American Earlier Black English: Morphological and Syntactic Variables

By Edgar W. Schneider | Go to book overview
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Introduction

0. Introduction

For more than twenty years, the dialect spoken by black Americans has been among the most salient topics of linguistic research in the United States. Walt Wolfram's statement of 1973 is still valid today: "Black English is 'in'. From its no-name status of a decade ago, BE has risen to a place of prominence in the study of American English dialects" ( 1973: 670). The discipline of sociolinguistics has developed and matured by studying this particular variety more than others--think, for example, of the concept of the variable rule, which was applied for the first time to the speech of black adolescents from Harlem ( Labov 1969, Labov et al. 1968), or of the fact that most of the early classics of sociolinguistics were concerned with Black English (e.g., Wolfram 1969, Fasold 1972, Labov 1972a). Another indication of the importance of the subject as a topic for research is the vast number of publications on it: Ila W. and Walter M. Brasch ( 1974) listed more than two thousand titles, and in my own bibliography on American and Canadian English ( Schneider 1984), 454 out of a total of 1,798 entries, or 25 percent of all the cataloged publications on American English since 1965, are indexed as being devoted to Black English. The subject has had a history of its own, which has been determined to a large extent by social rather than linguistic issues. Ultimately, it was the civil rights movement and the social climate of the period that lead to its upsurge in the 1960s and to an excessively heated debate in the early 1970s. In the second half of the last decade, things seem to have calmed down a bit, yet in the 1980s, two events apparently have heated up the subject again to some extent, namely the Ann Arbor court decision and, very recently, William Labov's and Guy Bailey's claim that black and white speech are diverging increasingly (see the Spring 1987 issue of the journal American Speech and Bailey/ Maynor 1987). It is probably not too speculative to assume that, as has been the case before, the social and economic climate of the decade and the policy of the administration

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