Gilded Age diglossia

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A couple of weeks ago, Larry Hyman and I walked through the Berkeley Hills to visit John and Manju Ohala, who live not far from Grizzly Peak. We followed instructions from Google Maps on my cellphone — except that there was one segment of the route that we couldn't find, Bret Harte Lane. On the way back, we realized that Bret Harte Lane was just where the map said it should be, but had been given a new name (and a new street sign): Ina Coolbrith Path.

As the plaque (which we missed on the way up) explains:

Ina Donna Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate and the nation’s first state laureate, was considered “the pearl of all her tribe” by her 19th century colleagues during the Bay Area’s first literary heyday.

Born Josephine Donna Smith, a niece of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, she came west with her family during California’s Gold Rush. Coolbrith was fifteen and living in Los Angeles when her poetry was first published. After she divorced her husband at age twenty-one, she changed her name to Ina Donna Coolbrith, concealed her Mormon ancestry, and moved to San Francisco, where her celebrity as a poet grew. Coolbrith became Oakland’s first public librarian and a mentor to Jack London, guiding him in his reading. She died in Berkeley and is buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

When byways in the Berkeley hills were named after Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, Mark Twain, and other literati in her circle, women were not included. This path was renamed for Coolbrith in 2016.

Under whatever name, Ina Coolbrith Path is one of the 137 paths managed by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association. These are steep and narrow walkways, running more or less directly up the incline, connecting the less-steep roads that run mostly at right angles to them. The steeper sections of the paths are stair steps, as in the photo on the right. (And Bret Harte hasn't been erased from the Berkeley Hills, since Bret Harte Path is still there, just a couple of blocks away.)

Since I had never heard of Ina Coolbrith or read any of her poems, I looked her up, and discovered that her early life was even more an adventure than the plaque suggested:

Ina Coolbrith was born Josephine Donna Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, the last of three daughters of Agnes Moulton Coolbrith and Don Carlos Smith, brother to Joseph Smith. Coolbrith's father died of malarial fever four months after her birth, and a sister died one month after that; Coolbrith's mother then married Joseph Smith, in 1842, becoming his sixth or seventh wife. No children came of the union — Agnes felt neglected in her unfruitful Levirate marriage, the only such marriage of Smith. In June 1844, Smith was killed at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob. Losing her faith and fearful of her life, Coolbrith's mother left the Latter-day Saint community and moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, where she married a printer and lawyer named William Pickett. Twin sons were born to the couple, and in 1851 Pickett traveled overland with his new family to California in a wagon train. On the long trek, the young Ina read from a book of Shakespeare's works and from a collection of Byron's poems. As a ten-year-old girl, Ina entered California in front of the wagon train with the famous African-American scout Jim Beckwourth, riding with him on his horse, through what would later be named Beckwourth Pass.

I also read a selection of her poems, which reminded me of why a lot of mid-to-late-19th-century English-language poetry — like Swinburne, Tennyson, Emerson — rubs me the wrong way. The first Ina Coolbrith poem I read was "Lines On Hearing Mr. Edgar S. Kelley's Music of 'Macbeth'" (1885):

O melody, what children strange are these
___From thy most vast, illimitable realm?
___These sounds that seize upon and overwhelm
___The soul with shuddering ecstasy! Lo! here
___The night is, and the deeds that make night fear;
Wild winds and waters, and the sough of trees
___Tossed in the tempest; wail of spirits banned,
___Wandering, unhoused of clay, in the dim land;
The incantation of the Sisters Three,
___Nameless of deed and name – the mystic chords
___Weird repetitions of the mystic words;
___The mad, remorseful terrors of the Thane,
___And bloody hands – which bloody must remain.
___Last, the wild march; the battle hand to hand
Of clashing arms, in awful harmony,
___Sublimely grand, and terrible as grand!
The clan-cries; the barbaric trumpetry;
___And the one fateful note, that, throughout all,
___Leads, follows, calls, compels, and holds in thrall.

What bothers me is the fake-antique syntax and word usage: "children strange", "thy most vast, illimitable realm", "Lo! here the night is, and the deeds that make night fear", "unhoused of clay", "which bloody must remain", … This is an instinctive reaction, not a reasoned conclusion. But let me explore it a bit.

In the 16th and 17th centuries such things were more or less idiomatic, though no doubt a bit Latinate, and anyhow I don't have strong intuitions about what normal English was like in those days. But as poets through the 18th and 19th centuries continue to use the same register, it starts to seem more and more pretentious and fake. Still, the artificially elevated language doesn't interfere much with my appreciation for the likes of Alexander Pope and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And in Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, the force of their originality overcomes any negative reaction to their frequent head-modifier inversion, thee/thou-ing, and predicate-verb order.

But someone who rode with Jim Beckwourth on his horse in front of a wagon train to California in 1851, at the age of 10? And worked closely with Bret Harte and Mark Twain in San Francisco in the 1860s and 1870s? Give me a break.

In fairness, some of her poems are written in much less ornate and artificial language. For example, "When the grass shall cover me" (1881) uses "you" rather than "thee", describes the grasses' "blade and blossom" as "tender pleaders for my cause" rather than "pleaders tender for my cause", and so on. "The Captive of the White City" is similarly poetic but unpretentious. I like those much better.

