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The English Origins Hypothesis

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter situates the English Origins Hypothesis within academic and public discourses on language, ethnicity, and contact, suggesting that these may have influenced responses to the hypothesis. The chapter outlines the methodological preferences of many scholars working in this framework (quantitative analysis of the linguistic constraints on mostly morphosyntactic variation) and describes major findings for verb morphology, question formation, negation, and relativization. In each case, researchers have found strong similarities between the linguistic conditioning of variables in diverse instantiations of earlier African American English (AAE) and in English dialects that may have served as a model for early generations of AAE speakers. After enumerating and evaluating some critiques of the hypothesis, the chapter considers the utility, applications, and limitations of this and competing hypotheses, briefly discusses the relevance to the origins debate of internal regional variation in AAE, and concludes by proposing areas of potential agreement between origins hypotheses.

Keywords: African American English (AAE), dialects, contact, relativization, regional variation, origins debate, morphosyntax, English Origins Hypothesis, negation, question formation

1.1 Introduction

One prominent perspective on the origins of contemporary African American English (AAE),1 recently most closely associated with the Ottawa School (see Poplack 1999; Poplack and Tagliamonte 2001), is that the distinctive features of AAE were transmitted largely intact from earlier nonstandard varieties of English.2 The English Origins Hypothesis (EOH) assumes that the English component of AAE has become obscured over time, as the variety has undergone its own internally driven change, and the relevant linguistic features have disappeared from other varieties, especially from the Standard American English (SAE) that researchers sometimes (inappropriately) use as a point of comparison. This hypothesis is thus consonant with the divergence hypothesis laid out in Labov and Harris (1986), albeit not dependent on continuing divergence.

Among the features that distinguish contemporary AAE from SAE, but not from other historical or regional varieties of English, we note consonant cluster reduction; g-droppin’; interdental stopping or fronting; r-lessness; l-vocalization; mergers of pin/pen, ar/or, and aj/oj; lax vowel shifting; associative and them; locative at; negative concord; ain’t; for to; existential it; irregular or bare past tense forms; preterite/participle variation; verbal s-marking; habitual be(es) and steady; and perhaps remote perfect bin and habitual da/do. There are also AAE features that may result from the extension of dialect rules to new contexts; these include non-inverted questions and the zero copula. In some cases, it is the presence of a feature that distinguishes AAE; in others, it is radical differences in frequency of use.

Of course, it is not good science to note surface similarities and assume influence, especially if we indulge in the cafeteria principle of choosing some features from one comparison variety and some from another, without considering histories of contact and the mechanics of linguistic diffusion. (I address this issue below.) We must also (p. 24) consider the fact that some of the relevant comparison varieties have been in such long-standing contact with AAE that it has become difficult to determine the direction of influence. This is especially problematic in that direction of influence is central to the discourses of language identity, ethnicity, and contact that form the backdrop to any research on AAE (Winford 2003).

1.2 Background

The current instantiation of the EOH, sometimes referred to as the new Anglicists or neo-Anglicist hypothesis, responds to strong claims from the mid-1960s and later that AAE’s distinct features represent retentions from an earlier, less SAE-like stage of the language (possibly creole, creoloid, creole-influenced, or African-influenced, or resulting from universal processes of language change or acquisition) (Bailey 1965; Dillard 1972; Bickerton 1977; Holm 1984; Winford 1997, 1998; Rickford 1998; Sutcliffe 1999; Singler 2007). Earlier English-origins work, though, is more firmly situated in the debate over the relationships between Black and White vernaculars in the American South (McDavid and McDavid 1951). That debate occurred against a social background of racist discourses of taint and influence, sparked in part by northerners dismissing White southern language and culture as Black-influenced or hybrid (Bonfiglio 2002). In that social context, claiming that all linguistic influence flows from White to Black varieties (Krapp 1924; McDavid and McDavid 1951, 12) effectively acts as an assertion of White cultural purity. The non-Anglicist hypotheses, then, historically occupy the moral high ground, and it is likely that this framing of the debate continues to affect responses to the newer EOH (see, especially, Winford 2003).

The strongest non-Anglicist claims, such as those of Bailey (1965), Stewart (1967), and Dillard (1972), posit a widespread full creole across large areas of the American South, with decreolization not occurring until after the Civil War and the end of slavery. This hypothesis contrasts contemporary AAE with SAE and attributes differences to AAE’s creole roots. The strong version is also found in early work by Bickerton (1971), which also shifts the focus of AAE origins research away from phonological differences and toward morphology and syntax. It is this strong version that is often the point of contention for EOH proponents. From the early 1980s onward, we see papers that directly challenge non-Anglicist claims, one variable at a time.

