An alternative history of non-standard English 1
Many salient non-standard features of contemporary English and its varieties are widely held to be recent innovations, generated by rural, uneducated, minority and other marginal speakers. This is particularly true of morphological and syntactic features. Ain't, demonstrative them and a variety of verbal inflections, among others, have become stereotypically associated, and ultimately identified, with specific (non-standard) varieties. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a prime example. Its distinctive morphosyntax has spurred a massive long-term research effort to locate its origins, typically, in the African mother tongues of the ancestors of current speakers, and in attendant processes of creolisation and decreolisation.
Recent research (Poplack 2000a; Poplack and Tagliamonte 2001) has proposed an alternative history for these forms, one that is firmly rooted in the internal evolution of English vernaculars. We have argued that reliance on the prescribed standard as a metric, coupled with inattention to the history and evolution of spoken English, conspire to obscure the fact that many of the non-standard features today associated with AAVE are not innovations, but retentions of Early Modern English (and older) forms. Such retentions are a by-product of the sociolinguistically peripheral status of the speech communities in which they are used. This chapter describes the novel use of existing resources that led us to these conclusions. The Ottawa Grammar Resource on Early Variability in English (OGREVE) is a unique compilation of reference grammars of the English language written between 1577 and 1898. Though a number of other such bibliographies are available, most notably Sundby et al. (1991), Görlach (1998) and Fries (1925), the OGREVE is unique in its emphasis on linguistic variability of earlier times. The data of the OGREVE, when properly exploited, enable us to: (1) infer the existence of such variability, (2) trace the evolution of normative dictates associated with key linguistic variables, and, perhaps most innovative, (3) discern hints of linguistic 'conditioning' of variable usage from grammarians' injunctions. Incorporation of these conditions as factors in the analysis of contemporary variability enables us to test their current applicability and thereby ascertain the history and provenance of the variable constraints operating on these