Hall – (Book Review) The African Substratum in Negro English

Hall, R. A. “The African Substratum in Negro English.” American Speech 25.1 (1950): 51-4. Print.

It must seem a bit odd to write a summary of a book review, but in my defense I am trying to survey a particular time period (1924-1972) to better understand the linguistic arguments taken up by Composition Studies to make the case for Students’ Rights to Their Own Language (SRTOL). In doing so, I’m trying to map the shifts in ideas concerning “Negro English”  and later African American Language (AAL), and African American Vernacular English, primarily through journal articles during the time period aforementioned. I’ll go back and read L.D. Turner’s seminal text – I promise – but for now, I’ll note the main ideas discussed in the text via Robert Hall’s review.

As reported by Hall, in Turner’s (1949) Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, Turner refuted G.P. Krapp’s (1924) argument that there were no traces of African language in “Negro English.” Turner’s Anthropological and linguistic research in the Gullah region of the U.S.’s Southeast showed retentions of West African language. From his collection of texts (phonetic transcription and phonograph records), Turned compiled lists of names and other commonly used words and makes connections between these words and corresponding West African languages (mong the chief languages were Efik, Fon, Twi, Wolof, and Yoruba).

Hall concluded that Turner’s findings regarding the correlation between Gullah and West African language were decisive and superseded prior arguments made by Krapp and others that denied retention of African language in American Black English (53). In his review, Hall captured the shift in tide that Turner’s text created in terms reconsidering pidgin and creolized languages.

The past decade has seen a revival of interest in pidgin and creolized languages, and Turner’s book is a noteworthy contribution to this field… The theory of linguistic substratum, at one time was wholly discredited by the excesses of it’s proponents, is now being reinterpreted and, one might say, rehabilitated in the light of the more realistic picture of linguistic transfer afforded by pidgin and creolized languages” (54).

Hall encouraged more scholars to take advantage of the shift and availability of more descriptive techniques to “record, analyze, and interpret as many of the despised pidgins and creoles as possible” (54). Hall foreshadowed the day that more study would be focused on cross-cultural analysis of Pan African languages, such as comparison of Turner’s finding to creole languages in the West Indies. Yes, Drs. Hall and Turner, we’re working on it!

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