1.3 Current Version

There are clear methodological preferences associated with most scholars working in the EOH framework. Most work is part of the variationist paradigm (Labov 1966, 1972), in which large data sets are investigated quantitatively to seek correlations between the (p. 25) choice of linguistic variant and a range of possible social and linguistic conditioning factors. EOH work adapts variationist methodology to the comparative method of historical linguistics (or vice versa) (Poplack and Tagliamonte 2001; Tagliamonte 2002, 2006). This approach goes beyond noting the simple occurrence of a feature, or its rates of use, to examine and compare the linguistic constraints on the choice of variants across multiple data sets. If constraints on use—things like subject or adverbial type, verb class, or frequency—are shared in data from multiple communities, we argue that these represent shared underlying grammars in the communities in question, and we propose a linguistic boundary between those communities and others that do not share such a hierarchy of constraints. Central to this approach is the concept of diagnosticity—the need to focus on variables that behave differently in the different potential donor varieties, so that there are unambiguous ways to determine how researched varieties are patterning.

Another similarity with historical linguists is the desire to seek out the earliest available instantiations of the comparison varieties of interest (an approach taken by many researchers with varying perspectives on the AAE origins debate). Rather than comparing contemporary AAE and SAE, we find communities or data sets that can be taken to represent an earlier stage of the language. These include diaspora communities, places where the descendants of earlier African American settlers have lived in linguistic isolation and are postulated to have maintained traditional varieties (Poplack and Sankoff 1987; Singler 1989; Poplack and Tagliamonte 1991). Additionally, research has been conducted on recordings or transcriptions of interviews with elderly ex-slaves, conducted largely in the 1930s (Schneider 1989; Bailey, Maynor, and Cukor-Avila 1991; Kautzsch 2002), on letters by semi-literate authors (Montgomery, Fuller, and DeMarse 1993; Montgomery 1999; Kautzsch 2000; VanHerk and Poplack 2003), on blues lyrics (Miethaner 2005), and more. Ideally, multiple sources are accessed, so that similar findings from different places or sources of data can be taken as stronger evidence of a single earlier linguistic system that each community would have maintained across generations.

A third defining characteristic of much recent EOH work is the focus on morphosyntactic variables, rather than phonology or discourse. This in large part reflects the privileging of those domains in linguistics and in the origins debate, but it is also methodologically driven, in that morphosyntax seems to have remained stable across the generations more than phonology has. As morphosyntactic variables occur less frequently than phonetic or phonological variables, this work requires large data sets—major sociolinguistic interview collections, or corpora built from large archival holdings.

1.4 Some Variables

In this section, I briefly describe a few studies that suggest an English origin for some features of (earlier) African American English. (I sometimes use simplified terms and concepts in the interest of space.)

(p. 26) 1.4.1 Verb Morphology

Bare past tense verb forms (as in jump for jumped) superficially resemble creole bare verbs. But a creole-like system might be expected to restrict marking to anterior contexts (Bickerton 1975), which diaspora varieties do not (Tagliamonte 1991; Poplack and Tagliamonte 2001). Instead, bare weak verbs are phonologically conditioned, while bare strong verbs are restricted to a tiny lexical set, identical to that found in nineteenth-century AAE letters (VanHerk and Poplack 2003) and contemporary California AAE (Rickford 1999). Perfect marking also follows English rules (Tagliamonte 1997; VanHerk 2008).

S-marked present tense verbs (as in I jumps) are far more frequent in earlier AAE than in the contemporary variety. In diaspora varieties and earlier letters, they are conditioned by subject type and adjacency (Montgomery et al. 1993; Montgomery 1999; Poplack and Tagliamonte 2001; Walker 2001; VanHerk and Walker 2005), as in northern British dialects. This constraint is weak or nonexistent in some early AAE varieties (Singler 1999; VanHerk and Walker 2005), as well as in some putative donor varieties (Clarke 1997). S-marking is also conditioned by habituality, but the diagnosticity of this constraint is unclear.

1.4.2 Auxiliary Inversion in Questions

Question auxiliary inversion (Where can he go? versus Where he can go?) is highly variable in both contemporary and diaspora AAE (DeBose 1996). My own work with diaspora data (VanHerk 2000) suggests that this variation is highly constrained (by negation, question type, and auxiliary type) in a pattern very similar to constraints on main verb non-inversion in Early Modern English (Ellegard 1953; Kroch 1989). I argue that the extension of such constraints to auxiliaries represents a dialect-driven restructuring that occurred in much earlier AAE. Melnick and Rickford (2010) have recently noted similar constraints in Caribbean creoles, arguing that the patterned constraints that I observed may be more universal.

