Native American and African Influences on American Accents?

In the thread on aboriginal influence on the Australian accent, an interesting side discussion broke out on the influence of Native Americans and Africans on American accents.

To recap, here’s how it went (and I’m skipping a few posts):

There was some more back and forth, but that’s the gist of it. So, does anyone have any evidence/information or informed speculation on the influence (if any) of Native American and African speech patterns on the various American accents?

I have some more thoughts of my own. I’ll be back with those later.

Robert M. Pirsig’s book Lila advanced a theory that American Indian speech influenced American English speech patterns (as well as social attitudes). He came from Montana, and wrote the book about a trip down the Hudson while reminiscing about the West. In his view, the Indian influence was the least on the East Coast, and the strongest out West. He also revealed that the idea initially came about in a tipi while participating with Indians at a peyote ceremony.

I read the book so many years ago, I can’t remember all the details of the argument, but the main point seemed to have been that the social egalitarianism of Indian tribes came to be preferred among white Americans out West, compared to the stratified social hierarchy observable in the Hudson Valley. That along with this, Indians were more plain-spoken and so American English speakers became more plain-spoken too, and this was a basis for the American accent, at least as it developed out West.

I’ve wondered myself, if the “Southwest” accent that has some features in common with a stereotypical American Indian accent was influenced by it, or vice versa.

This is an astonishing claim. It would seem obvious to me that there has been an African influence in the South.

But, OK, you want more than circumstantial evidence. Well, here’s an offhand remark from a linguist referencing the influence (in the context of a dicussion of French accents):

(my emphasis)
Backing that up, I found a student paper (well-footnoted) including this discussion of “Plantation Creole”:

and which also includes this information:

I also found a contemporary mention of the influence of “plantation creole” on white speakers in the Journal of Frances Anne Butler (nee Frances Kemble), a British actress who toured the South in 1833:

Given the amount of interaction between black nannies and white children, and between white children and black playmates, and given the day-to-day interactions between white Southerners and slaves, it would be strange to think that African accented English had no influence on the development of the Southern accent.

And the evidence cited above suggests otherwise

And it seems to me I hear traces of a Native American accent in parts of the far north and Canada.

I’ll be back later with some thoughts on Native American influence on American accents.

Consider the proportions of the ancestry of present-day Americans:

German: about 15%
Irish: about 13%
English: about 12%
African-American/Black: about 12%
Hispanic: about 12%

It’s quite likely then that there are influences on American English from German, from Irish English, from various dialects in the U.K., from African languages, and more recently from Spanish. On the other hand, less than 2% of the ancestry of present-day Americans is Native American/American Indian. It probably wasn’t a big influence.

I’m missing something here. The phonetic shift in the given example is vowel-raising, and has nothing to do with consonants. I suspect the writer of having gotten the linguistic terminology garbled, since all languages have plosive consonants. Perhaps they were thinking of implosive consonants, which are not found in most languages. Several West African languages have them, while the only Indo-European languages that I know of with implosives are Sindhi and Lahnda over in Pakistan. I experimented pronouncing “bill” with an implosive /b^/, and it did seem to affect the vowel, tending to diphthongize it in a way that might sound something like “beel” (more precisely, [b^I@l]). I would like to see Dillard quoted verbatim, to get the actual linguistic straight dope on it.

Are those percentages from genetic studies, or from self-reporting? Because I’m thinking a lot of people have Native American ancestry of which they are unaware.

It is a student paper. I imagine she got the terminology garbled, as you say.

It’s from census data. Are you going to get picky about such a trivial thing as that? My impression is that these days people will actually overestimate their American Indian ancestry. The point is that, compared to German, Irish, English, African-American, or Hispanic ancestry, the amount of American Indian ancestry is comparatively small. It’s less than a number of other ethnic ancestries in the U.S. too. The contribution from American Indian languages is thus comparatively small.

Its not nitpicky at all. If you were to ask me my ancestry on a census form, and I could only give one ethnicity, I’d say English. But I also know that one branch of my ancestry was Cherokee.

A lot of people don’t realize they have Indian ancestry because at an earlier time in our nation’s history Indian ancestry was regarded as a source of shame. Moreover, at the time of the Removal, there were families in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina actively hiding their Indian ancestry.

And try googling “Melungeon” sometime.

Genetic studies would be much more informative than self-reporting.

I’ll be back with more later.

Please note, this is liberty3701, not Jamaika a jamaikaiaké. I didn’t realize my husband was signed in on my computer. That said, on to my words of wisdom:

I’m a bit confused as to what your question is. Do African and American Indian languages have an influence on any American accents? Or did they have an effect on what’s considered the standard American accent(s)?

