Exploring the homeland of 19th-century African American English


Gerard Van Herk


Transcribing and analysing hundreds of letters written by 19th-century African American settlers in Liberia offers us new insight into the controversial issue of the origins of contemporary African American English (AAE). The semi-literate writers of the letters write as they speak; as a result, we can study such hallmark features of AAE as variable marking of past tense (e.g., when i arrive at the cape i was invited to Preach) and present tense agreement (e.g., I wants to here from them). Large scale quantitative analyses show subtle regional and class distinctions, and demonstrate the long historical pedigree of contemporary forms that are often dismissed as errors or recent innovations.

Selected publications

  • Van Herk, Gerard, & S. Poplack. 2003. Rewriting the past: Bare verbs in the Ottawa Repository of Early African American Correspondence. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 18(2), 231-266.
  • Van Herk, Gerard, & J.A. Walker. 2005. S marks the spot? Regional variation and early African American correspondence. Language Variation and Change, 17(2), 113-131.


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