Surely these issues must have been clear to her, since other members of her California literary circle were explicitly sensitive to variations in varieties of English. Mark Twain famously began Huckleberry Finn (1885) with this explanatory note:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

And Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's 1873 novel "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today" describes a young woman transplanted from Missouri to Washington D.C. this way:

The quality of her literary tastes had necessarily undergone constant improvement under this regimen, and as necessarily, also the duality of her language had improved, though it cannot be denied that now and then her former condition of life betrayed itself in just perceptible inelegancies of expression and lapses of grammar.

Bret Harte 's stories and novels were similarly careful to portray differences in spoken and written English. His 1890 short story "A Sappho of Green Springs" is particularly interesting in this context, since its central characters are the editor of a San Francisco literary magazine The Excelsior, a middle-aged woman who turns out to be the author of verses sent to him under the pseudonym White Violet "from a remote village in the Coast Range", and a lumberman from Medocino who falls in love with the poet sight unseen. Here's the lumberman, come to ask the editor how to find the poet:

"I should like to have got to see her and kinder asked her a few questions," continued the stranger, with the same reflective seriousness. "You see, it wasn't just the rhymin' o' them verses,-and they kinder sing themselves to ye, don't they?-it wasn't the chyce o' words,-and I reckon they allus hit the idee in the centre shot every time,-it wasn't the idees and moral she sort o' drew out o' what she was tellin',-but it was the straight thing itself,-the truth!"

"The truth?" repeated the editor.

"Yes, sir. I've bin there. I've seen all that she's seen in the brush-the little flicks and checkers o' light and shadder down in the brown dust that you wonder how it ever got through the dark of the woods, and that allus seems to slip away like a snake or a lizard if you grope. I've heard all that she's heard there-the creepin', the sighin', and the whisperin' through the bracken and the ground-vines of all that lives there."

So it's interesting that Ina Coolbrith didn't feel empowered to shift the duality of her poetic language very far (if at all) in the direction of her own native vernacular.  But anyhow, Aleta George's 2015 biography (Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate) makes a convincing case for Coolbrith's cultural importance, for the value of her work, and for the appropriateness of giving her name to a path in the Berkeley Hills.


  1. Andrew Usher said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

    The quoted poem doesn't strike me as good, either, though I must point out that I can't remember any poetry written by a woman as ever impressing me – whether that's merely a fact about me I can't say right now.

    [(myl) Really? Not Emily Dickinson? Not Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Not Margaret Atwood? I could go on, but really this does seem to be something about you rather than something about the poetry.]

    But the complaint about register seems overdone; as you yourself note, that's really just the 'poetic register' of English, and for most kinds of poetry demanding they reflect spoken colloquial usage would be silly. Of your examples, most are fine with me except 'unhoused of clay', which makes me pause to figure out what it might mean. 'Which bloody must remain' isn't even archaic, just literary/oratorical. As disturbing but not among your list was the ungrammatical 'terrible as grand', meaning I suppose 'terribly grand', which I would have rather written even though it scans worsely. That doesn't even seem like normal poetic licence to me, though my judgements seem often to be idiosyncratic.

    [(myl) I believe that phrase meant to be interpreted "as terrible as it is grand". And I agree that the poem is in the conventional English-language "poetic register" of the late 19th century (though absolutely not the conventional poetic register of today); but I don't therefore have to like it.]

    The title of this post was 'diglossia'; does this, accepting your conclusion, meet the conditions to be called diglossia? It doesn't seem to me – it is too restricted to be called a distinct variety of English. Much to our credit, English has resisted diglossia and will continue to do so, as long as we keep speaking properly as I do.

    [(myl) I'm betting that if Ina Coolbrith had started speaking to her SF friends in 1885 using the language of that poem, without irony, they would have urged her to lie down until the fit passed, and sent for help if it didn't. And I don't see you "speaking properly" with adjectives following nouns, thee and thou instead of you, etc.]

    k_over_hbarc at

  2. Chris C. said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 8:46 pm

    Not Edna St. Vincent Millay either? Hmph.

  3. Poetree is evul said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 10:07 pm

    Sylvia Plath ?


    I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
    It is what you fear.
    I do not fear it: I have been there.

    Is it the sea you hear in me,
    Its dissatisfactions?
    Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?

    Love is a shadow.
    How you lie and cry after it
    Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.

    All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
    Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
    Echoing, echoing.

    Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
    This is rain now, this big hush.
    And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic.

    I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
    Scorched to the root
    My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.

    Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
    A wind of such violence
    Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.

    The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
    Cruelly, being barren.
    Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.

    I let her go. I let her go
    Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
    How your bad dreams possess and endow me.

    I am inhabited by a cry.
    Nightly it flaps out
    Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

    I am terrified by this dark thing
    That sleeps in me;
    All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

    Clouds pass and disperse.
    Are those the faces of love, those pale irretrievables?
    Is it for such I agitate my heart?

    I am incapable of more knowledge.
    What is this, this face
    So murderous in its strangle of branches?——

    Its snaky acids hiss.
    It petrifies the will. These are the isolate, slow faults
    That kill, that kill, that kill.

