Grammar and Written Proficiency
Teacher: Kristian Dyrvold
Spoken soul, Ebonics or Black English; the language of the lower class African Americans has many names. Among linguists, African American Vernacular English or AAVE is the term most frequently used. Trudgill (2000:51) states that, because it was born out of the African slave-trade, AAVE was, for a long time, considered to be inferior to the English language spoken by the whites. This racist opinion has very much affected the study of the language. The fact that AAVE initially was regarded as inferior has made it difficult to highlight differences in AAVE without being regarded as racist. Over time, however, linguists have come to agree that there is no such thing as superior and inferior languages. Although different, all languages are now considered to be equally valid, at least in the world of linguistics.
Nevertheless, the discussion concerning AAVE is still quite complicated, since it inevitably touches on sensitive ethical and political issues. The question of where the differences between AAVE and Standard American English (SAE) have their roots is one of the focal points of this discussion. The two major theories in this controversy are the Dialect hypothesis and the Creole hypothesis. Whereas the former contends that the origins of the linguistic differences between AAVE and SAE are to be found in non-standard dialects of the British Isles, the latter argues that AAVE is a creole, derived from English and West-African languages (Trudgill 2000:52). This essay will give an account of these two theories and discuss whether or not the whole truth can be found in either one of them.
History of the Dialect Hypothesis
In the seventeenth century, African Slaves only constituted a small fraction of the work force in the British colonies. The majority of the settlers were labourers from the British Isles, who signed contracts to work five to ten years and then were able to obtain a piece of land of their own (Rickford and Rickford 2000:131). These so called indentured servants were, for the most part, peasants and other lower class labourers who spoke non-standard British dialects (2000:147). When the African slaves arrived on the American mainland they were often put to work on plantations alongside these indentured servants. Since the number of African slaves was relatively small in the beginning, the first slaves would have had little difficulty learning the English spoken by their employers and fellow labourers (2000:132).
African slaves were the only immigrants who were denied any kind of formal education by law, and thus purposely kept illiterate (Baugh 2000:32-33). According to Cleanth Brooks (cited in Rickford and Rickford 2000:148), the slaves consequently learned their new language by ear and by oral tradition and thus "rather faithfully preserved what they had heard, were little influenced by spelling, and in general actually served as a conservative force".
Life as a slave on the plantation was hard and supporters of the Dialect hypothesis, or Anglicists, argue that "the devastating experience of slavery wiped out most if not all African linguistic and cultural traditions" (2000:129).
History of the Creole Hypothesis
According to linguist Derek Bickerton (cited in Rickford and Rickford 2000:132), creole languages develop when language learners do not have sufficient contact with native speakers of the target-language. These people are forced to create a language based on their native languages in combination with the target-language. This is what happened with the blacks who were transported as slaves to the Caribbean, where the proportion of blacks in relation to whites was very high (Rickford and Rickford 2000:132). When a number of these slaves were imported to the southern mainland, so was their creole language (2000:133).
Creoles also developed as a result of the transportation of African slaves by ship to the American South. During their journeys across the sea, the slaves were often put together with blacks from other language backgrounds. This was a way for the slave-traders to avoid rebellion on the ships. Naturally, the blacks had to develop pidgins in order to be able to communicate with each other. A pidgin also developed between the slaves and the sailors who often spoke English (Crystal 2003:39). The children who were born by African parents on the plantations used this pidgin as their mother tongue, which thus became a creole (2003:40).
According to supporters of the Creole hypothesis, or Creolists, the gradual change in proportions of African slaves in relation to whites meant an increase in the use of the black creole. In the eighteenth century, African slaves constituted almost 40 percent of the population in the South (Rickford and Rickford 2000:134). This meant that African slaves had less and less contact with white native English speakers, and instead learned the language from other blacks. This development continued as the number of blacks continued to grow during the nineteenth century. An expanded cotton industry, illegal slave-trade and natural increase contributed to an increase in slaves from 700 000 in 1790 to almost 4 million in 1860 (2000:138).
While the supporters of the Dialect hypothesis believe that slavery made the African slaves lose their linguistic and cultural heritage, as previously stated, the Creolist believe the opposite to be true. They claim that this difficult experience actually helped them maintain their heritage. According to Rickford and Rickford (2000:135) the bad treatment of the slaves "might have erected or reinforced sociopsychological barriers between blacks and whites, formenting black resentment and leading to the crystallization of a black identity expressed, in part, through a distinctive vernacular".
Contrasting Explanations of Linguistic Differences
Linguist John McWhorter (cited in Rickford and Rickford 2000:129) has made the following remark concerning the origins of the differences between AAVE and SAE:
We would die trying to find any African language that worked anything like Black
English. On the other hand, if we went to England and took a train into the countryside,
we would find much of what we were looking for.
An other linguist, Ernie Smith (cited in Rickford and Rickford 2000:152), is at the other end of the rope, claiming that "African American does not in any way follow the grammar rules of English, but is the linguistic continuation of Africa in Black America". These two statements are both rather extreme and demonstrate in a very good way, the one-way thinking of many of the linguists involved in the controversy.
One thing that both Anglicists and Creolists agree on, is the fact that the vocabulary of AAVE is almost exclusively English (Rickford and Rickford 2000:144). The controversy lies in whether or not the differences in pronunciation and grammar between AAVE and SAE are of British or African origin.
