Syntax, Vocabulary, and Grammar

Mastering The Master’s Language

In my previous two posts, I have made an attempt to better understand early African American intellectual history, first providing an overview and last month looking at how slaves and free black Americans belonged to a variety of different communities. Today, I want to examine language. The earliest generations of African Americans not only experienced the traumatizing Middle Passage, faced extreme brutality from masters and overseers looking to extract labor, and became marginalized members of Euro-American societies, but they also had to learn, master, and utilize a strange and foreign language.

As a historian, an important skill I have attempted to cultivate is the ability to empathize with those in the past, no matter how different. Perhaps it comes from my own lack of foreign language skills, but to think about slaves and their desperate attempt to comprehend what was happening around them is horrifying. After being sold to a rural plantation or bustling urban area, slaves would be sent to work. In addition to strange sights, smells, sounds, and people, there would be a near total inability to understand what anybody was saying. A lucky few would have learned some English, Dutch, Portuguese, or French in slave castles or slave ships or perhaps found a fellow countryman or woman amongst their fellow slaves. Nevertheless, once they arrived in the New World and were sold, they would be yelled at and disciplined in a foreign tongue. At the same time, slaves would desperately seek somebody—anybody—to communicate and attempt to piece together some knowledge of the master’s language.

Yet, what makes language acquisition even more harrowing are the subtleties. Syntax, vocabulary, and grammar are only the first steps and truly understanding a language requires comprehending shifting contexts, idioms, and rhetorical devices. Learning those subtleties as an adult would be exceptionally difficult, but now imagine doing it as a seven-year-old girl such as Phillis Wheatley had to when she arrived in Boston in 1768.

While eighteenth-century Boston would have been a strange and scary place for a little girl from Senegambia in West Africa like Wheatley, she did have one advantage. We know today that the earlier a child immerses herself into a foreign language, the more easily she is able to learn it. After overcoming the initial shock of living in a foreign land, Wheatley proved quite adept at learning languages. She mastered English in only a couple years and by the age of twelve, she was also fluent in Latin and Greek. Of course, we know Phillis Wheatley today because she was the first African American woman to publish and be widely read in the Atlantic world. Her early language skills were key to the success she found as an author. Wheatley quickly mastered not only the English language, but also its subtleties. Indeed, she was able to strategically deploy words to create a more level playing field of communication between herself and white Americans. In her poetry for example, she repeated refers to Africans as “Ethiopians,” signaling to her audience that Africans were not entirely heathens and had a Biblical past. [1]


At the end of her poem about Harvard College, Wheatley referred to herself as an “Ethiop,” playing the role of an outside observer, but also laying claim to a similar biblical past as Europeans. See “To the University of Cambridge in New England” in Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: A. Bell, 1773), 16.

Although Wheatley was exceptional, she was not alone. By the middle decades of the eighteenth century, many slaves had learned the complexities and subtleties of European languages. Wheatley’s Boston serves as a great example. Slaves in the bustling port city learned important rhetorical devices to further their own agendas. When Boston Jethro wanted a divorce from his wife, Hagar, he made sure to frame the petition in a particular way, noting his wife had committed the “Detestable sin of Adultery.” In another divorce case involving a free black woman and her enslaved husband, the wife described how her spouse lived in “constant Violation” of the marriage bond. While the language in both cases could be dismissed as rhetoric designed to build a case for divorce, context matters here. Both these cases took place in eighteenth-century New England where old Puritan definitions and understandings of marriage still held sway. Matrimony created the very institutions—families—that were the building blocks of social order. To live in violation of one’s marriage covenant was to undermine the fabric of society. Enslaved people understood this view of marriage used it to rhetorically frame their petitions. [2]

Other slaves used their language skills to leave a public record of their experience and place in colonial society.

Peter Fleet, a slave belonging to Boston printer Thomas Fleet, left a will not only to distribute the money he had earned as a newspaper deliveryman, typesetter, and woodblock maker, but also demonstrate he was a good and productive member of society. Most interestingly, he distributed money to Thomas Fleet’s children, especially his daughter Molley because she was “very good to servants.” Peter, then, used his will, a literary device employed across the Western world to determine inheritance, for both its traditional purpose, but also to judge and evaluate Euro-American society on his own terms. [3]


Not only did Peter Fleet leave a will, but he also left his mark in the works publsihed by Thomas Fleet. Here, in the Prodigal Daughter, printed by Thomas Fleet, in 1736, Peter initialed the woodcut he made in the bottomleft hand corner. See The Prodigal Daughter (Boston: Thomas Fleet, 1736). Copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College

While learning an oppressor’s language in an openly hostile environment could be horrifying, enslaved people like Wheatley, Jethro, and Fleet demonstrate that slaves could and did successfully learn and appropriate European languages to their own advantage. In previous posts, I have attempted to understand the mentalités or mindsets of early African Americans, but the lesson of this one is fairly obvious: language acquisition mattered.

But the question remains why it mattered. And that question is important for people who study slave and free black life in the early Americas. It can be easy when reading documents containing the voices or experiences of black people to dismiss certain portions of them as boilerplate. Rhetorical devices, such as recognizing the king’s sovereignty or the language of the divorce petitions above, appear in nearly every document created in the eighteenth century. As such, they are all too easy to dismiss. Likewise, many of these acts were probably performative (did slaves truly accept the sovereignty of European kings?), but were nonetheless employed to better communicate with hostile audiences. Understanding the form and subtleties of written and oral communication allowed slaves and free black Americans to better express their desires. Phillis Wheatley was brilliant at this, carefully imitating both contemporary and ancient European poets in structure, while using her poetry to gently chastise white readers and express her own opinions.

In the end, the appearance of rhetorical devices—so quotidian and commonplace—in documents concerning people of African descent speaks to a sophisticated understanding of white society. The ability to deploy these linguistic strategies to their own advantage demonstrates that the mastery of language formed a cornerstone of early African American intellectual life.

[1] Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2011), 57.

[2] Jared Ross Hardesty, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston (New York: NYU Press, 2016), 160-161.

[3] Ibid., 123, 159.