Fasold and Wolfram – Some Linguistic Features of Negro Dialect

Fasold, R. W., and W. Wolfram. “Some Linguistic Features of Negro Dialect.” Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 3.4 (1972): 16. Print.

Ralph Fasold and Walt Wolfram’s goal in this chapter was to provide comprehensive information on “Negro dialect” or “Black English” as they also called it, in language that nonlinguists, particularly teachers, could understand and use with their students. They made distinctions between “Negro dialect” and others English variations based on pronunciation, vocal quality and grammatical features. Despite its differences, the two clarified that Black English stood as its own system in its own right, not just an imitation of “standard” English.

They identified speakers of the dialect as primarily “Negroes” in lower socioeconomic classes. They also provided a brief explanation of the possible origins of “Negro” dialect, such as retentions from West African languages and/ or racial segregation during slavery.

Fasold and Wolfram derived their “grammar rules” and “pronunciation rules” by observing actual usage and conclude that all speech is governed by systems and rules. They encouraged teachers of “inner city” youth to “uphold real spoken standard English” as a model as opposed to “artificial precise language based on an arbitrary prescriptive norm of what is ‘correct'” (47). However, this is problematic if in fact as scholars such as Krapp, Kurath, and McDavid argued that there isn’t a naturally occurring monolithic white American English due to regional variations.

Fasold and Wolfram presented a solution for the teachers. They said:

“A good rule of thumb for a teacher to follows is to carefully and honestly reflect on his own usage in casual conversation and not to insist on any usage on the part of his pupils which he does not find in his own casual speech.” (47)

This statement confirms James Sledd’s argument that the bi-dialectalism being propogated is tantamount to white supremacy because the only criteria for the “standard” is that it be an acceptable form of speech used by white teachers. Any white variation is therefore suitable if it is coming from someone in a position of social favor higher than the child/ student of color. It is in fact as Sledd argued: linguists and teachers were playing God by attempting to create students in their own linguistic image.

Fasold and Wolfram went to great lengths to explain what they knew about Black English – that it was rule-based and equal to any other form of speech – only to tell teachers to use that knowledge to teach Black students to use an arbitrary “standard” that belonged to someone else and reflected who they were. The Black English term for this is – “fragga-naggle-bull!”

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Marckwardt – American English

Marckwardt, Albert. American English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. Print.

In his book American English, Albert Marckwardt attempted to map out a middle-ground approach to understanding the English language in America. Marckwardt situated American English as rooted in British English, but existing as its own variety due to the socio-cultural influences that are distinctly American. In its formative stages, Marckwardt asserted, American English was shaped by the languages of the Indigenous people that were living on the land that later became  the United States as well as the French, Dutch, Spanish, and others. At the same time, the  “frontier spirit” led to more separation and independence from European influences. As a result, Marckwardt described features of American English that are distinctly connected to American culture and would not be understood by foreigners,  such as “compound” (88). Examples of compounds include “baseball,” and “soap operas.”

Marckwardt acknowledged regional variations, and cited Kurath, but he did not consider all variations equal. He described the “language of the uncultivated” ass distinguished by inflectional characteristics (146). He too, like Krapp (1924) viewed “substandard” American English as a mere holdover of outdated forms of standard English (147). While Marckwardt is clear that this “standard” American English is more socially desirable, he also admitted that it was illusive even for the “well-educated”:

“Unquestionably the easy transition from one social class to another in the United States has resulted in a very hazy line of demarcation between what is acceptable and what is considered illiterate. According to the most rigorous schoolbook standard, some of the language employed in American legislative councils and in business life would not pass muster. The awareness of this, combined with an unrealistic treatment of language in our schools, has resulted at times in a defiance of these questionable standards.” (150)

Many of these questions and the accompanying defiance still persist today.

Marckwardt concluded that despite the different variations of the English language spoken within the U.S. and abroad, it is still highly unified and a single language (170). At the same time, Marckwardt argued that American English had outgrown the use for restrictive grammar standards and taboos which reflect an overall “negative approach to language” (184). For Marckwardt, the positive future and development of the English language were dependent upon adopting a “faith in intuition” regarding language and “giving attention to the broader aspects of structure and evolving tendencies of the language” (184).

Kurath – The Origin of Dialectical Differences in Spoken American English

Kurath, H. “The Origin of the Dialectal Differences in Spoken American English.” Modern Philology 25.4 (1928): 385-95. Print. 

In this article, Hans Kurath disputed the idea that all American English was derived from Standard Southern English and  charted the patterns of American English pronunciation in different regions and traces their origins to specific regions in England. He notes the language surveys conducted between the 1890s and 1925 and the need for more thorough inquiry in order to understand American pronunciation and consider an American standard pronunciation.

Through study of  the pronunciations of various regions in the U.S. and mapping their pronunciations onto particular regions in England, Kurath challenged assumptions made by Krapp (1925), including the existence of a generalized American speech pattern. Kurath’s more nuanced approach highlights the dialectical differences in pronunciation that exist within “American Speech” (390).

This type of challenge to overgeneralized assertions about American language seem to create space for even more nuanced inquiries regarding language. Kurath’s challenge to the notion of a single origin of American English, the Southern English Standard, by showing the influence of Irish and Scottish immigrants, for example, also allows for the consideration of other influences on language. If European immigrants language variations are responsible for regional dialects in America, then his argument lends credence to the claim that enslaved Africans brought to the Americas also influence language features, such as phonetics and lexicons.

“All of the three types of spoken American English are conservative as compared with the pronunciation of the Southern English Standard in the Southeast and the southern Midlands of England. But what they conserve is not the various stages of that Standard, as seems to have been so generally assumed, but certain features-phonetic as well as lexical–of the several basic British regional varieties of Standard English” (395).