21 Language

Creating an African-American Culture—Language, Religion, and Music


For the first generations of Africans enslaved in the colonies, language accommodation and acculturation were a necessity for their survival in the Western world. Depending upon when and where they came from in Africa, in addition to their own languages, different African people had varying degrees of language competence in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch. As a result of trade with the Portuguese in the middle fifteenth century, bilingualism arose among West Africans along the coast. In succeeding centuries, as West Africans traded with the Dutch, French and English, some Africans continued to at least understand, and many to speak, some form of one or more European languages. Even though they spoke many different African languages, many Africans who had participated in long distance trading on the African continent spoke a “lingua franca” or trade language that allowed them to communicate among themselves (Abrahams 1983:26). African sailors on European vessels may have also spoken a “maritime jargon” (Berlin 1998; Birmingham 1981; McWhorter 1997, 2000a). The first generations of Africans and Europeans who came into contact with one another, like all people of different language groups, spoke their own language and developed apidgin , language. Pidgins included words and meaning from both languages that allowed them to communicate.

Over time, both Africans and Europeans communicated in some form of creole . People of Angola and West Central Africa developed Angolar Creole Portuguese , a language still spoken by descendants of maroon slaves who escaped from Portuguese plantations on São Tomé beginning in the middle sixteenth century. People who were enslaved by the Spanish developed Spanish-based creoles, called Papiamentu Creole Spanish .Palenquero is another Spanish creole developed by Africans in maroon settlements of what is now Colombia, South America. Enslaved Africans in New Netherlands, later New York, developed a Dutch-based creole, Negerhollands Creole Dutch , in Haiti and later in Louisiana people spoke a French-based creole, today called Haitian Creole French . In the English colonies Africans spoke an English-based Atlantic Creole , generally called plantation creole. Lowcountry Africans spoke an English-based creole that came to be called Gullah Gullah is a language closely related to Krio a creole spoken in Sierra Leone. (3)

Enslaved African American Language

Gullah and other creoles emerged because enslaved Africans greatly outnumbered whites on colonial plantations as occurred in the Lowcountry, especially on the sea islands where Gullah developed. John McWhorter, a linguist, advances an “ Afrogenesis Theory ” of creole origins, stressing the importation of most plantation creoles from West African trade settlements. There creole languages originated in interactions between white traders and slaves, some of whom were eventually transported overseas (McWhorter 2000a, 2000b). The Afrogenesis Theory helps explain whyGullah and Krio are similar creoles.

Historian Lorena Walsh notes that, “ Gullah ,” attained creole status during the first decades of the 1700s, and was learned and used by the second generation of slaves as their mother tongue. Around the same time, in the 1720 and 1730s, Anglican clergy were still reporting that Africans spoke little or no English but stood around in groups talking among themselves in “strange languages (Walsh 1997:96–97).”

In the past, enslaved Africans from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida along the coast and 100 miles inland spoke Gullah . In the present, many of the descendants of the early Gullah speakers continue to speak a form of the language (Hancock 1992:70–72; Geraty 1997). African American heritage preservation efforts in the sea islands include attempts to maintain Gullah as a living language.

Runaway advertisements noted enslaved people’s distinctive language characteristics and level of language proficiency as identifiers. A search of runaway advertisements 1736–1776 in the Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, Virginia yielded advertisements for five men described as “Angola negroes” or born in Angola. Two could speak very good English, two “ speak English tolerably good ” and one was described as stammering. Two advertisements identified “Eboe negroe.” One could “speak tolerable good English.” Jemmy, John and Boston in this image illustrate the range of English language competency among African-born men in eighteenth century Virginia.

As part of a more extensive study of comments on language found in runaways advertisements in eight colonies and, later, states, historian Michael Gomez examined the quality of English spoken by 99 Africans in Virginia from 1736 to 1836. He found that the advertisement’s descriptions said 39 Africans spoke “none, little or very little, 36 spoke “bad,” “very bad” or “broken” English and 24 spoke “good” or very good” English (1998:177–180).

NORFOLK, Jan. 3, 1770. RUN away from the subscriber, the 13th of November last, a Negro fellow named BRISTOL, about 5 feet 8 inches high, very black, thick lipped, has lost some of his fore teeth, marked with the small-pox, and speaks good English, some French and Spanish. He was seen last month at Richmond, calling himself Tom, passing for a freeman, and may go out of the country as such. Any person who will secure him so that I can get him, shall be paid Forty Shillings more than the law allows; and all masters of vessels are forewarned from carrying him out of the country, as he may impose on them by saying he is free MAXIMILIAN CALVERT.
Figure 5-1: Virginia Gazette (Rind), Williamsburg, November 30, 1769 by Virginia Gazette is in the Public Domain .An advertisement published by a subscriber looking for one of his runaway slaves named Bristol.

According to Gomez, those African runaways 30 years of age or older or who had been in North America more than 3 years were most likely to speak good English. Like the Virginia Africans, over 70 percent of Africans running away from South Carolina, Georgia were also described as speaking “bad, very bad, very little, or no English.” Among Louisiana runaways, they were about equally divided between those who could speak French and those that could not. Gomez found the few women in the study were slightly more likely than the men to speak French or English (1998:179).

Many enslaved people were multi-lingual. “Without a doubt,” historian Philip Morgan contends, “blacks were the most linguistically polyglot and proficient ethnic group in the Americas (2002:139).”

The continuous arrival of new African slaves influenced the language spoken by American-born Africans in the rural colonial Chesapeake and Lowcountry regions up until 1807. Even after this date, smugglers sold Africans in the region, right up until the Civil War (Kashif 2001). In contrast, many free African Americans in the southern colonies became more acculturated in speech and literate, along with all other European cultural customs, as they consciously sought to differentiate themselves from their enslaved sisters and brothers. (3)


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