History of African American English

Program five in the series Story of English examines the origins of Black English, beginning with the influx of Africans to the American continent caused by the slave trade. In the American south, Gullah is spoken on the Sea Islands near the South Carolina coast. The old plantations bred a different strain and other regions of the south are equally unique. Footage of pidgin English speakers in West Africa is also featured. This video also discusses the roots of rap, the uses of rap in public schools, and jive talk with Cab Calloway — including showing the efforts of non-African-American entertainers to utilize the style, with mixed success.







The Linguistic Legacy of  the
African Slave Trade
The roots of the distinctive speech of many African Americans remains controversial, stemming from a long and often bitter history. Walt Wolfram and Benjamin Torberttrace the fascinating origins of African American English. (The research cited in this article was first published in 2004.)

Debate about language origins and evolution is common, but the history of race relations in American society makes the case of African American English, popularly known as Ebonics,somewhat special. The broad path of historical development seems obvious. Africans speaking a rich assortment of West African languages such as Mandinka, Mende, and Gola—among many others—learned English subsequent to their shackled emigration from Africa to North America. But the process of this shift and the possibility of lingering linguistic effects centuries later from the ancestral languages of West Africa remains a matter of controversy and intrigue.

Describing the early development of African American speech presents a historical, linguistic, and political challenge. Slave traders were hardly thinking of documenting their exploitation of human cargo for the historical record, and most references to speech in the early slave trade were connected to its role in moving and marketing human merchandise. For linguists, the reliance on limited historical records written for purposes other than linguistic documentation is always problematic, but the difficulties are compounded for vernacular speech that society has deemed unworthy of preservation. Writing was a specialized—and illegal—skill for early African Americans in the North America, making firsthand accounts rare and questionable in terms of accuracy with respect to vernacular speech. But there are also questions about authenticity for other recorders of black speech, and its representation runs the gamut—from racist caricatures that exaggerate stereotypical differences to inclusive portrayals that overlook any possible ethnic differences in speech. Observations about African American speech have never been far removed from the politics of race in American society, so that it is hardly surprising that the status of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has been—and continues to be—highly contentious and politically sensitive.

Two major explanations have dominated the modern debate over the origin of AAVE

Competing Explanations

Two major explanations have dominated the modern debate over the origin and early development of AAVE. The Anglicist Hypothesis, originally set forth by prominent American dialectologists during the mid-twentieth century, argues that the origin of AAVE can be traced to the same sources as earlier European American dialects of English—the varieties of English spoken in the British Isles. This position assumes that slaves speaking different African languages simply learned the regional and social varieties of the adjacent groups of white speakers as they acquired English. It further assumes that over the course of a couple of generations only a few minor traces of these ancestral languages remained, as in the typical American immigrant model of language shift.

In the mid-1960s and 70s, the Anglicist position was challenged by the Creolist Hypothesis. Researchers of creole languages noted that the early language situation for African descendents circumscribed by the conditions of slavery was hardly like that of Europeans who came by choice and blended with other European groups. Instead, the extreme circumstances of subordination and segregation led to the development of acreole language, a specially adapted language formed when groups not sharing a common language need to communicate. Typically, the lexical stock of the creole comes from the language of the socially dominant group. The Creolist Hypothesis asserts that an English-based creole language spread throughout the African diaspora, and today creoles are still spoken in regions that extend from West African countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia through the Caribbean to the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, where the creole language Gullah is spoken (see Weldon’s “Gullah Gullah Islands” in Language Magazine February, 2002).This creole spread to the sprawling plantations of the American South, becoming the prototype for the development of AAVE. The Creolist viewpoint argues that the speech of African Americans in North American has changed greatly over the centuries, but that the imprint of its creole past is still found in a number of language traits: the absence of the linking verb be (e.g., You ugly), the loss of inflection suffixes such as the –s on verbs (e.g. She like school), possessives (e.g., the dog_ mouth), and plurals (many time_), as well as the distinctive verb particles such as the use of done to indicate completed action (e.g., He done went ) and the use of been to indicate distant time (e.g.,She been known him forever). All of these traits are typical of well-known, English-based creoles—from Gullah to Jamaican Creole, and to Krio, the dominant language of Sierra Leone.

