Stewart – Sociolinguistic Factors in the History of American Negro Dialects

Stewart, W. A. “Sociolinguistic Factors in the History of American Negro Dialects.” Florida FL Rep (1967) Print.

In this text, William Stewart gave context for the pedagogical tensions related to “Negro” dialect in the English classroom. He framed the concerns and research efforts regarding Black language variations as base din a national commitment to improving the lives and potential for social and economic advancement of underprivileged and  “disadvantaged” groups. To this end, Stewart claimed that a host of professionals were seeking answers to the numerous language problems of the “Negro.” Stewart described an educational landscape where underprivileged children were seen an defective and less capable than their white counterparts. Stewart argued that   schools needed to be both capable and willing to deal with such “dialect-based problems” (417).
Stewart stressed the importance of giving the nonstandard English speaking students the benefit of an education in  “standard” English: “To insure their social mobility on modern American society, these nonstandard speakers must undoubtedly be given a command of standard English” (425).
In order to properly deal with these dialect-based “problems” Stewart advised applied linguists and teachers alike to recognize the validity and long standing history of Black variations of English:
“Once educators are concerned with the language problems of the disadvantaged come to realize that non-standard Negro dialects represent historical tradition of this type, it is to be hoped that they will become less embarrassed by evidence that these dialects are very much alike throughout the country while different in many ways from non-standard dialect of whites, less frustrated by failure to turn non-standard Negro dialect speakers into standard English speakers overnight, less impatient with the stubborn survival of Negro dialect features in speech of even educated persons, and less zealous in proclaiming what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong'” (426).
Once this is achieved and linguists and educators can communicate with eac other, Stewart claimed “the problem will then be well on its way toward a solution” (426). The assumption under-girding this entire text despite all of the “legitimacy” Stewart tried to bestow upon Black English, was that the language and the people that speak in are different and unequal in terms of value and social capital; they were a problem, a threat and needed to be mitigated.

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!”

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)

McDavid – Historical, Regional, and Social Variation

McDavid, R. I. “Historical, Regional, and Social Variation.” Journal of English Linguistics 1.1 (1967): 25. Print.

In this article, R. McDavid categorized the different scales of measurement for grammar usage. McDavid highlighted historical, regional, and social scales as the three factors that affect language use in which people could not choose, but instead had to try and negotiate: “No man can change the generation or place of his birth; his attempts to change the social variety of his speech will be determined by the kind of people he associates with, and opportunities to make a drastic change are not as common as we would like” (27).

Concerning “Negro” dialect, McDavid acknowledged the research done by Lorenzo Turner to expand the understanding of Black language in the U.S., but still contended that “for the most part, Negro usages that differ from middle-class white practices are largely the result of this kind of selective cultural differentiation,” such as migration patterns within the U.S>

Fanon – The Negro and Language

Fanon, F. “The Negro and Language.” Black skin, white masks (1967): 17-40. Print.

In this chapter, Frantz Fanon used the example of the “Negro” in Antilles as an example of challenges that colonized people face regarding language. Blacks in Antilles, specifically Martinique, were pressured to speak French as opposed to Creole. By speaking French, Fanon explained that Blacks could become more “white;” achieve higher social status and think of themselves as being equal to whites in society as can be seen in his personal example:

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Rather more than a year ago in Lyon, I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, ‘At bottom you are a white man.” The fact that I had been able to investigate so interesting a problem through the white man’s language gave me honorary citizenship.” (38)

Fanon explicitly extended his example  of the “Negro” in Antilles to represent larger issues of colonized people. He broadly defined colonized people as “every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality” (18). Fanon detailed the process in which the colonized is expected and pressured to conform to the colonizer’s standards, particularly as it relates to language, and the types of alienation that can occur as a result.

Fanon argued that the European had a fixed image of the Black man (same can be said for whites in the U.S. and throughout the world in accordance to his colonial analogy). Language is used to reinforce this image: “to make him talk pidgin is to fasten him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him, the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible” (35).

Fanon also pointed out the potential for upward mobility in race and social class through the acquisition of the colonial language  or language that bears more social capital, in this case, French. However, even when this mastery is accomplished, Fanon asserted that Blacks are still seen as suspect and outsiders:

“… what I am trying to say is that there is no reason why André Breton should say of [Aimé] Césaire ‘Here is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today can.'” (39)

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)

Green – Negro Dialect: The Last Barrier to Integration

Green, G. C. “Negro Dialect: the Last Barrier to Integration.” The Journal of Negro Education 32.1 (1963): 81-3. Print.

In this article, Gordon C. Green discussed what he viewed as the last reminder of African Americans’ past of oppression and therefore obstacle to integration – the “Negro” dialect. During the 1960s when great advances toward integration were being made, Green argued that the tell-tale sign of Blacks’ inferiority were their “substandard” ways of speaking. Similarly to Krapp (1924), Green explained that this illiterate and sub-par way of speaking was developed in no fault of the “Negro,” but merely a matter of nurture because enslaved Africans were not exposed to the “standard” way of speaking English in the fields while they labored, or later while enduring racial segregation. Green listed 13 commonly mis-pronunciations of English words by Black college students at Dillard University where he was formerly employed. Evidence, such as pronouncing “poem” as “perm” is used by Green to support his claim that Negro dialect was the last thing marking and keeping Blacks in a lower social status. He said:

“In this country there is much that the white citizenry can do to help the American Negro gain status as a fellow citizen with equal rights and responsibilities, but there is even more that the colored man can do for himself. Besides seeing to it that his civil rights are respected, that his vote is not wasted, and that he has an equal opportunity in obtaining the best possible education, he should take special pains to see that he and his children destroy this last  chain that binds him to the past, the Negro dialect” (83).

Green clearly views Black language from a deficit standpoint and does not recognize or value any African retentions in the language. He basically advocated for complete linguistic assimilation. As Geneva Smitherman (2006) later pointed African American Vernacular English itself is integrated into American English and other languages worldwide, but the “Negro” still is not.