Are Black and White Vernaculars Diverging?
From the 1980’s, much research has been done on AAVE: African American Vernacular English. AAVE is a variety of English spoken by most working- and middle-class African Americans. AAVE might be a plantation creole; it derived from the British English spoken by plantation holders, which was taken over by slaves (Yang, 2003). While AAVE was originally seen as being formed by ‘thick lips and lazy tongues’, this view is no longer accepted (Yang). AAVE is now seen as a variety of English (Bailey & Maynor, 1989; Fasold, 1987). Still, racial stereotyping is present in the views of modern Americans. In recent years, research has been done on whether AAVE is diverging from white vernaculars (Labov, 1987). This paper will give an overview of the differences of opinion as to how much AAVE and American English have diverged. In order to confirm whether AAVE is diverging from white vernaculars, one must firstly look at AAVE from a historical perspective. The historical perspective van provide reasons as to why AAVE might be diverging from white vernaculars and will give an overview on the development of AAVE. Secondly, socioeconomical reasons as to why AAVE might be diverging from white vernaculars will be taken into account. Lastly, the focus will shift to the divergence of black and white vernaculars in closer detail.
Two views exist on the origin of AAVE. The first is that AAVE is an development from the dialects of the British colonist. The second is that AAVE stems from a plantation creole (Labov, 1987; Fasold, 1987; Yang, 2003). Ex-Slave Recordings, recordings made of the speech of slaves born between 1844 and 1861 show that the omission of verbal -s is the most frequent feature of AAVE (Singler 1998). Other features looked for were omission of possessive -s, copula absence, invariant be, use of ain’t for didn’t, use of be done, semiauxiliary come, auxiliary steady, and stressed been (Singler, 1998). After the Second World War there was a migration from the South to Northern cities by black people; they took their language with them (Bailey & Maynor, 1989). Linguistic data has shown that AAVE is common in ruralist African Americans (Labov, 1987). While AAVE was often seen as “‘lazy speech’, ‘bastardized speech’, or ‘fractured slang’” (Yang, 2003), AAVE is now seen as a complex system with its own grammatical rules and systems (Yang).
Differences in socioeconomic status and the segregation of coloured people lead to a difference in the vernacular. This is seen in research done by Labov (1987), who found out that blacks with considerable little white contacts diverge in their vernacular from blacks with considerable white contact, white with almost no black contacts and whites with a considerable amount of black contacts. He also found out that whites with some black contact tend to borrow black forms in their speech (Labov 1987). Labov (1987) sees this as a schism between the black and white community. This is contradicted by Bailey and Maynor (1989), who say that increased difference in speech does not per se mean that relationships between the races are worsening. There was also an experiment done on Texas A&M University, where the speech of people from an urban area were recorded and played to students. The goal for the students was to guess the race of the speaker. The results were that about 80% of the cases was guessed right, showing, but not proving, a difference in white and black vernacular (Bailey & Maynor, 1989).
In regards to divergence, only subsets of AAVE seem to be diverging from white vernacular. An example are the KIT and SQUARE vowels, which are actually converging with white vernacular (Bailey & Maynor, 1989). Another example is that Southern white youth slowly tend to use postvocalic /r/ instead of the classic /r/-lessness that used to be prevalent in the South. In contrast with this, black youth do not participate in this change (Bailey & Maynor, 1989). Another example in which we can see that whites develop a new form while blacks retain the old one is the fronting of LOT, FOOT and /u/ in young Southern white women. The Southern black community does not take part in this (Bailey & Maynor, 1989). AAVE speakers are prevalent in the rural South (Labov, 1987). Opponents of the divergence theory have made remarks on the gathering of the data. Bailey and Maynor (1989) claim that Labov’s research lacks time depth, a feature of methodology in which people from different age groups are researched at the same time.
In conclusion, AAVE might be a plantation creole (Labov, 1987; Fasold, 1987; Yang, 2003) or is a development from the English of the British colonists. While AAVE was credited with existing due to lazy tongues and thick lips, this view is no longer accepted (Yang). There has also been a development in regarding AAVE as ‘lazy speech’ to seeing AAVE as its own variety of English with its own grammatical rules. This shows humanity’s development of nuancing when it comes to research about racial features. Main features of modern AAVE are omission of possessive -s, copula absence, invariant be, use of ain’t for didn’t, use of be done, semiauxiliary come, auxiliary steady, and stressed been (Singler, 1998). Differences in socioeconomic status and segregation may lead to differences in vernacular between white and black people (Labov, 1987). Some subsets of AAVE, such as the KIT and SQUARE vowel are actually converging with white vernacular, while the retention of postvocalic /r/ by Southern black youths is a feature that seems to be diverging with Southern white youths. Another feature that’s diverging is the fronting of LOT, FOOT, and /u/ in young Southern white women. While Labov (1987) claims that there’s divergence, there appears to not yet be consensus as to whether white and black vernaculars are diverging (Bailey & Maynor, 1989; Singler, 1998). Suggestions for further research would include research with time depth, and experiments with a wider variation of Southern urban middle-class and lower-class blacks, set off against middle-class and lower-class whites.
Bailey, G., & Maynor, N. (1989). The Divergence Controversy. American Speech, 64(1), 12-39. doi:10.2307/455110
Fasold, R., Labov, W., Vaughn-Cooke, F., Bailey, G., Wolfram, W., Spears, A., & Rickford, J. (1987). Are Black and White Vernaculars Diverging? Papers from the NWAVE XIV Panel Discussion. American Speech, 62(1), 3-80. doi:10.2307/454555
James H. Yang. (2003). Language in Society, 32(1), 122-128. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4169247
Singler, J. (1998). What’s Not New in AAVE. American Speech,73(3), 227-256. doi:10.2307/455824