English in Maine:

The Mythologization and Commodification of a Dialect

Lindsay Ann Reid

© 2007




Bordered by New Hampshire, Québec, New Brunswick, and the Atlantic Ocean, Maine is the largest of the New England states in the northeastern U.S. Like many other coastal or isolated regions along the North American Atlantic seaboard (i.e. Appalachia or Newfoundland), the state has acquired a reputation for being linguistically conservative. The local speech is commonly presumed to retain many of the features of the region’s original, primarily British settlers; this widespread perception is, no doubt, reinforced by the state’s geographical isolation, relative homogeneity, and comparatively long history.


This article investigates the historical and cultural bases for Maine’s sociolinguistic stereotypes. It examines how the idea of a unique Maine dialect has evolved and manifested itself. Beginning with a look at the state’s historical demographics, and moving to consider the state’s ongoing mythologization in tourist literature, it probes the connections between tourism, the idea of authenticity, and dialect. Examining the characteristics commonly attributed to local speech in both popular, scholarly, and literary texts, the article then moves to a consideration of Maine’s contemporary language ecology and, finally, to a reflection on the use of Maine dialect as a local commodity.


The Historical Demographics of Maine


Prior to the onset of European colonization in the early 17th century, the area which has become modernday Maine had long been inhabited by native peoples, including the Wabenaki, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy. In 1604, a French outpost was briefly established on Saint Croix Island, and in 1607 – the same year in which the settlement at Jamestown, Virginia was established – an English group established a similarly short-lived settlement at Popham. It was not long before the groups clashed, as French, English, and indigenous populations competed for dominance in the region.


In 1622, the first patent establishing the British Province of Maine was granted. This covered much of modern day southern and central Maine, and similar patents were renewed several times during the 17th century. A number of English settlements were established along the southern Maine coast in the 1620s, with varying degrees of success. The early settlers consisted primarially of English Protestants, and throughout the 17th century, a number of English-speaking colonists from other parts of New England, primarily Massachusetts, moved northwards into Maine. Meanwhile, portions of what has become modernday Maine were part of New France’s province l’Acadie, and the boundaries of the respective French and English colonial claims remained blurry until New France was surrendered to Britain in 1713. After mass deportations of French Acadians from Canada’s present-day Maritime Provinces in the eighteenth century, large numbers of francophone deportees began to settle northern Maine’s Saint John Valley, where they were subsequently joined by additional settlers from the St. Lawrence River valley.


Wars with both French and indigenous peoples in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries slowed attempts at permanent settlement by the English colonials. The population of Maine according to the census of 1790 was a mere 96,540. However, by 1820, when Maine separated from Massachusetts to become the nation’s 23rd state, the population of Maine had reached nearly 300,000 (Fobes 67).


The precise boundaries and ownership of Maine continued to be disputed between the United States and England in the early 19th century. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 had left the northern border of the state ambiguous, and the line between Maine and New Brunswick remained a particular matter of debate; both claimed the area of northern Maine that is now Aroostook County. In 1839, in the  only instance of a U.S. state declaring war on a foreign power, Governor Fairfield initiated the short-lived and bloodless “Aroostook War” between Maine and England over the ongoing boundary dispute, and it was not until 1842 that the matter was definitively resolved.

Maine’s early economy was based primarially on forestry, fishing, shipbuilding, and fur trading, and the state experienced a relative degree of prosperity throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1800, the state was attracting its first Irish immigrants. The rapid growth of the state’s emerging textile industries in the nineteenth century created a constant demand for manpower, and many of the state’s Irish immigrants worked on construction projects and in the region’s factories.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also witnessed waves of French-Canadian migration into Maine; by 1910, there were approximately 35,000 Canadian born francophones residing in the state (Avila and Stewart 462). Like the Irish immigrants of the same era, these French-Canadians were attracted by the booming textile industry in the region, and many suffered from poor working conditions and ethnic discrimination.


Tourism and The Mythology of Place


At the same time that Maine’s textile production began to decrease at the turn of the twentieth century, tourism emerged as a major industry in the state. Since 1936, the license plates in Maine have sported the state’s unofficial motto: “Vacationland”. The state has long been home to a host of seasonal luxury resorts, picturesque coastal regions, and ski hills which attract thousands upon thousands of visitors each year. Today, tourism is Maine’s largest industry, and its evidence abounds, particularly in coastal areas, which are dotted with souvenir shops, outlet stores, and chowder houses.


Known for its dense forests, rugged coastline, plentiful lakes, mild summers, and abundant wildlife, Maine provides the promise of a tranquil and scenic outdoor holiday. The state’s most enduring image in popular culture is as an unspoiled, rural paradise. On its official website, the Maine Office of Tourism promises prospective visitors:

From the first hint of spring through the lazy days of summer, Maine is an outdoor wonderland. You can explore the coast, mountains, woods, rivers and lakes by kayak, bike or seaplane. Spot a majestic moose while camping or hiking. Relax at one of our sandy beaches. Board a boat for whale and puffin watching. Get to know the locals at a summer festival. Savor the ocean’s bounty at a Maine lobster bake. Tee off at a lakeside course. Or indulge in wild blueberry pie. Summer in Maine is everything you’d expect and so much more.

