John R. Rickford

Stanford University


Early African American English and Pidgin/Creole Englishes:
Evidence from Copula Contraction and Absence and Plural Marking

Debate about the possible Anglicist/Creolist origins of African American Vernacular English [AAVE] has been invigorated in recent years by data from "Early African American English" [EAAE] as analyzed by Shana Poplack, Sali Tagliamonte and students at the University of Ottawa (cf. Poplack 2000). Their EAAE data include the Ex-Slave Narrative Recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s with former slaves from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas, as well as recordings with the putative descendants of African Americans who emigrated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to Samaná (Dominican Republic) and Nova Scotia (Canada). On the basis of extensive quantitative analysis, Poplack and her collaborators conclude that AAVE's features come entirely from earlier varieties of English, with zero or minimal influence from African or creole varieties.

In this paper, I will challenge this conclusion, concentrating on two of the variables for which comparable quantitative data exist from pidgin and creole communities--copula contraction and absence and zero plural marking. (Of the nine variables examined in Poplack 2000 and Poplack and Tagliamonte 2001, comparable data exist for only three variables, past tense marking being the third.) In the case of the copula, the following grammatical effect is more robust in the Caribbean Creoles and AAVE than Walker (2000) claims, and the putative prosodic effect in relation to which the following grammatical constraint is said to be epiphenomenal is evanescent. In the case of zero plural marking, which I examine with the help of new data from Guyana and Jamaica in addition to the data from Gullah, Nigeria and Liberia introduced by Poplack et al (2000), the situation is both more complex and more interesting than these authors suggest. Their contention that the EAAE varieties pattern one way and the pidgin-creole varieties another is not supported when we look at the effect of preceding and following phonological segments, especially when the roles of a following pause and preceding nonsibilant consonants are considered. The grammatical/semantic constraints (animacy of the noun and type of nominal reference) do provide more promising support for Poplack et al's claim, but even here there are qualifications and complications that warrant further research. Finally, for neither of the EAAE variables does English provide clear models, so attributing their development to English alone is plainly premature.

Poplack, Shana, ed. 2000. The English history of African American English. Oxford: Blackwell.
Poplack, Shana, and Sali Tagliamonte. 2001. African American English in the diaspora. Oxford: Blackwell.
Poplack, Shana, Sali Tagliamonte, and Ejike Eze. 2000. Reconstructing the source of Early African American English
    plural marking: A comparative study of English and Creole. In Poplack, ed., 73-105.
Walker, James A. 2000. Rephrasing the copula: Contraction and zero in Early African American English. In Poplack, ed., 35-72.