History of African American English in the U.S.

 

See CEL:         ‘Black English Vernacular’ p. 96-97;

                        ‘Pidgins & Creoles’, p.344-349.

 

http://www.arches.uga.edu/~bryan/AAVE/

 

http://www.une.edu.au/langnet/aave.htm (one page of many devoted to descriptions of varieties)

 

http://www.cyberpg.com/Literacy/default.asp webpage devoted to literacy and dialect speakers

 

I. Preliminaries:  Language and Dialect

 

 A language is

·        a consistent set of sounds,

·        a set of regular structural patterns, and

·        a consistent set of meanings to associate with the sounds and the structures. 

Any variety of speech that has these features is a language (and a dialect).

 

A dialect, for a linguist, is represented by two mutually intelligible language varieties, typically viewed as belonging to the same language.  For a non-linguist, a ‘dialect’ has a negative connotation, being somehow ‘less than a language’.  Dialect, as I will use it, has no negative connotations; it refers to the linguist's interpretation.

 

This interpretation means that a dialect is a language, with all the structure, sound patterns, and meaning regularities of any other language variety.

 

Black English

The origins of Black English (referred to variously as Black Vernacular English, African-American English, and Ebonics) are disputed. One theory holds that this variety of English developed from a pidgin that resulted from the conditions of the slave trade, during which speakers of different African languages were thrown together and forced to communicate through a pidgin language. This pidgin was used by slave traders and slave owners to communicate with blacks, and by blacks of different linguistic backgrounds to communicate with each other. Out of this developed a Black English creole spoken by the first generations of slaves born in North America.This creole can be heard today spoken by the Gullah and Geechee inhabitants of the Carolina Sea Islands. Another view holds that Black English results from the retention of British English features that have not been retained in other varieties of American English. Also controversial is the question of whether Black English and Standard English are on the path to convergence or increasing divergence.

Black English is characterized by pronunciations (phonology), syntactic patterns (grammar), and morphological features (inflections) that in many instances also occur in other varieties of English. Many features are shared by Southern white speakers and by Appalachian speakers. The features below represent tendencies toward speech patterns that occur some of the time in speakers of Black English but that are certainly not to be regarded as universal, or universally-occurring features.

Phonology

r-deletion:

door> [do:] ("doah")

sister>"sistah"

l-deletion:

help>"hep"

steal>"steah"

ball>"bah"

you'll >"youah"*

they'll>"deyah"/"dey"*

*Results in appearance of failure to inflect for the future tense

final consonant cluster reduction:

passed>"pass"

This gives the appearance of a morphological gap in the grammar (i.e., no past tense marker). Note that even in Standard English speakers simplify final clusters in casual speech if the following word in the phrase begins with a consonant: cold cuts>"col´ cuts"

loss of final dental [alveolar] stop:

good man>"goo´ man"

monophthongization:

like>[lak]

time>[tam]

why>[wha]

interdental fricatives become alveolar stops:

initially:

they>"dey"

them>"dem"

think>"tink"

thin>"tin"

But, if the following cononant is an r:

three>"free"

throat>"froat"

medially:

nothing>"nuffin'"

brother>"bruvvah"

finally:

tenth>"tenf"/"tent"

mouth>"mouf"/"mout"

Grammar

AUX-deletion (i.e., deletion of the auxilliary verb):

 

Where Standard English can contract, Black English can delete:

Standard English (informal)

Black English

He's going

He going

I've got it

I got it

He'd be happy

he be happy

Note that where Standard English cannot contract, Black English cannot delete:

Standard English (informal)

Black English

*What a fool you're.

*What a fool you.

Iterative/habitual be:

He be coming home at six. (means: "He usually comes home at six.")

Double (or multiple) negation:

"Neither one of us ain't got nuthin' ta lose." (Eddie Murphy, 48 Hours)

"Can't no one tell you you ain't somebody." (Jessie Jackson)


cf. "Nor is this not my nose neither." (Shakespeare)

Morphology and Syntax:

With a numerical quantifier such as two, seven, fifty, etc., Black English speakers may not add the obligatory in Standard English (and redundant) morphemes for the plural: e.g., fifty cent, two foot

 

The use of the possessive marker:

Where the Standard English speaker says "John's cousin"; the Black English speaker might say "John cousin." The possessive is marked in Black English by the "genitival" position of the noun and its possessor

 

The third-person singular has no obligatory morphological ending in Black English, so that "she works here" is expressed as "she work here."

