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.

Smitherman – Word From The Mother

“to speak . . . means to assume a culture . . .every dialect is a way of thinking.”

–Frantz Fanon (1967)

In Geneva Smitherman’s Word from the Mother, Smitherman speaks with maternal authority and explores the push-pull relationship that both African and White America have with African American Language. Through an overview of AAL debates past and present, Smitherman demonstrates that while White and African America are still undecided on how they feel about Black people and their culture, there is nothing ambivalent about AAL; it has roots, consistent rules and continues to have a recognizable impact on mainstream America and the language of wider communication, “standardized” American English. Smitherman also makes the case that because of this we should broaden the concept of AAL beyond the notion that it is only for and used by young Hiphoppas, but that AAL should be included in writing pedagogy at all levels, as well as, a national bi/multilingual policy for all U.S. citizens.

Smitherman asserts that AAL is rooted in the West African languages that enslaved Africans brought to the United States over 400 years ago.

“AAL comes out of the experience of the U.S. slave descendants. This shared experience has resulted in common speaking styles, systematic patterns of grammar, and common language practices in the Black community.” (3)

Smitherman points to similarities in words of West African origin and AAL to demonstrate the connection between the two languages. For example, she compares the “tote” as in tote bag and “tota” meaning to carry in Kikongo. Smitherman uses these similarities and research to disprove the notion that AAL is random and an indication of genetic inferiority. “Linguists then and now are united in our overwhelming rejection of assertions that AAL is illogical or evidence of some kind of intellectual shortcoming in Blacks.” (11)

Although many still deny AAL’s legitimacy and value as a language form, Smitherman presents undeniable evidence of the linguistic crossover of terms that were at one point exclusively Black and are now enjoyed by all. The “high five” previously known as giving and getting skin/ five has its roots in West Africa.

There are several West African language sources, including Mandingo, I golo don m bolo, meaning literally “put your skin in my hand” as an expression of agreement and solidarity. Practiced on the down low in Black America for most of the entire twentieth century, “put your skin in my hand” morphed into the “high five” around 1990 . . . one can observe its use not only among White males, but also among elite White women on the golf course as well as among elderly White females confined to nursing homes (113).

If this text had been written after the 2008 presidential campaign, I’m sure Smitherman would have also addressed the closed fist variation used by then Black Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, which later became known to White America as the popular “fist bump” only after they were assured there was no terrorist affiliation indicated by it.

The bottom line in Word from the Mother is that AAL or Negro Dialect as it was once called should not be seen as a hindrance to African American progress. In chapter 7, Smitherman debunks the argument put forward by Gordon C. Green in 1963 that Negro Dialect would be the last barrier to integration. At that time, Green argued that within the next generation all signs of segregation and overt racism would be eliminated and that Black folk needed to lose their dialect in order to reap the benefits of the societal about-face. Smitherman points out that the de-facto segregation that is still present forty years after Green’s plea has nothing to do with AAL. “Indeed, the irony of Green’s four-decades-old argument is that in the U.S., the “Negro Dialect” has been integrated, but the “Negro people” have not.” (122)

Smitherman argues against simplistic approaches to AAL and attempts to move the conversation to higher ground by discussing possible uses in education. She explores language awareness programs in elementary and secondary school that serve to develop and reaffirm positive attitudes toward AAL. “Education about language diversity has to start early on – with all children” (138). She also cites Gwendolyn Pough’s use of Hip-hop pedagogy in her college courses as “a vehicle for critical thinking and social change” (141).

However, the broader issue, Smitherman concludes, is what kind of stance we will take as a nation concerning acquisition of language. Smitherman suggests a bi/multilingual national policy where AAL would be one of several languages that students could select. Students would also study the respective cultures of the languages offered and therefore be prepared to enter the adult world as bi/multilinguals with global perspectives (141). Smitherman argues that this is a better strategic position than the current monolingual policy and practice encouraged by No Child Left Behind. “While the twenty-first-century world is moving in a common direction of multilingualism, the U.S. remains stagnated in a backward monolingualism” (144).

Regardless of the continued linguistic push-pull relationship White and African America have with African American Language it has stood the test of time for over 400 years and it is here to stay.