One of the characteristics of AAVE is the pronunciation of the th-sound as t, f, d, or v. Speakers of AAVE would say tin for "thin", Rufe for "Ruth", dem for "them", and bave for "bathe". Anglicists argue that this variation in pronunciation comes from the non-standard British dialects spoken by the early British settlers. Cleanth Brooks (cited in Rickford and Rickford 2000:148) claims that it is not likely that any of the British settlers in America used the th-sound. This pronunciation was limited to the British upper classes at the time, and these classes were not much represented among the first settlers of America. According to Creolists this difference in pronunciation originates from West-African languages in which the th-sound does not exist. It would have been natural for speakers of these languages to substitute the sound for one that existed in their own language. Furthermore, the Anglicist argument that British immigrants did not use the th-sound is refuted by Rickford and Rickford (2000:149) who argue that it is not very likely that no British immigrants would have used this pronunciation in the two centuries of slave-trade, especially since the use of the sound is so common among whites today. According to them, it is most likely that the difference in pronunciation has been influenced by both the British settlers and West-African languages. They quote linguist Norma Niles (Rickford and Rickford 2000:149):
There may be a significant number of features, grammatical and lexical, with dual
African and dialect origins. More significant though is that the similarity of features of
the contact languages strengthens the chance of retention and persistence of these
features in the developing languages.
Another example of AAVE pronunciation is the simplification of consonant clusters at the end of words like "test" and "hand", which are instead pronounced tes' and han'. According to Anglicists this pronunciation comes from non-standard British dialects, where it is highly represented. Creolists, on the other hand, argue that this pronunciation originates from West-African languages where consonant clusters are not allowed. Another argument used by Creolists is the fact that Caribbean creoles, who developed with very little British influence, used the same simplification of consonant clusters.
Trudgill (2000:54) lists some grammatical features that are at the center of the linguistic controversy. First we have the absence of the -s in the third-person singular present-tense forms. Forms such as he go and she run are commonly used by AAVE speakers, and according to the Creolist point of view it originates from the Caribbean creoles who also use this feature. The Anglicists, however, point out that the absence of third-person -s is also very common in the British dialect of East Anglia.
Another grammatical feature that distinguishes AAVE from SAE is the copula absence, the leaving out of the verb to be, in the present tense. She real pretty and he outside are two examples of this characteristic. According to Rickford and Rickford (2000:154), this feature provides strong evidence in favour of the Creole hypothesis. Copula absence does not exist in British English today, and does not seem to have existed in the past. Those who use this feature in the U.S, must have learned it from the black vernacular.
A third characteristic of AAVE is the "invariant be", the use of be as a finite verb form.
Examples of this feature are: He usually be around and sometimes she be fighting. Anglicists point to the presence of the invariant be in certain British dialects as a possible origin of this grammatical characteristic, but, according to Trudgill (2000:55) there is a very important difference between AAVE and other English varieties. This is the fact that in AAVE the invariant be is only used to indicate that something is repeated or habitual. This use is not possible in British dialects.
Another difference in grammar between AAVE and SAE, mentioned by Trudgill, is what is called the "ellipsis of the auxiliary verb", the possibility making statements as: We was eatin' - an' we drinkin', too. At first glance, this seems to be similar to the Standard English variant: We were eating - and drinking too, and the White non-standard variant: We was eatin' - and drinkin' too. However, in both cases only the pronoun we is left out. The leaving out of the auxiliary verb featured in AAVE, can only be found in other English Creoles.
All of the features mentioned above, seem to be likely to have originated from creoles, giving the Creolist point of view significant support. During recent years, however, extensive studies have been performed, which actually speak in favour of the Dialect hypothesis. One such study, mentioned by Trudgill (2000:58), was carried out by linguist Shana Pollack, on the "African American Diaspora". These are black communities of African American origin who have lived for generations outside of the U.S, in places like Nova Scotia, Canada and Samaná in the Dominican Republic. One interesting finding made in this study is that some grammatical characteristics of AAVE do not exist in these black communities. The speech of these people is considered to be more conservative than the AAVE spoken in the U.S. and if it is, then some of the features of AAVE must have developed over the last generations and cannot be remnants of the creole spoken by the African slaves.
Conclusion and Discussion:
Both the Dialect- and the Creole hypothesis can be traced back to the history of the slave-trade, and both sides seem adamant in their claim on the linguistic roots of AAVE.
So, is AAVE an extension of the non-standard British dialects spoken by indentured servants, or is it in fact a creole, developed through a combination of English and West-African languages? Most likely, the answer is both. As the Anglicists suggest, the first African slaves probably did learn their English from native English speakers. Since many of these were indentured servants of poor background, it is natural that similarities between AAVE and non-standard British dialects exist.
Nevertheless, the many features which AAVE have in common with West-African languages and other English creoles are too many to be ignored. As the proportions of blacks and whites changed it is quite possible that new slaves started learning English from other slaves rather than from native English speakers. This would have resulted in a mixture of English and West-African languages; the beginning of a black creole.
The Dialect hypothesis claims that the harsh experiences that the African slaves had to endure in America wiped out all traits of their African heritage. Sadly, this may be the case for some. However, the Creole hypothesis is just as credible in the claim that the identity of the slaves was strengthened by their ordeal, and that racial pride and socio-psychological barriers were, in part, created by it.
The truth of the origins of the linguistic differences between African American Vernacular English and Standard American English is difficult to find. In controversies like this, where racial and linguistic pride are involved, there seems to be little objectivity. If one wants to see the whole picture one has to cross the borders of the hypotheses and realize that the truth is most likely to be found in a combination of the two.
Baugh, J. 2002. Beyond Ebonics. New-York: Oxford University Press.
Crystal, D. 1997. English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rickford, J. R. and Rickford, R. J. 2000. Spoken Soul. New-York: John Wiley & Sons
Trudgill. P. 2001. Sociolinguistics. An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin.