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What is the meaning of "Wa’al"?

Here is a quote from Charles Dickens' A Message from the Sea: “Wa’al, my good sir,” said the captain cordially, “the present question is, and will be long, I hope, concerning living, and not dying."

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    And interestingly, here the apostrophe isn't standing for missing letters, the way apostrophes usually do, but indicates that the captain pronounces wa'al as a diphthong. Commented Jun 24 at 12:08
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    Bear in mind that Dickens' use of "eye dialect" is primarily a literary device (intended to give the reader some impression of a character's background / status). It was never a particularly accurate reflection of how people actually spoke - so long as the reader recognized the "caricature", it did its job. But it's hardly useful to nns learners today. Commented Jun 24 at 13:43
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    Captain Jorgan says it 13 times in the story. The story says he was American and a New Englander. And here, it is described as Shetland dialect. shetlanddialect.org.uk/pronunciation So, I dunno how the captain got it. Though in that link it is written: Waal and Wal.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:50
  • Related but not dupe english.stackexchange.com/questions/618439/… Also from the same OP
    – Criggie
    Commented Jun 24 at 20:40
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    @Criggie Tinfoil Hat gives a well resourced answer. As is desirable on ELU. Commented Jun 24 at 22:06

3 Answers 3

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Waal means well, and in this case it is spoken with two syllables.

waal adverb
colloquial and regional (U.S.).
= well adv. A.V.20. 1863–
1863   Waal—kinder like to have a little ‘heater’ piece, the boys, you see, hoe it out in odd spells. —D. G. Mitchell, My Farm of Edgewood 243
1897   ‘D'you suppose we can run her blind?’ he shouted. ‘Wa-al', I can,’ Disko retorted. —R. Kipling, Captains Courageous vi. 129
1978   Wal, I guess that'll be all right. —M. Z. Lewin, Silent Salesman xxxvi. 195
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

The most interesting thing here is that A Message from the Sea was written by Dickens in 1860—before the OED’s earliest attestation. And Dickens is British. So what gives, OED?

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Published instances of "wa'al" or "wa-al" used to convey the drawled word "well" occur as early as the 1830s in Google Books search results.

From Ralph Lockwood, The Insurgents: An Historical Novel (1835):

"Wa-al, now, I'll tell you," said Paul [Dudley, of Concord, Massachusetts], “all about it, just exackly as it happened, the hull truth and nothin' but the truth. Ye see, them 'are Wooster chaps come down to Conkerd, and they had a meetin', and Job Shattuck, he'd good as 'greed—Job is the head man, you see, 'mong the insurgents—Job he comes over in the night to the village, and there they fixes it—the Wooster chaps to come down, and Job he was to pretend not to know nothin' about it, and look as innocent as a lamb just yeaned. Wa-al, ye see, down they came from Wooster this mornin', hot for noise and not much a mint to fight, I b'lieve; but there was 'Lias Towner and about a hundred o' sich fellers. ...

From "The Gold-Hunter: A Tale of Massachusetts" in The American Monthly Magazine (December 1837):

"Now, Captain," cried Joe, as, lighting his pipe, he sat down with the representative of the chivalry of Hollywood [a village in Massachusetts]. "Can't you find summat to talk about?"

"Wa-al, I don't know. I forget eenymost every thing now-a-days. My memory's amost chawed up. But, by the way, I've been a wantin' to come acrost you for a long while. Want to ax you if you've found any thing on your farm?"

"Found what?" inquired jolly Joe [Bolton, a Yorkshireman].

"Gold and silver;" replied the captain in a whisper, winking with an air of mystery.

"Nonsense!" cried the Yorkshireman.

"Wa-al," said the son of the sword, "it ain't no matter."

From "The Yankee's Barometer," in the [Boston, Massachusetts] Literary Museum (December 1845):

"Wa-al," said he [Joel Spry], after surveying Mr. Simmons, the overseer, for a second or two, "your name be'ant Hodson—no, not Hodson, Tompkins: no, darn the name! And after studying that book nimmotichny {mnemotechny} too, that tells allers what people forgit, only tu think that I can't think of.—Oh, now I got it! Your name be'ant a-a Jenk—I say mistur, what might be your name?"

"Simmons," answered the overseer.

"Wa-al now, only to think! ...

From "One of the Aborigines" in Niles' Weekly Register (November 28, 1846):

"No, me no know Indian steal—ya-as—ya-as, me know Indian stealen Squaw once."

"What became of Indian who stile squaw?"

Wa-al—I guess he bad fellow."

The quoted Indian speaker is a member of the Penobscot indigenous people of Maine.

From James Fenimore Cooper, The Redskins, or Indian and Injun (1846), a novel about the upstate New York Anti-Rent War of 1839–1845:

"I suppose you will admit there are privileged classes now among us, Mr. Warren>"

"I am ready enough to allow that, sir; it is too plain to be denied."

"Wa-al, I should like to hear you p'int 'em out; that I might see if we agree in our sentiments."

