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The nation's top linguists discuss Ebonics

In recent discussions, many sociolinguists are divided on the origins of Ebonics or African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Anglicists or dialectologists argue that African Americans who arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries acquired the English vernaculars spoken by white settlers, and that modern Ebonics simply preserves and exaggerates those features. Creolists, by contrast, argue that many Africans arriving in earlier centuries pidginized and creolized the English with which they came in contact, simplifying and restructuring it on the model of their West African and Caribbean Creole languages. They assert that this accounts for some of the salient modern differences between Ebonics and white vernacular English in America.

John Rickford, linguistics professor at Stanford University, describes himself as a creolist. He will participate in a panel discussion called Divergence in Linguistic Evolution: Ebonics and Other 20th Century Developments, on Saturday, Feb. 14, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia.

The central focus of this session is how and why languages or dialects that are in close contact nevertheless remain different, and sometimes become even more different, over time. Diversification or linguistic drift is expected when speakers of different language varieties are isolated or separated, but not when they are in contact.

"Ebonics or AAVE is interesting as a test case because there is evidence that it remains different from white vernacular varieties and is even diversifying from them in some respects even though blacks and whites are supposedly in contact with each other." Rickford said. They are certainly not separated by mountain ranges, rivers or oceans in the sense that we normally associate with 'isolation' and dialect divergence in regional dialectology."

In his presentation, Rickford will first present evidence that differences do exist between black and white vernaculars in America, even in the context of island enclaves (off the coasts of North and South Carolina) where the populations are small, the physical space restricted, and the populations have been "in contact" for several decades.

"I will argue that these extreme examples, paralleled by other examples in the much more complex situations of big cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles, exist because of two factors: Limited close social and linguistic interaction between blacks and whites; and powerful social norms about the different ways blacks and whites 'should' talk and behave, sometimes reinforced by 'identity moves' within each group which accentuate those differences," Rickford said.

Two larger questions that Rickford's paper will consider are whether differentiation and divergence between black and white vernaculars are a phenomenon of the 20th century and whether the evidence of recent differentiating changes in AAVE necessarily imply that it has not simultaneously been converging with white vernaculars, as those who believe in Creole origins for AAVE would assert.

"My answer to both questions is no," Rickford said. "Although demographic conditions of the 17th and early 18th centuries suggest that the first generations of Africans might have had more opportunities for convergence with and assimilation to the dialect patterns of whites, there were still enough social and cultural differences between the populations and their sources to have favored some linguistic differentiation right from the start. The conditions of the late 18th and early 19th century could only have exacerbated those differences. Moreover, while AAVE is vital and developing in new directions, many of its features clearly originated in earlier centuries, and link it to pidgin and creole varieties in the Caribbean and West Africa," he said.

While AAVE is simultaneously diverging from white vernaculars in some respects, Rickford added, it is also converging with them, and away from some of its creole predecessors, in others.

The AAAS panel, which is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon on Feb. 14, also will include William Labov, of the University of Pennsylvania; Guy Bailey, University of Texas-San Antonio; and Gillian Sankoff, University of Pennsylvania.

Rickford's web page, which includes his vitae, and some of his recent notes and writing on Ebonics, is:


By Elaine Ray

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