 

Black English sometimes uses ain't as a past-tense marker:

Black English present tense: "He don't go."

Black English past tense: "He ain't go."

 

Future-tense:

Standard English: "I will go home"

Black English: "I'ma go home"

 

Conditional subordination:

Standard English: "I asked if he did it."; BVE
Black English: "I ask did he do it."

 

Pronoun case

Standard English: "We have to do it." BVE "
Black English: "Us got to do it."

 

Preposition:

Standard English: " He is over at his friend's house."
Black English: "He over to his friend house."

 

II. The history of African American English

 

According to Dan Mosser’s notes on the origins of English in America,

The origins of Black English (referred to variously as Black Vernacular English, African-American English, and Ebonics) are disputed. One theory holds that this variety of English developed from a pidgin that resulted from the conditions of the slave trade, during which speakers of different African languages were thrown together and forced to communicate through a pidgin language. This pidgin was used by slave traders and slave owners to communicate with blacks, and by blacks of different linguistic backgrounds to communicate with each other. Out of this developed a Black English creole spoken by the first generations of slaves born in North America.This creole can be heard today spoken by the Gullah and Geechee inhabitants of the Carolina Sea Islands. Another view holds that Black English results from the retention of British English features that have not been retained in other varieties of American English. Also controversial is the question of whether Black English and Standard English are on the path to convergence or increasing divergence.

 

http://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum211/timelines/htimeline3.htm  (African slave trade and European imperialism)

 

·        1517: African slaves transported to the West Indies by the Spanish to work on sugar plantations

·        By 1550, West African Pidgin English was probably spoken widely along the entire West African coast. It still is spoken there, along with Krio (Sierra Leone, Liberia) and Nigerian English.

·        Early 17th century: European ships transported West Africans to the Caribbean and American coast to be traded for sugar, rum, molasses

·        1619: 20 African slaves arrived in Virginia on a Dutch ship

·        After 1625, slaves from West Africa brought their African languages, lingua francas, and West African Pidgin English, to be sold in Brazil, eastern South America, the Caribbean, and the British colonies. http://www.juneteenth.com/middlep.htm representations of and writings on the middle passage (the leg of the journey from West Africa to the Americas)

·        By 1700, there are records of a fully developed Plantation Creole English.

·        1776 (American Revolution): half a million black slaves are in the US

·        By 1790, 750,000 African Americans in U.S. (14% of U.S. population). http://www.american.edu/projects/mandala/TED/slave.htm discussion of abolition of slave trade

·        By 1800, Plantation Creole English is undergoing decreolization, to create a continuum from creole >> deceolized plantation >> standard southern.

·        By 1850, 92% of African Americans live in the South.

·        1865 (end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery): over 4 millions slaves in US

·        1900: migration to the North begins for large numbers.

·        Migration from South accelerated in 20th century:

                1920: 85% in the south

                1940: 77% in the south

                1960: 60% in the south

 

 

*                      *                      *                      *                      Interlude on Pidgins and Creoles (Crystal, 346)

     

A PIDGIN is a system of communication which has grown up among people who do not share a common language, but who need to communicate, usually for reasons of trade. In other words, it is a lingua franca that consists of a hybrid language, greatly reduced in grammatical and lexical structure, developed as a consequence of contact between two or more speech communities. Characteristics of this ‘contact’ language:

·        Limited vocabulary

·        Reduced grammatical structure

·        Narrow range of functions

 

In a multilingual community, people begin to use a pidgin as their main means of communication outside the private domains of family. This leads to a major expansion of the vocabulary, grammar, and range of situations in which the language is used. The children come to hear it more regularly, and eventually, children learn it as a mother tongue. E.g. Tok Pisin, of Papua New Guinea, is a newly born pidgin/creole which has been growing to meet the requirements of a fully fledged language.  http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=PDG

 

A CREOLE is a pidgin language which has become the mother tongue of a community. It develops the syntactic, lexical, and morphological sophistication required by any language functioning as the primary language of a speech community

 

Creolization is the process by which pidgins become mother tongues, acquiring the linguistic resources necessary to serve a wide range of functions.

Decreolization is the process by which creoles change with increased contact with and the influence of standard languages. This process has been repeated in many places around the world. 