Much of Maine’s enduring image as a pastoral and idyllic ‘outdoor wonderland’ has been constructed in and propagated by precisely this type of tourist literature, in which getaways to ‘Vacationland’ are highly romanticized and overtly associated with themes of escapism and relaxation. Richard Judd – who has noted how, historically, “[r]usticity itself…became an important commercial resource” in Maine – writes: “Contrasting this landscape to the noxious and crowded industrial centers most vacationers were fleeing, tourist literature presented Maine as the true poetical conception of the wilderness in all its wild beauty, unpolluted by the march of modern progress” (184).

The myth of Maine in tourist literature extends beyond the charm of its picturesque landscape, however. As the Maine Office of Tourism’s invitation ‘Get to know the locals at a summer festival’ reminds us, the state’s inhabitants are frequently mythologized along with its scenery. It is thus that we find references to meeting the locals and adopting their easy-going and wholesome lifestyle in much of the available tourist literature. The introduction to Kathleen M. Brandes’ guidebook on coastal Maine states:

Along this coast are 64 lighthouses, 90 percent of the nation’s lobsters, and the eastern seaboard’s highest peak. And then there are the coastal Mainers who lend this place its specialness. No individuals are more rugged than the umpteenth-generation fishermen who make their honest living from these bone-chilling waters (1).

Prospective visitors are promised glimpses of and interactions with the people in their native habitats, just as they are tantalized by the possibility of spotting a moose or two. There is a sense in which Maine’s residents are cast in the role of live tourist attractions; the natives – invariably characterized as friendly and bucolic – become an element in what Roland Barthes would call the ‘decor of place’.  One rental website, which advertises coastal accommodation, grandiosely proclaims:

Vacation in a place where family and friends can experience the real ‘Downeast way of life.’ This newly renovated home is located in Cutler, Maine, a quaint coastal fishing village, where life is simple and the locals are friendly. Awake to a breathtaking sunrise that marks the beginning of the working day for fishermen. Spectacular ocean views can be found around every turn in this spacious cottage. Spend time relaxing on the cottage’s deck, overlooking the day to day activity of the harbor and the community. Or, within just a two-minute walk you can stop to say good morning to the locals on one of the several nearby wharfs, while buying some freshly caught lobster for the evening’s feast.

George H. Lewis remarks that such characterizations reduce the Maine residents to idealized stereotypes, and he further remarks the “quaint folkways, down east humor and the Maine accent” attributed to the cartoonish local characters found in the literature of the tourist industry. Lewis’s reference to the so-called ‘Maine accent’ in the above quotation is significant, for the idea that Maine’s rustic natives speak in an idiosyncratic, archaic, nasal and twangy regional dialect (variously referred to as ‘Down East’ and ‘Yankee’ in addition to ‘Maine’ speech) is a prevalent one in tourist literature and that experiencing the unique local dialect is an integral part of the authentic tourist experience. For example, Earl Brechlin’s Adventure Guide to Maine suggests:

In addition to its spectacular scenery and pristine wilderness Maine has also earned a reputation as a homeland for quirky characters born with quick wits and extraordinarily dry senses of humor. Combined with the famous Down East accent… it becomes the foundation for a truly original experience (65).

In a similar vein, Brandes’ guidebook – which goes so far as to include a glossary of local lexical variants and idioms entitled “A Coastal Maine Dictionary” – informs prospective tourists:

In Maine, there are natives and natives. Every day, obituary pages describe Mainers who have barely left the houses in which they were born – even in which their grandparents were born. We’re talking roots! Along with this kind of heritage comes a vocabulary all its own – lingo distinctive to Maine or at least New England” (16).

These linguistic stereotypes have spawned numerous – and often comedic – guides to Maine culture and dialect, such as Gerald E. Lewis and Tim Sample’s How to Talk Yankee.

Characteristics Commonly Attributed to Maine Dialect

Like all stereotypes, the idea of Maine dialect that is perpetuated so strongly in tourist literature is born out of overgeneralizations made by both natives of the state and outsiders. Several distinctive characteristics of the region’s traditional speech patterns have been perceived and validated by non-linguists and linguists alike. Although, as Naomi Nagy and Julie Roberts note, the regional dialect is “in many ways similar to that heard in many other regions of the United States” (258), they clarify that “[t]here are a number of both consonantal and vowel patterns that preserve the distinction between [the English of New England] and other varieties present in the U.S.” (264-265).

In an article on pronunciation in New England written in 1899, C.H. Grandgent claimed: “The distinctive features of the present New England speech are the suppression of the consonant r unless it precede a vowel, the use of a [i.e. /ɑː/ where an /ɑ/ or /æ/ might be found in other dialects]…and the shortening of ô to ò [i.e. /ɒ/]” (208). Grandgent’s interest in identifying, categorizing, and cataloguing the distinctive features of regional speech patterns was typical of early twentieth century linguists. Although, as Nagy and Roberts have lamented, there has been a “dearth of recent research in New England English” (255), there were numerous academic articles on the varieties of New England – and Maine – Englishes published prior to 1950.