Revising the Hypothesis

images former slaves in texas from the wpa collection

New historical and linguistic information has brought the traditional positions on the origin of AAVE under intensified scrutiny. One source of information comes from the ever-expanding written records of ex-slaves, including an extensive set of ex-slave narrativescollected under the Works Project Administration (WPA), newly uncovered letters written by semi-literate ex-slaves in the mid-1800s; and other specialized texts, for example, an extensive set of interviews conducted with Black practitioners of voodoo in the 1930s known as the Hyatt texts. In addition to these written texts, limited sets of archival audio recordings have been uncovered, including a set of tapes conducted by WPA workers with ex-slaves in the 1930s

A quite different source of new information comes from the examination of the speech of groups of Black expatriates who have lived in relative isolation since their exodus from the United States. For example, in the 1820s, a group of Blacks migrated from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to the peninsula of Samaná in the Dominican Republic, where the descendants of this community continue to live today in relative seclusion. A significant population of African Americans also migrated from the United States to Canada in the early 1800s, and some of their descendants continue to live in remote, out-of-the way regions of Nova Scotia. It is commonly assumed that secluded groups will be relatively conservative in their use of language and thus may provide a window into the earlier state of a language. The examination of speech in these transplanted, black enclave communities has shown a striking resemblance to the speech of earlier European American varieties spoken in North America, reviving support for the Anglicist Hypothesis. However, there is an important difference between the British-origins position of a half century ago and the current position referred to as the Neo-Anglicist Hypothesis. The original Anglicist position concluded that the early accommodation of European American speech by African American speakers has been maintained to the present, so that there remain no essential differences between the speech of comparable groups of African Americans and European Americans in the rural American South, the regional source of the earliest African American speech in the United States. The Neo-Anglicist position, however, argues that AAVE has diverged from European American varieties over the years, so that current-day AAVE is now quite different from contemporary benchmark European American dialects. The differences are not due to earlier language history, but because of the evolving nature of African American speech during the twentieth century.

Resolving the Controversy

Geographically remote communities that lack everyday contact with the outside world may provide insight into the history of AAVE

For almost a decade now, a team of researchers from North Carolina State University has been re-examining the development of AAVE based on yet another set of historical circumstances—longstanding, enclave African American communities in geographically remote areas of the United States. Like studies of expatriate situations, the lack of everyday contact with outside groups may provide insight into the past history of African American speech. In one respect, these communities in the US may be preferable to expatriate situations because they offer the advantage of long-term continuity in a regional context. For example, in Hyde County, North Carolina, a sparsely populated coastal region characterized by the unique Outer Banks dialect (see, for example, “Dialect in Danger” Language MagazineNovember/December 2000), African Americans and European Americans have co-existed since the first decade of the 1700s. Until the mid-twentieth century, the marshland terrain made it difficult to travel overland and there was little movement into and out of the region. The long-term seclusion and stable bi-ethnic settlement that included a 25 to 50 percent African American population for three centuries present an ideal laboratory for examining the development of language over time. Through our interviews with more than a hundred speakers ranging in age from 5 to 102, we can project what the earlier language was probably like for both African Americans and European Americans, as well as how it might have changed during the course of the twentieth century. Similar communities have also been examined in other regional settings of the South, including a couple of geographically remote communities of African American speakers in Appalachia, where their speech is surrounded by a dialect influenced historically by Scots-Irish (see, for example, theLanguage Magazine articles “Defining Appalachian English” in May/June of 2001 and “If these Hills could Speak” in July/August 2003).

The research shows that the speech of older African Americans was more influenced by the regional dialect of the area than that of younger speakers. For example, in Hyde County, where the unique Outer Banks dialect features the pronunciation of high tide as hoi toid and the formation of negative sentences with be as I weren’t there or She weren’t there, older black and white speakers sound much alike. In Appalachia, older African Americans and European Americans share characteristic regional features such as the pronunciation of fire as far, the use of the prefix uh– in He was a-huntin’ and a-fishin’ and the use of –s on verbs in People goes there all the time. In fact, when we play excerpts of speech from these older speakers to outside listeners, they are often unable to identify the ethnicity of the speaker. This kind of evidence would seem to support the Anglicist position as the correct historical interpretation.

