- African American English in the diaspora by Shana Poplack, Sali Tagliamonte
In this postmodern era when a cleverly stated opinion seems as good as a well-crafted proposal supported by careful argumentation, it is a particular pleasure to read Poplack and Tagliamonte’s [End Page 504] African American English in the diaspora. P&T have a distinguished record of rigorous application of the scientific method, and they do not disappoint here. If I were challenged to demonstrate that linguistics can be a science, I would point to their work.
In the present volume, the authors address a vexing question in sociolinguistics, the historical origin of what is now commonly called African American Vernacular English (AAVE). There are many facets to the problem, but P&T zero in on a central controversy—whether AAVE developed from an English-lexified creole or developed from the English brought by colonists to North America from Great Britain without further creole influence. They test their hypotheses bearing on this controversy with systematic precision in the following way:
1. They argue that there are isolated communities of African Americans who have not been in substantial contact with other speakers of English.
2. Whichever origin these varieties have, the linguistic effects of that origin would not have been obliterated by dialect contact.
3. As a result, these linguistic systems can legitimately be called Early African American English (AAE) and represent the linguistic systems at the establishment of those communities (plus further developments internal to those communities).
4. Linguistic features in the area of tense and aspect proposed by advocates of the creole-origin hypothesis would thus be detectable in the language of these Early African American English communities and should emerge under careful analysis of patterned variants.
5. Control groups of speakers whose language is not hypothesized to be derived from a creole undergo parallel analysis.
6. The methods used are sufficiently sensitive to detect creole influence, even if variable, if it exists in Early African American English and—crucially—not in the language of the control groups. If the same feature were to be found in both creoles and in English not influenced by creoles, then that feature would be, in P&T’s terms, ‘not diagnostic’.
Much of P&T’s work depends on the status of the communities they study as isolated for a long term. The communities they use include Samaná in the Dominican Republic (Poplack & Sankoff 1987) and two locations in Nova Scotia. The Samaná case is particularly remarkable. A sizeable group of African Americans settled there in the early nineteenth century. Surrounded by Spanish speakers from whom they apparently remained largely aloof (until recently when a shift to Spanish seems well under way), they were left, it would seem, out of touch with any kind of English except their own.
Two others are settlements of African Americans in Nova Scotia, whose ancestors emigrated there at about the same time as the Samaná emigration. Unlike the Samaná community, these settlers lived in a larger setting that was mostly English-speaking. But P&T argue that distance, poverty that prevented even local travel, and racial animosity kept them essentially as isolated as the Samaná settlers. In addition, they analyze the ‘Ex-slave narratives’, interviews collected in the 1930s with individuals who had been slaves (Bailey et al. 1991).
Critics of claims that these communities, particularly the longest-studied Samaná represent Early AAE question whether the settlers were actually higher-status and therefore somewhat linguistically assimilated people, or whether there was more contact with language from outside the community than P&T believe. P&T vigorously defend against these criticisms, and I find their arguments generally persuasive.
They spend two chapters, ‘External controls’ and ‘Methods’, showing the care they used to control variables and to make crystal clear exactly how features were handled and exactly what was done. This same care continues in greater detail in the methodology sections of their chapters on the particular verb tense features. No one will have the slightest question about what was...