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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
INTRODUCTION 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 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 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:
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
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