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American Speech 78.1 (2003) 103-119

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Aave State of the Art Conference

Kirk Hazen
West Virginia University

Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English. Edited by Sonja L. Lanehart. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2001. Pp. xvii + 371.

This book was developed from a two-day panel of invited papers held in 1998 at the University of Georgia. Sonja L. Lanehart organized the conference and edited the proceedings. (The presentations of John McWhorter and John Rickford, two members of the panel, are not included.) The book contains 14 chapters, an introductory chapter by Lanehart, and a foreword by Geneva Smitherman. The chapters are organized into five parts: (1) introduction; (2) African American English (AAE) and its relationship to other varieties of English; (3) language use in the African American community; (4) AAE and education; and (5) conclusion. As a general recommendation, scholars of African American varieties of English should know about this book.

On the whole, the chapters indicate that people who study the language varieties of African Americans do not agree among themselves or necessarily with linguists at large. Some authors make novel claims about AAE that are unsupported by other authors in this book; for example, David Sutcliffe (141) claims that AAE is a tone language, a typological claim unattested in the phonological account of AAE in the chapter by Guy Bailey. Several authors refer to AAE as the language of thought for African Americans; I imagine that the authors intend some concept of cultural orientation since linguistics has argued for years that language is not the basis for human thought (e.g., Pinker 1994). As with other recent books on African American Vernacular English (AAVE) (e.g., Poplack 2000), the articles are uniform in their treatment of the origins of AAVE; in this book, however, there is no inclusion of neo-Anglicists.

In her introduction, Lanehart lays out ten questions she put to the original presenters. As she recognizes, each question requires several books to answer, and the authors are given impossible tasks. She provides a summary of each chapter and commentary on how it answers these questions. [End Page 103] As Lanehart outlines, the authors have different scholarly approaches and divergent focuses of study; some authors use quantitative sociolinguistic methods to assess language variation patterns while others use methods of anthropology, speech pathology, education, and literary criticism to assess African American culture and education. The effectiveness of this diversity of approaches depends on the goals of the reader. For example, a sociolinguist looking for new work on the language variation patterns of African Americans might discover little here but may find new realms of debate in chapters such as Michèle Foster's discussions of educational practice.

In chapter 2, Salikoko Mufwene engages the title question, "What Is African American English?" by asking many other questions. Mufwene draws on an extended written survey he conducted with 63 people in 1998 to elucidate the view of "laypersons" in contrast to the view of scholars. In regard to the claims of Williams (1975), E. Smith (1998), and Smitherman (1998), Mufwene refutes or holds in suspended disbelief their views that American varieties of AAE have more in common with Niger-Congo languages than with other varieties of American English. Mufwene's main claim is that AAE should include Gullah as well as other mainland varieties of English spoken by African Americans. He has no final answer on the best definition of AAE, since how AAE is defined determines what it is. He does want to recognize the insights of native speakers as to its definition and make the definition as broad as possible to allow analysis of rhetorical strategies as well as sets of grammatical and phonological features. His refusal to hold one definition above another is justified by other chapters. Authors such as Guy Bailey, Patricia Cukor-Avila, William Labov, and Walt Wolfram are fundamentally writing of only a vernacular variety of English spoken by African Americans, whereas other authors, such as Mary Zeigler and Arthur Spears, write of a broader variety of African American English (whether it is deemed vernacular or not...


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pp. 103-119
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Archived 2005
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