African languages among enslaved people in the USA.
March 2, 2014 11:06 AM   Subscribe

When did enslaved Africans in the US stop speaking African languages?

At what point did enslaved Africans in the US stop speaking the languages of their continent of origin? I understand that creoles such as Gullah include vocabulary and other linguistic borrowings from African languages but just for the sake of this discussion, I’d like to focus on the original languages as spoken on the African continent.

A precise answer to this question is probably impossible, given the historical circumstances of this particular set of language deaths. The kind of data I'm looking for would be a guy in the 1920s writing about how people from his grandparents' generation had a special language they spoke among themselves. Or a traveler in the South after the Civil War happening on two people speaking a language he doesn't understand who immediately stop speaking that language and switch to English when they realize he is there.
posted by jason's_planet to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm no historian, but my suspicion is that slavers would do their level best to destroy the cultures and languages of their victims, with severe punishment for speaking in one's native language. Add to that the fact that victims of American slavery came from different places of origin, so there's no guarantee that any two slaves in the same place would even speak the same language to begin with.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:13 AM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

In addition, because many of the languages probably didn't have written forms, let alone widespread literacy, language transmission and reproduction from one generation to the next would have been extremely difficult and unlikely (in the sense of complete fluency being transmitted, not words or phrases, which did survive). Between that and the fact that there was probably a lot more linguistic and cultural heterogeneity among enslaved people than one might think, it seems possible that whole languages weren't really retained in the first place.
posted by clockzero at 11:19 AM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

In Brazil, the official policy of the Portuguese was to mix up ethnic groups as much as possible in a slave group, to prevent them from communicating from each other, organizing etc. I suspect this was also true in the U.S., so the answer to your question might be "as soon as they were captured and sold".
posted by Tom-B at 11:22 AM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, according to Wikipedia "over 45 distinct ethnic groups were taken to the Americas during the [slave] trade"-- assume that most of those would have had their own language, or at least their own distinct dialect, and you've got circumstances where it'd be hard to maintain any kind of common linguistic heritage among enslaved people.
posted by Bardolph at 11:23 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The last survivor of the last (llegally) imported group of African slaves into the US died in 1935, although I don't know when the last countryman he could talk to died. (As I recall, all of their descendants basically spoke only English)

Read more in the amazing Dreams of Africa in Alabama.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:42 AM on March 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

Contact linguist here; it depends on several factors, including but not limited to: Where were the slaves coming from? Did they all speak the same language? Were the colonies "self-sufficient" or did they need to keep importing slaves from Africa? What was the ratio between the slaves and the slave owners? What were the prevailing attitudes towards interactions between slaves and slave owners? Etc., etc. All of these will affect (1) how long people will keep speaking their native languages, and thus (2) how much of an effect those languages will have on the emergent creole.

In the US, a decent portion of the slave population came via the Caribbean, already speaking a form of English-based creole, rather than directly from Africa; this meant that there was already a common language that could be taught to newcomers. Death rates were lower, meaning that there was a smaller "replacement rate" of newcomers who spoke an African language. Also, most plantations were smaller (think of the size of one in 12 Years a Slave- no more than a dozen; all of whom could have some interaction with the slave owners/task masters, as opposed to Caribbean plantations were populations were in the 100s).

The long and short of it: Pretty quickly, as evidenced by the fact that there are/were only 2 creoles spoken on the mainland US (Gullah and Louisiana), both of which are significantly like English/French, indicating a decent amount of access to English/French, and quick loss of native languages.
posted by damayanti at 11:48 AM on March 2, 2014 [15 favorites]

You may be interested in learning about Gullah.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:14 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's unlikely any purely African languages were spoken by slaves in the USA. Pidgins developed on the ships, which evolved into creoles, which were heavily influenced by English and French, is one theory.

Writings about the origins of AAVE offer more insight into the history of languages used by Africans enslaved during the Atlantic slave trade.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 12:39 PM on March 2, 2014

In addition, because many of the languages probably didn't have written forms, let alone widespread literacy, language transmission and reproduction from one generation to the next would have been extremely difficult and unlikely

That doesn't follow: most languages in the world have no written form, but they get transmitted just fine.
posted by zeri at 1:05 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just as counterpoint to some of the posts here, I recently read an article positing that enslaved people being purposely divided up into linguistically heterogeneous groups is mostly apocryphal, and the vast majority belonged to a recurring handful of ethnolinguistic groups. I'm trying to find the article but coming up blank.
posted by threeants at 1:49 PM on March 2, 2014

Ah, here it is. It's a lecture by historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall.

Many people think that Africans were deliberately mixed up so they couldn't talk to each other and couldn't conspire to revolt. Many people think that there were so many hundreds and hundreds of ethnicities and languages spoken in Africa that Africans couldn't communicate with each other. They were brought in a random way and they could therefore not bring along with them any elements of language or culture. It's not true. If you look at documents in the Americas, you will see that there were at most 10 African ethnic designations among most of the Africans brought to the Americas over the entire period of slavery. If we include those brought to Spain and Portugal before ending up in the Americas, we are talking about between the 1440s and the 1860's. That is a long time and many places, and this supposed extensive fragmentation does not exist.

Africans were brought to particular places in the Americas in groups who could speak to and communicate with each other. There were various reasons why they were brought in a clustered fashion, rather than a fragmented fashion.

