Labov – The Notion of ‘System’ in Creole Studies

Labov, W. “The Notion of ’system’ in Creole Studies.” Pidginization and creolization of languages (1971): 447-72. Print.

This paper by WIlliam Labov is a response to numerous papers on different aspects of pidgin and creole language studies. Here, Labov described his own process of attempting to use Creole Studies to better understand and situate “Negro” English. He described  “nonstandard Negro English” as more closely related to  “standard English” than Creoles, such as Jamaican, Haitian, or Trinidadian. However, Labov admitted that Black variations of English were still distinctly different than Southern white English variations. This, for Labov, necessitated the re-evaluation of Creole Studies in understanding American Black speech varieties as well as for further developing a fuller understanding of the linguistic notion of “system,” and how to treat system variations.

Labov noted methodological challenges of non-Creole linguists trying to attain accurate examples of Creole talk as data, such as Creole speakers matching the systems of the researcher, or Creole speakers trying to accommodate the researchers and presenting “hypercreolization” – an exaggerated/ stereotyped version of the language (450). Labov noted the benefit of having Creole speaking linguists, such as Beryl Bailey, but remarked that there were no “Negro” dialect speaking linguists in the U.S.

Labov distinguished “systems” from “structures” by stating that while structures deal with elements or categories, systems relate to the relationship between the elements and categories (451). Labov also took up Noam Chomsky’s work (cited by another scholar’s paper) and argued that his linguistic theory is incompatible with sociolinguistics because of the limitations in places on language communities and how language is acquired.

Labov concluded that the “problem” of Creole languages has historic roots, and have likely manifested gradually over long periods of times. In this respect, he compared the linguistic landscape to a geographic landscape that has morphed over time:

In a given region, there are periods when one or the other type of change prevailed, but these earlier movements are not viewed as different in kind from those taking place today. This seems to be a reasonable approach to the historical problems of Creole languages: close studies of variation and change in present day Creole communities will no doubt give us a good indication of what has happened in the past.” (470)


Bailey – Toward a New Perspective in Negro English Dialectology

Bailey, B. L. “Toward a New Perspective in Negro English Dialectology.” American Speech 40.3 (1965): 171-7. Print.

In this article, Beryl Bailey offered a critique of the linguistic theories that portrayed Negro/ Black English as deficient and substandard in comparison to “standard” English.  She asserted that if linguists followed Krapp’s (1924) suggestions for researching the historical backgrounds of the various dialects, the “Negro” dialect would be described in terms of itself and not in comparison to a so-called norm (171). She claimed that only prejudice could explain the oversight: “I therefore maintain that only blind ethnocentrism has prevented them from looking further for the real facts underlying the grammatical structure of this dialect” (172).

Instead of using “standard” English as a measuring stick, Bailey drew on research on pidgin and creole languages for more comparable  grammatical structures to “Negro” English. Bailey argued that southern Negro “dialect” was different than other southern speech because the grammatical structure was different despite the shared English lexicon. Therefore, any apparent “confusions” or inconsistencies in the dialect could only be resolved by looking to the actual dialect. Bailey compared grammatical rules of Jamaican Creole and “Negro dialect” as taken from a literary text to analyze the distinct and consistent rule-based systems of the speech. Bailey admitted that she was not a native southern Negro dialect speaker and that part of the drawback to her study was the reliance on language in a literary text and her limited ability to understand the dialect in ways that native speakers might. Nevertheless, Bailey makes the compelling point that “Negro” English has a structural system of its own apart from the “standard” American English.

Hence, regardless of the surface resemblances to other dialects of English-and this must be expected, since the lexicon is English and the speakers are necessarily bi-dialectal-we must look into the system itself for an explanation of seeming confusion of persons and tenses. (172)