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Thursday’s posts look at sociolinguistics or child language acquisition: accents, stereotypes and how children learn to speak.

Linguists have dubbed the dialect of widely used among black people in America “AAVE” (Pronounced, rather delightfully, almost like ah, vie! in French). It stands for African American Vernacular English.

Features such as devoiced fricatives – so that [ðis] (this) becomes [dɪs] dis, and [smu:ð] (smooth) becomes [smuːv] (smoov) -, a use of metathesised forms like aks for ask, and a complicated use of auxiliaries to mark time, tense and aspect (she be working, she done working, she been done working and she done been working, for instance, all have different meanings). Unlike is Standard English, multiple negation isn’t incorrect, so I didn’t do nothing is perfectly correct.

I’m sure most reader will know what I’m referring to.

The question is: it is nature or nurture?

Linguists have found creole features in AAVE, leading them to think that it is a “nature” dialect. The theory is that slaves developed pidgins, which are simplified mixtures of a few languages. These got levelled to a slave creoles; a widely understandable dialect. while some of these features have left, and AAVE is a dialect of English as opposed to a creole, the features are remnant forms of this creole.

However, many other linguists think of it as more of a “nurture” dialect. When slaves were introduced to a household they were not allowed to speak their own languages, and so within a generation English was being spoken. Initially, it would have been spoken in the accent of the area; a child would acquire it from birth and so would speak it perfectly, with no linguistic markers of another dialect or language.

During rights movements, then, AAVE began to develop. This is called divergence theory: maximum differentiation being the aim. For many people, to talk like white people was to be like them, and the general feeling was to separate black and white culture, which of course included language. Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and many of Langston Hughes’ poems demonstrate these attitudes, and how they made it hard, especially for a rising population of mixed-raced people who felt like they had to chose between two halves of themselves.

The end result was a dialect which is distinctive from Standard American English, and yet is very similar across all U.S.A., and which also has features found in dialects of British English used by black people in London (such as aks being used for ask).

Supporting the first theory we have texts and documents from the 18th and 19th century. Linguists have found in these documents examples of AAVE features. For example, copula absence used by character in plays, and in direct speech in prose and poetry written by white authors.

On top of this, creole features recorded today have similarities with AAVE. Devoiced fricatives and copula absence are examples of this.

Supporting divergence theory we have a present day linguistic phenomenon. Black people living in the South are beginning to speak with more and more features of AAVE. This could be due to media influencing the dialects they have access to. If these people are so quick to drop their own dialects in favour of AAVE, this could be divergence from their white contemporaries to seek maximum differentiation, and a subsequent convergence with AAVE. Divergence theory could still be in motion

Isolated enclaves in Samaná and Nova Scotia, where descendants of early AAVE-speaking people live, have provided evidence supports divergence theory. Transcribed recordings show grammar similar to contemporary British dialects.

Of course, there is a possibility that some features are remnants while other are newer ones, allowing both theories a bit of lime-light.

What do you think?