The rest of the article doesn't answer your question explicitly but may interest you.
posted by threeants at 1:57 PM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

(Basically, I don't think a prior poster's statement-- It's unlikely any purely African languages were spoken by slaves in the USA-- is strongly supported. We can speculate about inter-generational transmission but I see no reason two first-generation enslaved Igbo people wouldn't have spoken their native language together in private.)
posted by threeants at 2:01 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

(I feel kind of uncomfortable implying that slaves ever had "privacy" but I suppose I mean simply any time spent out of the earshot of white people.)
posted by threeants at 2:07 PM on March 2, 2014

In James C. Scott's study of upland SE Asia, The Art of Not Being Governed, he talks about how many hill tribes were linguistically and even ethnically fluid. One administrator of the colonial Burma census complained about the "unreliability of the language test" as tribes switched languages based on their usefulness. I suspect that we flatlanders (especially North American flatlanders) don't have a great sense of linguistic fluidity because we are so used to one language predominating over all.

Here in Hawaii, the ethnic diversity of the plantations led to the creation of a local creole, but even though only about 4,000 Koreans immigrated during the plantation era (basically all in 1904), there were Korean churches, Korean self-help groups, Korean independence activists.

I know, being a plantation worker and being a plantation slave is pretty damn different. But I'm just offering the possibility that the creation of a creole does not preclude the persistence of a mother tongue.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:29 PM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

For Brazil, there is actually some evidence about African languages and enslaved people. This is from the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 visit to Brazil. See manuscript # 7235 in the National Anthropological Archives: Vocabularies and notes based on material collected by Horatio Hale from enslaved African-Brazilians. It is currently one of the projects at the Smithsonian Transcription Center. On pages 55-56, Hale talks about collecting the vocabularies.
posted by gudrun at 2:52 PM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Brazil is different. Languages like Kikongo are still preserved for ritual use by candomble practitioners, for example.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:14 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

An enslaved African living in Georgia until 1857 reproduced an entire Islamic legal text in Arabic from memory. Bilali Muhammad.
posted by BinGregory at 6:36 PM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some years ago I did a research project on this topic, focusing on surviving Yoruba language communities. At that time the Yoruba language was the most widely used African language in the new world, spoken by a handful of elders and energetically studied by younger people involved in Yoruba religions like Santeria, Trinidad Shango and Candomble. Other languages spoken in some form in the 1970s were Kikongo (Jamaica) and Efik Calabari among the Cuban Abakua adherents.

In the USA proper, the last spoken African language would likely have been the language of the Africatown community of freed slaves and their descendants in Mobile, Alabama. Some language may have been maintained in the Sea Islands Gullah communities, where WPA Writers project folks in the 1930s collected folklore and reported rather direct family connections to groups such as Fulani, Maninka, and Igbo, but not spoken language. 19th century slave revolts were often led by Twi-speaking Fante and Ashanti people known as "Coromantee." The state of Virginia and South Carolina both passed laws forbidding the importation of Coromantee slaves as a result. Any sense of ethnic unity was a danger to slavery. The Stono Rebellion was led by catholic Kongo slaves speaking Portuguese!

American slave importation was at its height in the 1700s, and while slave ships continued to bring new arrivals, by 1800 the majority of American slaves were already English speaking American born creoles. The opening of the deep south after the Indian removals in the 1830s created a demand for slaves that was fed mostly by a internal domestic slave trade that trafficked in American born slaves from Virginia and Maryland sent to the plantations of the south (as in "12 Years a Slave") References to individual slaves' ethnic groups (Coromantee, Nago, Congo) or African naming traditions are common in the early 1700s, and become rare later on, evidence of creolization. About the only families still carrying the Ashanti day names tradition are the Cuffee and Cudjo families of the Wampanoag, Shinnecock, and Montauk Indian communities in New England, where Africans and Native American communities mixed.

The situation was different in Brazil (continued slave trade plus an active community of freed slaves commuting across the Atlantic between Lagos and Salvador, Brazil) where the Yoruba language persisted into the 1960s as a ritual language. Today it is still learned by adherents of Candomble. A lot of Yoruba freedmen returned to Nigeria where they introduced a special style of Brazilian architecture as well as the samba into Yoruba life. When the Brazilian-Nigerians returned to Brazil after an education in Nigeria, they often became candomble leaders... as well as English teachers. In fact, the common identity of being a "Yoruba" as opposed to identifying as a "Oyo" or "Ijesha" person has roots in this period, owing to the translation of the Christian bible into Yoruba by Reverend Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a Yoruba sold into slavery at age 11 and released in Sierra Leone.

In the English Caribbean, the end of slavery meant that one option for the British to staff their plantations was 1) intercept Spanish slave ships 2) dump the recaptured slaves on the coast of Sierra Leone 3) Don't offer to return them to their homes, but instead offer them 20 year indentured labor contracts to work in the West Indies or in the British West Indian Regiment. Many of these freed captives were Yoruba speakers who had been sold by Dahomean traders after the powerful Yoruba Kingdom of Oyo fell to Fulani and Hausa Jihadists in 1817. Previously, the Kingdom of Dahomey sold slaves to pay the Yoruba Oyo Empire the annual tribute. Now the kingdom of Dahomey sold refugee Yorubas (known as Nago, Ketu, Ijesha, and eventually, Yarriba) The Yorubas thus came to the new world rather later, and in a somewhat organized fashion. Many chose to settle in the same communities, they formed their own churches or reorganized their traditional religious structure, and many were already literate. Thus, Yoruba language tended to mainatain a spoken existence longer than most other African languages in Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Brazil, and their diaspora.
posted by zaelic at 12:58 AM on March 3, 2014 [17 favorites]

Great answers! Thanks, everyone!
posted by jason's_planet at 11:58 AM on March 9, 2014

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