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concluded that Turner’s findings regarding the correlation between Gullah and West African language were decisive and superseded prior arguments made by Krapp and others that denied retention of African language in American Black English (53).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!

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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.