LINGUIST List 13.2343

Wed Sep 18 2002

Review: Historical Linguistics: Wolfram & Thomas (2002)

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  1. David Johnson, Wolfram & Thomas (2002), The Development of African American English.

Message 1: Wolfram & Thomas (2002), The Development of African American English.

Date: Tue, 17 Sep 2002 17:29:32 +0000
From: David Johnson <>
Subject: Wolfram & Thomas (2002), The Development of African American English.

Wolfram, Walt and Thomas, Erik R. (2002)
The Development of African American English.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd, paperback ISBN 0-631-23087-4, v+237pp.

Book Announcement on Linguist: 

David Cassels Johnson, The University of Pennsylvania


Traditionally, scholars who attempt to trace the historical
development of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) have posited
two theories concerning its genesis: (1) the Anglicist hypothesis
(e.g. McDavid and McDavid, 1951) which holds that AAVE has its roots
in the British Isles, and (2) the Creolist hypothesis (e.g. Dillard
1972) whose advocates aver that AAVE is based on a creole of English
and West African languages begot in the African diaspora. Recent
studies (see Poplack, 1999) have given new life to the Anglicist
hypothesis, claiming that earlier versions of AAVE were indeed closely
linked to British dialects but have since diverged, primarily in the
twentieth century (see discussion in Labov, 1998). Other work has
focused upon the course of AAVE linguistic change, many arguing
(e.g. Rickford, 1992) that it is diverging away from other varieties
of English spoken in the U.S.

Wolfram and Thomas's new monograph challenges all of these theories,
charging that they underestimate the complexity of the development of
AAVE. They base these arguments, in part, on sociolinguistic research
conducted in an enclave dialect community of African and European
Americans in Hyde County, North Carolina, an isolated and rural
community close to the Pamlico Sound. Through the quantitative and
qualitative analyses of morphosyntactic, vocalic, consonantal, and
intonational alignment, as well as intragroup variability, Wolfram and
Thomas proffer conclusions about the genesis, evolution, and projected
course of change of African American Vernacular English. Chapters 1-3
offer a description of their data collection, illuminate important
terminology referred to throughout the text, and provide some
sociohistorical context for the Hyde County community. Chapters 5-8
are organized by the linguistic structures examined. For each chapter
the authors discuss the sociohistorical context, provide a qualitative
analysis including sociolinguistic distribution, and subject their
interview data to quantitative measures including VARBRUL
analyses. Chapter 9 examines more closely intragroup variation in the
African American speech community and Chapter 10 summarizes some
conclusions about the evolution of a supraregional AAVE norm.


Chapter 1 presents an introduction to the study conducted in Hyde
County. Two unique sources of AAVE data have emerged in the last few
decades: written texts from African American speakers and studies
(e.g. Poplack and Tagliamonte, 2001) examining ''expatriate transplant
communities'' that migrated to a relatively isolated area, thus
hopefully preserving older varieties of their language. Wolfram and
Thomas argue that the Hyde County speech community ''an enclave
dialect community'' offers a unique picture of language development
since, like the expatriate transplant communities, the speakers in
Hyde county are physically and socially isolated and have enjoyed
familial continuity for almost three centuries. Unlike the expatriate
transplant communities however, Hyde County is a biracial
community. Wolfram and Thomas incorporate data from written texts into
their analysis which is primarily based on a corpus of 144
conversational interviews of lifetime Hyde County residents, 92
African Americans and 52 European Americans.

Chapter 2, Issues in the Development of African American English,
elucidates some terminology and sources for debate surrounding the
development of African American English. As mentioned, two major
hypotheses about the origins of AAVE have traditionally been
championed--the Anglicist hypothesis and the Creolist
hypothesis. Recently, a reemergence in the Anglicist argument, what
Wolfram and Thomas refer to as ''Neo-Anglicist'' (p.14), has found
support in data suggesting AAVE is based on English dialects but has
since diverged. Wolfram and Thomas argue that studies which consider
only one or two features cannot account for the complex array of
influences to which AAVE has been subjected and in fact may obscure
more than illuminate the development of AAVE. In order to present a
complete picture of early African American speech, its development,
and the trajectory of change, a wide range of linguistic features must
be considered.

Also, Chapter 2 finds Wolfram and Thomas beginning their assault on
the over-arching explanatory power of the divergence hypothesis and
the simplicity of the divergence-convergence dichotomy. They point out
that divergence can involve variety A evolving away from variety B,
variety B from A, or mutual divergence. Indeed, depending on the
linguistic feature, the speech of African American English and
European Americans in Hyde County has converged, diverged, and
maintained steady ethnolinguistic distinction.

