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Review of  Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English


Reviewer: Fernanda L Ferreira
Book Title: Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English
Book Author: Sonja L. Lanehart
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 13.885

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Review:

Lanehart, Sonja L., ed. (2001) Sociocultural and Historical
Contexts of African American English. John Benjamins Publishing
Company, xvii+371pp, paperback ISBN 1-58811-046-X (US),
90-272-4886-9 (Eur), $39.95, Varieties of English Around the
World General Series 27

Dr. Fernanda Ferreira, Bridgewater State College.

OVERVIEW
Part 1 (Introduction) of this collection includes Lanehart's
overview of the various approaches used to analyze African
American English (AAE) and the rationale behind the selection
of works. The second chapter presented by Mufwene, deals with
the issue regarding the definition and nature of AAE. Part 2
addresses the relationship between AAE and other varieties of
English. It includes the work of Cukor-Avila based on
synchronic research of the relationship between African
American English and White Vernaculars in the American South.
Also included in this section is David Sutcliffe's discussion
of the evolution of AAE from 19th century historical data and
its consequences to 20th century speech. Part 3 of the
collection addresses topics of language use, such as
ideology, gender and directness in African American English
varieties. Contributions come from Zeigler, Morgan, Troutman
and Spears. The last section of the book (Part 4) is an
important group of papers addressing the application of
research to practical educational issues in AAE. To mention
but one, the lower levels of literacy experienced by African
American children in inner-city schools is discussed by
William Labov. Other contributions to the same issues in
applied linguistics come from Toya Wyatt and Mich�le Foster.

DISCUSSION
Chapter 1. State of the art in African American English
research: Multi-disciplinary perspectives and directions.
Sonja L. Lanehart
The initial chapter of this book gives an overview of a
collection of papers originating from the Conference on
African American English held at the University of Georgia in
September of 1998. The papers are divided into five major
parts, based on broader research questions. These include
the connection between languages of the African Diaspora and
AAE as well as the relationship between AAE and other
American English dialects. Also addressed in the collection
is the issue of gender in AAE and the relationship between
dialect proficiency and literacy in African American
communities. More practical research questions refer to the
dynamics of family, school, and/or community in the
acquisition of AAE. The studies were selected based the
inclusion of (1) age or generation as a primary variable, (2)
sociohistorical data, (3) the sociocultural context as an
explanatory framework, (4) issues of identity and (5)
application of knowledge about AAE to educational and social
factors. Lanehart explains the rationale for each of the
aforementioned areas while summarizing each of the articles
of the book. This introduction is especially helpful not
only to less-experienced readers but to researchers of AAE as
well.

Chapter 2. What is African American English? Salikoko S.
Mufwene
Mufwene initially presents a recapitulation of the importance
of AAE research, and later presents results of a survey
conducted at the University of Chicago regarding the
definition of AAE. Mufwene proposes that linguists must find
a term that answers the question of "What is African American
English?" that satisfies experts in the field and native
speakers alike. This definition presents problems since the
great majority of African American respondents denied that
there was such a thing as Black English. Mufwene's solution
is to define AAE as "English as spoken by or among African
Americans". While this might be regarded as too simplistic,
he adverts that this is essentially how other varieties of
English have been defined in the past. The definition also
gets around the problem of variation, since it does not
defend that all African Americans speak identically, but
rather similarly. Mufwene takes a compromising approach
regarding the research on the origins of AAE, by stating that
his definition does not preclude this line of research. In
spite of the fact that Black English has received most of the
attention in American academia, Mufwene believes that more
research should be done with respect to non-standard
vernaculars. The objective of such research will help
determine what makes AAE unique. Mufwene brings a refreshing
view of an often-acrimonious topic, the definition of AAE
with respect to its possible creole origins as well as its
associations with earlier English varieties. He offers a
more realistic (albeit vague) definition of AAE that takes
into account the sentiments of native speakers.