 

Pidgin                          West African Pidgin

     |

     |                                                                              CREOLIZATION

     |

Creole                         Krio

     |

     |                                                                  DECREOLIZATION

     |

     |

     <standard>

         language                     Nigerian English

 

 

        As a result of the transportation of slaves from West Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean via the middle passage, over time, English creoles developed in the Caribbean, in Guyana, and in the southern U.S.  These creoles are fully formed languages, and the main source for modern dialects of African American English. Jamaican Creole, Guyanese Creole, Bahamian Creole, Gullah, Afro-Seminole, Louisiana Creole, Hawaiian Creole English.      

 

        Gullah Is the clearest holdover in the U.S. from earlier Creole English languages (also Geechee).  There are as many as 250,000 speakers today from north Florida to North Carolina Sea Islands.  Gullah may represent a source for modern African American English. http://www.coastalguide.com/gullah/

 

        Afro-Seminole, related to Gullah, is still spoken by several hundred people in Brackettville, TX, mostly over 50 years old (near Mexican border).

                An off-shoot of Florida and Georgia Gullah, escaped slaves settled in Florida under Spanish and traded with seminole Indians.  After seminole wars, some African Americans were sold back to slavery, others went to Oklahoma with the indians, others settled in Mexico by the Texas border.  After slavery was ended in 1865, some Afro-seminoles were invited to become scouts with western cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers).  Many settled around Brackettville.

 

        Ghetto life in the northern cities maintained the African American English features commonly brought from the south.  This is why all cities have similar African American English varieties despite great geographical separation (Chicago, NY, Washington DC, Detroit, LA).

 

III. African American English today: the Ebonics controversy

 

Various web sources: http://www.staff.uiuc.edu/~jlandrum/BlkEng.html

 

·        AAVE in education: The Ann Arbor Case

 

In 1979, A Michigan federal court ruled that Ann Arbor public schools were discriminating against African American children by denying them training in Standard English as these children speak an independent dialect, Black (African American) English. 

 

In the Ann Arbor decision, "Black English is therefore not synonymous with 'broken English,' 'ungrammatical language,' 'slang,' or 'street talk.' 

 

Like all language, it is systematic and rule-governed in its syntax (grammar), phonology (sound system), and semantics (system of meaning)" (Chambers 1983:ix). 

 

"The ruling required that schools take note of the fact that language used at home and in the local community is a barrier to the students' learning only when teachers do not understand it and do not incorporate it into their method of instruction" (Chambers 1983:xi).

 

 The outcome of the Ann Arbor decision was that teachers needed to become aware that African American English was a consistent linguistic system and that teachers should have a better knowledge of the resources children bring to school with them (Labov 1983:29).

 

·        The Oakland Case and Ebonics

 

http://www.staff.uiuc.edu/~jlandrum/oakland.htm

 

Charles Fillmore (a linguist) comments:

The words "dialect" and "language" are confusingly ambiguous. These are not precisely definable technical terms in linguistics, but linguists have learned to live with the ambiguities. I mentioned "the language of the resolution" where I meant the actual words and phrases found in the text of the board's resolution. We can use the word "language" to refer simply to the linguistic system one acquires in childhood. In normal contexts, everybody grows up speaking a language. And if there are systematic differences between the language you and your neighbors speak and the language my neighbors and I speak, we can say that we speak different dialects.

The word "language" is also used to refer to a group of related dialects, but there are no scientific criteria for deciding when to refer to two linguistic systems as different dialects of the same language, or as different languages belonging to the same language family. There are empirical criteria for grouping ways of speaking to reflect their historical relationships, but there is an arbitrary element in deciding when to use the word "language" for representing any particular grouping. (Deciding whether BBC newsreaders and Lynchburg, Va., radio evangelists speak different dialects of the same language or different languages in the same language family is on the level of deciding whether Greenland is a small continent or a large island.)

There is a different and misleading way of using these words for situations in which, for social or political reasons, one dialect comes to be the preferred means of communication in schools, commerce, public ceremonies, etc. According to this second usage, which reflects an unscientific "folk theory", what the linguist would simply call the standard dialect is thought of as a "language", the others as "mere dialects", falling short of the perfection of the real language. An important principle of linguistics is that the selection of the prestige dialect is determined by accidental extralinguistic forces, and is not dependent on inherent virtues of the dialects themselves. But according to the folk theory, the "dialects" differ from the language itself in being full of errors.

From: A Linguist Looks at the Ebonics Debate, Charles J. Fillmore (Department of Linguistics, U. C. Berkeley)

http://www.staff.uiuc.edu/~jlandrum/linguist.htm (Fillmore’s comments on the Oakland case)