good standard usage to say hate to go, refuse to fight, like to get.)

10. Strong and weak verbs: In the course of development from Old English to Modern English, the tendency has been for verbs to change over from the “strong” pattern (with internal vowel gradation to show tense differences, as sing, sang, sung or break, broke, broken) to the “weak” pattern (in which -(e)d or -t is added to the base, as walk, walked or send, sent). Though all strong verbs have been subject to this tendency, various ones have developed differently. Folk usage has been generally more conservative than standard, but not altogether so. Many Old English verbs have become weak in standard English. Examples:

flēon flee, past participle flogen; standard form fled

ceorfan carve, past participle corfen; standard form carved

gieldan yield, past participle golden; standard form yielded.

In some of these, the strong form survives in folk usage:

helpan help, past participle holpen; folk form holp

creopan creep, past participle cropen; folk form crope

climban climb, past participle clomben; folk form clomb

dragan drag, past participle drogen; folk form drug.

For some Old English weak verbs, however, strong forms have developed in folk usage:

dyfan dive, dyfede dived; new folk form dove (now regionally established in the northern United States)

wafian wave, wafode waved; new folk form wove

þencan think, þuhte thought; new folk form thunk.

This proves the vitality of the strong pattern, as does also its effect on foreign loanwords, such as French arrive:

standard arrive, arrived; folk form arrove.

11. The unmarked reflexive dative: The Old English reflexive dative of nouns and pronouns, meaning to or for, has come down to Modern English in disguise. In OE it had a form distinct from that of the accusative: for example, accusative mec, dative mē. In present English, the direct and indirect objects are no longer distinct in form; me is used for both. Standard English reflexive dative pronouns have added –self: I bought myself a hat; but in folk speech the old reflexive dative without -self survives: I bought me a hat; he kilt him a bear; they built them a house.

12. Overcorrection (or hyperurbanism): A change of grammatical or pronunciation form made in an attempt to avoid supposed incorrectness. Examples: an awfully lot; highfaluting for highfalutin; adding false -ing to words like chicken, mountain, muslin, making them chicking, mounting, musling. Edward Eggleston, in The Hoosier Schoolmaster, depicted an Indiana “lady” who prided herself on having “been at Bosting” (Boston).

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III. Derivational Changes

1. Suffixation: At every stage in the language, new words may be made by derivation, the addition of affixes to words or word bases. Many such formations are accepted without question, but others, formed by the same rules, remain oddities not generally accepted, used only locally or only by the occasional individual. The eighteenth-century prejudice against innovation or neologisms, though now greatly modified, still holds against many such formations in folk speech. Suffixes so used include:

-able, as in ageable on in years, biddable obedient, fightable eager to fight.

-ation, as in botheration, darnation, flinderation, murderation, tarnation, thunderation, twitteration.

-fy, -ify, -ified, as in airified, argufy, fitified, happify, speechify, weakified.

-ment, especially with extra stress on the suffix, as in appearment, botherment, disgracement, fixment, foolishment, hustlement, needments, reasonment, revengement, studyment, worriment.

-some, as in beautysome, bettersome, boresome, dangersome, hindersome, idlesome, pestersome, queersome, tellsome, youthsome.

-(e)ty, -dy, -y, on adjective base: biggety, fadedy, fainty, jaggedy, pleggity, raggedy, ramshacklety.

on verb base: crinklety, crumplety, fixy, itchety, mincy, rockety, wrinkledy.

on noun base: compushency, conceity, ficety, filey, roguey, spasmy, spitey, strengthy.

2. Prefixation: Folk use of prefixes is less distinctive than that of suffixes, but the continued use of a- is characteristic. This prefix, a worn-down form of the preposition on, is no longer a free form in standard English, though it survives as a bound form in such common words as abed, about, afoot, ahead, ashore, asleep, and many more. In folk speech it is common preceding participles, especially present participles: a-comin, a-goin, a-laughin, a-walkin. Apart from poetic survivals, it has been lost in this context in standard English; the sense of on is expressed, when necessary, with on: folk a-purpose, standard on purpose.

3. Back-formation: A new word is formed from an existing one by false derivation. Examples: the verb diagnose is actually back-formed from diagnosis, not the other way around, as one might think. Similarly, edit is back-formed from editor and burgle from burglar. All these are now fully accepted as standard. Some examples from folk speech: jink bad luck, taken as the singular of jinx; sull, taken as the infinitive of sullin’ (mistaken for sullen); mize to act stingily, from miser.

