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REVIEW ARTICLE Re-Examining Vernacular Black English Walt Wolfram University of the District of Columbia and Center for Applied Linguistics* American earlier Black English: Morphological and syntactic variables. By Edgar W. Schneider. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1989. Pp. xiv, 314. $27.00. The death of Black English: Divergence and convergence in black and white vernaculars. By Ronald R. Butters. (Bamberger Beiträge zur Englischen Sprachwissenschaft, 25.) Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1989. Pp. xü, 227. Given the history of race relations in American society, it is hardly surprising that an ethnic variety such as Vernacular Black English (VBE) should continue to exist amidst an aura of controversy. In the society at large, mention of VBE still calls forth emotional arguments about its linguistic legitimacy, despite the fact that sociolinguists may feel that they settled this fundamental issue decades ago. On an academic level, debate over the diachronic and synchronic status of VBE has consumed dialectology for a couple of decades now. Just when the debate seemed to be subsiding, major controversy has erupted once again. The books under review here capture the essence of the renewed controversy, which involves both the re-emergence of the historical issue and a new dispute over the current development of VBE. Schneider's American Earlier Black English offers a major challenge to the creóle hypothesis, and Butters' The Death of Black English challenges the thesis that present-day VBE is independently diverging from other vernacular varieties of English—the so-called divergence hypothesis. Since the modern formulation of the creóle hypothesis (Stewart 1967, 1968, Dillard 1972, Bailey 1965), which maintains that VBE developed primarily from a creóle predecessor spoken extensively throughout the Plantation South prior to emancipation, the position has gained wide acceptance among sociolinguists. Gradually, it has supplanted the position that VBE derived primarily from earlier British dialects, the so-called 'Anglicist hypothesis'. Certainly there has been resistance to the creóle hypothesis, but most Anglicist arguments, typically consisting of anecdotal evidence that selected creole-like features could be documented in earlier varieties of English scattered about the British Isles, were not viewed as a major threat to the creolist position. Although some of this cafeteria-style argumentation is found in Schneider's work, the book pre- * Thanks to Guy Bailey. John Baugh, Donna Christian, Ralph W. Fasold, Shana Poplack, and Fay Vaughn-Cooke for their insightful comments on a preliminary version of this review article. 121 122LANGUAGE, VOLUME 66, NUMBER 1 (1990) sents a serious challenge to the view that VBE developed primarily from a homogeneous creóle predecessor. Unfortunately, creolist dogma has now become so entrenched as the historical position on VBE that Schneider's findings might be dismissed cavalierly. Although it certainly is not without its own problems, his proposal deserves better treatment. Schneider's original analysis was published in 1981 as Morphologische und syntaktische Variablen im amerikanischen Early Black English; the current publication consists of a revised and updated translation that takes into account some of the developments that took place in the study of VBE in the 1980s. The primary corpus for this study is a set of ex-slave narratives collected throughout the South in the mid-1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, a department of the Work Projects Administration. When the interviews were conducted , the average age of the interviewees was in the mid-80s, with several of the subjects over 100 years old at the time of the interview; this means that American Earlier Black English, as defined here, roughly covers a period from 1835 to 1865, on the presumption that the ex-slaves did not make major adjustments to their native vernacular dialect during their lifetime. Most dialectologists should be comfortable with this assumption (e.g., see Payne 1980), although a strong version of the critical-age hypothesis applied to dialect acquisition is probably not justified, especially with respect to some sociallymarked grammatical structures. The texts, usually referred to as the WPA slave narratives, come from personal accounts as written down on the spot by trained, professional writers. From the original collection of over 2,000 interviews , Schneider carefully selected a corpus of 104 interviews representing nine different...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-0665
Print ISSN
0097-8507
Pages
pp. 121-133
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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