Chapter 3. The relationship between African American
Vernacular English and White Vernaculars in the American
South: A sociocultural history and some phonological
evidence. Guy Bailey
Regarding the topic of the relationship between African
American Vernacular English (AAVE) and White Vernacular
English (WVE), Bailey addresses the sociohistorical contexts
of both dialects, the sources of data used in previous
research on AAVE, and the similarities and differences of
both phonological systems. He points to the initial lack of
research on the dialects of the rural south (i.e. urban
varieties of AAVE had been previously compared to standard
White varieties). The comparative tables presented in this
article are extremely helpful in giving an insight into not
only the theoretical perspectives of previous research but
also the strengths and limitation of such studies. In
discussing the relationship between AAVE and WVE, Bailey
gives a detailed description of the sociocultural and
socioeconomic contexts of African American and White speech
communities. Specifically, the expansion of farm tenancy in
the south before World War II contributed to similarities in
the speech of both Blacks and Whites, while more socio-
economic distance produced linguistic divergence. In
discussing the sources of data for previous research, Bailey
explains how finding evidence of linguistic development can
be a complex matter. He states that studies "based on older,
life-long residents of insular, rural communities in the
South provide evidence that complements all of these sources"
(p. 73). The last part of this chapter compares the
phonological systems of AAVE and WVE. Bailey shows that many
shared phonological features developed in the post-Civil-War
cotton South involve mergers, glide shortenings, and changes
in consonant clusters. In sum, the complex sociohistory of
the speech communities is closely paralleled by the complex
development of both phonological systems.

Chapter 4. Co-existing grammar: The relationship between the
evolution of African American and Southern White Vernacular
English in the South. Patricia Cukor-Avila
In summarizing the findings of research into the history of
AAVE's vowel system, Cukor-Avila states that (1) in an early
period, AAVE showed similarities to Caribbean English-based
creoles; (2) in a subsequent time period, AAVE shared many
features with Southern White English; and (3) in the period
after WWII there were independent developments in both
dialects (p. 94). As with previous chapters in this
collection, the tables presented are extremely helpful in
identifying the strengths and limitations of several research
studies in this field. Cukor-Avila then focuses on the
research conducted in Springville, Texas, which included
fellow researchers Bailey and Maynor. The research team
addressed limitations of previous studies, specifically, the
time frame studied, the geographical areas and the features
included in previous research. Their longitudinal studies
focused in the South rather than urban inner-city areas and
included a wider range of grammatical features. The results
showed that shared grammatical features were the case in
earlier grammars of AAVE and Southern White Vernacular English
(SWVE). Secondly, more recent developments in AAVE point to
innovations that are not shared by comparable White
vernaculars. Cukor-Avila focuses on the development of copula
absence in AAVE, a cause of disagreement among scholars as
far as the origins of Black English. Based on the hierarchy
of constraints regarding copula absence and categorical
differences in adjectives, Cukor-Avila's research confirms
studies that argue in favor of similarities between AAVE and
Caribbean English-based creoles. The strengths of her
findings relate to the usage of variation theory (the use of
VARBRUL measurements) which can be immediately compared to
other research into the origins of AAVE.

Chapter 5. The voice of the ancestors: New evidence on 19th-
century precursors to 20th-century African American English.
David Sutcliffe
Sutcliffe's work deals with what he calls "overwhelmingly
underrepresented non-standard features" (p. 129) found in the
earlier transcriptions of the ex-slaves recordings (ESR). In
a detailed revision of taped materials, Sutcliffe continues
the work initiated by Rickford and unearths creole-like
evidence from the Works Project Administration (WPA)
audiotapes. These basilectal features (continuative -dem
and masculine subject pronoun "he" instead of "she" with
female referents) had been "standardized" as a matter of
policy by the earlier transcribers. Sutcliffe also mentions
other "bridges" between indisputable creole dialects such as
Gullah and more non-standard varieties of African American
English, such as the presence of tone. He proposes the
existence of an ESR Plantation Mesolect, spoken hundreds of
miles inland of the original Gullah-speaking regions.
Sutcliffe's methodological decision to purposely "look for"
creole features in his re-interpretations of the ESR was
cause for concern for this reader. It would be interesting
to determine if his interpretations can be reproduced in
future studies. On a positive note, he explains his
procedures in detail, such as the attention to the repeated
utterances and further reworking and remodeling. Critics of
his revisions have access to his transcriptions in the
article's appendix.

Chapter 6. Something to Shout about: African American
Vernacular English as a linguistic and cultural treasure.
Mary B. Zeigler
Zeigler reminds readers that all languages, and in particular
AAVE, have "inestimable social and intellectual worth to its
speech community" (p. 169). As a topic of discussion, the
author chooses the expression shout('n') as representative of
AAVE's linguistic and cultural treasure. Zeigler bases her
analysis in speech act theory and argues that shout('n') is a
prime example of language use in its performative dimension.
The term encompasses not only the initial ideas of "attention
getter" and "astonished utterance" but also includes the
"sacred, emotional expression of praise" as well as the
"secular, emotional expression of joy" (p. 176). Readers
might be reminded that shout('n') is closely associated with
"stomping", which is identified as a typical African American
tradition. As with the term discussed in her article,
stomping also includes gestures, motions and body percussion.
Finally, Zeigler reiterates that a language that reveals the
social traditions of a people, as does AAVE, is a linguistic
treasure.