  4. Murray CaneToad said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 10:09 pm

    "Much to our credit, English has resisted diglossia and will continue to do so, as long as we keep speaking properly as I do."

    Of course it will….

  5. tangent said,

    August 7, 2018 @ 11:41 pm

    Elizabeth Bishop? Kathleen Raine? Brigit Pegeen Kelly? There's someone for any possible taste.

  6. Andrej Bjelaković said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 12:09 am

    Christina Rossetti? Anna Akhmatova? Marina Tsvetaeva?

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 5:46 am

    I have never bothered to analyse whether or not I have been "impressed" by poetry written by a woman, since all that normally matters to me is whether or not I like a poem — who wrote it is of little significance (John Betjeman apart). But I certainly like the poem Lines On Hearing Mr. Edgar S. Kelley's Music of 'Macbeth' by Ina Coolbrith, and her use of what I think of as "poetic language" rather than "her own native vernacular" very much adds to the poem's appeal for me. Bret Harte's "kinder asked her a few questions", however, just annoys me — at first I mentally read "kinder" as in Ferrero's "Kinder Egg" (or "Kinder Surprise"), then realised it was intended as a written approximation to a spoken "kind o'". Not for me.

    [(myl) I can see that Harte's use of eye dialect might annoy you — it seems less effective than Mark Twain's portrayal of American English varieties — and I'm certainly not suggesting that Ina Coolbrith should have written poetry in that style. My point is that her milieu was saturated with awareness of linguistic variation, and so the idea of perhaps moving English poetic language away from the 17th century and towards some less artificial and more contemporary pattern was available to her. Others began that exploration around the same time, and from what I've read of her works, she sometimes experimented with less fustian language as well. Given her background and her context, this would have been a natural and sympathetic theme, though I recognize that appealing to Longfellow and Tennyson was a powerful motivation for someone in her position, and writing in then-standard poetic diction must have seemed like the best method. But if she had pushed more explicitly in a different direction, I suspect that her work would have made a bigger impact and would be more widely known today.]

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 7:51 am

    No need for piling on – I did not assert that no woman had ever written good poetry, but that I'm not qualified to judge. I don't read much poetry; I don't normally seek it out. I agree with the last guy that who wrote a poem is not normally relevant to appreciating it – as with other kinds of art (not that the artistic community obeys this …).

    As for Harte's "kinder asked …", it's probably relevant that Harte grew up in a not completely rhotic environment. Such spellings are still common in Britain but often confuse Americans.

    I accept Liberman's explanation of 'terrible as grand' – not an obvious ellipsis, but I suppose permissible, and not much different semantically from my 'terribly grand' (grand in a terrible way).

    Now my main, concluding, point was that this is not really like the situations the word 'diglossia' is usually used for. All literary languages presumably have a more literary register not used in ordinary speech; but that's not what I understand by 'diglossia'.

    (One of the things I dislike about posting on blogs like this is that it always feels like you must reply in half a day or you will be ignored, or worse thought of as a troll.)

  9. bks said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 8:42 am

    by Gail Kredenser

    The giant brontosaurus
    Was a prehistoric chap
    With four fat feet to stand on
    And a very skimpy lap.
    The scientists assure us
    Of a most amazing thing–
    A brontosaurus blossomed
    When he had a chance to sing!

    (The bigger brontosauruses,
    Who liked to sing in choruses,
    Would close their eyes
    and harmonize
    And sing most anything.)

    They growled and they yowled,
    They deedled and they dummed;
    They warbled and they whistled,
    They howled and they hummed.
    They didn't eat, they didn't sleep;
    They sang and sang all day.
    Now all you'll find are footprints
    Where they tapped the time away!

  10. James said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 8:44 am

    Dorothy Parker???

    I imagine IDC to have been thinking of herself as writing in "poetry language". If you encountered Shakespeare while riding a wagon train…
    Wow, I just can't finish that sentence.

    Anyway, it seems plausible to me that she simply thought of the Elizabethan dialect she'd read as the proper language for writing poetry; just as one might notice that one's family didn't speak in iambic pentameter but not count the meter in the plays as some unnatural, stilted form of language.

    [(myl) Yes, no doubt. But it was about the same time, the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, that writers around the world began questioning their culture's version of those assumptions.]

  11. Rodger C said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    Since when are Emerson and Tennyson late-nineteenth-century writers?

    [(myl) Tennyson died in 1892, and published up to the end ("Crossing the Bar" in 1891); Emerson died in 1882. But for someone like Ina Coolbrith, these two would have been among the established icons of the profession in the period when she was developing her poetic style.]

  12. David Marjanović said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 9:29 am

    'unhoused of clay', which makes me pause to figure out what it might mean.

    "Not living in brick houses"?

    Now all you'll find are footprints
    Where they tapped the time away!

    Sauropod footprints are indeed common.

  13. David Fried said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 11:15 am

    This is the first post I have read in many years of following Language Log that is a downright embarrassment. I don' know what to say to someone who thinks that Pope, Emerson, Tennnyson and Swinburne wrote in the same diction, and that they are unreadable for the same reason as Ina Donna Coolbrith.

