lrc wordmark

International Conference on Historical Linguistics

African American History from Below and Its Linguistic Implications: Ecological Factors Documented in the Ex-Slave Narratives



Edgar Schneider


Some fifty years after the controversy on the roots of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) originated, the mood of the debate has calmed down substantially, although the issue itself, the relationship and balance between British English or creole / African elements which have shaped AAVE, still has not been fully resolved. As several contributions to Sonja Lanehart’s recent Handbook of African American Language (OUP 2015) indicate, by now most contenders are willing to accept compromise positions, but differences in attitudes, in detail and in the weight attributed to alternative perspectives remain. I start by briefly surveying the history of this discussion and the resources that have been identified and employed to investigate the issue empirically.

My own contribution (EWS, American Earlier Black English. University of Alabama Press 1989), well received and influential in its time, investigated a wide range of morphological and syntactic features in the transcripts of interviews with 108 ex-slaves from all across the South, compiled by the “Federal Writers’ Project” in the 1930s and 1940s and published as facsimile typescripts in many volumes. In this presentation I return to that source but look at not structural properties but, in line with the topic of the panel, ecological factors which can be extracted from these interviews. The texts constitute an important resource on “history from below”, since they record memories of very old African Americans of antebellum life patterns and their personal experiences before, during and after the Civil War. I screen these texts systematically for statements concerning plantation sizes, interethnic relations and attitudes, life and work experiences, war memories, and post-emancipation settings, and I provide a broadly quantifying documentation and some qualitative sample quotations of realizations of these ecological parameters. Obviously, some care and reluctance is called for in the interpretation of such statements, but I will use them to offer a broad assessment of what antebellum patterns of life and communication may tell us and imply for likely linguistic developments and the evolution of African American Vernacular English.

  •   Map
  • Linguistics Research Center

    University of Texas at Austin
    PCL 5.556
    Mailcode S5490
    Austin, Texas 78712