Variations on ‘slavery’ in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA)

Note: The following served as an assignment model in ENGL 203, “Rhetoric and Composition II,” Northern Illinois University, spring semester 2019. Photo: O’Sullivan, Timothy H., photographer. Slave quarters on a plantation, Port Royal, South Carolina. Port Royal South Carolina, 1862. [April] Photograph.

Introduction & research questions

Lexical choice and morphological shift are sometimes all that is necessary to move from language that objectifies to language that recognizes the existence of the subject. Migrants without U.S. entry visas or with expired visas might be called “illegal aliens,” “illegal immigrants,” “undocumented persons,” or “undocumentable human beings” depending on how far we travel along the linguistic continuum from objectification to acknowledging the human other as an equivalent member of the species, as a sister or brother in the ancient Greek sense of fraternal love (agape), with rights, mind, and heartbeat.

Another intriguing example of language use and variation is that of human slavery. As a direct descendant of slave owners—or, more precisely, of those who enslaved human beings for their own convenience and profit—one of our group members (Turnbull) has paid special attention to conversations about exploitation and whether we, with our words, help turn people who labor into objects we might manipulate, trade, or sell or if we bother to know their true names and think about them, as we think about ourselves, as agents of free will. “There’s been a debate about the language of slavery—or slaving, as some writers prefer to call the institution—for several years,” writes Lucy Ferriss in a 2017 Lingua Franca blog entry at the Chronicle of Higher Education (Ferriss). As part of her research into the life of a former Missouri governor, also a descendant of enslavers, she asks if we prefer to think about our lives in terms of the things (or people) we own; or, can we shift, at least in our words, to imbuing these “things” with agency, identities, and existential worth?

The research questions for this investigation of language corpora involve the use of “slaving language” as it has evolved since 1810, more than a half-century before the Emancipation Proclamation and a time when group member Turnbull’s own forebears were managing their wheelwright business and household in Abbeville, South Carolina, with the labor of at least ten enslaved persons. First, in what manner and with resort to what specific language were enslaved persons in the United States objectified in the first decades of the nineteenth century? Second, has constitutional change and the global discourse of human rights helped bring about a revision in “slaving language,” such that we now can recognize the humanity of the once-enslaved person over against their status as property?


The primary research source was the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) at Brigham Young University ( This is an assemblage of fiction and nonfiction texts, newspapers, and magazines from 1810 through the first decade of the twenty-first century. For comparison of results, each search was also run through Google Books (American) (, an even larger database of printed works beginning in the sixteenth century. Searches were conducted for two time periods of forty years each, from 1810 to 1850 and 1970 to 2010. These are “naturally produced texts” and contextualized examples of language in use (Aull).

Of particular interest were the syntactical structures and lexical collocations for the word slave. In other words, by which verbs were enslaved persons objectified most: meaning, what verbs did the word slave most frequently follow in the two time periods? As a counterpoint, we ask with which verbs were enslaved persons most prominently associated as subjects. Or, what verbs most often follow use of the word slave? Searches were also conducted to discover the frequency with which enslaved persons were referred to explicitly as possessions (following the ’s or s’ possessive clitics or other noun forms) as compared to use of the word slave in other contexts. Finally, we search appearances of enslave as transitive verb, as adjective and noun (as in enslaved person or the enslaved) and as noun subject (enslaver).


Of all forms of the word slave, between 1810 and 1850 slave, slaves, slavery, slaveholders, and enslaved account for the vast majority of uses. In the latter time period, between 1970 and 2010, the top three words are identical, with enslaved and slavers taking up positions four and five. Again, these five forms, derived from the lexical root slave, dominate. The top noun collocations between 1810 and 1850 are states, trade, abolition, slaves, and slave, with a more even distribution among the most commonly associated words. For the latter four decades, the top five are trade, free, slave, labor, and former, again with no one or group of lexical items predominating. It is worth examining the top fifteen verb collocations for slave; these are the lexical verbs most commonly appearing no more distant than four words in front of slave or its derivatives:

Table 1. Top-15 Verbs Associated with the Word “Slave,” 1810-1850. Source: Corpus of Historical American English.

