Beryl Loftman Bailey: Africanist Woman Linguist in New York State

By Wade-Lewis, Margaret | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1993 | Go to article overview

Beryl Loftman Bailey: Africanist Woman Linguist in New York State


Wade-Lewis, Margaret, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Beryl Loftman Bailey: Africanist Woman Linguist in New York State

One of the least known stories outside linguistics circles is the story of the life and contributions of Dr. Beryl Loftman Bailey. Bailey is the first African American woman linguist, and one of the first women chairs of a Department of Black Studies in the State of New York.

Dr. Bailey was an adopted New Yorker, having been born in Black River, Jamaica, West Indies on January 15, 1920. Her parents were both school teachers. Thus Bailey grew up valuing education and was an honor student at Wolmer's Girls' School. After completing high school and college with distinction, she accepted an appointment to teach English literature and composition at the Bethlehem Training College, a local institution run by the Moravian Church for preparing women teachers.(2)

Although Bailey grew up in a bi-dialectal environment, speaking both Jamaican Creole and Standard English, it was during her years as an English teacher in Jamaica from 1942- 1948 that she became more acutely aware of the differences between native Jamaican speech and Standard English. That awareness eventually resulted in Bailey's becoming one of the scholars who played a major role in the debates which led to the development of Pidgin and Creole Studies as a respected discipline in the 1960's.

Once Bailey came to New York in 1948, she stayed to become a New Yorker, returning to Jamaica only for visits and to conduct field work in 1956 and 1960-62. On January 20, 1952, she married Neville Bailey, and together they became the parents of two daughters, Stephanie and Jennifer.(3)

The purpose of this paper is to explore the contribution of Dr. Beryl Bailey to Pidgin and Creole linguistics, mentioning also her role in Black Studies between 1955 and 1975. Although there is not complete agreement on a definition of pidgins and creoles, it is generally agreed that a pidgin is a rudimentary language created in a situation such as war, slavery or trade, in which two groups having no language in common must learn to speak together quickly. A creole is a pidgin which has native speakers and has developed stable norms. Although there are pidgins and creoles in the Orient, Hawaii, Africa,India,and other areas of the world, the majority of them are in areas where there has been massive involuntary resettlement of Africans, including the United States, the Caribbean islands, and South America.(4)

Beryl Bailey was not the first woman of African descent in the Western Hemisphere to address the African background of African American languages. That distinction goes to Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain of Haiti who wrote Le Creole Haitien: Morphologie at Syntaxe, asserting boldly that Haitian Creole was comprised of the syntax of African languages, particularly Ewe, with a French vocabulary.(5)

Beryl Bailey was, however, the first woman in the United States to claim the Africanness of Caribbean creoles. She was comfortable utilizing the term "creole", even though many of her contemporaries were not. In her Columbia University Master's thesis, she cites as a precedent the work of Hugh Schuchardt, who extended the term "creole" to any language of European origin strongly altered phonologically, morphologically, syntactically and semantically by a non-Indo-European language.(6) It is important to note that most linguists who have concentrated on pidgins and creoles, including Hugh Schuchardt, have tended to minimize the African language component in African-language-derived pidgins and creoles. A major exception was Lorenzo Dow Turner, the first African American linguist, who conducted research in Gullah, the creole along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Turner documented 4,000 terms in Gullah from 30 African languages. While some researchers object to his use of personal names in his core data, his book, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949) continues to be the watermark in studies on African semantic retentions in pidgins and creoles. …

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