- The development of African American English by Walt Wolfram, Erik R. Thomas, and: The historical evolution of earlier African American English: An empirical comparison of early sources by Alexander Kautzsch
Linguistic interest in African American English (AAE) dates back at least as far as the mid-1900s. Its origins, development, structure, relationship to other varieties, and role in education have received much attention in linguistic circles and, to some extent, among the public at large. For sociolinguists, however, the most contentious of these issues has been the question of its origins and development. As observed by Wolfram and Thomas, ‘The synchronic and diachronic status of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has now been scrutinized more than that of any other vernacular variety in the history of American English’ (1).
Debate over this issue has been dominated primarily by two opposing theories, known as the dialectologist (or anglicist) and the creolist hypotheses. Early on, dialectologists argued that AAE descended from British English sources and that African Americans spoke the same language as European Americans with whom they shared comparable socioeconomic and regional backgrounds (e.g. Kurath 1949, McDavid & McDavid 1951). This theory was later challenged by creolists, who asserted that the roots of AAE could be traced back to a widespread plantation creole, which underwent decreolization following the end of slavery, ultimately resulting in modern-day AAE (e.g. Stewart 1967, 1968, Dillard 1972).
Much of the early debate between creolists and dialectologists linked the issue of AAE’s origins to the issue of its contemporary relationship to other varieties. Wolfram (1971, 1974), however, argued convincingly that the two did not necessarily go hand in hand. Some scholars then began to talk in terms of a consensus between the two camps, conceding that while certain AAE features could be interpreted as evidence of a creole origin, the variety had decreolized to the extent that it should be regarded as a dialect of English (e.g. Labov 1972, 1982, Fasold 1976, 1981). This theory was later challenged by a number of scholars who argued that AAE was not moving toward Standard English, but was instead diverging from it due to increased social and economic segregation separating African Americans and European Americans (e.g. Ash & Myhill 1986, Labov & Harris 1986, Myhill & Harris 1986, Bailey & Maynor 1987).
While the divergence hypothesis was initially criticized for lacking sufficient linguistic evidence and for not taking into account the full range of social factors that might be involved (e.g. Butters 1989, Rickford 1992), it has been more recently revisited by those supporting a new consensus-type position, referred to as the neo-anglicist hypothesis.1 Proponents of this position maintain that AAE derived from British English sources. But they argue that, in recent years, AAE has diverged from other English [End Page 478] dialects in ways that give its current system a separate and unique status (e.g. Montgomery et al. 1993, Montgomery & Fuller 1996, Mufwene 1996, Labov 1998, Poplack 2000).
The history of African American English has also been debated from the perspective of African American diaspora varieties, such as Samaná English, Liberian Settler English, and African Nova Scotian English. While some researchers have found support for the creolist hypothesis in examining such varieties (e.g. Singler 1991, Hannah 1997), others have found evidence in support of the dialectologist or neo-anglicist hypotheses (e.g. Poplack & Sankoff 1987, Poplack & Tagliamonte 1989, 1991, 1994, 2001, Howe & Walker 2000, Walker 2000).
Finally, efforts have also been made to uncover the mystery of AAE’s origins through examinations of the sociohistorical and socioeconomic conditions present during its initial development (Schneider 1989, Mufwene 1993, 1996, 1997, Rickford 1997, Winford 1992, 1997). Some researchers examining this type of evidence have expressed doubt as to whether the demographic ratios on US plantations ever met the necessary requirements for creolization anywhere other than...