sociolinguistics laboratory

From Synchrony to Diachrony in the Evolution of African American Vernacular English

Principal Investigator: Sali Tagliamonte
Co-investigator: Shana Poplack
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
Research Grant #410-95-0778 [1995-1998]

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centures, small groups of escaped or freed slaves from the United States and other African Americans colonized far-flung locales in Nova Scotia, the Dominican Republic, Liberia, and elsewhere. Through fieldwork in three such diaspora communities in Nova Scotia and Samaná (Dominican Republic), we have obtained a unique archive of the language spoken by descendants of these colonists. Because current speakers and their forebears have evolved in enclave situations since the original settlement, their speech reflects quite faithfully the state of the English language at the time their ancestors were acquiring it, and has developed independently of modern African American Vernacular English (AAVE). This discovery provides an unprecedented window onto "Early Black English," without which the "creole-origins hypothesis" based on comparisons with Caribbean creoles, cannot be addressed.

Perhaps the most controversial issue in the current study of AAVE is whether differences between it and other dialects of English can be attributed to distinct underlying grammatical structures that derive from a prior creole (the "creole-origins hypothesis") or to patterns acquired from the rural British and Irish-English varieties spoken by the early white plantation staff to whom they were exposed (the "divergent varieties hypothesis"). Grammatical constructions apparently supporting the creole-origins hypothesis are shown in examples (1)-(3), taken from corpora housed at the University of Ottawa Sociolinguistics Laboratory:

1. Zero copula

She Ø always eating banana sandwich. (African Nova Scotian English/039/574)

2. Zero past-tense marking

When I look-Ø in like that, and I look-Ø in that door, and I look-Ø back in that corner, I seen them great big eye. (African Nova Scotian English/030/884-6)

3. Variable verbal -s marking

When they speaks to me, say-Ø "hello," I just lets it go, go-Ø on about my business. (African Nova Scotian English/010/25-6)

Until recently, this hotly disputed controversy has been based on inferences drawn from contemporary AAVE alone. Do the diaspora varieties use such grammatical forms in ways predicted for English-based creoles (or show signs of once having done so)? This question holds implications for the African origins of Black language in North America and the Caribbean.

Our ongoing research examines the variable use of grammatical forms in the context of a large number of semantic, syntactic, lexical, discourse, and pragmatic factors drawn from the historical and theoretical literature. Comparison of our data with AAVE, with English-based creoles, and with historical and regional varieties of white English offers conclusive evidence against the creole origins hypothesis. Using statistical compilations and multiple regression techniques, we have shown that the utilization of the copula, negation, question formation, relativization strategies, marking of past, present, and future tense, and variability in verbal and plural-s marking are parallel in EAE and other varieties of English - whether historical, regional, or standard - but different from creole patterns. This work is currently being extended to the perfect tense and past habitual aspect. In addition, we are synthesizing these results to provide a comprehensive assessment of the origins and evolution of AAVE in North America and the Caribbean and its relationship to the contemporaneous English varieties with which it was first in contact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such information is instrumental in understanding the development of modern AAVE and its relation to other dialects of English. More generally, it sheds light on the kinds of effects that languages can have on each other in contact situations, and the role of the enclave in resisting linguistic change.

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