    Let's look at one of Pope's most famous poems, the "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot." It stard\ts like this:

    Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu'd, I said,
    Tie up the knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead.
    The dog-star rages! nay 'tis past a doubt,
    All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out:
    Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
    They rave, recite, and madden round the land.

    As quickly becomes clear, he means that every dolt in England who fancies himself a writer besieges him constantly for criticism, praise and help.

    And later in the same poem, Pope's rueful reflections on how he became a poet.

    Why did I write? what sin to me unknown
    Dipp'd me in ink, my parents', or my own?
    As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
    I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
    I left no calling for this idle trade,
    No duty broke, no father disobey'd.
    The Muse but serv'd to ease some friend, not wife,
    To help me through this long disease, my life,

    These words were written 300 years ago. How often do people still refer to "this long disease, my life"? "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed"-Pope again.

    OK, "Dr. Arbuthnot" is brilliant (and remarkably personal) satire. Here's Pope at his most stately:

    Where'er you walk
    Cool gales shall fan the glade
    Trees where you sit
    Shall crowd into a shade
    Where'er you tread
    The Blushing flowers shall rise
    And all things flourish
    Where'er you turn your eyes.

    Handel set these words in his opera Semele. Except for "blushing" and "flourish" every word here is an Anglo-Saxon monosyllable–which is precisely how Pope gets his most solemn and ravishing effects. And yet "Dr. Arbuthnot" is nearly as plan and monosyllabic.

    As for Ms. Coolbrith, I'll let Pope have the last word (also from "Dr. Arbuthnot"):::

    "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?"

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 11:27 am

    It would be interesting to know when the paths were named for various male writers of her generation without her or any other female authors making the cut. Ms. Coolbrith was sufficiently feted during her own lifetime by male authority figures (including the Cal state legislature, the president of UC-Berkeley etc) that it's obviously not the case that the Patriarchy was squelching her voice. So the question is whether the gender politics had shifted by the time they were naming those paths, or whether her star had faded because her style of diction had become deeply unfashionable with the rise of modernism, with plenty of male poets of her generation who had worked in a similar style likewise descending into obscurity. Not that Bret Harte or Mark Twain had an experimental modernist prose style, but perhaps it was easier for the old and new to coexist in that area? The obvious more rigorously modernist female literary figure with ties to the East Bay that they could have named something after was Gertrude Stein, but maybe she was not enough of a local booster.

    FWIW, I learned much of what I know about early 20th century poetry from independent reading and rereading when I was a teen in the early '80's of my dad's old college copy of this once-well-known anthology. It is interesting to note that even though there was minimal pressure in 1947 to be "diverse" or "inclusive" in selecting poets for such an anthology, it is not an all-male selection. Out of a bit over 100 authors there are at least 17 females, some of whom remain reasonably well-known today, others of whom have fallen as out of fashion as Coolbrith probably had fallen by 1947.

    It seems like there ought to be a database with a few hundred poetry anthologies organized by decade that would enable you to see in graphic form (like the google books n-gram viewer) how the fortunes of individual poets rose and fell over time when it came to being anthologized.

  15. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 11:44 am

    I for one tend to lump most 19th century poetry together in the flowery bracket. All that tum-te-tum-te-tumming! It's no surprise that it's largely gone out of fashion, the popularity of a few select texts notwithstanding. There are many more people who claim they admire such old-fashioned stuff than actually read any of it.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

    In trying via poking around on google books to figure out what had happened to Ms. Coolbrith's reputation in the first few decades after her death I came upon "A History of American Literature Since 1870," published in 1933 by Fred Lewis Pattee (1863-1950), who was according to wikipedia a fairly big name in the English-prof business in his day. After a contrarian paragraph claiming that Emily Dickinson was totally overrated ("To compare her eccentric fragments with Blake's elfin wildness is ridiculous"), he goes on to say "Most of the feminine poets of the later generation have been over-literary," which may be the same basic critique of style/register that was myl's first reaction to Coolbrith. Those to whom he applies this criticism by name include Coolbrith as well as Mmes. Louise Imogen Guiney, Helen Gray Cone, Dora Read Goodale, and [last one before pagebreak and the limitations of free preview] Katherine Lee Bates. I daresay three of those four names are now extremely obscure and Ms. Bates is now known solely for her authorship of "America the Beautiful." Although it should be said that I doubt anyone reads Prof. Pattee's books anymore, so his undying fame (in certain geographical regions) now rests solely on his authorship of the lyrics to Penn State's alma mater.

  17. Bloix said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 4:35 pm

    Siegfried Sassoon, about 1912:

    Ye hooded witches, baleful shapes that moan,
    Quench your fantastic lanterns and be still;
    For now the moon through heaven sails alone,
    Shedding her peaceful rays from hill to hill.
    The faun from out his dim and secret place
    Draws nigh the darkling pool and from his dream
    Half-wakens, seeing there his sylvan face
    Reflected, and the wistful eyes that gleam.

    Siegfried Sassoon, about 1917:

    Does it matter?-losing your legs?
    For people will always be kind,
    And you need not show that you mind
    When others come in after hunting
    To gobble their muffins and eggs.
    Does it matter?-losing your sight?
    There’s such splendid work for the blind;
    And people will always be kind,
    As you sit on the terrace remembering
    And turning your face to the light.
    Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
    You can drink and forget and be glad,
    And people won't say that you’re mad;
    For they know that you've fought for your country,
    And no one will worry a bit.

