Chapter 6 The Vocabulary and Pronunciation of Spoken Soul

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Variation in Pronunciation

We’ve already indicated that despite a certain cohesivess of vocabulary use among blacks as opposed to whites, social class and other factors differentiate vocabulary use even among blacks. This is even more true of pronunciation. One of the most careful studies of social class differences in black pronunciation was conducted in Detroit by linguist Walt Wolfram just over thirty years ago. It showed that while Upper Middle Class (professional) blacks simplified their consonant clusters quite often, an average of 51% of the time in their recorded speech, the Lower Working Class blacks (unskilled workers)did so even more frequently, an average of 84% of the time. When it came to pronouncing the voiceless th of “with” as t, the class differences were even more dramatic, with working class blacks using the “t” pronunciation 70% to 73% of the time, while the middle class blacks did so only 23% to 25% of the time. The pronunciation features we’ve associated with Spoken Soul in this chapter are most characteristic of the working classes who have been and continue to remain the most substantial segments of the black community. This is also why the middle class blacks who serve as media spokespersons on Ebonics and other language-related issues are so sensitive about--even hostile toward--the suggestion that black people as a group speak “Black English” or have a distinctive vernacular.

But virtually all African Americans use some of the pronunciation features identified in this chapter at least some of the time, especially in their most informal moments. The same executive recruiter (Arch Whitehead) who, on Sixty Minutes, laughingly dismissed the prospects of blacks getting or keeping executive jobs if they said aks instead of ask (see above), went on to make these remarks, essentially confessing to the affections that keep blacks wedded to the vernacular:

When I get home, I don’t want to think about all that nice English. I wanna go back to my golden years, when I could say dis and dat, when I could say “How ya doin?” instead of “Hi, guys!” When I didn’t have to belong and fit.

The significance of style in black pronunciation was also illustrated in Walt Wolfram’s 1969 Detroit study; black speakers of every class used the vernacular variants--e.g. t or f for voiceless th--less often when reading a text than when talking with the interviewer.

Other factors that were correlated with the extent to which speakers used black pronunciation in Wolfram’s study included age (preadolescents and teenagers generally using the black vernacular variants more often than adults), gender (males using the vernacular variants more often than females), and racial isolation (blacks with predominantly black social contacts using the vernacular variants more often than blacks with predominantly white social contacts).

Interestingly enough, a replication study of Detroit by linguist Walter Edwards, published in 1992, also showed similar correlations, but not always in the same way. For instance, although age was a significant factor in the extent to which blacks used ah instead of /ay/ in words like “find,” it was the oldest rather than the youngest age-groups who did this most often, and this was also true of r-deletion after a vowel, as in store. However, Edwards’ study did not include any teenagers below the age of 18, as Wolfram’s study did, while the four age groups distinguished by Edwards were all amalgamated as “adults” in Wolfram’s study. Furthermore, in Edwards’ study, gender was not significant, overall, although females tended to use more of the vernacular variant than males; the one exception was in the oldest (60+) age group, where men deleted –r after a vowel more often (59% of the time) than the women did (46% of the time).

Finally, the newer Detroit study showed that individuals who were relatively restricted to their inner-city neighborhoods and/or more positively oriented towards it used vernacular black pronunciations more often than individuals who had more interactions with people outside the neighborhood and/or more negative attitudes towards it. (More succintly, if you stay in the ‘hood and you’re cozy there, you’ll likely speak more soul than a neighbor who often roams beyond the ‘hood, and/or tends to dis it.) In this respect, Edward’s newer study agreed more substantially with Wolfram’s older study. Both of these studies concur with our own informal experiences and observations in reminding us that language use in the African American speech community, as in every other, is variable, influenced by factors like social class, gender, social network and style.

One final factor in phonological variation that people who aren’t linguists are less aware of is variation according to linguistic “environment,” such as where in a word a particular sound occurs, what kind of word it is, and whether the following word begins with a consonant or vowel. We’ve referred to factors like these throughout this chapter, for instance when we talked about rules “deleting l and r AFTER VOWELS.” The capitalized qualification was necessary to rule out the deletion of l and r BEFORE vowels, as in *ed for “red” or *ast for “last”—something which doesn’t happen in Spoken Soul or in other English varieties. (Hence the asterisks before the non-occurring forms.) The only exception is words like tho for “throw,” where r follows th and precedes o or oo (/u/). (Note that even for the exceptions, we have to specify the linguistic environment; in Spoken Soul, as in all other language varieties, language is not random, but systematic.)

But the effect of linguistic environment we want to close with here is not qualitative, as in these cases, but quantitative. For instance, several studies have shown that consonant cluster simplification as in jus’ for “just” is more common before a word beginning with a consonant (as in “just glad”) than before a word beginning with a vowel (as in “just enough”), and least common when the deleted consonant represents the past tense (as in “missed”—spelled “ed” but pronounced t). In their most informal group interactions, the New York City adults recorded by Labov and his colleagues deleted the final “t” in words like “just” 79% of the time before a consonant, but only 32% of the time before a vowel; and in words like “missed,” where the final t sound represents the past tense, they deleted it 30% of the time before a consonant, but 0% before a vowel. Wild, huh? But this regular symphonic variation occurs far below the level of consciousness.

