Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Literacy in Concord, MA

Concord, MA is known for its illustrious literary history. But what can gravestones tell us about literacy in Concord in the 17th and 18th centuries? Because it is so close to Boston, Concord's burying grounds boast a large number of professionally carved gravestones. The quality of these stones is generally very high, and they rarely exhibit the creative spelling and awkward line breaks often found in rural cemeteries.

But these gravestones do occasionally contain misspellings that shed light on the limits of literacy in Concord (at least among stone carvers). The John and Anna Howard stone (1718) in the South Quarter Burying Place is somewhat crudely carved (both the lunette design and the letters are amateur) and contains the interesting misspelling "wife fo." It is unlikely that a literate person would misspell the word "of." It's even stranger that no one gouged out the mistake and amended it. Perhaps the carver was copying an epitaph written by a more talented artisan and most of the people who saw the stone couldn't read it well enough to correct him.
The Mary Meriam stone (1731) at Old Burial Hill has two interesting mistakes: the misspelling of "relict" as "reliks" and the division of the word "anno" into "an" and "no." The former mistake is unique to this stone, but the latter appears on several other stones by the same carver. This suggests that the carver may have been literate in English but did not recognize Latin. When presented with a Latin word, he transformed it into English homophones.

Another curious misspelling can be found on the Joseph Hubburd stone (1768): "Here lies Burred . . ." This is a strange mistake, especially since any gravestone carver must have carved the word "buried" hundreds of times. Perhaps this is just a mistake — the carver's mind wandered and the "r" looked enough like an "i" that his eye just skipped over it. Then again, perhaps the misspelling reflects a regional pronunciation (like the "depated" stones).

I'm also going to assume that this person's name was "Humphrey Barret," and not "Humprey Barret." 

UPDATE: Cranky Yankee's comment made me reflect on this a bit, so I want to make it clear that I'm not arguing that phonetic spelling is evidence of a lack of literacy. The most educated men and women in America often spelled as the spirit moved them until the end of the 18th century (and beyond). Rather, I'm saying that some of these mistakes ("fo") hint at a low level of literacy while others ("an no") merely reflect a lack of familiarity with Latin.


Thanks to commenter RJO for supplying some details about the carver of this stone: John Worster. 

I'm posting a photo of the John Meriam stone (1724) for a couple of reasons. First, Worster (or a letterer in his shop) misspelled the month ("Feruary"). I also think that it supplies evidence that the letterer thought that "AN" and "NO" were separate words. It looks like he likes to put big spaces between words when he needs to take up room, rather than splitting words into syllables (see lines 1, 4, 8, and 9). 

The space between AN and NO might be a spacing issue rather than a Latin issue. I'm not sure I'm right, but I think I can make a good case for the latter.


CL said...

But we like our creative spelling and awkward line breaks! Especially here in Eastern Connecticut...

RE: some misspellings
I was told it was because spelling wasn't standardized at that time.
Please comment.

BTW, I enjoy your gravestone musings.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

You're absolutely right — 17th century spelling was not standardized, which is why we get so many creative phonetic spellings. Let me tell you, having been a second grade teacher really helps me when I'm deciphering 17th-century records.

Yet, phonetic spelling does not explain a misspelling such as "fo" instead of "of," since those spellings are not phonetically similar. Similarly, someone who could read Latin would never spell "relict" as "reliks" because there is no "k" in Latin. However, a misspelling such as "burred" can be explained by nonstandard phonetic spelling. I've got a post coming up about nonstandard spelling and family names — hope you enjoy it!

Where are you from in Eastern CT? I grew up in Willimantic. Go Whippets.

CL said...

>> Yet, phonetic spelling does not explain a misspelling such as "fo" instead of "of," since those spellings are not phonetically similar.

Yes I agree. As I said, "some"...
Last week at the annual AGS conference we found two stones in Templeton, MA that had the words "Erected" spelled mirror backwards. We could only speculate as to why.

And yes! I am from Willimantic!

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I know some stones similar to the ones you're speaking of. There's one in Billerica, MA that has "Arise ye dead" carved backwards. My material culture professor in college was of the opinion that the mirror-image stones were meant to be read symbolically from inside (or something like that). Who knows what the real answer is.

Glad to hear that there are other history buffs in Willimantic. I'll be home this weekend doing graveyards in Mansfield and attending the Boom Box parade.

Robert J. said...

The carver of the 1731 Meriam stone is Jonathan Worster, famous for his ghost-like geometric heads (inherited from the Essex County tradition). His stones, and the similar ones of his son, Moses Worster, are abundant in Concord and other nearby towns.

And the 1768 Hubburd stone is a handsome example of the work of William Park of Groton.

I'm not so sure about the AN NO question. It looks to me more like he was trying to clumsily space out the text to fill a line that ran short. See how the 17 31 is similarly spaced?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Thanks for the info!

I'm pretty new to this area, so I'm just getting familiar with the local graveyards, and it's great to be able to put names with styles.

You may be right about AN NO, but I actually think that a separation between the dates might support a theory of imperfect literacy. I don't know whether 18th-c New Englanders spoke of years the way we do now ("seventeen thirty-one" or "seventeen hundred thirty-one") or if they habitually said the year's formal name. If the former is the case, a carver might separate the numbers as separate words.

I'm posting another example of a Worster stone in an update — this one also has AN NO (and a misspelling of "February"). There are huge spaces between the words on the bottom two lines, which is one of the reasons I think that he put spaces between what he thought were words rather than within words.

You may be right, though.