  18. Mick O said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 5:43 pm

    Now, this is what I call a poetry slam!

  19. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 7:26 pm

    If Coolbrith had not been in her mid-forties when the "Lines on hearing…music of Macbeth" was published, I would have speculated that the language she used was influenced by whatever she had been reading in the days or weeks before she wrote the work.

    Given her age, maybe she was simply stubborn and wanted to play with language and manipulate it because she liked the way it sounded, and she valued that more than the various alternatives. Maybe she was not a particularly perceptive self-editor. Maybe she received more respect using reactionary forms then she would have garnered writing in contemporary forms.

    I get more exasperated with poems with anomalies, such as this one in which "shoon" is painfully inappropriate in a twentieth-century poem:


    Slowly, silently, now the moon
    Walks the night in her silver shoon;
    This way, and that, she peers, and sees
    Silver fruit upon silver trees;
    One by one the casements catch
    Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
    Couched in his kennel, like a log,
    With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
    From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
    Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
    A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
    With silver claws and a silver eye;
    And moveless fish in the water gleam,
    By silver reeds in a silver stream.

    Walter de la Mare

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 8:16 pm

    Elinor Wylie and Louise Glück are among my favorite female poets.

    My guess for "unhoused of clay" is "removed from their clay houses, that is, their graves". Now would someone please explain "nameless of deed and name"?

    David Fried: Prof. Liberman actually said he liked Pope.

    Philip Taylor: American dialects did actually add "r" to some words, such as "holler" from "hollow" and from "hollo" or "holla". Another one is… I think there's another one. I wonder whether some Americans did actually pronounce "kind of" as rhotic "kinder".

    Barbara Phillips Long: Likewise I wonder whether "shoon" was more current in British dialects of De la Mare's time than we might think now. The OED entry for "shoe", last fully revised in 1914, gives a citation from a dialect dictionary in1887 and doesn't give an end date for "shoon".

  21. Bathrobe said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 9:12 pm

    Bret Harte wrote in the eye-dialect of the time, which seems to have been universal across the English-speaking world. "Kinder" is eye-dialect for "kinda" (or "kind of"). What is interesting is that it is the kind of eye-dialect suitable for a non-rhotic variety of English. Harte was born in Albany (New York) but one has to wonder, is "kinder" is appropriate for a Californian? As I said, eye-dialect of the time.

    I had no trouble with Coolbrith's poem. Yes it was in the overwrought poetic idiom of its day (pompous and pretentious), but it was talking about "Macbeth", for goodness sake, so the appeal to Old World sensibilities may have been deliberate.

    Tennyson also used elevated, archaic diction in his verse, and yet it speaks to modern sensibilities in a way that is (to me at least) closer to T.S. Eliot than to Pope. "In the afternoon they came unto a land in which it seemed always afternoon" would be entirely appropriate if used for the voice-over starting a movie in 2018.

    At any rate, each era comes up with its new idioms and styles. I also found the Plath poem fraught with "poetic idiom", although of a more modern vintage than Coolbrith's. Who actually says "I shall gallop thus, impetuously" or "Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?" or "I must shriek" or "she would drag me cruelly, being barren" or "Is it for such I agitate my heart?" This is all elevated diction of a type considered appropriate for poetry in our time (or at least Plath's time). This is the poet slipping into her poetic voice, not the voice of everyday life.

  22. Ricardo said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 10:39 pm

    nice to see Elinor Wylie mentioned. One of my favorite poets–full stop.

  23. RfP said,

    August 8, 2018 @ 11:19 pm

    “Kinder” c’n be rhotic, jes’ lahk “holler.” If’n y’ever warch The Beverly Hillbillies, I betcha someone’ll say it purt near soon as ya turn on the show!

    There weren’t a whole lot of people who spoke that way in rural California when I was growing up in the mid-20th century, but there still were some, and the speech of the types of characters played by Slim Pickens and Walter Brennan was only exaggeration rather than fabrication, from what I recall.

  24. R. Fenwick said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 12:34 am

    In the 16th and 17th centuries such things were more or less idiomatic, though no doubt a bit Latinate, and anyhow I don't have strong intuitions about what normal English was like in those days. But as poets through the 18th and 19th centuries continue to use the same register, it starts to seem more and more pretentious and fake.

    Even people of the time were not at all oblivious to that. I can't help but think of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, in which they sought to explicitly cast off some of those older and more stilted conventions; Wordsworth's own advertisement to the first edition declaimed that the poems within were "written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure."

  25. Bathrobe said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 1:31 am

    @ RfP

    I'm rather intrigued by the fuzzy cutoff between rhotic and non-rhotic. "Holler" is interesting. Originally it supposedly came from "hollow". In my non-rhotic dialect, both "hollering" and "following" can rhyme, if you put an /r/ on the boundary between /fɔlǝ/ and /ǝn/. I'm wondering if "holler" /holǝ/ might not have come about as a rhoticised back formation from "hollow".