Chapter 7. Nothing but a G Thang: Grammar and language
ideology in Hip Hop identity. Marcyliena Morgan
The author reviews the social an political origins of
Hip Hop culture, calling attention to the lack of political
representation of inner city youth, who have dealt with the
social and political abandonment of their urban communities.
Hip Hop artists counteract the bleak situations faced by
social class members by valuing concepts such as honesty
("keeping it real") and leadership. As stated by Morgan,
"Hip Hop's language ideology is consciously and often
defiantly based on urban African American norms, values, and
popular culture constructed against dominant cultural and
linguistic norms" (p. 188). Linguistic norms are subverted
because the idea here is not to use language to communicate
solely, but rather to represent beliefs and the consequences
of those beliefs. Language subversion refers to the constant
changes in lexical meaning as well as changes in word class
that creates chaos, movement and urgency. Finally, Hip Hop
is regarded as symbol of social and linguistic resistance
that has expanded to various international arenas (cf. rap in
other languages), but one that has remained African American
and urban in nature.

Chapter 8. African American women: Talking that talk. Denise
Troutman
Troutman's goal with this chapter is to bridge a gap in AAE
research with the discussion of African American women
language (AAWL). On the one hand, she acknowledges areas of
similarities between African American women's discourse and
their White counterparts. However, she concentrates on
important differences in AAWL, such as common lexical choices
(girl stop, nah-h-h) and other features that are unique to
AAWL in the sense that they are neither part of Black male
nor White female speech. Her discussion is based firstly on
material included in previous works and, secondly, in an
analysis of transcripts of the Anita Hill Senate hearings.
She also includes dialogues of two motion pictures, "Jungle
Fever" and "The Women of Brewster Place" to further
discussion. She focuses on a series of unique patterns,
namely, reported speech, cooperative speech, usage of
"little", reading dialect, performance, assertiveness, and
"smart talk". Some definitions, such as performance (as
defined in Troutman's article) is still not apparent based on
the example given in the text (p. 218). Specifically, it is
not clear how performance as exemplified in the text is
different from collaborative discourse.

Chapter 9. Directness in the use of African American English.
Arthur K. Spears
Spears discusses the topic of directness in AAE, which
includes controversial speech such as the type that appears
in "gangsta" rap records, trash talking, among other kinds of
urban speech. Directness in speech can be described as
excessively assertive, aggressive, sometimes obscene or
simply caustic speech, depending on who is making the
evaluation (p. 240). Because of its relative nature (i.e.
aggressive to some or simply entertaining to others) Spears
admonishes readers that directness in speech must be
understood from within its sociocultural context. He admits
that directness can be present in White communities but
argues that there is significantly more of it among Blacks,
which in turn permits its usage to be considered a principle
of AA language. Directness in Black speech has many social
ends that are highly positive, such as the candor a teacher
expresses in attempting to guide AA students towards academic
excellence. Spears' article is a significant contribution to
understanding Black speech and eventually addressing more
practical issues such as the inherent linguistic conflicts
that arise in schools among Black students and teachers who
are White or not "culturally" Black.

Chapter 10. The role of family, community and school in
children's acquisition and maintenance of African American
English. Toya A. Wyatt
A discussion of the inherent diversity of child language
acquisition processes within the African American community
is the primary purpose of Wyatt's paper. Specifically, the
author discusses how family, community and school help shape
individual children's language development. Wyatt states
that understanding the nature of such processes can help
educators distinguish between true communicative disorders
and normal dialect differences. Social theories of language
acquisition predict that caregivers contribute greatly to
language development. One of the key differences between AA
children and children exposed to GAE (General American
English) is that, by the age of three, the former still
produce certain morphological markers (plural -s, past tense
-ed) in a much more variable manner than the latter. In
addition, Wyatt found large evidence of language diversity
within the AA community as far as language use: only 46% of
the children initially screened for the research showed
moderate to heavy usage of AAE patterns even though all
children initially selected were from similar socio-economic
backgrounds. Other sources of variation include dialectal
differences, variation due to processes of language change,
linguistic context (language-specific variable rules) and
style-switching patterns. Wyatt argues that teachers must
have a bidialectal approach to language teaching if their goal
is to help children acquire an additional style/code.

