Gerard Van Herk

University of Ottawa


Regional Variation in 19th-century African American English

New sources of information on the origins of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) enrich research, but rarely permit analysis of regional variation. Recorded interviews (Bailey et al. 1991) and early written materials (Montgomery 1999) are too sparse; the speech of the African American diaspora (Poplack & Tagliamonte 2001, Singler 1989) cannot always be attributed a precise place of origin (and may involve post-dispersal change or dialect leveling); and transcribed ex-slave interviews (Schneider 1989), while permitting regional analysis, cannot by the nature of their transcription process capture details of phonological conditioning.

We address that lacuna through recourse to a large corpus of letters written between 1834 and 1866 by African Americans settling in Liberia, most of whose state of origin is known. The Ottawa Repository of Early African American Correspondence (OREAAC) (Van Herk & Poplack, in press) consists of 427 letters by 206 semiliterate authors, featuring a range of speech-like non-standard forms. Analysis of present and past tense marking of over 6,000 verbal tokens reveals:

  • Unmarked past-referring strong verbs (e.g. go/went) are sharply restricted to a small group of verbs (come, run, give) that also surface bare in British dialects (Milroy & Milroy 1993) and contemporary AAVE (Rickford 1999). This effect is strongest in the middle South, weakest in the inland deep South.
  • Unmarked past-referring weak verbs are strongly conditioned by a phonological tendency to avoid word-final consonant clusters. This effect is stronger in the deep South.
  • Non-standard present tense s-marking is concentrated in third-person plural contexts with no adjacent pronominal subject, matching the Northern Subject Rule of British dialects (Murray 1873). This widespread effect is strongest in the middle South.
  • In non-third-person contexts, s-marking is conditioned by phonological and (perhaps) aspectual factors. This effect appears to be stronger in the deep South.
  • Overall rates of suffix deletion are higher in the deep South, across contexts.
  • Other constraints proposed in the literature or apparently operative in other corpora are not significant in the OREAAC.

    Overall, these findings support two major inputs to 19th-century AAE. In the domain of morphosyntax, dialectal English features predominate. They are especially evident in areas where sociohistoric factors such as early settlement (coastal areas) and small landholdings (middle South) would favor uninterrupted transmission. Phonological factors, favoring word-final consonant cluster simplification, may derive from dialectal, universal, second language acquisition, or African substrate influences. Their predominance in areas with dialect mixing, late settlement, and late slave importation (the inland deep South) and high African-origin population ratios (the entire deep South) argues for a non-English origin for these features. The persistence of all these features across all regions (albeit to varying degrees), and of most into the contemporary variety, partially reconciles traditionally opposing views of the origin of AAVE. Both dialect morphosyntax and non-English phonology were required to produce 19th-century AAE; subsequent legal and social segregation and the passage of time have privileged phonological factors, thus obscuring earlier dialect features and regional distinctions.

    Bailey, G., N. Maynor, & P. Cukor-Avila. 1991. The Emergence of Black English: Texts and Commentary.
        Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
    Milroy, J. & Milroy, L. (eds). 1993. Real English: The grammar of English dialects in the British Isles. London: Longman.
    Montgomery, M. 1999. Eighteenth-century Sierra Leone English: Another exported variety of African American English. English
        World Wide, 10(3), 227-278.
    Poplack, S. & Tagliamonte, S. 2001. African American English in the Diaspora. Oxford: Blackwell.
    Rickford, J. R. 1999. African American Vernacular English: Features, Evolution, Educational Implications. Oxford: Blackwell.
    Schneider, E. 1989. American Earlier Black English:Morphological and Syntactic Variables. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama
    Singler, J. 1989. Plural marking in Liberian Settler English. American Speech, 64(1), 40-64.
    Van Herk, G. & Poplack, S. In press. Rewriting the past: Bare verbs in the Ottawa Repository of Early African American
        Correspondence. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages.

    *Beginning of original audio/video recording was cut off