Language in Slavery: Frederick Douglass's Narrative Journal Article uri icon



  • For historians who use slave narratives to document the immediate physical and social facts of slave life, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself offers a frustratingly low yield. Beside Solomon Northup's detailed account of living quarters, diet, work life, holidays, and family relations, Douglass's Narrative must seem spare, incomplete, even misleading in its portrayal of the slave experience—an incendiary polemic written more to fuel the abolitionist cause than to convey the nature of the slave experience. To read the Narrative from this point of view, however, is to misapprehend how Douglass's text treats slavery and to be needlessly disappointed. Unlike Northup, Douglass focuses on the linguistic significance of bondage: He tersely portrays masters and slaves almost solely in terms of their linguistic acts because, for him, the reality of slavery is a profoundly rhetorical one. He charts his own relentless progress to freedom as the acquisition of an ever deeper understanding of language use in a slave economy, and the realization of his own freedom at the Nantucket antislavery convention is preeminently a linguistic event. Douglass's perspective is an important one, for as sociolinguists have discovered, “peoples do not all everywhere use language to the same degree, in the same situations, or for the same things. … Languages, like other cultural traits, will be found to vary in the degree and nature of their integration into the societies and cultures in which they occur.” Douglass was acutely sensitive to the linguistic system of slave society, of the ways in which language was used—and withheld—by one human being to enslave another.

publication date

  • October 1, 1983

has restriction

  • closed

Date in CU Experts

  • May 31, 2014 11:20 AM

Full Author List

  • Kibbey A

author count

  • 1

Other Profiles

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0361-2333

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1471-6399

Additional Document Info

start page

  • 163

end page

  • 182


  • 8