1.4.3 Negation

Negation illustrates particularly well a story arc of research on early AAE morphosyntax. First, several papers propose that contemporary AAE negation reflects an earlier, more creole stage (Winford 1992; DeBose 1994; Weldon 1994), especially in the frequent use of negative concord (we ain’t got no money) and reduced number of negation markers (don’t for doesn’t, ain’t for didn’t). Howe (1997) and Howe and Walker (1999) find these forms at lower rates in diaspora and ex-slave data, which suggests that their current frequency is a more recent development. They also demonstrate that much earlier variation shares conditioning with English dialects (e.g., verbal constraints on ain’t and (p. 27) negative postposing), to the extent that overviews such as Winford (1998, 104) attribute the feature to a superstrate (i.e., English) origin, with possible creole reinforcement. A few years later, AAE negation is seen as so “thoroughly English” that choosing to study it (inferentially, to the neglect of other features) is described as “selective and one-sided, conveniently ignoring” non-English aspects of AAE grammar (Winford 2003, 26).

1.4.4 Relative Markers

Dillard (1972) notes that subject zero and what relative clause markers (he got a gun what/Ø sound like a bee) are shared by contemporary AAE and creoles, but Tottie and Harvie (1999) point out that such forms are also widespread in English dialects. Their quantitative analysis of diaspora and Ex-Slave Recordings (ESR) data finds wide variation but general constraints similar to those described for English dialects. Recent work by Rickford (2010) finds these constraints operative in Barbadian (Creole) English, as well as in Dorset English. Rickford argues that the constraint hierarchy might be universal; however, it is equally likely, given settlement patterns, that all the New World varieties studied have retained the English system exemplified by Dorset.

In each case described here, researchers have found strong similarities between the linguistic conditioning of variables in diverse instantiations of earlier AAE and in dialects of English that are sociohistorically likely to have been available as a model for the earliest generations of AAE speakers. Quantitative analyses of historical or traditional AAE have also argued for a dialect origin for such AAE features as plural marking, was/were variation, and zero copula, or have argued that the presence of features such as habitual be and preterit had in the contemporary variety might be more recent innovations or diffusions (Cukor-Avila and Bailey 1995; Poplack, Tagliamonte, and Eze 1999; Tagliamonte and Smith 1999; Walker 1999). Some features that are sometimes seen as distinctly AAE, such as associative and them and habitual steady (Labov et al. 1968; Baugh 1984) are also robust in Newfoundland English, a variety that shares English input dialects with AAE and Caribbean creoles (Childs and Van Herk 2008), and these features require future quantitative analysis.

1.5 Critiques and Responses

The strong version of the EOH reflected in Poplack (1999) and Poplack and Tagliamonte (2001) has been challenged in the years since publication (see Rickford 2006; Singler 2007). Here, I enumerate and evaluate some critiques of the EOH.

Representativity: The data sources used by EOH researchers—diaspora communities, ex-slave recordings—are sometimes claimed to represent “marginal” (Singler 1999) AAE communities or the formal end of informants’ continua, although such critiques are themselves disputed (Poplack and Tagliamonte 2001; VanHerk 2009). (p. 28) Representativity should be less of an issue when studies investigate the constraints on use of identifiable and variable AAE features. There may be variations in rates of use of these features across African American communities or across speaker styles, but it is less likely that such situations would result in a completely different linguistic system (or rule set) that happens to include all the same features. Individual features, of course, may follow different rules in different places (for nineteenth-century regional differences, see Schneider 1989; VanHerk and Walker 2005; or VanHerk, forthcoming). In those situations, researchers must limit the claimed generalizability of their findings.

Cafeteria principle/feature picking: In any comparative enterprise, it is possible to create an appearance of similarity by carefully choosing the points of comparison from the full menu of available diagnostic features. Pace Winford (2003), this seems not to be the case for existing EOH studies. Rather, the choice of variables has largely been reactive, testing claims made by others for the non-English history of a variable. EOH researchers also tend to choose variables that lend themselves to multivariate analysis (i.e., those that are frequently occurring, with robust variation and discrete identifiable variants and constraints).

Strength of claims: The AAE origins debate attracts strong personalities with strong opinions, resulting in strong claims and counterclaims; the same is true of debate over the nature and origins of creole languages (see McWhorter 1998; DeGraff 2001). Research on earlier stages of any vernacular language is hampered by less than ideal data and gaps in documentation. It is unlikely that smoking-gun evidence for any feature will surface, but we do seem to be finding more and more data sources. Perhaps future analyses of such sources will encourage more nuanced claims. Perhaps not.