    I'm sceptical about /kaindǝ/ being pronounced rhotically. My own thesis is that eye-dialogue representing schwa as 'er' arose during the 19th century (?) and spread across English-speaking countries, regardless of their rhoticisation. Exactly the same kind of eye-dialect was used in Australia at the turn of the 20th century, but if read by an ordinary Australian today would sound perfectly natural (if a little exaggerated). I wonder if a Californian reading "kinder" as /kaindǝr/ would sound so natural. I suspect that writing "kind of" as "kinder" is a result of imitation rather than a true attempt to represent rhoticism. Perhaps someone who is better informed about the phonological history of English can enlighten us.

  26. Philip Anderson said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 7:26 am

    I’m a little surprised that people don’t understand “unhoused of clay”. “House of clay”, or just “clay”, is a metaphor for the body (going back to Job 4:19), one which would have been familir in her time, so “unhoused of clay” means “bodiless”, the spirits have left their bodies. Poetic language certainly.
    The witches in Macbeth were indeed unnamed, and did not do anything except prophesy.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 8:24 am

    Philip Anderson: I now agree with you about "unhoused of clay".

    I realize that the witches are unnamed and don't do anything but prophesy, but wouldn't that be more like "Devoid of deed and name"? I still don't understand "Nameless of deed and name".

    Bathrobe: The American Heritage Dictionary says under "holler" that such words as "holler", "winder" (window), and "tater" are pronounced with "ər" in the Appalachians. I strongly suspect "kinder" could have been rhotic in more places back then.

  28. Bathrobe said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 9:01 am

    I am not a speaker of Appalachian English and I'm not particularly familiar with the dialect, so anything I say is speculation. Nevertheless, the suggestion that unstressed forms (prepositions) like "of" were rhoticised sounds strange to me. If "of" was rhoticised in "kinder", that opens the possibility of mass rhoticisation, e.g. in "tubber lard", "sounder music", etc. Moreover, "to" would also be a candidate for rhoticisation. Thus, "I'd like ter go" or "I've gotter go". I have no idea whether this happened or not — but it certainly sounds suspect.

  29. Rodger C said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 9:58 am

    As a speaker of AE, I say "holler," "winder" and "tater" with /r/, but to do so with "kind o'" would sound very strange to me. What Bathrobe said.

  30. Michele said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 10:32 am

    FWIW —

    I grew up in south-western Ohio, in a small town consisting mostly of emigrants from Kentucky. They had moved there seeking work on the railroad.

    I can verify that holler, winder, tater were spoken with /r/, but kinda and gotta with schwa were more prevalent than kinder or gotter with /r/. And yes, people said warsh rather than wash.

    I learned English at the same time as my immigrant mother (whose native language was Plaatdüütch) and was also influenced my Jersey City-born father (who said he grew up among the Kat-licks and Eye-talians), so I never fully blended with my neighbors from a linguistic standpoint.

    I now live in California, where I've worked hard to not say things like "that may-an has a tay-an vay-an" for "that man has a tan van". But I can code-switch to a certain extent and when I get "het up" (excited or upset), my dialect comes out in force!

  31. Michele said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 10:37 am

    Also on the subject of eye dialect:

    The Led Zeppelin song "D'yer Mak'er" is, in my experience, usually pronounced by American disk jockeys as "Dye-er Make-er" rather than as an alt-spelling/British dialectical pronunciation of "Jamaica" (and meant jokingly as "did you make her?").

  32. Rfp said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 11:10 am

    I'm with Michele in remembering rhotic kinder, but that it wasn't as common as holler, or feller (to add another word that was commonly pronounced with an r at the end).

    My grandmother said warsh, reflecting her North Texas origins, I guess. And that brings up an important factor in California, which is that people have been coming here from all over for a very long time. I am personally familiar with dialects that aren't all that different from Appalachia, and I'm not sure how much that's a matter of immigration from other parts of the country and how much it's a matter of a relatively stable "rural California" dialect, which my brothers and I used to talk about many, many years ago.

    Being ourselves from the cosmopolitan Bay Area, we were sort of shocked to discover that only a few miles away, people spoke a lot differently from us—even more so than in my mom's home town of Napa, which was then a small, rural city that mainly grew prunes and where I heard the kinds of things I mentioned in my previous post.

  33. Bloix said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

    Jerry Friedman:
    from Macbeth, Act 4, Scene One:

    By the pricking of my thumbs,
    Something wicked this way comes.
    Open, locks,
    Whoever knocks!

    Enter MACBETH

    How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
    What is't you do?

    A deed without a name.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 2:07 pm

    Michele and Rfp: Thanks for confirming my suspicion about "kinder".

    Bathrobe: "Like ter" and "gotter go" are easy to find from that period, but of course I don't know how accurate the authors of dialect fiction were, or whether "ter" is supposed to be understood as rhotic or non-rhotic.

    "Er" by itself for "of" seems to be restricted to representations of the AAVE of the time. I can't resist this one, since it's on our very subject.

    "He was de fustes' one ter see how much folks was dyin' ter git a leetle di'lect er de ra'ht sawt, an' Ah reckon Ah sol' him de fus' yard he evah bo't."

    –Charles Battell Loomis, "The Dialect Store" (1897)

    ("He" is Thomas Nelson Page, a lawyer, diplomat, and writer of plantation stories.)