Hans Kurath’s massive, six volume Linguistic Altas of New England, completed between 1939 and 1943, was the most comprehensive of these early twentieth century efforts to characterize Maine dialect. His work divided New England into seven linguistic subregions and Maine into two subregions, and it made a distinction between General Maine dialect and Upper Maine dialect (the latter representing the north and far eastern sections of the state). Many of Kurath’s subregions, however, exhibited only minor variations from one another. Thus, in most of the later scholarly material, Maine dialect has been treated more-or-less uniformly and most often been labeled ‘Eastern New England English’ or ‘Northern New England English.’ It is generally observed that, though it has a few similarities to the varieties of English used in neighbouring Canadian provinces (such as the so-called cot-caught merger and ‘Canadian raising’ in words such as price), the traditional dialect of Maine has more profound resemblances to the dialects spoken elsewhere in northern New England; it is closely related to the well-known dialect of Boston, the area’s closest urban centre.

The most frequently remarked characteristic of Maine English is its lack of rhoticity; there is variable vocalization of post-vocalic r among the population. Although /ɹ/ is always pronounced when the letter r begins a syllable, an r at the end of a syllable is typically silent or pronounced as the neutral vowel /ə/. This means that shot and short are homonyms, both pronounced [ʃɔːt]; other characteristic examples of non-rhotic Maine speech are [kɑː] for car and [bɑːn] for barn. The exception is the so-called linking r, which comes at the end of a word and is pronounced /ɹ/ when the following word begins with a vowel.


Other striking phonological characteristics attributed to Maine English involve its use of a greater number of vowels than are found in General American speech. For example, the Marry-Mary-Merry merger seen throughout most of North America is not complete in Maine, though it may be starting to take hold. Although the aforementioned vowel /ɒ/referred to by Grandgent in 1899 seems to have passed out of common usage, a large number of speakers continue to exhibit the use of /ɑː/ where an /ɑ/ or /æ/ might be expected in General American; this affects words like trap, bath, dance, and glass.

Maine dialect is also characterized by an intrusive /ɹ/, which can appear after vowels at the end of words including idea or banana; the substitution of /i/ for the final vowel in words including Florida; the omission of the final sound in words ending in an unaccented –ing; and using glottal stops in middle of words like kitten and mitten or at end of words like Vermont, perfect, or kept. The /j/ is dropped in some words like new, duke, and tune, but it is kept in others, such as Tuesday. In oral discourse, syncope, or losing a syllable, is also common in words like didn’t, company, or Saturday. Initial unstressed syllables are sometimes also dropped in words like appeared, another, or remember, making these sound like ‘peared’  ‘nother’ and ‘member’.


In terms of morphology, it has been noted that some speakers of Maine English occasionally use nonstandard verb forms. Examples include the past tense forms brung (brought), drownded (drowned), dremp (dreamed), growed (grew), heared (heard), rid (rode), swum (swam), and writ (wrote). Some speakers also use nonstandard past participles, including boughten (bought) and soaken (soaked).

Maine dialect is also associated with a number of localisms and lexical variants, some of which are also used elsewhere in Northern New England. The two expressions most often used to satirize or characterize local speech are ayuh, an affirmative and wicked used as an intensifying adjective. Other lexical alternatives and local expressions associated with Maine dialect appear in the following table.


n., herring


n., vehicle indicator light


n., a sandwich roll, like a kaiser roll


n., dresser or chest of drawers

chicken dressing

n., manure


adj., cute

dinner pail

n., lunchbox


n., area in front of a house, which might include the driveway

down cellar

exp., ‘in the basement’


n., rubber band


n., a meticulous person, usually prefaced by ‘old’


adj., someone from out of state


n., milkshake

from away

adj., ‘not born in Maine’


adj., awkward


exc., gosh!

hot top

n., pavement or asphalt


n., a sub sandwich with cold cuts


n., dessert sprinkles


n., hospital gown


n., derogatory term for someone from Massachusetts


adj., fairly or halfway, as in the assertion ‘he’s middling tall’


adj., stubborn


n., traffic circle or roundabout


adj., oversensitive

summer complaint

n., a tourist or retiree who visits Maine for the summer season


n., a tourist or retiree who visits Maine for the summer season


Writing in Maine Dialect


Since at least the nineteenth century, a number of authors have tried to approximate the speech patterns of Maine natives in their writing. Perhaps the most significant early attempts to represent Maine dialect in literature can be attributed to Seba Smith, the founder and editor of the state’s first daily newspaper. Writing under the pseudonym Jack Downing, Smith composed a number of satirical sketches in a broad Maine dialect. For just one example, in Smith’s “Letter from Squire Downing to the Editor of the Leveller”, which was purportedly sent from the fictional locale of “Downingville. In Catnip County State of Maine” and dated  “Feb. 185 [*: ]”, we find a number of transcribed pronunciations and localisms: ‘Pennsylvany’ (Pennsylvania); ‘hoss’ (horse); the loss of the initial e in especially; the past participles ‘heered’ (heard) and ‘rit’ (wrote); frequent use of the word critter; and an attempt to represent the spoken truncation of -ing words by spelling words like going as ‘goen’, voting as ‘voten’, promising as ‘promisen’, and nothing as ‘nothen’.