In Chapter 3, Defining the Enclave Dialect Community, the authors
discuss the nature of the Hyde County speech community. Factors that
contribute to the definition of an enclave dialect community include
geographical separation, economic autonomy, historical continuity,
social subordination, and cohesive group identity, all of which may be
necessary but not sufficient. While such a situation may foster
conservative dialectal change, the ''relic assumption'' (p.40), other
features are not so static due to influences from outside the
community as well as internal linguistic change. Language varieties
evolve and changes may reflect supraregional norms or evolution that
is characteristic of other varieties throughout the world.

In Chapter 4, The Social History of Mainland Hyde County, the authors
develop a sociohistorical profile of Hyde County, including its
settlement and population history. Historically, it has been
physically and economically isolated, and although certain eras have
fostered relative trickles of movement, large levels of migration in
or out of the community have not occurred. The authors also discuss
some of the history of relations between the African and European
Americans living in Hyde County, one illuminating characteristic being
that the European Americans typically ran small plantations with small
numbers of slaves thereby producing a sociolinguistic situation in
which larger than traditional levels of language contact were

Chapter 5, Morphosyntactic Alignment in Hyde County English, begins
the examination of linguistic structures found in Pamlico Sound
English 'the local variety spoken especially by older European
Americans' and African American English. Three significant examined
features are copula deletion (e.g. ''She nice''), ''weren't leveling''
(as in ''I weren't there'' instead of ''I wasn't there''), and third
person's marking. Copula absence is an oft-cited structure in AAVE and
Wolfram and Thomas argue that while there may be a number of
influences on the historical development of this structure, including
a creole predecessor and independent development, it developed
exclusively in African American English. Indeed, copula deletion is
thriving amongst Hyde County African Americans as it is found amongst
both older and younger speakers, thus solidifying the ethnolinguistic
distinction. However, both the older European Americans and their
African American cohorts exhibit significant levels of ''weren't
leveling'' 'suggesting earlier accommodation by the African American
community' while the younger African Americans have diverged away from
this local norm. Third person's marking is examined, as in ''The dogs
barks at the ducks'' (3rd person plural subject marking) and ''She
like to run'' (3rd person singular's absence). While it seems likely
that verbal -s with 3rd plural subjects comes from earlier European
varieties, Wolfram and Thomas assert that 3rd person singular -s
absence is unique to African American English in Hyde County since it
is rarely noted amongst the European Americans. However, both younger
groups seem to be abandoning verbal -s with 3rd plural subjects.
Thus, for morphosyntactic alignment, Pamlico Sound English has
influenced African American English in Hyde County while other
features have remained unique to the African American speech
community. Further the younger African Americans seem to be increasing
this ethnolinguistic distinction and adopting norms similar to those
consistently adopted in AAVE throughout the U.S., while abandoning
Pamlico Sound English. This is a common finding throughout the study.

Chapter 6, Vocalic Alignment in Hyde County English, is an examination
of vowel pronunciation in Hyde County including /ai/, /au/, and
/o/. Wolfram and Thomas find that while younger African Americans are
unrounding or lowering the nucleus of /ai/, it is not changing in the
speech of younger European Americans. All of the younger speakers,
however, are producing weaker /ai/ glides than older speakers,
although the authors argue that they may be doing so for different
reasons, since this trait is found in both AAVE and Southern American
English, the younger European Americans may be accommodating to inland
regional norms while African Americans may be adopting supraregional
AAVE norms. Interestingly, however, younger African Americans are not
adopting nationwide AAVE norms for the production of /o/. Thus
vocalic alignment has experienced divergence, convergence, and the
maintenance of similarity in Hyde County.

Chapter 7, Consonantal Alignment in Hyde County English, examines
consonant production, two telling features being ''r-lessness'' and
consonant cluster reduction (CCR). While the African American
community has accommodated many of the Pamlico Sound Dialect norms,
including post-th r-lessness, prenasal fricative stopping, and
unstressed /w/ deletion, the younger generation seems to be adopting
more widespread AAVE norms. Traditionally, Hyde County has been
considered a rhotic region with the exception of r-lessness after
''th'' (e.g. ''mother''). Younger African Americans are adopting more
widespread use of r-lessness, much like speakers of AAVE in other
parts of the U.S. Consonant cluster reduction (CCR) has been observed
in many varieties of English spoken in the U.S. including Hispanic
English, Native American English, and AAVE. The use of CCR amongst
Hyde County European Americans is limited largely to preconsonantal
contexts, but is widely used amongst both young and older African
Americans. Wolfram and Thomas note that there is no evidence that
these two communities were ever aligned in their CCR use and instead
argue that CCR production amongst African Americans in Hyde County and
throughout the U.S. is a result of fossilized language transfer from
Western African and/or creole languages. Thus, while there is
historical accommodation of r-lessness, followed by possible
divergence from the regional norm, there is clear historical
ethnolinguistic division in CCR production which continues to this

