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American Speech 78.2 (2003) 171-191



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Revisiting the Creolist Hypothesis:
Copula Variability in Gullah and Southern Rural AAVE

Tracey L. Weldon
University of South Carolina

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The relationship between Gullah and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has always been a topic of interest in the debate over the history of AAVE. Creolists have argued that certain distinctive features of the AAVE grammar are representative of creole influence, while dialectologists have argued that AAVE derived from early British English sources. Variability of the copula has figured prominently in this debate. 1 Still, very little comparative research has explored the system of copula variability in Gullah and how it relates to patterns in AAVE. 2 Furthermore, relatively little research has been done on varieties of AAVE spoken in the rural South—an area where earlier creoles are likely to have developed. This study, therefore, compares patterns of copula variability in Gullah and southern rural AAVE and considers how these patterns might inform our understanding of the history of AAVE.

Previous Studies

Consistent with the debate between dialectologists and creolists over the history and development of AAVE, two positions have figured prominently in the literature over the status of the AAVEcopula. Early positions on the synchronic status of the copula in AAVE were tied closely to the debate over its origins. Labov (1982, 179) summarized these positions as follows:

The question is whether [full and contracted forms of the copula] are the result of variable morphological insertion of forms from a superposed dialect, or whether [contracted and zero forms of the copula] are the result of the variable reduction of an underlying form. . . . Following [the first] idea, BEV [Black English Vernacular] would be closer to the post-Creole continuum in Jamaica than other English dialects. The second solution would show BEV as a dialect that differs from others by an additional rule of auxiliary deletion. [End Page 171]

The former position was first articulated by Bailey (1965), who compared patterns of copula usage in Jamaican Creole with those found in "Southern Negro speech." Bailey showed that the African American variety exhibited copula absence with nominal, locative, and adjectival predicates, similar to Jamaican Creole, which employed "zero before adjectives, an obligatory a before nominals, and a de which is often deleted before locatives" (175). Bailey argued thus that "Southern Negro speech" and Jamaican Creole shared a "deep structural relationship," but with different historical developments (175). Rickford (1998, 173) observed, "[Bailey's] paper was valuable for demonstrating that the nature of the following grammatical environment critically determined the realization of the copula in creoles, and for suggesting that comparisons between AAVE and creoles on this dimension might be important for the creole hypothesis."

Labov (1969) observed, however, that the copula was not completely absent in AAVE, but in fact exhibited categorical presence in a number of environments. Given this observation, Labov argued that the copula must belong to the underlying AAVE grammar. Further, Labov showed that with the predicates NP, ADJP, LOC, Ving, and gon(na) and before not, finite forms of be varied between full, contracted, and "deleted" realizations. 3 The "deleted" forms, he argued, resulted from the application of low-level phonological rules, which removed the final consonants of is and are after the vowels had been removed via contraction. This "deletion" rule was found not to operate on am, however, which appeared most often in contracted form. In addition, Labov pointed out a relationship between the patterns of "deletion" in AAVE and contraction in standard English (SE).

We find that the following general principle holds without exception: wherever SE can contract, BEV can delete is and are, and vice versa; wherever SE cannot contract, BEV cannot delete is and are, and vice versa. [Labov 1972a, 73]

Among the linguistic constraints that Labov found to influence the patterns of contraction and "deletion" in AAVE were preceding phonological environment, subject type, and following grammatical environment. For preceding phonological environment, Labov observed a pattern of contrasting effects. Consonants favored "deletion" and vowels favored contraction. For subject type, pronominal subjects...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2133
Print ISSN
0003-1283
Pages
pp. 171-191
Launched on MUSE
2003-06-20
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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