Sarah Orne Jewett, a Maine author of the Gilded Age, also consciously evoked localisms in her writing. Jewett makes extensive use of regional dialect in the dialogue between her characters, as exemplified in the following passage from her short story “An Only Son” (1883):


I didn’t undertake to wash yesterday mornin’, because I didn’t want the clothes a-layin’and mildewin’, and I kind of thought perhaps I’d put it off till next week, anyway, though it ain’t my principle to do fortnight’s washes. An’ I had so much to do, gettin’ ready to start, that I’d gone in early and made up your bed and not put a clean sheet on; but you was busy takin’ out the hoss after you come home at noon, and had your dinner to eat, and I had the time to spare, so I just slipped in and stripped off the bedclothes then, and this come out from under the pillow.


More modern attempts to approximate local speech in literature share many of the characteristics of these nineteenth century examples, such as the use of local lexicon, replacement of –ing with –in’ or –in endings, and syncopation. However, in recent literary representations of local dialect, the lack of rhoticity associated with Maine English tends to be emphasized and is conventionally represented by a –uh, –a, or –ah ending on words where one would normally expect a written r. This tendency is well-exemplified in Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt Maine (1985). The following excerpt from Chute’s novel represents a conversation between Roberta Bean, an uneducated speaker of rural Maine dialect and a man who is, presumably, ‘from away’:


                        The moon rises slightly like a self-illuminating craft idling up there to observe the town of Egypt, Maine. And out of it clamors the black fenderless pickup…making the sound of a half-dozen cowbells.

                        He says to himself, “Oh no! Not again.”

                        The truck squeals to a stop.

                        Then there’s the face with the squirming beetle eyes. The mouth opening: “You in the cul-vet, huh mistah?”

                        “Yes, I’m in the culvert,” he says softly.


                        “Ayuh, she’s in the hole, says Roberta Bean. She wears a visor cap which says, MERTIE’S HARDWARE. She puts her hands on her hips. “Mistah…I got a chain on me, but my little Chevy ain’t no match for that…that thing…what is it there…oh, a Chrysler?”

                        “A Lincoln,” he says.

                        “Same thing,” she says.

                        He narrows his eyes.


                        “Well, mistah, the best I can do is give you a ride ta my nephew Rubie’s place. He’s got a loggin’ rig an’ all the chains your little Lincoln desires…Aye? Just hop right up here an’ I’ll give ya a lift.”

                        “I’ve got Triple A,” he says flatly. He glares at the open door of the truck. “I just need a phone.”


Stephen King – perhaps Maine’s most prolific and widely-read author – has often used Maine dialect in his novels and short stories. As the following passages from The Colorado Kid (2005) demonstrate, King has often gone to great lengths in his writing not only to approximate Maine’s speech patterns and lexical variants, but also to emphasize the complexities – and sometimes unintelligibility – of indigenous pronunciations. He achieves this by incorporating explicit commentary on the Maine dialect spoken by his colouful characters:


Fair came out fay-yuh, which more or less rhymed with ayuh, the Yankee word which seemed to mean both yes and is that so. Stephanie was from Cincinnati, Ohio, and when she had first come to Moose-Lookit Island [in Maine] to do an internship on The Weekly Islander, she had nearly despaired…which, in downeast lingo, also rhymed with ayuh. How could she learn anything when she could only understand one word in every seven? And if she kept asking them to repeat themselves, how long would it be before they decided she was a congenital idiot (which, on Moose-Look was pronounced ijit, of course)?

…………………………………………………………………………………            ‘He boarded the summer and half the fall in there. Then, when November come             around and the body was still unnamed and unclaimed, they decided they ought to bury him.’ In Vince’s Yankee accent, bury rhymed with furry.


Stephanie asked Dave to spell Mrs. [Arla] Cogan’s first name. In Dave Bowie’s thick Maine accent, all she was hearing was a bunch of a-sounds with an l in the middle.


As the above excerpts indicate, Maine dialect is often used in literature to achieve certain effects. It is frequently exploited to add local flavour and a distinctive sense of place to stories set in Maine. It is also variously employed to emphasize characters’ lack of education or stress their rustic identities.


Maine’s Archaisms


Much of Maine’s mythology is based on the idea of its isolation. The state has been characterized as “a territorial cul-de-sac, a sizeable chunk of the northeastern United States existing somewhat apart geographically from the rest of the country” (Uhl 3). The author of one guidebook gushes “[i]t’s as if Maine really were an island where life is just a little bit different” (Gold 1). This idea that Maine is culturally as well as geographically distinct from the rest of the United States is closely tied to mythologized versions of the region’s comparatively long history and deeply entrenched traditions. In tourist literature, Maine is often represented as a state which has been unsullied by outside contact and remains virtually untouched by modern progress. In Country Roads of Maine, readers are informed that “Maine frequently skids back and forth among the centuries, texturing present with past” (2). Similarly, The Coast of Maine Book claims that “visitors find in a coast and a people that have much in common with the Maine coast and people who lived here in the 19th century” (1) and Exploring Maine on Scenic Roads and Byways asserts that it is “the living tableaux of simpler times” (10). Adventure Guide to Maine concurs:

Most of all, Maine is a seemingly timeless rural place. The names of families in the oldest cemeteries can still be found in the phone books today. Tiny villages on back roads continue on as always with little more than late model pick up trucks in the driveways and the occasional satellite dish in the dooryard to betray the fact they are not the exact same community you could have experienced six generations ago (2).