"Demagogues are a highly privileged class. The editors of newspapers are another highly privileged class; doing things, daily and hourly, which set all law and justice at defiance, and invading, with perfect impunity, the most precious rights of their fellow-citizens. The power of both is enormous; and, as in all cases of great and irresponsible power, both enormously abuse it."

"Wa-al, that's not my way of thinking at all. ...

...

"Wa-al, wa-al, Mr. Warren; we never shall quarrel about that; I don't desire to wear your cassock and gown."

The setting here is upstate New York, and the speaker is Seneca Newcome, a tenant of a farm located outside "the [fictitious] village of Ravensnest."


All of these early instances are from the United States and, more particularly, from New England and upstate New York. Although these examples use the punctuation "wa-al," the form "wa'al" appears at least as early as 1858: a bound bundle of issues of Harper's Weekly Magazine includes six different pieces that contain "wa'al," ranging in publication date from April 17, 1858, to November 27, 1858.

Maximillian Schele de Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1871) has this interesting and amusing note on contemporaneous use of "well" in the United States:

Well is used by Americans with peculiar fondness to begin almost every sentence, but especially an answer to a question. This custom seems to have originated in New England, where it is still most generally prevailing, in order to gain time before replying, as the Yankee is commonly accused of answering only by a new question. He, therefore, dwells upon the well, perhaps even repeats it, and, as J.R. Lowell quaintly remarks, gives it "a variety of shades of meaning, conveyed by the difference of intonation, and by prolonging or abbreviating, which I should vainly attempt to describe. A friend of mine told me that once he heard five different wells, like pioneers, precede the answer to an inquiry about the price of land."

Well! I note that James Russell Lowell's "The Courtin'" (October 23, 1858) is one of the six pieces from the 1858 volume of Harper's Weekly (cited above) to use "wa'al"; Lowell uses it twice in his mock ballad.

De Vere's remark about New Englanders answering questions with questions reminds me of an old Yankee joke I heard years ago: Tourist: "Is it true that people around here always answer a question with another question?" Yankee: "Who told you that?"

John Russeell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, fourth edition (1877) quotes Lowell's remarks at greater length than de Vere does, including an effort to represent certain variations in meaning through variations in pronunciation:

Well. One of the most marked peculiarities of American speech is the use of the word "well" at the beginning of sentences, especially in answer to questions. Englishmen have told me that they could always detect an American by this use of this word. Mr. Lowell, so thoroughly comprehends the various shades of its meaning, by the manner in which it is pronounced, that we avail ourselves of his remarks upon it: "Put before such a phrase as 'How d'e do?' it is commonly short, and has the sound of wul ; but, in reply, it is deliberative, and the various shades of meaning which can be conveyed by difference of intonation, and by prolonging or abbreviating, I should vainly attempt to describe. I have heard ooa-ahl, wahl, ahl, wăl, and something approaching the sound of le in able. Sometimes before 'I' it dwindles to a mere l ; as 'l I dunno.'" "A friend," continues Mr Lowell, "told me that he once heard five 'wells,' like pioneers, precede the answer to an inquiry about the price of land. The first was the ordinary wul, in deference to custom ; the second, the long, perpending ooahl, with a falling of the voice; the third, the same, but with the voice rising, as if in despair of a conclusion, into a plaintive, nasal whine ; the fourth, wulh, ending in the aspirate of a sigh ; and then, fifth, came a short, sharp wal, showing that a conclusion had been reached." — Poetical Works, Int[roduction] to Biglow Papers, Household Edition, p. 221.

Lowell wrote this introduction by 1867, and he reports that he uses the spelling wal in the Biglow Papers "because, if enough nasality be added, it represents most nearly the average sound of what I may call the interjection."

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    That's fabulous work, Sven. Thank you so much! There's of course no way to tell, but I wonder whether the intended pronunciation was something like the word way flowing right into the word yell, with any of [a] or [æ] or [e] or [ɛ] or [ə] in either or both parts separated by a glide, maybe like [wæjæl] or [wejæl] or [wɛjæl] or even [wɛjɛəl]; plus there are probably a lot more possibilities than these, all different.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 25 at 3:21
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    @tchrist: See the additional quotations at the bottom of my answer from Bartlett and Lowell himself regarding the range of pronunciations that well had as a sentence opener in the U.S. during the 1860s (and after).
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 25 at 6:29
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It's nothing exotic, just "well" - so the beginning of the quote is "Well, my good sir". As @FumbleFingers mentioned in comments, Dickens is using "eye dialect" to distinguish the captain's way of speaking.

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  • The spelling is not common, is it? Is this in a dictionary or is it Dickens just trying to use spelling to show pronunciation? What is the intended actual pronunciation (An attempt at IPA would be nice). Is this something used in particular dialects? Cockney? West Country?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:23
  • @Mitch — waal is in the OED. Commented Jun 24 at 19:22
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    But Mitch is right: it's not common.  I can't recall seeing it before, and I had no idea what it meant until I saw the context (which gave enough of a clue for me to interpret).  Worth highlighting that, as this answer says, it's eye dialect — an intentional misspelling to indicate the pronunciation (even the OED includes this misspelling).
    – gidds
    Commented Jun 24 at 22:13

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