Thursday, February 21, 2013

The 'N' Word

     I just heard that Mississippi has finally filed the paperwork to properly ratify the 13th Amendment which abolishes slavery. They ratified the amendment in 1995 but failed to file the proper paperwork making slavery no longer legal. In honour of that, I decided to write a blog entry I had been thinking about for a while.
      As a Latinist, there is no mystery to me where the 'n' word comes from: it comes from the Latin word 'niger' an adjective meaning 'black' but this word has become so powerful that, like the name of Voldemort or cancer, it cannot be spoken aloud. It is curious to me how it came to be used for African slaves when the world was becoming increasingly less fluent in Latin and it must be certain that the men engaged in slavery did not have a university education steeped in the Classics.

      However this is the adjective fully declined:

   singular       masculine           feminine      neuter
  nominative    niger                   nigra           nigrum
  genitive         nigri                    nigrae         nigri
  dative            nigro                   nigrae         nigro
  objective       nigrum                nigram        nigrum
  ablative         nigro                   nigra           nigro

       Although this is an adjective, one did not have to attach a word meaning 'man' because Latin adjectives can stand alone and, because they decline, you can infer what the noun they are modifying is from the context. It is called a 'substantive'. What is fascinating to me is that only the masculine form was adopted, although clearly someone was using a Latin word, and female slaves were called using a feminized masculine word and it seems the nominative forms were preserved as well as the ablative/dative forms. Why not the objective form since it would be the object of the verb? And the masculine, genitive singular is the same form as the masculine nominative plural but it was never used for multiple slaves. Why was that never used? The answer must be that it was not Latin but rather Spanish that was applied to these poor souls.
       A quick glance at the Wikipedia article on Colonial slavery in America reveals that, indeed, the early slavers were Spanish. The article reveals the astonishing fact that only 5% of the slaves taken from Africa were taken to America. The majority went to Spanish colonies in Brazil and the Caribbean, where the mortality was so high, they needed constant replenishing of numbers. The first African slaves were brought to America as early as 1619 to Virginia by the Dutch, who had taken them from a captured Spanish ship. The Spanish had the slaves baptized before being shipped to make the enslavement 'legal' which seems rather odd since one of the good things about the Catholic Church is that it frowned upon slavery and Spain was very Catholic nation. Remember the Spanish Inquisition.
       At least these early slaves were treated as indentured servants in Virginia and were freed after a stated period of time. It appears the difficulty of finding labor to work the fields and plantations made this evil an attractive proposal and it was revisited later.
       One has to wonder why the English adopted the Spanish word rather than use the English words 'black man' but English does not decline and does not commonly substantiate adjectives. If you call someone a 'man' then you have to recognize that what you are doing is wrong by every code of ethics that you profess to believe in. So, you have to dehumanize them and call them something else.
       All this made me wonder where the word 'black' came from since it is clearly not related to the Latin word and the modern German word is 'schwartz'. The French word for black is 'noir' and is supposed to be related to Latin, having lost the 'g' by the 11th century. The Old English word for 'black'  is 'blæc' but I have no etymology for it but all this is an aside and does not solve the conundrum.
       In conclusion, it is always worth taking a look in the dictionary. The Oxford Concise states the nominative form came from the French, which is odd because they dropped the 'g' so long ago, but makes sense because the displaced Acadians in Louisiana were very enthusiastic slave owners. And the  ablative form came from the Spanish. There you have it: that is why there are two forms for the word.


Anachronist said...

The Spanish had the slaves baptized before being shipped to make the enslavement 'legal' which seems rather odd since one of the good things about the Catholic Church is that it frowned upon slavery and Spain was very Catholic nation.

It is not odd, it's hypocrisy pure and simple. Officially the Catholic Church was against slavery but they condoned the pracitce throughout the entire Catholic world.

The Red Witch said...

I don't understand why they thought it was okay to enslave Christians and not heathens. That is the part that seems so very odd.

Anachronist said...

I suppose in a very twisted way they were doing them a favour and then they made them pay for it.