I can give some insight into the first question. The influence of African languages on African American English (AAE) is part of a long-standing debate. The two main sides are called creolist hypothesis and the Anglicist hypothesis. To quote the excellent textbook, American English (second edition) by Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, the creolist hypothesis is “the contention that African American English developed historically from an ancestral creole language” (p. 390), whereas the Anglicist hypothesis is “the contention that African American English is derived historically from dialects transplanted to America from the British Isles. The Neo-Anglicist hypothesis also holds that African Americans derived their basic language from British dialects, but contends that is has since diverged considerably from European American varieties” (p 386) Basically, some people think that AAE started as a creole of West African languages and English, whereas other linguists contend that AAE has nothing to do with African languages. Both sides can back up their stance with lots of evidence (mostly syntactical) from all over the English- and creole-speaking world.

Wolfram and Erik R. Thomas (The Development of African American English, 2002) have their own theory called the substrate hypothesis. From the same text: the substrate hypothesis is “the position that African American English has maintained a persistent substrate effect even though it accommodated to and mixed with regional dialects early in its development” (p. 407). In the interest of full disclosure, I studied under both Wolfram and Thomas, but this hypothesis makes the most sense to me and has the most bearing on this discussion. Basically, there are influences from West African languages in the English spoken by speakers of African American English that has persisted beyond the point where speakers became monolingual English speakers. This is the same phenomenon we see with Latino/a speakers who have a “Spanish” accent but do not speak Spanish. I’m honestly drawing a blank on examples of this effect, but I’ll think about it and get back to you.

A similar phenomenon happens in speakers of varieties of American Indian English (AIE), which is the main thrust of my research. There’s only one book on the subject, American Indian English by William Leap, which focuses mostly on members of tribes in the west. He details many, many examples of how speakers of AIE translate aspects of their native languages into English, and how these new varieties are passed down to younger speakers who may not speak the indigenous language. Many varieties of AIE lack some of the vowel contrasts of English because the substrate language lacks those contrasts, and their English may have a different tense system for verbs. My current research is about prosodic rhythm, the length difference of adjacent syllables. English is considered stress-timed, meaning that there is a large difference in syllable length since we stress syllables mainly by lengthening them. Romance languages such as Spanish are considered syllable-timed, meaning that the syllables are all of mostly equal length, creating that staccato rhythm characteristic of such languages. When two such languages “mix” within the same speaker, we’ve found that the speaker has a rhythm that’s in between the two extremes. For instance, Latino English speakers speak English with a more staccato type sound, but not quite as staccato as Spanish itself. My research has focused on Eastern Cherokee English, and they speak with a similar rhythm to Latino English speakers. This means that there is most likely an influence from Cherokee on their English, since Cherokee is more syllable-timed than English.

But, all this said, I do not believe that there has been much, if any, influence from African or American Indian languages on mainstream US English beyond a few borrowings. I am unaware of any studies that show any effects like that, though there may be isolated incidents of individuals or communities of non-African Americans or non-Indians adopting either syntactical, phonological, or semantic systems from African Americans or American Indians.

Also, it has been my experience that people are not at all afraid to admit they have American Indian ancestry; it appears to no longer be a dirty little secret and is instead a source of pride, to the point where, like, half the white people I meet claim to be part Cherokee.

One problem is that we have a ludicrously large array of possible lingual borrowings over a huge area, with a very large number of regional accents, among shifting and amorphous populations constantly moving, while talking about a phenomenon (accents) which cannot be readily determined for a particular date, ethnicity, social class, area, etc. before modern audio recording devices.

:confused: Persig is from Minnesota. And Lila is a novel. Do you mean that the narrator in Lila is from Montana, etc?

This sounds like a stretch to me. White western settlers did not have enough positive interaction with Native Americans to have been overly appreciative of their “social egalitarianism.” And I’m not sure how being plain-spoken would affect the accent you’re speaking so plainly in.

I’m part Cherokee! :wink: (No, I’m not.) Very interesting post, BTW. :slight_smile:

I don’t think the present-day demographics has much to do with it. If there was any influence, it’s likely to have come about centuries ago.

It certainly makes sense that Black English (or whatever you want to call it) had an influence on American English, especially in the south. And it certainly makes sense that Black English was influenced, at least to some degree, by whatever African languages were spoken by slaves brought over here. My understanding is that this is not a particularly easy thing to prove. The wikipedia article seems to agree.

But I think the point is that a lot of people don’t know they have Native American ancestry because it used to be something that people would hide.

