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Review of  African American English in the Diaspora

Reviewer: William Stone
Book Title: African American English in the Diaspora
Book Author: Shana Poplack Sali A Tagliamonte
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 13.837

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Poplack, Shana, and Sali Tagliamonte (2001) African American English in
the Diaspora. Blackwell, paperback ISBN 0-631-21266-3, xxi+293pp,
Language in Society 30

William J. Stone, Northeastern Illinois University

African American English in the Diaspora investigates the origins of
African American Vernacular English (A.A.V.E.). Using evidence from
recorded conversations of ex-slaves and their descendants in the United
States, the Samana Peninsula in the Dominican Republic and in Nova
Scotia, this work attempts to bring more light to bear on the
convergence/divergence debate that has been one of the main foci of
attention in A.A.V.E. studies in the past sixteen years since the
publication of Labov and Harris's (1986) "De Facto Segregation of Black
and White Vernaculars."

In this book, Poplack and Tagliamonte provide ample and necessary
background information about the diaspora itself: about who the people
involved were, why they left and where they went. They investigate the
tense/aspect system of historic (or preserved) varieties to establish
whether their structure is more commensurate with a creole origin or
with an English origin. They argue that, even after a prolonged period
of decreolization, a language should show signs in its tense and aspect
of a creole origin if one exists. They combine methods of variationist
sociolinguistics and historical linguistics to asses the relationships
between various corpora including historic and contemporary speech
communities in North America and England.

In the first chapter, the basic structure of the book is outlined with
summaries of the nature of the diaspora communities and the methods to
be used in the analysis of the data.

In chapters two and three,the validity of the data for this research is
outlined. Convincing historical material is reviewed which confirms
that the population of the Samana Peninsula of the Dominican Republic
and the North Preston and Guysborough communities in Nova Scotia
provide language data of a variety of A.A.V.E. that should be relevant
to the current research. The relative isolation of these communities
guaranteed that the speech that was analyzed had been essentially
unaffected by outside influences and, thus, closely reflects the
A.A.V.E. of the time of the diaspora.

Chapter four outlines the external controls in the research in the form
of data from Ex-Slave Recordings (E.S.R.) and language data from
Guysborough Village, a white enclave in Nova Scotia, from Ottawa,
Canada and from Tiverton, Devon in England. The Guysborough data is
clearly relevant being geographically close to one of the A.A.V.E.
groups under investigation. The Ottawa data represents a source of near
standard Canadian English. The Tiverton data represents a British
example that should have changed little being in a relatively isolated
part of England. The Guysborough Village, Ottawa and Tiverton corpora
are uncontroversial selections for controls, but the E.S.R. are more

The E.S.R. were made largely largely in the 1930s of people born into
slavery between 1840 and 1865. There is criticism of the validity of
these recordings as viable sources of linguistic data, but Poplack and
Tagliamonte go to some length in assuaging our fears over this issue.
The E.S.R. act as a control for the Samana and Nova Scotia data in so
far as the e-slaves recorded were born within a few decades of the
migrants of the diaspora. However the potential for speech
accommodation on the part of the interviewees is not fully addressed
and this still leaves the reader with some doubt as to the usefulness
of the data.

Chapter five outlines the comparative method used in the analysis of
the data. Chapter six applies this to an analysis if the past tense and
chapter seven to an analysis of the present tense. Chapter eight looks
at the future. These three chapters impress the reader with the rigor
of their approach. The multivariate statistical analysis provides
convincing evidence of a lack of an underlying creole origin. It is
suggested that the lack of past markings in weak verbs can largely be
accounted for by phonological rule (-t/-d deletion) which is widely
established in the literature. The fact that strong verbs maintain the
past markings offers further evidence in support of the proposal that
lack of tense marking is phonological rather than morphological and
does not, therefore, prove a genetic link to creoles that lack a past
marker. The evidence for the present tense argument is less convincing
especially in light of research by Singler (1997) among others. They
argue equally convincingly that the use of -s provides evidence for a
creole origin to A.A.V.E. in its various guises.

Chapter nine summarizes the findings of the analyses. The basic finding
of the research is that the statistical evidence from what appears to
be the language of African Americans in the middle of the nineteenth
century showed that A.A.V.E. was more like the white varieties of
English than a creole. This suggests that the creole origin hypothesis
is put seriously in doubt and that we have been experiencing marked
divergence in black and white varieties of the language which brings us
to the position that currently obtains in North America.

As stated above, the arguments presented in the text are extremely
convincing. However, there are a few points that might be addressed.
Although the book is very much focused on the tense/aspect system, this
is not the only factor that can tie into a creole or British origin to
the language. Singler (1989) for example, has found evidence from
plural markings in Liberian Settler English to support a creole origin.
Rickford (1999), among others, investigates the copula in A.A.V.E. and
finds ties to creole languages.

One addition that this reader feels would greatly add to the arguments
of this work would be the use of an acknowledged creole language used
as a control for comparison purposes. As Jamaican Patwa and Trinidadian
Creole provide data of a post-creole continuum, it would be interesting
to see how an analysis of that data would compare with the other
corpora analyses that are outlined in this work.

Of course, we have no in depth discussion of A.A.V.E. in the centuries
prior to the diaspora. Rickford (1999) provides a useful socio-historic
context that suggests that a creole is still a viable option for
A.A.V.E. genesis. More significantly, he, (Rickford) (1987) has shown
that convergence and divergence can be operant at different times in
the same speech varieties. He suggests that there is no evidence to
show that A.A.V.E. had not already decreolized by the middle of the
last century as we have no actual data related to periods before that
time. Even those who support the creole genesis theory do not suggest
that A.A.V.E. decreolized uniformly. Those with more contact with
Caucasian speakers would have more acrolectal speech. Consequently, at
any given time there will exist a whole continuum of A.A.V.E. from the
basilectal to the accrolectal. We would need to know the social
standing of all those who migrated to the various diaspora
destinations. It would be wrong to assume a basilectal language level
for all of the migrants as we know that many of those who lead the
migrations were not field slaves but educated and , thus, almost
certainly spoke a variety of English reasonably high in the A.A.V.E.
continuum. This would clearly affect the development of their language
in the following century.

Although this book provides excellent and rigorous discussion of
clearly relevant data, it does not write the final word (nor does it
claim to) on the whole divergence/convergence origin of A.A.V.E.

This volume is the most recent addition to the excellent Language in
Society series from Blackwell. It is essential reading for any student
of A.A.V.E.

Labov, William and Wendell Harris. 1986. "De Facto Segregation of Black
and White Vernaculars." in Diversity and Diachrony. ed. by David
Sankoff. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Rickford, John. (1987) Dimensions in a Creole Continuum: History, Texts
and Linguistic Analysis of a Guyanese Creole. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press.

_____. (1999) African American Vernacular English. Malden, MA:
Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Singler, J. V. (1989) "Plural Markings in Liberian Settler English" in
American Speech 64: 40 - 64.

_____, (1997) On the genesis, evolution and diversity of African
American English: Evidence from verbal -s in the Liberian Settler
English of Sinoe. Paper read at SPCL at London, England.

William J. Stone received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in
2000 and is now an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Northeastern
Illinois University in Chicago. His current interests include A.A.V.E.,
Syllable Structure, T.E.S.L. and Syntax for teaching purposes.


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