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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 405-409

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Widening the Lens of Observation

English . . . and them!
Form and Function in Comparative Perspective

Sali Tagliamonte, University Of York


Linguists and dialectologists often study unusual linguistic features found in one community or another. But because such forms are typically studied in isolation, they do not always provide unambiguous evidence for deciding [End Page 405] whether the forms are the result of innovation or retention, and in the latter case where the forms might have come from.

Consider the use of dem (or them) after a noun:

1. Da's where Viola DEM live. [Rickford 1986, 46]

Rickford (1986, 46) suggests that this construction denotes "a specific entity (usually a person) which is referred to in association with unspecified others"--hence his term "associative" plural.

To date, however, it has been reported only in Gullah, a variety of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) spoken on the Sea Islands, off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Rickford (1986, 47) argues that it represents the residue of a system that speakers of other ethnic backgrounds in the United States did not participate in, since, as he points out, there were no reports of its use among "white Southerners." Indeed, Rickford (1986, 47) suggests that the form has "clear creole roots," and Mufwene (1998, 73) reports that the associative plural is a feature which AAVE "shares with creoles rather than other varieties of English."

However, examination of Feagin's (1979, 331) data from White Alabama English, reveals:

2. An' my mother AND 'EM had done got to the house.

This suggests that the associative plural is not entirely restricted to AAVE. However, the associative plural may still be an innovation in AAVE, because it may be a construction through which AAVE has influenced Southern speech (see G. Bailey, pers. com.; cited in Mufwene 1998, 73 n. 10).

One of the most important tasks in disentangling form, function, and origin is to compare the same feature in related varieties, a method well known in historical linguistics. This essay illustrates the value of such methodology by providing a cross-variety comparison of the associative plural in a number of varieties of English. Three are in North America: Gullah (GUL), the variety where the associative plural has been attested,1 and North Preston (NPR) and Guysborough Enclave (GYE) in Nova Scotia (see Poplack and Tagliamonte forthcoming). The other three varieties are in Britain: York (YRK), a city in northeastern England (Tagliamonte 1998); Wheatley Hill (WHL), a northern mining village; and Buckie (BCK), a fishing town on the northeastern coast of Scotland (Smith and Tagliamonte 1998).

All six varieties use the associative plural an' them, as in (3). Figure 1 displays the distribution of type by community. [End Page 406]

3. a. My father AN' THEM, they were just deck hands. [BCK]
b. I thought it was Ernie AN' THEM there. [WHL]
c. Art-Jackson AN' THEM went to see the cops. [GYE]
d. Cassie AN' THEM eats too much cheese. [NPR]
e. Jean used to be over here with Florence AN' DEM. [GUL]

In some of the varieties an' them occurs with all:

4. a. Peter AN' ALL THEM, they did na bother. [BCK]
b. Remember Aunt-Maggie and Stella AN' ALL THEM. [GYE]
c. Vera AN' ALL THEM was in the choir. [NPR]
d. There was Cliff-Richard AN' ALL THEM. [YRK]

However, Gullah is the only variety that shows a large portion of dem without an', although a very small proportion of them alone is found in North Preston, too.

5. a. Esther THEM used to travel with them girls. [NPR]
b. I bin a work down deh with Tommy DEM. [GUL]
'I have been working down there with Tommy and them.'

In comparisons of linguistic form across varieties, its form and frequency provide only one perspective. Linguistic distribution and conditioning [End Page 407] contribute crucial information about function. For example, the associative plural is restricted to human subjects (Mufwene 1998, 79). Further, its "distinctive character" is revealed in "decreolized" varieties, where it shows up with proper...


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