Sarah Orne Jewett's Miss Tempy's Watchers

Sarah Orne Jewett's Miss Tempy's Watchers

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Sarah Orne Jewett's Miss Tempy's Watchers

Sarah Orne Jewett was born in Berwick, Maine, 275 miles away from Oakfield, where my grandmother lives. Jewett’s story, “Miss Tempy’s Watchers,” takes place in a small farming town in New Hampshire, yet as I read the story for the first time, I was certain it took place in the small northern Maine town, and my grandmother was a subject of the author’s study. Jewett makes use of the dialect New England is known for by following very broad rules as well as the pickiest details one might never notice unless one were looking with ultimate scrutiny or from personal experience.

Jewett chose certain phrase structure to make her characters’ speech genuine. Sarah Ann Binson, one of Miss Tempy’s watchers, describes how Tempy “never did like to hear folks goin’ about themselves.” To some this phrase may be foreign, but to an older New Englander it means to speak of oneself braggingly. Another syntactic trait of the speech is the frequent regularization of verb forms. Mrs. Crowe, the other watcher, says, “Tempy come right up after they rode by,” and Sarah Ann later asks if Mrs. Crowe made cupcakes “while you was home to-day.” These are both obvious grammatical errors, but the two women were only trying to make sense of a very complicated set of rules. To two women of middle and upper-middle class who are not particularly familiar with a true upper class where the English language is treated with greater care, they were only speaking in a manner that seemed most natural. Something else worth mentioning is when Sarah Ann asks Mrs. Crows if she remembers a certain girl. Mrs. Crowe answers, “Certain,” and Sarah goes on about her. A stickler for grammatical perfection would insist she say, “Certainly,” or at least, “For certain,” but in the New England dialect of the older generation, there is nothing wrong with just “certain.”

Sarah Ann Binson, the less wealthy of the two watchers, uses the word “ain’t,” but Mrs. Crow, the one of slightly higher class, never lowers herself to such unsophisticated speech. Sarah Ann also adopts a typically Acadian dialect (owing to her location in a New Hampshire farming area) when she tells of how Tempy once said, “I’m only a-gettin’ sleepier and sleepier.” The reader can’t be sure if it is a direct quote or if the structure is her own, but it is clear it is not entirely foreign to their ears.

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The phonological traits employed by Jewett abound. She replaces one vowel sound for another, as in “forgit” and “stiddy” (for “forget” and “steady”), and she does the very opposite switch in “sperited” for “spirited.” Mrs. Crowe shows that she is not above some simplification when she says, “I used to tell her ‘t wa’n’t right.” She takes “it wasn’t right,” and makes one syllable out of it, a pattern not uncommon in my own grandmother’s speech and the speech of others around me, though mostly members of the older generation. Both women drop the final phoneme in the word “and” and end up with something more like /æn/ than /ænd/. Jewett also drops the /v/ in the word “of” so that all is left is “o’.” Another common trait in several dialects that is also used in “Miss Tempy’s Watchers” is monophthongization of certain sounds. The word “point” is cut to “p’int” (the /ɔy/ diphthong is replaced by the single vowel sound /I/). In the name “Daniel,” the glide is removed altogether, and he is left with a name that sounds like /dænəl/. Perhaps the most common trait, though, is the one most predominantly used in the following passage (which also shows the use of “o’”):

"I know that old Dr. Prince said once, in evenin’ meetin’, that he’d watched by many a dyin’ bed, as we well knew, and enough o’ his sick folks had been scared o’ dyin’ their whole lives through; but when they come to the last, he’d never seen one but was willin’, and most were glad, to go. ‘’T is as natural as bein’ born or livin’ on,’ he said."

The replacing of /n/ for /ŋ/ is popular in so many dialects it is impossible to say whose trait it really is, but in New England one is guaranteed to hear it, even among the most educated of citizens.

There are two final details in Sarah Orne Jewett’s story that I must point out for their unique quality in the New England dialect and mentality. The first is the use of the term “Trevor girl.” Sarah Ann says, “It was that pretty-looking Trevor girl.” “Trevor” has no special meaning, but is simply the girl’s last name. In New England a name is an important possession by which a person is often judged, and in a small town, there is probably only one “Trevor girl,” so both women know exactly who she is. On more occasions than anyone could possibly count, I have heard my grandmother identify someone in the area just as Sarah Ann does. When my family gets together family names are tossed about in reminiscence, and it is clear to see that the importance remains. The last detail is that Mrs. Crowe throws in the fact that her “brother’s folks had been stopping here in the summer, from Massachusetts.” In a small town in northern New England, Massachusetts is certainly a kind of foreign land, and it would be somewhat impressive to know that someone was from so far away. Being from a rural Maine town with a grandmother in a very northerly Maine town, I have had personal experience with the intrigue of such a “foreign land.” My grandmother can’t understand why I would ever want to move away and live in “the city,” but there is still an interest in the different lifestyle. When she wrote the story, Jewett clearly understood the dialect well enough that she could include these details, though not particularly dialectical, but important parts of the speech nonetheless.

Jewett has written not only a very special story, but by mastering the dialect of her region of the United States, she has written a remarkable sample of exactly what it means to speak like a New Englander. Her careful use of syntactic, morphological, and phonological traits, as well as a couple minute details, shows that she is not only a talented writer but a careful student of dialect.
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