    Bloix: Thanks, I'd forgotten that. So the idea is they have no names and neither do their deeds? "Nameless of… name" still doesn't strike me as a good way to express that.

    Since you compared two Siegfried Sassoon poems, here's Robert Frost on a butterfly in about 1893:

    Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too,
    And the daft sun-assaulter, he
    That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead:
    Save only me
    (Nor is it sad to thee!)
    Save only me
    There is none left to mourn thee in the fields.

    The gray grass is not dappled with the snow;
    Its two banks have not shut upon the river;
    But it is long ago—
    It seems forever—
    Since first I saw thee glance,
    With all the dazzling other ones,
    In airy dalliance,
    Precipitate in love,
    Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above,
    Like a limp rose-wreath in a fairy dance.

    When that was, the soft mist
    Of my regret hung not on all the land,
    And I was glad for thee,
    And glad for me, I wist.

    Here he is on the same subject in about 1897:

    But as I said it, swift there passed me by
    On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

    Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
    Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

    And once I marked his flight go round and round,
    As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

    And then he flew as far as eye could see,
    And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

    I thought of questions that have no reply,
    And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

    But he turned first, and led my eye to look
    At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

    A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
    Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

    I left my place to know them by their name,
    Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

    (Yes, still a youthful effort.)

  35. RfP said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

    I wonder whether rhotic kinder might have been a lot more likely to occur in the context of a following r-initial word, where kinda was assimilated to kinder, as in I kinder remember that.

    In this case, the main difference with kinda would likely be the final vowel sound, but it would sound like kinder. That might explain both why it occurred at all and why it wasn’t as common as holler, etc.

    By the way, as an inveterate wander of the North Berkeley paths and a former Linguistics student who looks back fondly on my several classes with John Ohala, I have many reasons to thank Mark for this post! Although my stay in the program was short, I learned a lot from John, who was one of the best teachers I ever had, and I hope he and Manju are doing well—and I’ll be looking out for Ina Coolbrith Path the next time I’m in the neighborhood.

  36. Ray said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 5:12 pm

    our current poet laureate is tracy k. smith, who, interestingly, has just published a body of found poems that are taken from actual letters of black soldiers and their families around the time of the civil war, giving them voice and preserving their spellings and speech/writing patterns. the book is called "wade in the water."

  37. zafrom said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 6:06 pm

    Yes, Ina, some of your attempts are more acceptable than others. We can still thank Mark for inspiring us to learn more about your fascinating life. You are the kinder person who did write some sufficient lines —

    Citron, pomegranate, apricot and peach;
    Flutter of apple-blows, whiter than the snow:
    Filling the silence with their leafy speech,
    Budding and blooming down row after row.

    Breaths of blown spices which the meadows yield,
    From blossoms broad-petaled, starry buds and small,
    Gold of the hill-side, purple of the field,
    Waft to my nostrils your fragrance, one and all.

    Birds in the tree-tops, birds that fill the air,
    Trilling, piping, singing, in your merry moods:
    Gold wing and brown wing flitting here and there,
    To the coo and chirrup of your downy broods.

    What grace has summer better that can suit?
    What gift can autumn bring us more to please?
    Red of blown roses, mellow tints of fruit,
    Never can be fairer, sweeter than are these.

  38. Bathrobe said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 8:15 pm

    This is a sample of this "eye-dialect" from Australia from 1915:

    I've watched 'em walkin' in the gardings 'ere—
    Cliners from orfices an' shops an' such;
    The sorter skirts I dursn't come too near,
    Or dare to touch.
    An, when I see the kind er looks they carst . . .
    Gorstrooth! Wot is the use o' me, I arst?


    I dunno 'ow I done it in the end.
    I reckerlect I arst ter be 'er friend;
    An' tried ter play at 'andies in the park,
    A thing she wouldn't sight. Aw, it's a nark!
    I gotter swear when I think wot a mug
    I must ‘a’ seemed to 'er. But still I 'ug
    That promise that she give me fer the beach.
    The bonzer peach!

    (From 'The Sentimental Bloke' by C J Denis )

    Extremely unrhotic. I would not be surprised if more examples of this kind of eye-dialect were found in other parts of the English-speaking world in the same era. Even in the present time I seem to recall similar eye-dialect being used for Hagrid in Harry Potter. And I vaguely seem to remember similar samples, possibly here at Language Log. My suspicion, which is merely that, a suspicion, is that kind ers and ters might have crossed the ocean and become a 'feature' of eye-dialect, divorced from actual speech, meant to represent schwa's.

    I wonder whether rhotic kinder might have been a lot more likely to occur in the context of a following r-initial word, where kinda was assimilated to kinder, as in I kinder remember that.

    If it is "kinder remember" I doubt that it's assimilation. The 'r' would belong to "remember", not "kinder".

    Even nonrhotic dialects insert an 'r' before a following vowel — as in "kinder asked her a few questions" (although "kind of" would be more respectable; inserting 'r's in such environments sounds a bit uncultivated).

  39. RfP said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

    IANAL, so maybe I am not using the right terminology.