Notes to chapter 6, Vocabulary and Pronunciation

We are grateful to Tom Wasow (Stanford University) for feedback on an earlier version of this chapter.

Clarence Major’s opening epigraph is from p. xxviii of the “Introduction” to his book, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (New York: Penguin Books, 1994). The opening epigraph from Claude Brown is from p. 68 of his article, “The language of soul,” in Esquire, April 1968.

James Baldwin’s article, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What is?” was in the New York Times, Sunday July 29, 1979.

The full reference to Clarence Major’s dictionary is provided above. Geneva Smitherman’sBlack Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner was published by Houghton Mifflin, New York, in 1994. Rudolph Fisher’s “Introduction to Contemporary Harlemese” is on 295-307 of his novel, The Walls of Jericho (New York and London: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928). Cab Calloway’s The New Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive was published by Cab Calloway, New York, in 1944. A 2 Z: The Book of Rap and Hip-Hop Slang was written by Lois Stavsky, I.E. Mozeson, and Dani Reyes Mozeson, and published by Boulevard Books, New York, in 1995. Another recent glossary is Monica Frazier Anderson’s Black English Vernacular: From “Ain’t” to “Yo mama” (Highland City, Florida: Rainbow Books, 1994). J.L. Dillard’s Lexicon of Black English was published by The Seabury Press, New York, in 1970. Edith Folb’s runnin’ down some lines: the language and culture of black teenagers was pblished by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Masssachusetts, in 1980.

Teresa Labov’s study, entitled “Social and language boundaries among adolescents” was published in American Speech 67.4 (1992): 339-366. Robert Williams’ 1972 Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity was copyrighted to him at Black Studies Program, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri 63130.

The students who reacted with interest and amazement to news about the distinctiveness of ashy were student members of the Society of Black Engineers from various colleges in California to whom John Rickford lectured at Stanford University in November 1998. The cut-eye and suck-teeth survey was conducted by John and Angela Rickford in the early 1970s and first reported in their article, “Cut eye and suck teeth: Masked Africanisms in New World guise” in the Journal of American Folklore ??.?? (1976):294-309. The article has since been reprinted in three other books, most recently in John R. Rickford, African American Vernacular English (London and New York: Blackwell, 1998). For more on African origins of words in Ebonics, Gullah, and American English, see Joseph E. Holloway and Winifred K. Vass, The African Heritage of American English (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

The Dictionary of American Regional English [DARE], (Frederic G. Cassidy, Chief Editor, Joan Houston Hall, Associate Editor) is being published by Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a series of volumes several years apart. The first volume, covering A-C was published in 1985, vol. II (D-H) in 1991, and vol. II (I-O) in 1996. Definitions of ace-boon-coon, bid whist, bubba, bad-eye, bad-mouth and big-eye given in this chapter are from DARE, vol. I. For a list of all the “Black” terms in DARE up to vol. II, see An Index By Region, Usage and Etymology to the Dictionary of American Regional English vols. I and II (=Publication of the American Dialect Society, #77, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, for the American Dialect Society, 1993). The Mandingo source for bad-mouth is from Geneva Smitherman, Talkin and Testifyin (Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1986), and the Hausa source (also the Mandingo one) is from p. 137 of Holloway and Vass’s African Heritage of American English, referenced above. The various African sources for suck teeth are from John and Angela Rickford’s “Cut Eye and Suck Teeth” article, referenced in the preceding paragraph, and from Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (Oxford University Press, New York, 1996).

The domains of black vocabulary use were derived from information in the following sources referenced above: J.L. Dillard (1977), Edith Folb (1980), Clarence Major (1994) and Geneva Smitherman (1994). The quote on class-differences is from Edith Folb’s runnin’ down some lines: the language and culture of black teenagers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980, p.201. The quote about Black slang being a living breathing form of expression is from Clarence Major,Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), p. xxviii. The innovative character and meaning of shorty were first noted in an October 1996 homework assignment by Sterling K. Brown for John Rickford’s African American Vernacular English course at Stanford, and it was corroborated by Anakela C. Rickford, a Spelman student.

Claude Brown’s comment on “uptight” is on p. 160 of his article, “The language of soul,” referenced above. Clarence Major’s comment on the same word is on p. xxix of his Juba to Jive , referenced above. Edith Folb provides additional discussion of the evolution of uptight on page. 208 of her runnin down some lines , referenced above. James Baldwin’s comment on diffusions of black vocabulary to white Americans is on p. 391 of his 1979 article, referenced above. Margaret Lee (Hampton University) presented her paper, “Out of the Hood and Into the News: Borrowed Black Verbal Expressions in a Mainstream Newspaper” at the Twenty-Seventh annual conference on New Ways of Analyzing Variation, held at the University of Georgia, Athens, October 1998. For an excellent discussion of words which cross over from black usage to white and mainstream usage, see pp. 16-22 of Smitherman’s Black Talk, referenced above. The closing quote in the vocabulary section, on the inevitability of diffusion, is from page xxix of Clarence Major’s Juba to Jive, referenced above.