As the scholar George H. Lewis has noted, local characters and caricatures are oftentimes “valued by outsiders as more than mere objects of curiosity – they are touchstones to historical roots that others feel they have lost.” It is hardly surprising that, as a New England state, Maine is culturally associated not only with the days of yore, but also, and more specifically, with a distinctly British cultural and linguistic heritage. Anne E. Perkins’ assertion that that many of the expressions used in Maine are “quaint, and generally provincial English expressions” (141) is typical in this respect.

In the early twentieth century, Maine author Robert P. Tristram Coffin journalistically described the picturesque landscape and people of Maine in Yankee Coast, which highlighted both the isolation and apparent Britishness of regional culture. Coffin’s writings suggest that one of the most distinctive features of local culture is its speech, and he makes numerous and explicit comparisons between pronunciations in Maine and Britain. At one point, he pointedly and romantically reminisces:

I remember how my wife, a Bostonian, woke up one morning when I was new to her.                                                                                                             ‘Rob, Rob! – Come down here. There’s a man here who looks like a thug. He’s selling mackerel, but says he knows you and went to school with you. And he has an Oxford accent!’                                                                                                    I went down. He did. It was Jim Blaisdell. I did go to school with him. I grew up with him. He does have an Osonian accent, come to think of it. Most Maine men do. The coast vowels are as broad and as smooth as the best English ones (143).

There is a scholarly basis for the observations of writers such as Perkins and Coffin. The generally accepted position on dialect formation in North America, first proposed by Kurath in the 1920s, is that the varieties of American English reflect the settlement patterns of early colonists in various regions. Thus – given that the majority of the state’s early settlers were of English origins and that, historically, few other significant ethnic groups settled in the region – it is hardly surprising that stereotypical Maine dialect exhibits several features reminiscent of contemporary and obsolete British dialects. Particularly notable parallels include the characteristic use of non-rhotic speech, broad /ɑː/, and seemingly outmoded lexis.


Though there is some credence to assertions that Maine dialect sounds more archaic and British than most other varieties of English in the United States, the ostensible Britishness of Maine dialect has been disproportionately emphasized in popular culture and tourist literature. An emerging subfield of study known as folk dialectology or perceptual dialectology has – which studies the ideas that nonlinguists (as opposed to professional linguists) hold about language – has begun to examine where and how people commonly perceive dialect boundaries. This kind of approach is a helpful way to think about the attributions of archaism and Britishness associated with Maine’s mythologized culture and dialect. As Erica J. Benson explains, “[f]olk perceptions of dialects have been compared to traditional dialectological and sociolinguistic findings, and such comparisons have revealed that the folk employ factors other than linguistic differences in constructing their mental maps” (307). Folk dialectology has demonstrated that particular regions are often associated with populations and ways of speaking which may or may not be reflected in the region’s actual demographics and speech patterns. It seems that this may be becoming increasingly applicable to the – often overexaggerated -- popular and literary mythologizations and representations of Maine dialect, which is typically associated with a particular iconic social group: people of British extraction and limited formal education whose families have been living in the region for generations.


The Social Demographics and Language Ecology of Contemporary Maine


The image of the archetypical Maine resident has some foundation in reality. Throughout the twentieth century, the majority of the state’s residents were Caucasian, monolingual, and of English heritage. This demographic – combined with the historical suppression and devaluation of French in regional culture – has only helped to reinforce local stereotypes. However, this situation may be starting to change.


According to the most recent United States census, conducted in the year 2000, the population of Maine was 1,274,923. 1,236,014, or 96.9% of the state’s population, identified their racial identity as “White”; this statistic tied Maine with neighbouring New Hampshire as the least racially diverse state in the nation. Only 36,691 people living in Maine were foreign born, and an overwhelming number of the state’s current residents – 67.3% – had been born in Maine, a percentage that was actually significantly lower than the 70.6% reported a mere ten years earlier in the 1990 census.

The census also collected data about the ancestry group or groups with which Maine’s residents most closely self-identified. In the year 2000, more than one in five of Maine’s residents reported having “English” ancestry; nearly one in six “Irish” ancestry; one in seven “French” ancestry; and more than one in twelve “French Canadian” (a category which includes Acadian) ancestry.

The vast majority of Maine’s residents are monolingual. In 2000, 92.2% of the population spoke English only. Of the remaining 7.8% who spoke a language other than English at home, a mere 2% reported not being able to speak English “very well”. Given the state’s history and the high percentage of French and French-Canadian ancestries reported to the census, it is hardly surprising that the bulk of non-English speakers in the state – approximately 5% Maine’s total population – were francophones: the Acadians of the Saint John Valley and the so-called Franco-Americans of central and southern Maine, the descendants of French-Canadian immigrants.

