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‘Jearse’-or-‘dow’ questions: Probing New England’s forgotten linguistic quirks

  • Shawn Braley illustration

  • English professor Stephen Howe, of Fukuoka, Japan, is searching for the historical words "jearse" and "dow," which he thinks may have been brought to America by English settlers 400 years ago, photographed at Dan and Whit's in Norwich, Vt., on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • A map of New England by English professor Stephen Howe plots the use of "jearse" and "dow" in his research. (Courtesy Stephen Howe)

  • English professor Stephen Howe, of Fukuoka, Japan, is searching for the historical words "jearse" and "dow," which he thinks may have been brought to America by English settlers 400 years ago, photographed at Dan and Whit's in Norwich, Vt., on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019. (Rick Russell photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 17, 2019

Stephen Howe is not taking “no” for an answer. He’s not taking “yes” either. The linguistics professor and native of a little village in eastern England is looking for evidence of a different pair of words that express the most fundamental of human sentiments: “jearse” and “dow.”

You won’t find them in almost any dictionary, but you might have heard one of them if you ventured a foolish question in some little farming community or tight-knit town outside the main thoroughfares of New England.

For example, Do you think it’s safe to take my snow tires off now?

Dow. It’s only April.

Howe, who now teaches English at Fukuoka University in Japan, is writing a book about the concepts of “yes” and “no” and how they’re expressed across time and place. One chapter of his book will focus on the words “jearse” and “dow.” As part of his research, he’s inviting New Englanders to participate in an online survey sharing their personal knowledge of the words and their usage.

“The words are not well-known in university atmospheres,” Howe said in a recent telephone interview from Japan. “I hope that people in New Hampshire and Vermont and wider can give me some nice information.”

Howe grew up hearing “jearse” and “dow” — used to convey an emphatic yes or no — as part of the regional dialect of his birthplace, the Isle of Ely, in Cambridgeshire, England. He always assumed the words were confined to that region. But a few years ago, after giving a presentation at Cambridge University, he learned otherwise.

“It was a big surprise to me that words I used with my grandfather and father were used right across the east of England,” Howe said.

After conducting a survey across England, which gained widespread attention when he was featured on BBC News, Howe wondered if the words had made it to America with the English settlers who arrived in the 17th century.

“I thought it was impossible, but I wanted to check. It was just a hunch,” he said.

Scouring dictionaries and compilations of regional dialects, Howe came up empty at first. Then, in the Dictionary of American Regional English, he found citations for “dow,” “daow”, “daowd,” “doh” and “day-oh.”

That was the nudge he needed to take his search stateside. Howe, who obtained funding for his project from the Japanese government, posted a new survey for American audiences several weeks ago and has so far received about 50 responses, confirming the use of “dow” across New England and a few instances of “jearse.” He is just wrapping up a visit to New England, where he found evidence of both words in all states but Connecticut.

The search has not been easy. In academic circles, the words “jearse” and “dow” are largely unfamiliar.

James Stanford, associate professor and chair of linguistics at Dartmouth College, has been studying words, phrases and pronunciations that are distinctive to New England for a book on New England English, due out in the fall. Using detailed questionnaires and audio recordings, he’s studied words like “ayuh,” (a common way of saying yes across rural New England), “jimmies,” (another word for ice cream sprinkles) and “wicked” (as a qualifier, not a synonym for “evil”). “Jearse” and “dow” did not make it into the book.

Jere Daniell, a retired professor of history at Dartmouth College who lectured on Colonial New England in more than 300 towns, said he’d never come across the words either.

But the words have survived in rural pockets of Vermont and New Hampshire. “Not sure about ‘jearse.’ I supposed it might be heard from some people coming out sort of like that. But ‘dow’ – oh, absolutely,” said Steve Taylor, a former journalist and dairy farmer who served as New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture for 25 years and now runs a sugar house and creamery in Meriden. “It’s fairly common in colloquial vocabulary around here.”

Taylor remembers hearing “dow” at agricultural meetings in western Vermont, as well as around the town of Plainfield, where he’s lived his entire 80 years. He still uses it on occasion himself.

Like Howe, Taylor describes the word as an emphatic “no” — often with a twinge of impatience. “You’re dismissing an assumption that’s latent in the question,” he said. “It includes (the sentiment) ‘I can’t believe you asked me that.’ ... Different tones can be wrapped around it.”

Along with words like “yourn” (instead of yours) and “t’wan’t” (a contracted form of “it wasn’t”) “dow” can still be heard among farmers and loggers, teamsters and folks who run the little general stores in little towns along the Connecticut River Valley, Taylor said. In general, the higher the concentration of native-born speakers in a town, the more likely you are to hear such words, he said.

“It’s receding,” Taylor said. “In the town of Plainfield, native born aren’t 15% anymore.”

Becky Rule, a humorist and writer who lives in Northwood, N.H, and traces her family back several generations in Danbury, remembers her dad using “dow” in jest, in imitation of his own father. Her understanding of its usage aligns with Howe and Taylor’s.

“It’s like, that was a silly question,” said Rule, whose books include Headin’ for the Rhubarb: A New Hampshire Dictionary, and Moved and Seconded: Town Meeting in New Hampshire.

In her travels around New England, Rule has heard plenty of linguistic quirks, including another word that might interest Howe, a hybrid of maybe and yes that comes out as “mayess.” “I think people repeat what they hear in families and in towns,” said Rule, whose newest book, That Reminds Me of a Funny Story, due out next month, traffics in the tales and manners of speaking that get passed down through families. “It’s a way of including people.”

By the same token, regional dialects can be inaccessible to outsiders, a factor that could make Howe’s work challenging.

“It’s called the observer’s paradox,” Howe said. “The observer is an outsider, so people don’t give true language as they would speak with their family and friends.”

That may be especially true of words like “jearse” and “dow,” which carry a tone of familiarity in that they amount to a light put-down, Howe said.

Another challenge in researching dialects is that word usage varies so much from place to place, said Daniell, who grew up in inland Maine and witnessed the national fascination with all things New England — including our way of talking — stretching from post-World War II through the 1990s. Accents can be pinpointed to places, he said, but words and patterns of speech are more difficult.

Still, Howe hopes his survey will turn up data missed by other researchers. He also hopes to learn more about the origins of the words. His working hypothesis is that they evolved from the phrases “dear, yes,” and “dear, no,” common in the writings of Charles Dickens.

As he ponders these rare artifacts of human speech, Howe is also exploring the much vaster concepts behind them. “Yes” and “no” may seem simple enough, he said, but they have multiple functions and forms across the globe.

“Yes and no are interesting because we can say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in language, we can vocalize it, and we can use gestures,” said Howe, whose website includes clips of Elvis Presley crooning “uh-huh,” Paul McCartney singing “yeah-yeah-yeah,” and Meg Ryan demonstrating a very emphatic “yes.” (It also cautions against confusing “dow” with Homer Simpson’s “d’oh.”)

Before he heads home, Howe may want to visit the village of Ely in Fairlee, which shares a name with his hometown. Could there be some connection?

Maybe.

To participate in Howe’s online survey, visit http://yesandno.info/survey/

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.