Review of The Development of African American English
Date: Mon, 16 Sep 2002 11:04:48 -0400
From: David Johnson
Subject: Historical Linguistics: Wolfram, Walt and Thomas, Erik R. (2002)
Wolfram, Walt and Thomas, Erik R. (2002) The Development of African American
English. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, paperback ISBN 0-631-23087-4, v+237pp.
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
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
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 possible.
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 day.
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 findings.
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:
^ÓSpeakers are both individuals with idiosyncratic life histories and
affiliated members of a complex array of social groups^Ô (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
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"
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
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| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.L