4. Omission of suffix: The suffix -er expressing agency is sometimes dropped, as in fly bat, fly flap, fly spat, fly swat, flycatch (the bird), salt-shake, fertilize (noun), drain colander, frogstick pocket knife. All the corresponding forms with -er are attested.

5. Abbreviation or shortening: This has always been a means of reducing the length and complexity of phrases or compounds, producing shorter words. Sometimes it is due to the operation of phonetic laws, a well-known example being Old English hlāf-weard becoming Middle English lord (initial hl was reduced to l; internal fs were often labialized, as also in hawk from OE hafoc; and w was vocalized). Most often, however, a part of the phrase or compound is simply dropped, standard English examples being bus from omnibus, fan from fanatic, mob from Latin mobile vulgus, wig from periwig. The same forces are at work in popular speech, producing such words as copter helicopter, math mathematics, prof professor, which are generally accepted as informal standard English. Folk examples are not numerous: cat fever catarrhal fever, con consumption (tuberculosis), igg to ignore, ticky particular.

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IV. Pronunciations

A number of pronunciation patterns exist that go against the rules of standard English and spelling but that nevertheless may be strong regionally.

1. Final unstressed vowels: Most widespread are the variations in treating a final unstressed vowel, [i], [ɪ], or [ǝ], in disagreement with standard spelling.

a. The endings of Cincinnati, Missouri, prairie are locally pronounced [ǝ], and in pronunciation-spellings are spelled a: Cincinnata, Missoura, paraira. In many other words spelled with final i, this has not happened.

b. Africa, Alabama, algebra, America, arnica, cholera, Martha, Ora, Sara, and dozens more—a very common change during the nineteenth century—end in /i/ or /ɪ/, with pronunciation-spellings using y: Africky, Alabamy, algebry. The force of standard spelling has changed most of these to standard pronunciations in /ǝ/, but many have at the same time acquired an intrusive r, as Atlanter, bannanner, umbreller, etc.

c. Words ending in ow very frequently reduce /o/ to /ǝ/ and often add an r: medda, medder meadow, meller mellow, shadder shadow, shaller shallow, swoller swallow, waller wallow.

2. Recessive stress: Words of Germanic origin (as are the majority of Old English words) normally bore stress on the first syllable. Folk speech frequently applies the rule to non-Germanic loanwords, stressing the first syllable when standard pronunciation does not. The effect is to give primary stress to the first syllable, often with lengthening of the vowel, and to reduce the second-syllable stress to secondary stress. Examples: advice, December, decide, defend, deliberate, disrupt, disturb, elope, encourage, enforce, idea, invest, invite, mistake, police, reduce, September, subtract.

3. Unreduced suffixes: In the Middle English period the -es of noun plurals and of verb third-person singulars was pronounced as a separate syllable. In early Modern English the majority lost this separateness and were assimilated directly to the base: walkes, two-syllable noun or verb, became walks; dreades became dreads. Words ending in s, sh, z, zh resisted this change: buzzes, fishes, garages, passes. Many more words of the older form have survived in folk speech after -sp, -st, or -sk: beastes, claspes, deskes, frostes, ghostes, nestes, postes, tuskes, trustes, waspes, wristes.

A very similar reduction of the -(e)d of past-tense verbs took place at the same period, the separate syllable being lost. A few words failed to follow this pattern of change: standard are agèd old, belovèd, blessèd. A few more survive in folk speech: streakèd, stripèd, formed from verb plus participial -ed, and the similar forkèd, peakèd, formed from noun plus -ed having, characterized by.

4. Sound substitutions: Folk speakers may substitute sounds or sound clusters for others in general use. Like intrusive consonants, these are usually homorganic with the sounds they replace. Examples:

k for t: turkle turtle, bickle victuals, bunk (verb) bunt, clouk (noun) clout, buck (verb) butt, ecksetra etcetera.

k for p: plunk (verb) plump, chonk (verb) chomp, champ.

r for l: jagger (verb) jaggle, kitarber catalpa.

l for r: clumbly crumbly.

The word catalpa has undergone an unusual number of such substitutions, with forty variant forms recorded, including patalca (p for k, k for p); macaltha (m for k, k for t, th for p); catalba (b for p); catalfa (f for p).

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