Traditionally, English has been the sole prestige language in Maine, and this, along with the relative homogeneity of the state’s population, accounts for lack of linguistic diversity. French-speakers have long been stigmatized and caricatured in the local, Anglo-dominated culture. In the early twentieth century, there were many attempts to anglicize and assimilate the state’s large groups of francophone residents. From 1919 to 1960, state law required that English was the only language that could be used for instruction in the public schools of Maine. Public school teachers, some of whom were themselves native speakers of French, found themselves obligated to punish children who violated the English-only regulation. The English-only policy of the public schools had the greatest impact on the state’s significant francophone minority; this policy not only propelled the overall decline of French in Maine, but also contributed to and reinforced the low status of French in the region. As recently as 1980s and early 1990s, the radio station WBLM-FM, based in Portland, ran a program which featured an obtuse Franco-American character named Frenchie.

It is only in recent years French language and culture have begun to gain a renewed prestige in Maine. Since the early 1970s, various individuals and groups have been voicing concerns about maintaining Acadian culture, and in 1990, the Maine Acadian Culture Preservation Act was passed by the U.S. Congress. Responding to similar concerns, the Franco-Americans in central and southern Maine have also taken steps to preserve their own heritage, language, and culture. For example, L’Institut des femmes franco-américaines was founded in Brewer in 1996; the Franco-American Heritage Center opened in Lewiston in 2000; and, in 1990, Jackman, Maine and St. Theophile, Québec began to jointly sponsor the annual Festival sans Frontière. Renewed interest in Maine’s French heritage over the past few decades has also had an impact on public education in the state, which has witnessed experiments with bilingual programming since the 1970s. The most widely publicized and successful of these publicly-funded projects have been established in Acadian communities in the Saint John Valley. In addition, several non-public French immersion and reacquisition programs have been introduced statewide.

Since the 2000 census, there has been a new wave of immigration to Maine which has further impacted the state’s demographics. In 2001, thousands of Somali refugees began relocating to Lewiston, a city which had once been a hotbed for French-Canadian immigration. Today, one in twenty of the residents in Maine’s third largest city is of Somali heritage. This mass migration of Somalis is a phenomenon which has prompted religious tensions, accusations of xenophobia, and scores of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the area. As exhibited by the city of Lewiston’s decision to add an AT&T language translation line for Somali callers indicates, this recent migration has already begun to impact Maine’s language ecology in significant ways.

The Maine Department of Education’s 2003-2004 Report on Language Minority Students revealed that 5014 students enrolled in Maine schools spoke a language other than English at home, and 3245 of these students had limited English proficient status. A full 17% of the Language Minority Students in Maine spoke Somali, and an additional 7% spoke other African languages; school age speakers of Somali far outnumbered Maine’s school age speakers of French, who represented a mere 10% of the state’s Language Minority Students. These statistics show that a marked change is occurring in the state’s language ecology, since, as recently as the 1997-1998 Report  (prior to the mass Somali migration), 22% of Language Minority Students spoke French, while only 5.5% spoke African languages of any variety.

Maine’s demographics will continue to change in the near future, and this may also impact the local social and linguistic identity. The high-profile revival of French in the region will no doubt have an effect on popular perceptions of the state’s historical Britishness. Moreover, increasing levels of immigration will continue to make Maine’s traditionally homogenous population progressively more multilingual and multicultural.


Maine Dialect as Commodity


Given that the existence of a distinctive Maine dialect is accepted as fact in tourist propaganda, popular culture and literature, and that its features are confirmed by a body of linguistic scholarship, the questions naturally arise: just who is using this traditional dialect, and in what contexts are they using it? Clearly, it is neither the recent Somali immigrants nor the established francophone communities in Maine. Moreover, there has long been an idea that people in Maine have collectively been losing many of the distinctive characteristics of their speech; it is commonly accepted as fact that Mainers simply are not speaking as they once did. As early as 1920s Ezra Kempton Maxfield noted “there are many people [in Maine], especially among the better educated, whose accent is indistinguishable from that of outsiders” (77) and Perkins mentioned the existence of “curious expressions, words, and phrases, some of which have now been lost, while others are falling into disuse” (134). More recent scholarship continues to make similar claims that the “rural, regional dialects [of New England] appear threatened with obsolescence”, and attributes this to “the increase in in-migration by speakers from other states” (Nagy and Roberts 257).


There are perceptible differences between the speech patterns of the state’s older and younger residents, urban and rural dwellers, and speakers of various educational backgrounds. In general, heavy use of dialect is associated with the area’s elder, rural, and uneducated natives, while the younger, urban, and more educated speakers generally talk in ways which are much closer to – and sometimes indecipherable from – General American English. [To hear relevant samples of two Maine speakers, one farmer born in 1916 and one student born in 1984, please click here.]

In Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger examine the phenomenon of European state-sponsored image-making campaigns and conclude that many of the ‘authentic’ images and material artifacts – such as kilts which are sold to tourists in Scotland – have little connection with regional folk traditions. Rather, such images and relics were fabricated and/or cultivated by commercial and tourist industries, which intentionally romanticize the experience, history, and products of regions which are seen as quaint and charming. Stuart Ewen, examining similar social and cultural myths in a more specifically American context, comes to related conclusions; he notes that contemporary cultural myths in America rival with real life experiences, and that often images portray “a representation of reality more compelling than reality itself – even perhaps throwing the very definition of reality into question” (25). It seems that the observations of scholars such as Hobsbawm, Ranger, and Ewen are particularly apt and relevant to the linguistic situation in Maine.