As a comparison, the Google Books (American) corpus from 1810 to 1850 gives the top-fifteen preceding lexical verbs as make, sell, prohibiting, selling, hold, prohibit, give, making, emancipate, trembling, holding, submit, prevent, treated, and treat; from 1970 to 2010, the Google list reads freeing, selling, sell, born, make, hold, buying, treated, take, help, prohibit, prohibiting, want, taken, and capture.

Digging into the data for additional context, one might be curious as to why make or made are so commonly associated with enslaved persons. Looking at examples, we notice the common motif that a person can become enslaved or even enslave themselves, as in this corpus excerpt from volume two of Logan: A Family History by John Neal, published in 1822. As two characters debate the merits of slavery, we read:

Do not mistake me. I do not justify the stealing slaves, or going to war, for the purpose of capturing human creatures. But I say this, that a man, as free as I am, at this hour, may bind himself and posterity to perpetual servitude; and abandon the right of property for himself and them, and thus make himself a slave, in the truest sense of the word, under the English law, if principles and analogy be followed.

There are fewer examples, relative to the size of the corpus, from the later data set; nevertheless, made and make are still prominent as collocations. In fictional treatments such as the novel Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux (1982), a character warns that “[a] cruddy little man who sees God in a snake, or the devil in thunder, will take you prisoner if he gets the drop on you. Give anyone half a chance and he’ll make you a slave: he’ll tell you the most awful lies” (emphasis added).

Forms of the verb and adjective enslave appear at a slightly higher frequency in the later data set, and more often to characterize individuals, such as enslaved people, enslaved women, enslaved folk, enslaved children, enslaved men, and enslaved race. Corpus data from 1810 to 1850 tend to refer to the power to enslave, the attempt or intention to enslave, and the bondage of enslavement.


The corpora searches failed to answer the research questions with any confidence. The first research question, concerning linguistic objectification of slaves, perhaps does not need a corpus search to answer. That English has sustained a language for slavery over several centuries says all one needs to know about the mental and physical abuse meted out to other human beings. If one is objectified in body—denied liberty, treated as chattel, denigrated without consequence—does the parallel objectification in language really make any difference? Yet the language, in the way it takes root and follows established patterns, encodes a social practice well beyond the period that enslaving occurs. In fact, as Gumbs notes, “[S]lavery itself is the language we are translating into present dehumanizations and disconnections” (179, emphasis in original).

Gumbs also comments on the distinction between being made and being born a slave (181–82). In findings from our corpus searches, we note that make or made are the words most commonly associated with the word slave, both from 1810 to 1850 and from 1970 to 2010.[1] Born and become are also collocations from the searches, restricted to these two ranges of forty years each. Presumably, we do not make slaves anymore, but the concept persists to the present day. The idea can occupy our fantasy lives, the ways that we entertain ourselves with film, literature, and video games. The corpus search provides this example from the 1977 novel by Robert Howard, Hour of the Dragon (part of the Conan the Barbarian series). Speaking of a mysterious source of sorcery, one of the characters says:

I believe it is the secret of his power. With it Orastes brought him back to life. With it he will make us all slaves, if we are not wary. So take it and cast it into the sea as I have bidden you.

Language, though, often can mislead us. It is possible to speak in much more coded ways about enslavement; in fact, it’s more likely that, concerning modern realities of slavery, the practice would not be called “slavery” at all. Other possibilities in the twenty-first century are “migrant workers” or “forced labor.” We often call things by different names, especially if they are taboo, shameful, or illegal, and if we are uncertain about definitions. The online Encyclopædia Britannica references the enslaved person as a “species of property” and includes the telling sentence: “There is no consensus on what a slave was or on how the institution of slavery should be defined” (“Slavery”).