True, but I think it’s pretty speculative to say it was hidden in the past. Besides, I don’t think that will have much of an influence on the way people talk now. We could speculate that intermarriage has spread some Native American influence to mainstream US English, but I doubt it was much for American English at large. And someone who is unaware of their native heritage is unlikely to speak in a way that reflects that heritage; many ethnolinguistic dialects are tightly tied to identity.

Sorry for the double post, but I realized I should probably address some other points you made:

While that’s partially true, since the large influx of English and Germans were centuries ago so their major imprints on mainstream US English (MUSE) are fairly old, we get an influx of new people from all over the world all the time, and MUSE is changing all the time. So, we shouldn’t assume that present-day demographics are irrelevant to this question, especially in regards to Hispanic influence.

Language, especially ethnolinguistic dialects and identity, rarely does what makes sense (see Labov’s Darwinian Paradox, discussed in more depth in his book, Principles of linguistic change, Vol. 2: Social factors). An important rule of thumb is that people, as social beings, talk like people they want to be like. Thus, I find it unlikely that substrate influence from African languages can be found in the English spoken by white people in the south. Today, many white Americans invoke AAE in order to display their solidarity with Hip Hop culture, but white Southerners in the time of slavery would not likely want to sound like African Americans, and thus I doubt that there was much influence in that direction at that time.

Well, you yourself said it used to be a “dirty little secret”. No? Mixed race people were often looked down in the US, so I don’t think we need much speculation at all.

Just to be clear, I’m not taking the position that American English accents were influenced by Native American languages. In fact, if you read the OP, he started this thread because I said that in response to his post in another thread.

I just want to make the point that looking at the present day demographics isn’t of much help in telling us what went on the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

But that’s not the only way people end up talking the way they do-- they also tend to talk like people they spend time with, and White kids growing up in the antebellum South often spent lots of time around Blacks. And your accent generally gets formed while you’re growing up.

The lack of recorded voices makes it very hard to frame an argument with anything more than circumstantial evidence (as smiling bandit pointed out). We might on rare occasions get some insight from contemporaneous writings (as with Frances Butler’s journal), but mostly I think informed speculation is about the best we can hope for.

I think John Mace is right in saying that speech patterns are generally set in childhood. With that in mind, I would say the circumstances that might lend themselves to Native American influence on accent would be:

*Close living proximity, such that white children and Indian children would have commonly been playmates; and/or

*Extensive intermarriage, particularly where the bride is Indian (since the mother in a frontier setting is generally going to be the one more involved in imparting language to the children – if the mother speaks with an accent, the child may pick it up and incorporate it into spoken English); and/or

*Indian nannies. (Again for the influence on children’s speech patterns.) I think we can rule this one out, at least as a widespread phenomenon. I’ve never seen anything indicating this ever occurred.

Taking all those factors into account, I think I’m coming around to the view that there was not much opportunity for Indian accents to influence English accents.

I am most familiar with the Southern colonies, so here’s what I have to offer by way of historical background. The Jamestown colony was founded in 1607. There was certainly some early interaction with the natives, including some early marriage. (Everyone knows the story of Pocahantas.)

However, two things happened which limited early interaction. First, in 1620 the so called “Bride Ship” arrived at the colony, bearing 90 young Englishwomen, and putting a quick halt to the need for male colonists to take Indian brides. Soon after that, you see writings suggesting that marriage to natives, if not exactly taboo, was certainly being frowned upon. (No doubt, the English brides were a jealous bunch.)

Secondly, there was a massacre of Jamestown colonists in 1622, which was carried out by the following means:

As you can imagine, the colonists were much more wary about day-to-day interactions after that. So I’m thinking that the opportunities for Native American influence via playmates might have been limited after 1622.

There is no doubt, I think, that there was quite a bit of intermarriage in later years, as colonists began to penetrate the frontier, but I think that in the first few years of colonization, when the Southern accent was being born, the daily interaction (with children at least) was limited. (According to this linguist, accents begin to diverge after only one generation of separation from the group of origin.)

Having said all that, I think the most likely Indian candidates for having influenced Southern accents are the Cherokee, and here I’m thinking particularly of the Appalachian accent. Back with some more on that thought later.

liberty3701, thanks for your informative post. I want to respond to some of your comments, and will do so later.

That’s because pop culture has for the past century had this weird double standard complex about the way Indians are viewed. On the one hand, they’re something savage, backwards, and comical, but on the other hand, they’re seen something noble, a warrior people with a hard-ass rugged spirit and a symbol of power and pride. Indian motorcycles. Tomahawk missiles, Apache helicopters, the Jeep Cherokee. Red Man chewing tobacco. And over the past half century, especially after the 60s, I’d guess, some of the bad connotations faded away and we’re left with the image of the proud Indian chief, in rugged-featured silhouette, as representing something badass.