African-Americans and Minority Language Maintenance in the United States

By Louden, Mark L. | The Journal of Negro History, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

African-Americans and Minority Language Maintenance in the United States


Louden, Mark L., The Journal of Negro History


INTRODUCTION

Over the past thirty years, scholars who study the relationship between language and society (sociolinguists) have devoted a number of studies to the verbal behavior of African-Americans, primarily focusing on the modern and historical aspects of African-American Vernacular English (Black English, Ebonics). Specifically in the area of the historical development of AAVE, recent years have witnessed intensified work on early (pre-1900) attestations of older stages of the ethnolect. As regards the origins of AAVE, two distinct schools of thought have emerged. On the one hand, there are those who argue that modern AAVE is the descendant of originally pidginized, and subsequently creolized varieties of English which developed among African slaves from differing linguistic backgrounds who lacked a common language. [1] In support of their theory, "creolists" point to significant lexical and structural differences between AAVE and white varieties of English, as well as parallels between AAVE and West African languag es and creolized forms of English (e.g. those spoken in the Caribbean). On the other hand, a second theory of AAVE origins holds that first-generation African-American slaves, despite their appalling social circumstances, were in much the same kind of linguistic situation as non-English speaking immigrants by choice, that is, with varying degrees of success, they came to learn the various forms of English spoken by coterritorial whites. The "dialectologists", as they are often referred to, in contrast to the creolists, emphasize the structural similarities between AAVE and Southern White Vernacular English (SWVE), the non-standard form(s) of English spoken by whites in the American South. [2]

These two accounts of the origins of AAVE, creolist and dialectologist, are premised on fundamentally different understandings of the sociohistorical circumstances of African-Americans during the colonial and antebellum periods. The creolist position assumes a significant degree of social distance between blacks and whites during this time, the idea being that social separation necessarily leads to linguistic differentiation. Alternatively, dialectologists are inclined to assume that enslavement and more benign forms of social segregation need not have implied a severe lack of social, and hence linguistic contact between African and white Americans. In other words, a dialectologist's reading of the historical record is more likely to recognize the extent to which blacks and whites have interacted with another in a variety of social domains.

Recently, a group of AAVE specialists, notably Donald Winford of the Ohio State University, have articulated a view on the origins of AAVE which synthesizes eleents from both the creolist and dialectologist perspectives. Winford, for example, relying heavily on the sociohistorical evidence, charts a middle course between the two extremes and argues that while AAVE is not simply a variety of SWVE spoken by African-Americans, neither is it the direct descendant of a plantation creole. [3] Rather, in Winford's view the ethnolect emerged, beginning in the seventeenth century, as the result of the partially successful acquisition by African-born slaves and their descendants of a number of English dialects spoken in certain parts of the South, especially Virginia and North Carolina; this would explain the structural similarities between AAVE and SWVE, a dialectal "cousin" of AAVE. On the other hand, successive waves of large numbers of slaves imported directly from Africa or by way of the Caribbean throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries and the emergence of large plantations in places such as South Carolina and Georgia led to the inclusion of creolized structures to the emerging AAVE dialect. As Winford puts it,

AAVE was the result of relatively successful acquisition and adaptation of settler English, and owes much of its structural features to those superstrate sources. …

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