Each year, many words are evaluated and selected to become new entries in modern dictionaries. With these new additions, it’s only natural that other terms and phrases phase out of the vernacular. Dr. Michael Ellis, professor of English at Missouri State University, is collaborating with Dr. Michael Montgomery, emeritus professor of English and linguistics at the University of South Carolina, on the Corpus of American Civil War Letters (CACWL) project to locate and transcribe letters written during the Civil War era in order to have a clearer picture of regional American English in the 19th century.
Since it began in 2007, approximately 9,000 letters and diaries – mostly written by soldiers with little education – have been collected for CACWL that detail life as a soldier and provide a glimpse into how English was spoken 150 years ago. Ellis noted that they often write phonetically with irregular capitalization, inconsistent spelling, regional words and usages, and non-standard grammatical forms. For example: “I am well at the presant time hoping when those few lines Comes to yore hands they my find you Well and harty.”
“The sheer numbers written by soldiers – and to a lesser extent, by family members on the home front – were unprecedented in American history,” Ellis said. “These writers are far more likely than any other sizable group of semi-literate individuals in the 19th century to reproduce the features of their spoken language, thereby providing an invaluable source of information about American regional dialects in that period.”
Approximately three million soldiers served in the Union or Confederate armies, and for many it marked the first time away from home. These soldiers were homesick and wanting to hear about normal life, Ellis explained, and needing to share the details of the war they were experiencing.
“Besides the obvious linguistic significance of the letters, we hope that they will also be of significant value to, among others, historians and genealogists,” added Ellis.
The long-term goal of CACWL is to produce a dictionary and linguistic atlas of 19th century American regional dialects, which will require a minimum of 5,000 additional letters and diaries.
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