Chapter 11. Pay Leon, Pay Leon, Pay Leon, Paleontologist:
Using call-and-response to facilitate language mastery and
literacy acquisition among African American Students.
Mich�le Foster
Foster's article starts by pointing out that in spite
of years of sociolinguistic research into AAE, educational
solutions that aim to improve academic achievement of African
American children are still lacking. The article offers
insight into the instructional practice of "call-and-
response" and clarifies some of the aspects of this discourse
pattern. Foster reviews the academic literature on the
subject and presents conceptual information about "call-and-
response" as an analytical tool in the classroom. As defined
by Foster, call-and-response is "an interaction between
speaker and listener(s) in which the statements ("calls") are
emphasized by expressions ("responses") from the listener(s),
in which responses can be solicited or spontaneous, in which
calls and/or responses can be expressed linguistically,
musically, verbally, non-verbally, or through dance" (p. 286-
7). The "call-and-response" interaction as exemplified in the
title of the article demonstrates how phonemic awareness and
vocabulary development incorporated into language play can be
used in the classroom to improve reading skills (p. 294).
Foster's thoughtful analyses and recommendations are
realistic and long overdue.

Chapter 12. Applying our knowledge of African American
English to help students learn and teachers teach. William
Labov
Labov reports on the application of sociolinguistic
knowledge of AAE to the teaching of reading. Imbedded in
his discussion are larger issues regarding the relationship
between theory and practice as well as the one between
applied linguistics and theoretical linguistics. Labov
reviews his earlier research on rates of deletion of past
tense markers among AAE speakers and perceived difficulties
in assessing underlying forms, due to differences between the
printed word and phonetic realization. In his current
research with West Philadelphia schools, Labov analyzes the
difficulties of primary school children to understand the
silent -e rule, which translates into common mistakes in
decoding/reading short and long vowels (cf. word pair
"bit"/"bite"). Children's reading mistakes also pointed to
the complexity of consonant clusters (-sCr or -Cr/l clusters)
and syllable nuclei. The results of pre-tests and post-tests
revealed that, surprisingly, despite the same amount of
instruction for all types of errors, final consonant clusters
remained impervious to teaching efforts among AA children.
The results indicate that the history of failure of the
children to read final consonant clusters may be directly
correlated with known patterns of final consonant reduction
in AAVE.

Chapter 13: Applying linguistic knowledge of African American
English to help students learn and teachers teach. John
Baugh
Baugh's contribution to this collection refers to identifying
common denominators essential to improving the odds in the
constant struggle experienced by AA children in their
academic development. He proposes a three-tier solution that
includes educators, parents and students themselves, who
should participate in their own academic success. The author
alerts readers that linguistic prejudices will prevail even
if racial prejudice could be hypothetically eliminated.
However, in discussing the attitudes of individual educators,
Baugh admits that those who are more tolerant of linguistic
diversity will be more apt to help AA children achieve their
academic goals. On the other hand, those who believe that
AAVE is essentially "bad English" will not become advocates
of disadvantaged children. The author urges educators to
treat children who speak AAVE fairly: namely, he requests
that no child should be made to feel ashamed of their speech,
and that positive intervention by educators is essential.
The role of linguists in disseminating the concepts of
linguistic diversity and tolerance to society at large is
also highlighted in the article.

Chapter 14. Reconsidering the sociolinguistic agenda for
African American English: The net generation of research and
application. Walt Wolfram
Wolfram summarizes the considerable research on AAE, from
the perspective of three interconnected areas: synchronic issues,
diachronic issues and application issues. After considering
the scholarly accounts presented in the collection, the
author presents suggestions for future research in African
American English. Regarding synchronic issues, Wolfram
suggests that research should encompass the area of "style-
shifting". Diachronic issues discussed in the volume
underscore the genesis and development of AAE as a
controversial topic over the years. Wolfram highlights the
contributions of Bailey, Cukor-Avila and Mufwene, who have
addressed new areas of interest, such as the dynamic
relationship between AAE and Southern White vernaculars and
language ecology. As far as the application of
sociolinguistic knowledge to understanding AAE and academic
achievement, Wolfram realizes that efforts have been
sluggish, probably due to larger issues of language policy
and ideology. Although some positive outcomes have been
identified, academic standardized tests for AA children
remain an area of concern. Finally, Wolfram points out that
the large gap between sociolinguistic research and the
society's lack of knowledge with respect to dialect variation
is a call to arms to all linguists and educators.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Dr. Fernanda Ferreira is an assistant professor at
Bridgewater State College, where she teaches Spanish and
Portuguese language classes to a diverse, and mostly working-
class student body. Her area of research includes language
contact and variation, phonology and Hispanic linguistics.
Her dissertation addressed the issue of the possible African
imprint in Caribbean Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, her
native language.


 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: