[Ads-l] Announcement: Civil War linguistics

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Oct 4 09:50:30 EDT 2017


Michael Montgomery has asked me to bring the following press release to
your attention. Since it's a website and not a book, you can go there right
now!

A very significant achievement:

*****
New Online Database Offers Insights Into the Language and Experiences of
the Civil War's Common Soldiers

For all the thousands of books about the American Civil War, the hearts and
minds of the conflict's common soldiers have remained elusive. To a large
degree this is because historical archives are filled with war-time
materials from prosperous and professional families. During the conflict
officers had more time to write. Subsequently their descendants have
donated their ancestors’ papers to libraries and archives. The result is
that we know a lot more about the generals than the privates.

To help overcome this problem, linguists Michael Ellis (Missouri State
University) and Michael Montgomery (University of South Carolina), along
with historian Stephen Berry (University of Georgia), have created a new
archive online (dubbed “Private Voices”) devoted to the letters of Civil
War soldiers who wrote “by ear,” meaning they were untrained in spelling,
punctuation, or the use of capital letters. Raised in an oral culture,
these “transitionally literate” soldiers had little or no formal education
and were apt to write ‘amongst’ as ‘amunxt’ because they were unfamiliar
with the written form of the word. In the process, such letters sometimes
captured not only the thoughts of soldiers but also their speech patterns
or even their actual pronunciation—as when one soldier spelled ‘chair’ as
‘cheer.’ Linguists usually work backward from recordings to explore earlier
qualities of speech, but Ellis and Montgomery realized that these letters
from privates opened up an entirely new avenue that pushed back to a time
before sound recordings existed.

The question was whether many such letters still existed. Montgomery came
upon a small trove through a historian working on a book on the Civil War
in the Smoky Mountains. Ellis took up the hunt in earnest in 2008, driving
thousands of miles on trips to dozens of archives, sometimes coming away
with a rich harvest of material and sometimes coming up empty. “In the
early years,” says Montgomery, “we felt like explorers who had stumbled
into a small cave that then kept expanding and continues to expand to this
day. Michael rarely knew for sure whether any given archive would turn out
to be a large cavern or a tiny one, a dead end. After all, most
professional historians we consulted said they had never seen such letters.”

As the number of letters burgeoned from hundreds into thousands, Ellis
realized that “what was initially a linguistic investigation began to take
on broader historical significance.” The words and faces of common soldiers
were coming into sharper focus.

On a research trip to the University of Georgia in 2011, Ellis and
Montgomery met Stephen Berry, co-director of UGA’s Center for Virtual
History. Berry recognized immediately that the linguists had done a
staggering amount of historical detective work. “It was like they had
collected all the needles from the haystacks of other archives and brought
them together to create a haystack of needles,” Berry says. “They had
invented an archive that really could tell us something new about the
common Civil War soldier and his family.”

Since then the three researchers have teamed up to create what they call an
'alternative archive' at http://altchive.org/private-voices. The site
launches with 4,000 letters from four Southern states: North Carolina,
South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. They anticipate adding 6,000 more
letters transcribed by Ellis and his students from New England, the
Northeast, and the Midwest in the coming year, along with a dynamic mapping
feature so users can explore regional variations in word usage and speech
patterns. (Ellis has already created some of these maps by hand and made
them available on the site.) The project aims at being as representative as
possible: North and South, Union and Confederate, black and white, and not
just the soldiers, but also those on the homefront.

“Certainly the letters have already provided a wealth of information about
American English in the mid-nineteenth century,” notes Ellis. “But for many
visitors to the website the letters will be of primary interest for what
they tell us about the thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, of the many
letter-writers who might otherwise be forgotten.”

JL

-- 
"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

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The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org


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