Chapter 8, Intonational Alignment in Hyde County English, presents a
comparison of the frequency of high pitch accents in European and
African American speech. Despite the relative paucity of research on
intonational differences between African American and European
Americans, some have noted that African Americans use more high pitch
accents than European Americans. Wolfram and Thomas find that African
Americans in Hyde County produce more high pitch accents than their
European American cohorts, a difference that is apparently
long-standing, as both older and younger speakers exhibit the
difference; however, it is not clear to Wolfram and Thomas why this
division exists, and thus call for more research to corroborate their

Chapter 9, The Individual and group in Earlier African American
English, takes into consideration intragroup variability in the
African American speech community in Hyde County. Some sociolinguists
(e.g. Romaine, 1982) have been critical of what Wolfram and Thomas
call the ''homogeneity assumption'' (p.161) ''which leads to the
presentation of speech community data as if it represented a
homogenous whole'' and instead argue for a focus upon individual
variability. Indeed, Wolfram and Thomas find significant individual
variation amongst elderly African American speakers in Hyde County for
rhoticity, production of vowels, verbal -s concord, copula absence,
and weren't leveling. However, some features suggest a group pattern,
including 3rd -s absence, copula absence, and prevocalic cluster
reduction; that is, while the percentage of use varies, all of the
speakers produce these structures at some point. Wolfram and Thomas
argue that these data suggest a core set of dialect structures in the
speech of African Americans in Hyde County, and while the individual
speaker may vary his/her production, certain features are
representative of the group as a whole: ''Speakers are both
individuals with idiosyncratic life histories and affiliated members
of a complex array of social groups'' (p.182).

In Chapter 10, Beyond Hyde County: The Past and Present Development of
AAVE, Wolfram and Thomas summarize the results of their work in Hyde
County, relating their findings to the development and trajectory of
change for AAVE throughout the U.S. While some features in Hyde County
do suggest a creole influence, other sources, including West African
language transfer, the Pamlico Sound Dialect, as well as internal
independent development have all played a significant role. Still,
there are a core set of ethnolinguistically distinct features that
were probably brought to the region by earlier African Americans which
have remained intact despite accommodation of other regional
norms. This finding counters the argument that the features
distinguishing AAVE from other English varieties are a product of the
20th century (Poplack, 1999). The authors argue that the African
American Hyde County community is not unique in its accommodation of
regional norms--there was probably a large amount of
variation amongst early African American speech due to such
accommodation, nor is it unique that the younger generations' speech
is converging with supraregional AAVE norms: ''The crux of
ethnolinguistic divergence may, in fact, lie in the development of a
supraregional AAVE norm that entails the abandonment of, or resistance
to, local regional norms'' (p.11).

Further evidence for early African American English being influenced
by regional varieties comes from an interesting ''identification
experiment'' for which the researchers asked 13 African Americans and
16 European Americans outside of Hyde County to identify the ethnicity
of speakers whose speech was recorded on tape. While the respondents
largely identified correctly the ethnicity of the younger African
American from Hyde County, most thought the elderly Hyde County
African American was white. Wolfram and Thomas argue that their
misidentification was due to their association of the speech of the
elderly man, characterized by many Pamlico Sound Dialect features,
with ''whiteness'' and AAVE with African Americans.

Wolfram and Thomas go on to reiterate and articulate their criticism
of the divergence hypothesis. Generally, Pamlico Sound Dialect
features are receding in the speech of both younger African and
European Americans--mutual divergence. However, while this is
true for most features, European Americans have in fact intensified
their use of weren't leveling. Younger African Americans, on the other
hand, have abandoned the weren't leveling found in both elderly speech
communities but have intensified their use of some characteristically
African American features, including copula absence and
r-lessness. Further, younger African Americans have adopted language
features characteristic of the supraregional AAVE norm but largely
absent in the speech of elderly African Americans including ''habitual
be.'' Wolfram and Thomas call upon other researchers to consider a
wider range of linguistic structures before making any claims
regarding the convergence or divergence of AAVE.

It has been of interest to linguists and sociolinguists that AAVE
throughout the United States shares a common set of features and
Wolfram and Thomas end with a discussion of the ''norming of AAVE.''
They cite mobility, de facto segregation, cultural identity, and
oppositional identity as contributing to the maintenance of a
supraregional AAVE norm. Therefore, AAVE research must consider
linguistic, sociohistorical, sociolinguistic, sociopsychological, and
ideological dimensions: ''The construction of vernacular norms
involves a complex array of intersecting linguistic, social,
psychological, and ideological factors fully deserving of careful
sociolinguistic scrutiny'' (p.204).


