So you’ve got your tickets and you’re ready to head out into town. You’ve picked up the official Colonial Williamsburg Guide. You’ve rented a colonial dress for your daughter. Your son is sporting a cocked hat and a musket. Now what? Maybe it’s time to take your experience to the next level. It’s time to talk Colonial!
So how do you do that? We asked Cathy Hellier, Colonial Williamsburg historian and author of Eighteenth-Century English as a Second Language (available online or in the bookstore!). With her help we came up with some easy steps for sounding like an 18th-century resident of Duke of Gloucester Street.
#1 Hello and Goodbye
“Good day” or “How do you do?” work just fine as greetings. So does “Good afternoon” or “Good evening.”
But if you want to really get into the spirit of things, try out “Your servant” instead of Howdy. You can even embellish it a little more by saying, “Your humble servant” or “Your most obedient servant.”
The polite response to “your servant,” assuming you are social equals, is to respond in kind. One way to do this, and to add a little more, is to say, “And I am yours. How does your family?”
In parting, use “Your servant” or “I wish you a good day, Madam/Sir.”
#2 Avoid “Hey Dude!”
Use 18th-century forms of address. It might sound a bit formal, but you should call an unfamiliar person Sir or Madam. A child is Young Sir or Miss.
And if you are using a person’s name, it is “Mrs. Braxton” or “Mr. Wythe,” not Elizabeth or George.
#3 ‘Tis, ‘Twas & ‘Twill
Have a little fun with 18th-century contractions, like so:
‘Tis a fine, warm day.
‘Twas a splendid lecture.
‘Twill be an even better day tomorrow.
Easy enough. And it will sound great because you’ll be saying it with a lovely English accent. Pure Shakespeare! Right?
“These Americans would sound pretty American,” says Hellier. (What?!?)
“Around the time of the Revolution, the British elite were consciously changing the way they pronounced vowels to sound more like they speak today. The Americans, on the whole, didn’t make that shift. And, of course, there were regional differences in both Britain and America.”
So, for example, when the British—at least in higher society—said the word “ask,” it began to sound more like “ahsk.”
Still, we don’t really know precisely how any given person sounded. Williamsburg was actually a pretty cosmopolitan place in the 18th century. There were people whose families had been around for generations. Others just stepped off the boat.
“We don’t do a lot with accents because we can’t. It’s a place where you’d find all kinds of accents, all kinds of ways of pronouncing vowels. It wasn’t all posh-sounding or all American-sounding. It was a salad of sound on the street.”
Time to get back to the lesson.
#4 How to Ask Questions
The word “pray” was often used to introduce a question. For example, you might ask, “Pray, Madam, do you know the direction of the Raleigh Tavern?”
But don’t use the word “do” in questions with the verb “have.” So instead of asking, “Do you have a map?” ask “Have you a map?”
#5 Some Colonial Vocab
Here are a dozen “translations” of common expressions you can use right away:
very nice time
Wow it’s hot!
Let’s go over there
exceeding agreeable evening
‘Tis a prodigious warm day
It is of trifling importance
Let us proceed
I must take my leave
By now you’re probably wondering how Hellier figured out so much about how people spoke in the 18th century. The answer is in the careful reading of a variety of written sources. But some are better than others.
“You have to find sources that get close to conversation,” says Hellier. Business letters or the journals of the House of Burgesses are not as useful as personal letters, for example.
Private letters to friends are valuable because they have a more conversational tone. Diaries, too. “Novels from this period are useful because they’re trying to be more like everyday life,” says Hellier. Even though they can be highly mannered, there is much to be learned in the way people of different social classes are made to speak.
Grammar books indirectly offer evidence for what people say and do in everyday situations. They not only offer the rule, they also give examples of how people typically break the rules. That is good evidence for establishing what people were really saying.
Finally, foreign language instructional books contain lists of phrases with translations. “It’s like a Berlitz phrasebook,” says Hellier. “They tell you what to say to the tailor, or at the shoe shop.”
Historians are fond of saying the past is a foreign country. So here’s the proof.
And just like any foreign language, there’s no better way to become an expert than by trying it out with native speakers, here in Williamsburg.