Dialect in Slave Narratives

From the 1740’s to 1865, approximately sixty-five autobiographical slave narratives were published in book or pamphlet form.  These narratives were of great help in humanizing the plight of enslaved people in the minds of the public and greatly advanced the cause of the abolition movement.  

The non-autobiographical accounts of slavery that were produced in the years following the Civil War were created by writers who used stereotypes and offensive characterizations of their characters. The insensitive use of dialect and accent is considered unacceptable to modern audiences and makes readability difficult.

Two of the most influential slave narratives were published in Auburn; Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853). 

Cayuga County was also the birthplace of President Millard Fillmore who signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law in 1850.  This act required that runaway slaves be returned to their owners and empowered federal marshals to enforce the law. 

African American Language

The approximately 388,000 African men and women forcibly brought to North America between the 16th and 19th centuries were from very diverse cultures.  The continent of Africa is comprised of people with many different languages, religions, and customs. Once sold into slavery, Africans from different regions and countries were forced to learn how to communicate with each other and with the white people they encountered.  Communities of enslaved people often created new languages based on their African dialects, while also picking up regional English dialects from their surroundings. 

[Merriam-Webster: dialect | noun, often attributive 

: a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language

: a variety of language whose identity is fixed by a factor other than geography (such as social class)]

Dialect in Slave Narratives

“I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” – Frederick Douglass

As the national debate over abolition grew in the 1840s and 1850s, slave narratives became an important tool for abolitionists to gain support for their cause. Narratives written by the formerly enslaved were extremely popular, both in the United States and in Britain.  These narratives provided the closest look at slavery that most people received and contradicted pro-slavery arguments which painted idyllic pictures of the American south.  

White abolitionists saw that these slave narratives were helping to convince people that slavery should be abolished and took to writing their own novels about slavery. The most famous of these was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

[Published in 1852, the novel gained wide popularity among white readers, selling 300,000 copies in the first year. By the 20th century it was considered problematic to modern readers, and today it is seen as racist and patronizing.]  

White abolitionists modeled their novels on previously published slave narratives, but there are important differences in the way African American characters are portrayed. One of the most glaring differences is the use of dialect. First person narratives written by formerly enslaved people rarely used dialects. Frederick Douglass explains that being a formerly enslaved person was “a confession of a very low origin” so African American authors typically wrote in Standard English. This may also have been a way for the authors to establish themselves as legitimate: if they wrote in Standard English like white authors, they would be regarded as trustworthy recorders of events.

 [Merriam- Webster: Standard English | noun

: the English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood]

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