Overall, this is a thorough, tidy, and exhaustive study handled with
deft hands. Anyone interested in African American Vernacular English
should (and probably will) read this book. However, some shortcomings
should be mentioned. There are problems with collecting
naturally-occurring sociolinguistic speech data through interviews, no
matter how conversational the investigators intend them to be. Labov
(1972) referred to this problem as the observer's paradox and Wolfson
(1979) challenges the idea that naturally-occurring speech can ever be
captured in interviews: ''For interviews which follow a questionnaire
format the problems involved in collecting anything approaching
everyday speech are extremely severe'' (p.189). Indeed, Wolfram and
Thomas do not consider ''effects of interviewer variables such as
ethnicity, sex, and age'' (p.6). The speech situation of the interview
and the status negotiation between interviewer and interviewee can
give birth to a whole host of potentially data-damaging variables that
may or may not be compensated for with large amounts of data and
sophisticated quantitative analysis.

In their conclusion, Wolfram and Thomas argue that ''any account of
vernacular dialect formation and development'' needs to consider
linguistic, sociohistorical, sociolinguistic, sociopsychological, and
ideological dimensions (pp.209-211). However, this very ambitious call
to arms is not fully realized in their own study. While their research
illuminates linguistic and sociohistorical variables which contribute
to the formation of African American English in Hyde County, there is
a relative lack of emphasis on the sociolinguistic,
sociopsychological, and ideological variables. This is not a flaw of
the study per se but a limitation since other types of quantitative
and much more qualitative research would be needed to account for such
variables. For example, a number of African American speakers in their
study are accommodating to supraregional AAVE norms, perhaps as the
authors assert because of a desire to clarify ethnolinguistic
distinctions based on attitudes, intercultural interactions, and
identity. Such accommodation seems to be a ubiquitous feature of AAVE
formation throughout the United States for which we need a causal
explanation and theirs seems like a good one, but without a
psychological instrument to analyze attitudes and/or motivation
amongst the speech community members, such assertions, while
titillating and possibly providing impetus for future research, are
really just educated guesses. Thus, while Wolfram and Thomas' study
can explain how a number of linguistic structures in Hyde County vary,
they are not always able to account for why they vary. More
qualitative and/or attitudinal research in Hyde County might offer
insight into why speakers adopt the linguistic structures that they
do. For example, if young African American speakers do indeed identify
with other African Americans outside of Hyde County, how and why is
this happening? And, how does this then affect their acquisition of
AAVE? Besides the anecdotal evidence provided by some young African
Americans who thought the Pamlico Sound Dialect ''sounded white'', we
really do not know why they are adopting supraregional AAVE
norms. Other studies have shown that language acquisition can be
linked with attitude and identity formation (e.g. Eisenstein, 1982;
Goldstein, 1987; Ibrahim, 1999); perhaps similar research might yield
interesting results.

Also, Wolfram and Thomas do not account for important sociolinguistic
variables. For example, we do not find out if there is a hierarchy of
prestige for the different linguistic features in Hyde County. Based
on their ''identification experiment'', Thomas displays a knack for
interesting experimental research design. Similar tests which attempt
to gather attitudinal and affective reactions from respondents in and
outside Hyde County might illuminate which linguistic features are
considered more and less prestigious. Do young African American
speakers allot more prestige to AAVE norms than other speakers in Hyde
County? Do they devalue Pamlico Sound Dialect norms? Which ones and
why? What attitudes do the European Americans have toward AAVE and
Pamlico Sound Dialect norms? How do all Hyde County respondents feel
about other American English varieties--including so-called
Standard American English--spoken outside of Hyde County?

That said, for the linguistic variables that are examined, Wolfram and
Thomas' study is comprehensive and exhaustive, thus providing a solid
foundation for developing their conclusions. They take great care in
gathering and examining a large amount of data and the fastidiousness
and patience with which they approach their work is impressive and
heartening. Further, the authors consider in detail sociohistorical
dimensions providing necessary social context for interpreting their
linguistic findings. Wolfram and Thomas proffer convincing evidence
that the formation and subsequent development of AAVE cannot be
encapsulated by any one theory posited thus far. The picture that they
paint is messier yet more powerful, and in the end, satisfying.


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About the Reviewer

David Cassels Johnson is a Ph.D. student in Educational Linguistics at
the University of Pennsylvania. David pursues interdisciplinary
research in sociolinguistics, language learning and teaching, and
language planning and policy to generate solutions for accommodating
and encouraging linguistic diversity in schools.
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