    But as I said, the key may well have been the vowel, whose shift to e from the a in kinda makes people think of what they are saying or hearing as kinder, even if, technically speaking, the vowel belongs to remember, especially in the context of more common rhoticizations such as holler or feller or warsh.

    And the main point is that I’m going by my recollection of actual utterances, not by things I’ve read. I’m not completely convinced that my memory is above question on this, but I don’t seem to be the only one who has run into kinder in the wild. But maybe we’re all wrong about it. It’s happened before.

  40. Bathrobe said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 12:25 am

    As I said, I'm interested in the boundaries between rhoticity and non-rhoticity. It doesn't appear to have been a clean cut — rhoticity on one side and non-rhoticity on the other. Like 'warsh', for instance. How did the 'r' get in there? It doesn't belong historically, so maybe it's a case of overcorrection, as non-rhotics tried to restore rhoticity but got it wrong. Maybe that happened with "kinder". I wish we had a better picture of what happened.

  41. Rodger C said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 9:35 am

    "Warsh" seems to me a simple case of retaining the labialization of the "w" and anticipating the articulation of the "sh."

  42. RfP said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 8:58 pm

    I didn't understand that before—thanks for the clarification!

    I thought I had heard that the rhotic dialects in the North American colonies largely developed based on the speech patterns that people from rhotic speech areas in Great Britain brought with them. If that's true, I wonder whether it's possible to establish how early these edge cases were established in North America and whether they grow out of similar speech patterns in parts of Britain.

    Do you have any insights on that?

  43. Bathrobe said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

    I have only the fuzziest of ideas. My understanding is that New England and the South were either settled by people from, or (more likely) influenced by the speech of southeast England. Rhoticism is now taking over fully in the United States, just as non-rhoticism is taking over in England.

    I have read of spelling influence from non-rhotic dialects that generally slips under the radar. For example, when people write "He said, er, that he wasn't interested", this spelling of 'er' appears to have come from non-rhotic dialects. I've been given to undrstand that even in the US it is not pronounced rhotically.

    Also, switching back from non-rhotic to rhotic can be difficult and conceivably involves inserting 'r's where they don't belong. (Listen to non-rhotic speakers saying 'idear' when they want to sound like an American.) I was curious whether something like re-rhoticisation might have taken place in parts of the US, with resulting errors. As I said, I have a very dim understanding of all this but it seems that it's not as clean as it all looks.

  44. Vance Koven said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 5:09 pm

    @Bathrobe, New England was settled by people from all over England, as can be inferred from its place names. Boston is in Lincolnshire in East Anglia, Plymouth is in Cornwall, Newhaven is in East Sussex, Portsmouth in Devon, and Portland an island off Dorzet (that, of course, is how they say it, not how they spell it). All different accents, some rhotic, some not.

    I also wanted to mention, as probably the only one here who has actually heard any of it, that the music of Edgar Stillman Kelley was, though in the standard late Romantic style of the period, rather more rough-hewn in aspect than the polished and anodyne phrases of, say, Horatio Parker.

  45. Michele said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 7:27 pm

    @Bathrobe: ““He said, er, that he wasn’t interested”, this spelling of ‘er’ appears to have come from non-rhotic dialects. I’ve been given to undrstand that even in the US it is not pronounced rhotically.”

    In my dialect, “Er” is pronounced rhotically. “Uh” is non-rhotic.

  46. RfP said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 10:00 pm

    @Michele, Bathrobe
    I pronounce “er” rhotically, too, in certain situations, but when I finally realized that the same spelling was used for the non-rhotic pronunciation, I really had to question whether this was a spelling pronunciation borrowed from the non-rhotic mother tongue.

    This is at least partly because I normally say “uh” and “umm” in speaking, and I have a strong feeling that I picked up the “er” from British books as much as or more than from hearing other people saying it. I guess I would mainly use it together with “umm” to express extreme, but diffident hesitation, as in “errrr, ummmm.”

    As with all of this, I don’t have much hard evidence, but my “educated guess” on this runs contrary to my feelings about “holler,” etc.

  47. Bathrobe said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 10:01 pm

    @Vance Koven

    Thanks for the clarification. What is the origin of the so-called Bostonian accent? Settlers or influence from Mother England?


    Do you normally say 'Er, I'm just having lunch', with the rhotic interjection? Or is this a reading convention to pronounce 'er' rhotically?

  48. Michele said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 10:25 am

    @Bathrobe: "Do you normally say 'Er, I'm just having lunch', with the rhotic interjection? Or is this a reading convention to pronounce 'er' rhotically?"

    Um, Er, I really don't know. I didn't realize until reading this thread that it might be possible to pronounce "er" non-rhotically. As I stated previously, my own personal dialect is different from that of the people I grew up with. Not only in terms of pronunciation, but also word choice — I read a lot of American and British literature of all genres growing up, watched TV from American, Canadian, and British sources, and have studied (Parisian) French, (Tokyo & Osaka) Japanese, & (High) German, so perhaps I'm not the best judge of what's what in this case.

    I do know that I pronounce "er" rhotically, and so did/do most of my friends, no matter where they grew up, but I think the "reading convention" idea is plausible.

    Nowadays, however, I'm just as likely to use the Japanese etō as I am to say um, uh, or er.

    I'm just weird like that. *shrug*

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