Michael Montgomery

University of South Carolina

Handout | Audio

The Crucial Century for English in the American South

The period between the mid-18th century and the Civil War is crucial for understanding the development of Southern American English (SAE) and much of its present-day diversity. During these years English expanded rapidly from the Atlantic littoral, as settlement and indigenous groups met and mixed, and situations of language and dialect contact produced a linguistic landscape in many ways similar to the one observable today. New dialects were formed, and SAE became a distinct perceived variety by the eve of the Civil War.

After synopsizing major demographic shifts in the region, this paper presents five case studies, using period documents to delineate contact situations and linguistic patterns revealing SAE in its developmental stages:

  • 1) letters from Indian traders in interior South Carolina (1740s-70s).
  • 2) letters from African-American born in Low country South Carolina (1790s).
  • 3) a testimony from an elderly woman in coastal South Carolina (1850).
  • 4) letters from white plantation overseers in North Carolina and Mississippi (1820s-50s).
  • 5) usage strictures in Confederate schoolbooks (1860s). Such documents provide insights on linguistic patterns and forms of the day. They enable us to detect the early formation of SAE and, while interesting in themselves, give us the raw material for testing principles of new dialect formation. They also help us better understand the larger ecology of American English -- in short to address the question "When did Southern English begin?"