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American Speech 76.4 (2001) 388-407
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On the Trail of Early Nonstandard Grammar:
An Electronic Corpus of Southern U.S. Antebellum Overseers' Letters
Edgar W. Schneider
University of Regensburg
Michael B. Montgomery
University of South Carolina
OUR TITLE SUGGESTS what all historical linguists know--that it is often difficult to get the evidence that we are most interested in. When we say that we are "on the trail of early nonstandard grammar" by studying a relatively vernacular corpus of early letters, this means that we are standing at the intersection of historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, and the study of language change in general. The majority of early documents, on the basis of which language change has been studied, represent relatively formal, standard or near-standard styles and text types. To study language change in its natural contexts, we must look to nonstandard varieties, because standard ones show the impact of prescriptive rules, linguistic authorities, fixed conventions, and social norms, all of which form a procrustean bed which limits the effect of fundamental laws of language evolution (Schneider 1997). Language change in its most natural, unconstrained form cannot be observed in standard varieties, yet nonstandard colloquial language of earlier periods is available only to a limited degree. The very fact that only written records have survived results in selective representation of the speech of earlier centuries--that is, documents biased towards formal, artful, standard language.
In trying to overcome this problem and obtain relatively informal, close-to-oral records of earlier times, historical linguists have followed two basic strategies, both of which are useful but have inherent limitations. One is studying personal writings that are not meant for the public and are therefore linguistically less monitored, more down-to-earth, one might say (i.e., letters, diaries, and the like). These texts are useful, but in the context [End Page 388] of widespread illiteracy, the very fact that their authors were able to write introduces a bias. Diary and letter writers of earlier periods are typically educated members of the upper class, not vernacular dialect speakers, and represent a small fraction of the population. Less literate writers more nearly represent the masses, but the extent to which they do so is difficult to know (Montgomery 1999). The second strategy is to look at direct records of oral performances, like transcripts of trial proceedings, sermons, dramas, and so on--but again, in these, only formal, important, public, or artful speech is usually deemed worthy of being recorded. There are no records of unedited private, informal conversations from earlier times.
This paper presents one recently developed resource for the study of the English of nineteenth-century working-class whites in the American South. It does not overcome the inherent difficulties but comes closer to identifying the everyday speech of the period than do other approaches. The larger project on which this study is based examines the writing of semiliterate people who could render words with letters but for whom writing was a difficult, unusual task, not a daily habit. 1 The project analyzes letters from white overseers on rural Southern plantations before the end of the Civil War. This informal, personal text type was produced by speakers born in the first third of the nineteenth century or earlier who often had little education and relatively low status, a combination promising to bring us closer to the white vernacular of that time than perhaps any other source. For a number of years, Montgomery has collected overseers' letters from historical archives throughout the South; Schneider has more recently turned them into an electronic text corpus of approximately 155,000 words called the Southern Plantation Overseers Corpus. Overseers' letters constitute the primary evidence for establishing the language patterns of antebellum working-class whites. They reveal patterns of white speech with which many antebellum African Americans would have had contact and which formed models for their acquisition of English; in other words, they help researchers come much closer to a "quantitative description...