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)

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).

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!

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).

Krapp – The English of the Negro

Krapp, G. P. “The English of the Negro.” American Mercury 2.5 (1924): 190-5. Print.

In his 1924 “The English of the Negro,” George Philip Krapp claimed that the “Negro,” while s/he may have been denied certian aspects of citizenship, had been fully assimilated in terms of speech and spoke the same English as the early settlers. He went as far to say that no vestiges of African language had been retained in Black speech (190). He attributed this phenomenon to the combination of the two languages  (English and native African “dialect”) and the one with the higher cultural value, English, trumping the latter. He therefore reasoned that the language with higher cultural value, English, borrowed little to nothing from the latter, African “dialect” (190).

Krapp depicted the “Negro”  as a backward cultural being whose speech merely reflected the linguistic leftovers of older forms of English. While he acknowledged the danger in such generalizations, he argued: “it is reasonably safe to say that not a single detail of Negro pronunciation or Negro syntax can be proved to have any other than an English origin.” Krapp looked to the example of the Gullah language as an example of what he considered to be an infantile form of English, and one that he speculated Africans brought to America as slaves were forced to learn in order to speak to one another and their masters. He denied that even Gullah language has outside influences. He boasted that “as a literary achievement the Negro is exclusively an American invention” (193). He based this in part on claims that British literature did not have any Black characters.

According to Krapp, Negro English was not a peculiar species of English, it was merely the English spoken by “Negroes.” The emphasis on the dissimilarities is due to the preconceived notions and expectations whites had when encountering a Black person speaking. Because Blacks were/ are perceived as inherently different, Krapp claims that the differences in speech are exaggerated and a more scientific literal translation is applied when transcribing as opposed to illiterate or literate whites. This notion still rings true today in media portrayals of African Americans and other people of color. The most recent and notable example of this can be found in the movie and book (2009), The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. However, it seems that his discussion of “Negro” characters and “Negro English” (194) in early American dramas contradicted his notion that there is not real distinction other than the bodies the speech was coming from.

Krapp’s analysis of American and British literature written by whites to trace the evolution of “Negro English” is also problematic. It reminds me of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark and her cautions of white authors and their literary imagination of Black people. Krapp did not take up this issue, but preferred to look to the hope of more genial relations between Blacks and whites. The hope for the future of race relations, according to Krapp is the “Negro’s” adaptation of the English language.