The modern world contains 40.3 million slaves, according to estimates from 2016 (Global Slavery Index). It is a largely hidden phenomenon, state the Global Slavery Index findings, “widespread and pervasive, often unacknowledged, and its extent was previously believed to be unknowable.” It is not accepted dinner conversation anymore to speak openly of good slaves and bad slaves. The anti-slavery theater production of The American Captive (1812), during an open-slaving era, mimics such language: “If you will confide in my judgment, I will do my best to procure you a good and worthy slave” (emphasis added). The Turnbull family in estate documents from the same era, in the early nineteenth century, refer to one female enslaved person, Beck, as “not worth the cost of keeping her.” It has long been common practice to speak of human beings in terms of exchange value, such that we do not even double-take at such references. Scholars of slavery write about the “continuity of slaving” as a practice that dates at least as far back as Aristotle (and back to ancient Egypt) and about the “resigned toleration of dehumanizing other human beings as things” (Miller 3). As Orlando Patterson begins, in the famous first sentence of Slavery and Social Death, “There is nothing peculiar about the institution of slavery” (vii).

The point, therefore, is not what specific language tokens exist to talk about enslaved people. It is that a language has evolved at all in order to organize our thinking about this demonistic form of monetized human property that Gumbs characterizes as a collaboration of love and capital (181). With regard to the second research question about potential changes to “slaving language,” especially in the so-called modern age of human rights, the corpus data are far from convincing. Abolition and emancipation, indeed, are relatively high-frequency words in discourse about enslaved people between 1810 and 1850. It should be noted, however, that the Corpus of Historical American English includes troves of abolitionist material. The identical search for 1970 to 2010 does not reveal a distinctly more humanized approach, although much more nuanced analysis and a more clearly delineated range of source documents would be required.

If we consider enslaved people as part of a power dynamic in which they are “objects of the law, not its subjects” (“Slavery”), it is to be expected that the enslavers have preserved the additional power to name and to shape the resulting discourse of brutality. If that is what we are looking for in corpus data, if that is what we expect to find, then we shall find it. We will not find, in contrast, the ways in which enslaved people have subverted the naming power of enslavers by claiming the word slave as a source of identity and resistance. The lyric from the spiritual “Oh, Freedom” comes to mind: “[B]efore I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free.” Variously dated between the 1830s and 1870s, the song has retained its power, through the civil-rights period, by defining enslavement as a negative force in opposition to which we might find the very meaning of life.


While failing to offer solid answers, the corpus questions in this study related to the objectifying language associated with enslaved persons and to hypothesized changes in “slaving language” offer interesting discussion points and the unsurprising conclusion that language about the institution of slavery (“made a slave,” “born a slave”) continues to shape discourse. More rigorous delineation of corpus material—perhaps comparing slave narratives and the language of enslavers—might help to tease out the distinctions in slaving language as understood by the practitioners of human slavery and its victims.

[1] The corpus used for comparison, Google Books (American), offers a slight shift in associations of lexical verbs preceding forms of slave. From 1810 to 1850, the much more expansive books corpus lists make and sell as the most common collocations; from 1970 to 2010, however, the most common, in terms of raw hits, are freeing and selling. The word make has slipped to fifth position.

Works cited

Aull, Laura. “Corpus Linguistic Analysis of Written Language: How to Use ‘I’ and More.” Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, 6 Nov. 2013, Accessed 14 Feb. 2019.

Corpus of Historical American English. Accessed 14 Feb. 2019.

Ferriss, Lucy.  “The Language of Enslavement.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 Oct. 2017, Accessed 14 Feb. 2019.

Global Slavery Index. “Global Findings.” The Global Slavery Index, 2018, Accessed 5 March 2019.

Google Books (American)  Accessed 14 Feb. 2019.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “Slavery Is a Language.” Review of Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Transatlantic Slave Route, by Saidiya Hartman. Obsidian (Illinois State University), vol. 8, no. 2, Fall/Winter 2007, pp. 175–85.

Miller, Joseph C. The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach. Yale Univ. Press, 2012.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Harvard Univ. Press, 1982.

Slavery.” Britannica Library, Encyclopædia Britannica, 13 Dec. 2018. Accessed 23 Feb. 2019.

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