Points of comparison: Many EOH studies discover the linguistic constraints on an earlier AAE feature, then compare them to potentially diagnostic constraints derived from the literature on dialects and creoles to determine likely origins. Sometimes, the choice of relevant comparison variety is questioned; some creoles may not be typical of Atlantic creoles in general, and some dialect varieties may have been in contact with AAE, so that the direction of influence is uncertain. Sometimes the descriptions of comparison varieties are contested (for creoles, see the critiques of Bickerton [1975] by Muysken [1981] and Winford [1992]) and, thus, so are EOH comparisons based on them. Still, as Poplack and Tagliamonte (2001, 208‒9) point out, the comparative method requires a quantitative point of comparison, and critics will need to find or supply quantitative data that satisfies them. We will also need to reconsider what we mean by diagnosticity, as some dialect constraints are found to be shared by creoles (Rickford 2010) and as the very idea of distinctively creole linguistic characteristics is challenged (DeGraff 2001; Mufwene 2001).

1.6 Conclusion: Hybrid Positions

Some strong early statements of AAE’s origins—or descriptions of those statements by writers who disagree with them—allow little room for compromise or complexity. Early (p. 29) AAE was a full-on creole (or it wasn’t creole at all); creole features were everywhere (or only in Gullah regions); AAE’s distinct features were generated by a completely different underlying grammar (or they result from perfect transmission of dialect features). By necessity, such strong positions must dismiss historical or linguistic counterevidence as marginal or non-representative, rather than integrate it into a hybrid viewpoint. In this section, I suggest a few ways that different data and hypotheses can coexist.

An obvious point of agreement concerns the historicity of AAE, a claim that unfortunately has to be made repeatedly. No matter where the distinct features of the contemporary variety originate, they are part of a system with a long history. Even fairly obscure lexical items like mother wit ‘common sense’ are found in letters from the eighteenth century (VanHerk 1998), and shibboleths like ax (for ask) are shared with Caribbean creoles and earlier English.

It is unfortunate for hybrid positions that AAE origins research has focused so heavily on morphosyntax, as this aspect of grammar seems the most likely to be transmitted from input dialect varieties. But we can find dialect roots for many morphosyntactic features of AAE (see, for example, the list in Winford [1998]) without rejecting possible influence from other sources—creole, African, or universal. Some input variants may have survived because they mapped easily onto substrate systems. Some input systems may have been heavily adapted when adopted. For example, my non-inverted question findings (VanHerk 2000) imply a restructuring of the system during its extension to auxiliaries, and such restructuring is consistent with some sort of second language acquisition (SLA) process, as proposed by Winford (1997). Some contemporary features may reflect the application of AAE phonological rules to dialect input. For example, the use of ain’t for didn’t (he ain’t go) may have originally developed as dialect/standard didn’t underwent the deletion of/d/in flapping contexts after stressed pronouns (also found in AAE I ‘o’ know for I don’t know) (VanHerk 2003). And some non-morphosyntactic domains of AAE—phonology, pragmatics, discourse—may contain robust examples of non-English retentions (see, for example, Rickford and Rickford [1976] on suck-teeth and cut-eye).

A hybrid position also needs to consider regional variation in AAE (for contemporary work, see Yaeger-Dror and Thomas [2010]). Gullah influences may have spread farther inland at some point (Kautzsch and Schneider 2000), and creole-like or SLA varieties may have existed in situations where isolation or African-origin population ratios encouraged them. Even within the larger African American population, different ethnic ratios may have led to different weighting of dialect and possibly non-dialect constraints on variant choice, as described in VanHerk and Walker (2005) or VanHerk (forthcoming). There is also some evidence that features that are rare in the input to diaspora communities can persist for many generations. For example, due for owe (as in he dues me five dollars) is infrequent in nineteenth-century Liberian letters and is still infrequent in twentieth-century Liberian Settler English (Singler, pers. comm.), and I have (infrequently) heard Gullah-like constructions such as dem here! (for they’re here) in North Preston, a Nova Scotian diaspora enclave with some South Carolina settlement history. Regional variation would also have led to dialect contact situations during the (p. 30) Great Migration of the early twentieth century, so that what may have started as minority regionally restricted variants could have later been adopted and disseminated as markers of southern or African American identity in urban areas (Wolfram 2004).

This last scenario might mean that some features of contemporary AAE (e.g., habitual be) have creole or other non-dialect origins, without being evidence of a widespread earlier creole. Of course, such a proposal would be highly unsatisfactory for adherents of any strong position in the origins debate!


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                                                                                                                                                        (1.) From among the names available for the variety, I chose African American English (AAE) because it is widely recognized and covers past and present instantiations of the variety, and because I am focusing here on AAE’s putative English-ness.

                                                                                                                                                        (2.) A number of researchers have presented work that partially or fully supports an EOH perspective for one or another variable; here, I focus on the work from Ottawa, as it is the most clearly developed EOH research enterprise.