How to Speak Southern, written by Steve Mitchell, and illustrated by Sam C. Rawls, was published by Bantam Books, New York, in 1976, The classic overview of black vernacular pronunciation and grammar, still useful although dated in some respects, is Ralph W. Fasold and Walt Wolfram’s article, “Some linguistic features of Negro dialect” (in Ralph W. Fasold and Roger W. Shuy, eds., Teaching Standard English in the Inner City, Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1970). For a more recent overview, see John R. Rickford, “Phonological and Grammatical Features of African American Vernacular English” in his book African American Vernacular English (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999). And for a more technical and detailed recent account of black vernacular pronunciation, see Guy Bailey and Erik Thomas, “Some aspects of African-American vernacular English phonology,” (in Salikoko S. Mufwene, John R. Rickford, Guy Bailey and John Baugh, eds., African American English, London: Routledge, 1998:85-109).

Walter Edward’s statistics on the differential use of monophthongal pronunciations like mah and ah by blacks and whites in Detroit come from pp. 109-110 of his 1992 article, “Sociolinguistic behavior in a Detroit inner-city black neighborhood,” in Language in Society 21: 93-115. The quotation from Erik R. Thomas and Guy Bailey about black influence on white speech is from p. 284, footnote 9, of their 1998 article, “Parallels between vowel subsystems of African American Vernacular English and Caribbean Anglophone Creoles,” in Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 13.2:267-296. For the details of their study of black/white differences in the pronunciation of the /e/ vowel in day, the /o/ vowel in so, and the /au/ vowel in down, see pp. 271-281 of the same article. And for further data showing that blacks recorded in the 1930s had a much higher incidence of monophthongal vowel pronunciations than whites of the same age, education, social class, and county residence, see George Dorrill, “A comparison of stressed vowels of black and white speakers in the South,” in Language Variety in the South, ed. by Michael B. Montgomery and Guy Bailey (University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1986: 149-157).

The point about Guyanese East Indians more frequently exemplifying today deep Creole features that they originally acquired from Afro-Guyanese was first made by linguist Derek Bickerton; see his 1975 book, Dynamics of a Creole System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.) For further discussion of the present-day and historical relations between black and white speech in the South, see pp. 245-257 of Crawford Feagin’s book, Variation and Change in Alabama English: A Sociolinguistic Study of the White Community (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1979).

John McWhorter’s comment about black and white voices being distinguishable, despite Johnnie Cochran’s claims to the contrary in the O.J. Simpson trial, is on p. 133 of his book, The Word on the Street: Fact and Fable about American English (New York: Plenum, 1998). The transcript of an excerpt from the O.J. Simpson trial was obtained from the following website:

John Rickford’s 1972 speaker identification study was reported in an unpublished term paper for Linguistics 521 at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled, “Sounding Black or sounding white: a preliminary investigation of a folk hypothesis.” A tracing of the spectograph showing wide pitch variation in the black male speaker’s voice was reprinted in Rickford’s 1977 article, “The question of prior creolization in Black English” (in Albert Valdman, ed., Pidgin and Creole Linguistics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 190-221). The speaker identification study by G. Richard Tucker and Wallace E. Lambert was entitled “White and Negro listeners’ reactions to various American-English dialects” (published in 1969 in Social Forces 47, pp. 463-468). Roger Shuy’s speaker identification study was entitled “Subjective judgements in sociolinguistic analysis” and published in the Georgetown University Monograph Series on Language and Linguistics vol. 22, 1969. The speaker identification (“family background”) study by William Labov, Paul Cohen, Clarence Robins and John Lewis is reported in section 4.7 of A Study of the Non-Standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican Speakers in New York City, vol. 2, 1968). For more recent speaker identification studies, see Guy Bailey and Natalie Maynor’s 1989 article, “The divergence controversy” (in American Speech 64:12-39), and John Baugh’s 1996 article, “Perceptions within a variable paradigm: Black and White racial detection and identification based on speech” (in Edgar W. Schneider, ed., Focus on the USA, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 169-182). [JRR: Add the other article by the black woman I met at the Minneapolis “Real Deal” conference in 1997, if I can track it down.]

The March 1995 segment of the CBS television news program Sixty Minutes that dealt with black speech was entitled “The Language Factor” and featured Morley Safer. For more on the rule deleting initial voiced stops in tense-aspect markers in African American Vernacular English and in English Creoles, see John R. Rickford, “The insights of the mesolect” (in David DeCamp and Ian F. Hancock, eds., Pidgins and Creoles: Current Trends and Prospects, Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press).

The Detroit study showing variation by social class, age, and other factors was entitled, A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech, written by Walt Wolfram in 1969 (Washington D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics). The subsequent replication by Walter Edwards is reported in the 1992 Language in Society article by him referred to above. For another classic study of pronunciation variation by social class, age, and style, see the New York City study by Labov et al referred to above. The quantitative variation in the pronunciation of final consonant clusters according to linguistic environment is reported in that study and on page 45 of William Labov’s book, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular (originally published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, in 1972, but reissued in 1998).
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