The mythologization of Maine and its characteristic dialect has, in large part, been encouraged and perpetuated by the state itself, which has long been aware of the importance of tourism for the local economy. As early as 1922, the Maine Publicity Bureau was formed by a group of local entrepreneurs and members of the hospitality industry with the express purpose of advertising recreation in the state, and, by 1927, the state legislature established the Maine Development Commission “to promote business of all sorts, with special attention to tourists” (Clifford 264). This trend of economically-spurred and self-conscious mythologization has continued into recent times:

Governor Angus King once said that if he could just strategically position a             suitably crusty yet benign ‘Mainah’ on the porch of every general store or end of every lobster wharf, giving people asking for directions the standard reply of ‘You        can’t get theyah from heyah,’ tourism revenue would triple (Brechlin 65).

Evidence suggests that advertisements for Maine-made products frequently make use of the cultural mythology of Maine. The classic example is L.L. Bean, the nearly century-old sporting goods company based out of Freeport, Maine. The image of the company – which caters primarily to out-of-state consumers and which relies mostly upon mail-order (and, more recently, online) sales – is inextricably intertwined with local stereotypes. M.R. Montgomery, author of In Search of L.L. Bean, refers to Maine as “the state on which the whole mystique of L.L. Bean rests” (4) and notes that “the appeal of L.L. Bean [is] that it represents the possibility of wilderness, the scent of pine, the rush of bright water” (61). Montgomery further elucidates:

[M]aintaining the illusion that [the state and company] are inseparable today is the             major marketing problem facing L.L. Bean, Inc….So we must talk of [L.L. Bean             products like] Maine Hunting shoes and shipping docks and skiing wax as            well as Atlantic salmon, black flies, the big           woods, float planes, and back roads –          for it is an inseparable weave  There is no L.L. Bean without Maine, and…there           is no Maine without L.L. Bean, the state’s best advertisement (4-5).

In addition to the stunning panoramic landscapes and charming rural cottages used as backdrops throughout L.L. Bean’s catalogue, Maine dialect is often employed to lend L.L. Bean’s products an air of quality, regional flavour, and an air of authenticity. The company offers, amongst its most popular products, ‘Wicked Good® Moccasins’, which appear under the caption “Here in Maine, Only the Best Are Called ‘Wicked Good.’” The company’s line of ‘Wicked Good’ footwear also includes moc boots, slippers, scuffs, clogs, and booties. This is in addition to L.L. Bean’s ‘Wicked Good Bolstered Dog Bed’, ‘Wicked Good Pet Bed’, ‘Wicked Good Fleece Throw’, ‘Wicked Good Hand and Toe Warmers’, ‘Wicked Tough Waders’, and the childrenswear items calledWicked Warm Pants’ and ‘Wicked Warm Top’.

This phenomenon – using Maine dialect and mythology to promote products outside of the state – is widespread amongst local businesses. Greenbush Soapworks, a small company based out of Greenbush, Maine, touts its “wicked good” handmade soap online.  The website, which contains as much information about the soap-makers’ family and life in “a small rural town” as their available line of products, is complete with a short “Maine Dictionary for Tourists.” Isamax Snacks, based in Gardiner and Farmingdale, Maine – the winner of Maine’s Best of the Web in the e-commerce category in July 2005 – advertises baked goods called “Wicked Whoopies” using the following slogan: “In Maine, when something’s good, we call it ‘good.’ When something’s great, we call it ‘wicked.’” At Grampa’s Garden, customers can purchase a variety of Maine-made natural therapy and comfort products, including a hot/cold pack in the shape of a “Lobsta”; a relevant caption assures potential buyers that it is “Microwaveable, Ayuh!” At www.cafepress.com, one finds an array of T-shirts, mousepads, mugs, ball caps, coasters, throw pillows, aprons, and boxer shorts reading “Ayuh, I’m a Native Maine’ah”; this is roughly equivalent to the phenomenon of ‘kiss me I’m Irish’ merchandise, which – though frequntly purchased by tourists – would never be sported by a native of Ireland.

It is thus that, regardless of the state’s changing demographics, and whether or not Maine natives continue to speak like true ‘Maine-uhs’ are reputed to, Maine dialect is being preserved and perpetuated. Maine’s dialect, like its friendly residents and stunning wilderness, has become mythologized and authenticated. It has become codified in tourist brochures and product captions and, regardless of its actual prevalence in the twenty-first century, the idea of a distinctive Maine dialect has become and continues to serve as an important part of the region’s identity and a valuable local commodity.

Select Further Reading


The History and Settlement of Maine


Abbott, John S. C. The History of Maine. Ed. Edward H. Elwell. Rev. ed. Augusta, ME: E.E.                         Knowles & Company, 1892.


Brunelle, Jim. “A Brief History of Maine.” Online extract from The Maine Almanac (1980).                 Reprinted online by the Maine Historical Society. Accessed 20.11.06.                                              

Clifford, Harold B. Maine and Her People. Freeport, ME: The Bond Wheelwright Company,



Fobes, Charles B. “Path of the Settlement and distribution of population in Maine.”                                     Economic Geography 20.1 (1944): 65-69.


