Blackface Minstrels' Dialect

Matthew Gordon GordonMJ at MISSOURI.EDU
Mon Nov 10 21:03:06 UTC 2003

I think this is a very interesting area of research. There are two
different issues underlying your question. One is the features
characteristic of mid-19th cen. speech (of African Americans or Whites).
The other is the way African American speech was represented in
"literature". The latter involved many conventionalized features that
may or may not have had any reality in speech. I haven't looked into
this stuff, but I seem to remember the use of "am" as the leveled form
of "to be" (e.g., he am happy), which wasn't (AFAIK) widespread in AAVE,
if it existed at all.

The use of <d> for <th> (as in "de") was also highly conventionalized
but it seems to have some connection to linguistic reality. It's a
common enough feature of working class speech over much of the
English-speaking world. You asked about the vowel which I imagine has
the same variation as in other dialects (i.e., long 'e' is more likely
before vowels).

One source you might look into for info on 19th cen. African American
speech is Edgar Schneider's _American Earlier Black English_. I'm sure
others on the list can suggest more.

Daniel Partner wrote:

>To: American Dialect Society, Email Discussion List
>Hello, I am a musician and performer specializing antebellum popular music,
>especially the music of the early blackface minstrels (1830-1860). I am
>researching the dialect that these performers used in the lyrics of their
>songs. Can you direct me to any sources concerning mid-nineteenth century
>American phonetics and/or something specific about the language of the
>blackface minstrels?
>Here is a more specific question: Can it be determined how the minstrels (or
>the African-Americans of the era) pronounced the word "de". For example,
>Stephen Foster's song, "Camptown Races" begins like this: "De Camptown ladies
>sing dis song, Do-Dah! Do-Dah!" Was "de" pronounced with a long "e" or a
>short "e", or both? If both, what might the rule be for such usage?
>I appreciate your help.
>Daniel Partner

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