The New England language is probably easier to learn than one of the numerous New England accents. But like English itself, there are few rules. As soon as you’ve identified a rule, you discover more exceptions than examples. For instance, you might hear a Maine man say he intends to go gunnin’ for partridge that […]
By Yankee Magazine
Jun 01 2004
The New England language is probably easier to learn than one of the numerous New England accents. But like English itself, there are few rules. As soon as you’ve identified a rule, you discover more exceptions than examples. For instance, you might hear a Maine man say he intends to go gunnin’ for partridge that afternoon. You figure gunnin’ is used instead of huntin’. But it isn’t. If you’re after deer instead of partridge, then you’re deer-huntin’! We seldom eat venison either. Eat a lot of deer meat, though. Or take that simple little word “lot.” There are, in New England, plenty of wood lots, four-acre lots, and even barn lots. However, there are no corn, potato, or oat lots. A pasture is generally considered to be a large, untilled area, often with several groupings of trees scattered here and there. But these trees do not constitute a wood lot. The stand of trees in a wood lot is bigger and thicker. A field of potatoes may be a patch, but you cannot describe a field of grain with that word.
The smallest of words may be the most difficult for outsiders to place correctly. When I was growing up in Maine, we used to have four principal directions: up river, down state, over to home, and from away. From Boston we went out to Prout’s Neck (near Portland, Maine). But from Prout’s Neck we went up to inland Vanceboro, whence we went over to McAdam, Canada, or down to Calais. St Stephens is just across the international border from Calais, but we went to St. Stephens.
When it comes to tos, ups, downs, overs, and outs, if you depend upon north-south logic, you’ll be wrong about half the time. For instance, everyone knows one goes down the coast of Maine when sailing northeast, up the coast when sailing southwest. The term “Down East” obviously originates from sailing downwind with the prevailing westerlies when traveling from Massachusetts ports to those along the Maine coast. However, one can indeed go up to Bangor from Massachusetts. Correctly.
“Up” is a hard-working little word. It is added to brought, banged, warmed, tumbled, let, picked, dressed, turned, and countless others. You find up and did it, up and coming, up and around, and even “What are you up to?” Banks in Maine have drive-up tellers. (Connecticut banks have drive-in tellers.) You can shine up to someone, but that’s not quite the same as taking a shine to that someone.
“Take” is used in many situations, too. I can take another job, take after someone, or take sick, during which time I ought to take it easy. A person can take off another person, meaning mimic, or take him down a peg. Take can also be added for seemingly no reason at all — such as, “I’ll take and give him a good lesson.”
Well, on that note, I guess I better up and end this right about now.