Scott, Geraldine Tidd. Ties of Common Blood: A History of Maine’s Northeast Boundary Dispute with                         Great Britain 1783-1842. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1992.


Maine Travel Guides


Ackermann, Rick and Kathryn Buxton. The Coast of Maine Book: A Complete Guide.                                          Stockbridge, MA: Berkshire House Publishers, 1999.


Brandes, Kathleen M. Moon Handbooks: Coastal Maine. Emeryville, CA: Avalon Travel Publshing,                         2002.


Brechlin, Earl. Adventure Guide to Maine. Edison, NJ: Hunter Publishing, 1999.


Gold, Donna. Country Roads of Maine. Castine, ME: Country Roads Press, 1995.


Uhl, Michael. Exploring Maine on Scenic Roads and Byways. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1991.


Features of Maine and New England Dialect


Cutts, Richard. “Observations of ‘Ayuh’.” American Speech 23.3/4 (1948): 310-311.


Duckert, Audrey R. “The Speech of Rural New England.” Dialect and Language Variation. Eds.                         Harold Byron Allen and Michael D. Linn. Orlando: Academic Press, 1986. 136-141.


Grandgent, C.H. “From Franklin to Lowell. A Century of New England Pronounciation.”             PMLA 14.2 (1899): 207-239.


Hendrickson, Robert. Yankee Talk: A Dictionary of New England Expressions. Edison, NJ: Castle                                    Books, 2002.


Kurath, H. The Linguistic Atlas of New England. 3 vols. 1939-1943. New York: AMS,  1972.


Labov, William. “The Organization of Dialect Diversity in North America.” Online version of a                         presentation at the Fourth International Conference on Spoken Language Processing,                         1996. Accessed 20.11.06.


Lewis, Gerald E. and Tim Sample. How to Talk Yankee. Throndike, ME: Thorndike Press, 1986.


Maxfield, Ezra Kempton. “Maine Dialect.” American Speech. 2.2 (1926): 76-83.

Nagy, Naomi. “’Live Free or Die’ as a Linguistic Principle.” American Speech 76.1 (2001): 30-41.

Nagy, Naomi and Julie Roberts. “New England phonology.”  A Handbook of Varieties of                               English. Volume 1: Phonology. Eds. Schneider et al. Berlin & NY: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004.                         Reprinted online. Accessed 20.11.06.       

Penzl, Herbert. “Relics with ‘Broad A’ in New England Speech.”  American Speech 13 (1938):  45-                        49.

Perkins, Anne E. “Vanishing Expressions of the Maine Coast.” American Speech 3.2 (1927):                             134-141.


Mythologizing Place

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. London: Jonathan Cage, 1972.

Ewen, Stuart. All Consuming Images. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Hobsbawn, Eric and Terence Ranger. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University                         Press, 1983.

Mythologizing Maine


Coffin, Robert P. Tristram. Yankee Coast. New York: Macmillan, 1947.


Judd, Richard. “Reshaping Maine’s Landscape.” Journal of Forest History 32.4 (1988): 180-190.


Lewis, George H. “The Maine That Never Was: The Construction of Popular Myth in Regional                         Culture,” Joumal of American Culture 16.2 (1993). Reprinted online. Accessed 20.11.06.


            Montgomery, M.R. In Search of L.L. Bean. Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown & Co., 1984.


Francophones in Maine


Acadian Culture in Maine. University of Maine at Fort Kent. Online version of 1994 National               Park Service publication. Accessed 20.11.06.


Allen, James P. “Migration Fields of French Canadian Immigrants to Southern Maine.”                                Geographical Review 62.3 (1972): 366-383.


Avila, Lilian E. and Alice R. Stewart. “French in Maine.” The French Review 27.6 (1954): 460-              466.


Belluck, Pam. “Long-Scorned in Maine, French has Renaissance.” The New York Times. June 4,             2006. Accessed 20.11.06.              


Jacobson, Phyllis L. “The Social Context of Franco-American Schooling in New England.”             The French Review 57.5 (1984): 641-656.

Podea, Iris Saunders. “Quebec to ‘Little Canada’: The Coming of the French Canadians to               New England in the Nineteenth Century.” New England Quarterly 23.3 (1950): 365-380.

Maine’s Irish Immigrants


Patrick, Andrew. “Irish Immigrants in Nineteenth Century Maine.” Maine Memory Network:             Maine’s Online Museum. Accessed 20.11.06.         \


Maine’s Somali Immigrants


Bouchard, Kelley. “Lewiston’s Somali surge.” Portland Press Herald. April 28, 2002. Accessed



City of Lewiston. “Understanding our Somali Community.” Online brochure. March 2003.             Accessed  20.11.06.


Martin, Susan Taylor. “A collision of cultures leads to building bridges in Maine.” The St.                              Petersburg Times Online. March 13, 2005. Accessed 20.11.06.            


Folk Dialectology

Benson, Erica J. “Folk Linguistic Perceptions and the Mapping of Dialect Boundaries.” American Speech 78.3                                                 (2003):  307-330 .