translation game slide

Closer inspection indicates that matters are not as simple as they might appear at first glance. The detailed investigation of different kinds of language structures shows that there are some features that have continuously distinguished speakers ethnically, though these are sometimes more subtle than the more salient items found in the current urban version of AAVE. For example, we find a few pronunciation and grammatical features that apparently have been ethnically distinctive for centuries, co-existing comfortably with a shared set of regional features. Though older African Americans and European Americans may have the same regional traits, they have differentiated themselves in the pronunciation of consonant blends before a vowel such as the loss of the final consonant in wes en’ for west end. The groups have also been different in the pronunciation of consonant sequences such as skr for str, in skreet for street. In grammar, the patterned absence of be in sentences such as He ugly and the absence of various inflectional suffixes in she go, the boy hat, or many time have probably differentiated black and white speech in some outlying Southern regions for as far back as we can project in the history of American English. Many of the traits that have distinguished black and white speech for centuries are directly or indirectly traceable to the early contact situation between English and West African languages. As African languages and English collided, there was an obvious accommodation to the regional manifestations of English, but the imprint of the original impact also remained indelible. This is hardly remarkable in language contact situations. The English vowels of some Minnesotans, for example, still bear the language marks of the earlier Scandinavian settlers and Southeastern Pennsylvanians continue to reflect German language influence in constructions such as Are you going with for Are you going with me? and It’s all for It’s all gone long after German was used regularly in the area—or, after German is all.

AAVE has been influenced both by its earlier regional context in the US and its heritage language situation, making a clear-cut winner in Anglicist-Creolist debate difficult to pick. As is often the case in such debates, both sides have a point—and the truth lies somewhere in between. The position presented here, which admits both earlier regional influence and the persistent influence of the original language contact situation, is referred to it as the Substrate Hypothesis simply to distinguish it from other positions.

The Evolution of Contemporary AAVE

The story of AAVE
is an ongoing one

The story of AAVE is an ongoing one. In fact, its modern path of change is every bit as intriguing as its earlier history. Current studies show that the distinctive traits of AAVE are probably stronger at the turn of the twenty-first century than they were a century earlier. Older speakers in remote regional contexts may still sound quite local, but their younger counterparts are likely to sound more like their trans-regional urban AAVE counterparts. Younger speakers in the outlying region of Hyde County, for example, usually reject the regional pronunciation of high tide as hoi toid and the use of weren’t for wasn’t as they pick up the use of habitual action be in sentences like Sometimes they be trippin’ and intensify the absence of the -s suffix on verbs in sentences like She go for She goes. In the process, AAVE has become a trans-regional variety that is more ethnically distinct today than it was a century ago. The fact that ethnicity now usually trumps region in African American speech is one of the great stories of modern dialectology.

There are a couple of reasons for the emergence of AAVE as a super-regional, ethnically based variety of English. The expanded mobility of African Americans in the last century linked speakers from different regions, making it easier for inter-regional language spread to take place. At the same time, the pattern of persistent segregation in American society served as a fertile social environment for developing and maintaining a distinct ethnic variety. Many Northern urban areas are, in fact, more densely populated by African Americans today than they were several decades ago, and the informal social networks of many urban African Americans remain highly segregated. Population demographics, however, do not tell the only story. Over the past half-century, there has been a growing sense of ethnic identity associated with AAVE, supported through a variety of social mechanisms that range from community-based social networks to stereotypical media projections of African American speech. In the process, regional dialects—and Standard English—have become associated with “white speech.” The development of “oppositional identity”, in which behavior with strong associations with white norms is avoided, became an important part of the ethnic divide. Though it might seem ironic that the association of Standard English with white speech would develop in a social and educational context that steadfastly rejects vernacular speech of any type—and African American English most vigorously of all—it is a true testament to the symbolic role of language in the African American experience. It is also an indication of the enduring cultural clash between white-dominant mainstream institutions and people of color in American society. In an important sense, there is no greater testament to the durability of African American culture that the vitality of the past and present voice of African American English.

(Editor’s Note: The term African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is beginning to be replaced with the term African American English (AAE) in writings on the subject. Because DYSA resources were created at different times, the term AAVE has been used in all essays and reprints in order to maintain a consistent format.)

Reprinted courtesy:  Language Magazine

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Ebonics Defined John R. Rickford of Stanford University explains the term on the Linguistics Society of American Web site.
  • Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) Ebonics Page A comprehensive list of Web and print resources on the topic.
  • African American Text, University of Virginia Online text relating to African American language from literature, politics and the social sciences.
  • Baugh, John. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Rickford,John and Russell, John, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English,  Wiley Press, 2000.
  • Thomas, Erik, and Wolfram, Walt, The Development of African American English,Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Walt Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University, where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. He has pioneered research on social and ethnic dialects since the 1960s, publishing 16 books and more than 250 articles on language varieties such as African American English, Latino English, Appalachian English, and Southern Vernacular English. Wolfram is deeply involved in the application of sociolinguistic information and the dissemination of knowledge about dialects to the public. In this connection, he has been involved in the production of TV documentaries, museum exhibits, and other community-based dialect awareness initiatives; he also served as primary linguistic consultant for the Children’s Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street. He has served as President of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Dialect Society, and the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics.







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