American Speech 75.4 (2000) 409-411
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Widening the Lens of Observation
Plus Ça Change:
The State of Studies in African American English
Donald Winford, Ohio State University
It has been said that we know more about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) than about any other dialect of English. The volume of literature that has appeared on this variety over the last four decades has been quite substantial. Yet even a cursory examination of this voluminous research reveals a continuing focus on the same issues, as well as some alarming gaps and omissions. Moreover, despite the repeated examination of the same questions, there continues to be disagreement among scholars.
The vast majority of the literature on AAVE is concerned with issues that are primarily linguistic in character--issues concerning its sources and genesis and those concerning its contemporary relationship to other dialects of English. As far as history is concerned, we have examined ad nauseam the question of the creole versus English dialectal origin of the dialect. It is now some 75 years since Krapp first expressed the view that AAVE was purely English-dialectal in character, denying any contribution on the part of Africans to the shaping of this variety. Since then, other scholars have defended the view that AAVE descended from an earlier creole, similar to Gullah, that was created by Africans and widely used in the plantation South. Others have adopted various compromises between the two views. But the reconciliation that seemed to have been reached between the two camps in the early 1980s has apparently dissipated. The pendulum has recently swung in favor of the dialectologist position, but there is still strong disagreement over the part that Africans played in the development of the variety. No one can reasonably deny that AAVE is an English dialect, with its roots firmly in (British) English dialectal sources--the same sources that yielded Southern White Vernacular English in its various forms.
Yet it is clear that we are dealing with multiple sources whose effects varied according to differences in the nature of the contact settings, their demographics, and the types of social interaction among the groups involved. [End Page 409] It should also be clear that for many AAVE features, we are dealing with the effects of multiple causation, involving externally and internally motivated change, leveling, and processes of simplification and restructuring. An understanding of these can come only from a thorough investigation of the sociohistorical contexts of the emergence and development of AAVE. However, this aspect of the genesis of AAVE in all its forms remains relatively unexplored. This is unfortunate because, as every student of language history knows, the sociolinguistic history of a community, and not linguistic factors, is the primary influence on how languages originate, change, and develop. There is clearly need for further exploration of the sociohistorical background of AAVE within the framework of contact linguistics so as to offset the traditional reliance on purely linguistic argumentation in debates over issues of origin.
With regard to the contemporary character and status of AAVE, we have learned a great deal about variation in the speech of African Americans, thanks to a wealth of variationist sociolinguistic studies. These in turn have shed light on several aspects of AAVE grammar and its relationship to other dialects of American English. But here again the focus has been on a rather narrow range of phenomena, including forms of the verb to be, negation, tense marking, and so on--generally the same features that figure in the debate over AAVE origins. Many components of AAVE grammar, such as habitual be, perfect done, and remote perfect BEEN, not to mention most features of sentence structure, remain relatively untouched by variationist analysis. Moreover, with the exception of the work of scholars like Lisa Green (1993), there have been few attempts to apply current models of syntax to the formal description of AAVE. Curiously, these two strands of research, the quantitative and the formal descriptive, remain quite independent of each other, and one senses a certain friction between scholars in the two...