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Tracking the evolution of vernaculars: Corpus linguistics and earlier Southern US Englishes

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Chapter Summary

The paper argues for the need to investigate vernacular speech forms diachronically as evidence of natural language change, largely untouched by standardization processes. It suggests letters written by semi-literate writers as an appropriate source of data, and after surveying earlier pertinent writings and approaches it pays some attention to methodological considerations which play a role specifically in compiling and analyzing nonstandard corpora. The principles considered are then applied in an investigation of black and white dialects from the Southern United States as reflected in diachronic sources. Under the umbrella heading of ReCAmED (Regensburg Corpora of American English Dialects), three pertinent corpus compilation and analysis projects are introduced and characterized: SPOC, a corpus of Southern Plantation Overseers Letters, by white nineteenth century writers; COAAL, a Corpus of Older African American Letters, from roughly the same period; and BLUR, a corpus of early twentieth century Blues Lyrics compiled at the University of Regensburg. The three corpora are compared in terms of their properties and usefulness for dialect analysis, including methodological decisions taken, and are illustrated by short sample texts. Subsequently, exemplary investigations based on them are presented. First, some erratic, quasi-phonetic spellings, some widely discussed nonstandard grammatical patterns, and the continuous use of the old English ‘for to + infinitive’ construction to express a purpose in these dialects are documented. Secondly, the corpora are employed to test hypotheses of earlier scholarship which claimed (a) a comparatively late post-Reconstruction origin of the southern dialect, and (b) the existence of fundamental grammatical differences between the races at earlier times (with the corpus data providing strong support for the former but not for the latter hypothesis).1



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