The Creole Origins of African American Vernacular English: Evidence from copula absence

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8.3 Copula absence in AAVE with respect to different types of evidence

8.3.1. Historical attestations (literary texts, ex-slave narratives and recordings). Let us begin first with the evidence of historical attestations. Although Stewart and Dillard depend more heavily on literary texts than anyone else, their texts include only a few examples of copula absence (e.g. Stewart 1967 cites "Me massa Ø name Cunney Tomsee" 4 from the speech of Cudjo in John Leacock's 1776 play, The fall of British tyranny), and they provide no extended analysis of this variable. For the latter, we need to turn to Repka and Evans (1986), who examined potential copula tokens in the speech of black characters in ten American literary works (six dramas, three novels and one short story) written by white authors between 1767 and 1843. 5 Their results, shown separately for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and presented in terms of the person/number of the subject, are shown in table 2. Note that in the eighteenth century, zero was the most common variant of the copula. Moreover, if the nine invariant be2 forms in the eighteenth century data are excluded (as they are by most researchers on the grounds that be2 is typically habitual while zero and the conjugated forms are not), the rate of copula absence in the first person, third singular, and plural and second person categories rises to 100%, 100% and 77% respectively. Categorical copula absence of this kind is virtually unheard of in modern US samples, so on the face of it, these data support the creolist position, particularly since first person copula absence does not occur in modern AAVE although it does in Barbadian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, and other Caribbean creoles (see Rickford and Blake 1990).

1st singular

3rd singular

Plural & 2nd singular

18th century sources:

78% (7/9)

89% (24/27)

54% (7/13)

19th century sources:

60% (6/10)

33% (25/75)

0% (0/6)

Table 2: Black characters' copula absence in 18th & 19th century American literary sources
(Data adapted from tables 1 and 3 in Repka and Evans 1986)

Repka and Evans' nineteenth century data show considerably lower rates of copula absence, which they attribute to "convergence . . . with the speech of a dominant white society" (p. 10). This inference may be correct, but the fact that copula forms with plural and second person subjects show no copula absence whatsoever is troubling, since such forms typically show higher rates of copula absence than other subjects in early twentieth century and modern AAVE, 6 as well as in contemporary Trinidadian English (Winford 1992a:34). 7 This anomalous result may be an artifact of limited data (Repka and Evans found only six copula tokens with plural and second person subjects, or four if their two tokens of be2 are excluded). Alternatively, it may reflect a genuine change in the linguistic conditioning of copula absence over time, or it may simply confirm people's fears that literary data of this type are conventionalizations rather than trustworty reflections of contemporary speech. This issue is one that could bear further examination, with an even more substantial data set of literary texts than Repka and Evans examined, and taking into account the social statuses of the characters depicted in each.8

Brewer (1974) presents some interesting evidence on copula absence in the ex-slave narratives, including the observation (pp. 96-98) that such narratives include several attestations of copula absence in the past tense, as in:

(1) De only child I ever had died when he Ø just a baby. [Tex 72:255]

(2) A'ter freedom Ø declare, I go to school. [SC 51:223]

Past tense copula absence does occur in Caribbean creoles (Rickford 1991c, 1996:369) but rarely or not at all in present-day AAVE (Wolfram 1969:166), so on the face of it, Brewer's evidence is another potential plus for the creolist hypothesis. However, Schneider (1997) has suggested that the zero copula is among the non-standard features whose frequency was exaggerated (by field-workers and/or editors) in these narratives, and this again makes the validity of the evidence open to question.

In order to get better historical evidence on copula absence in AAVE, let us turn now to Bailey (1987:35), who analyzes copula absence in the AFS recordings of the ex-slaves born in the mid to late 19th century. The first row of Table 3 shows the relative frequency of zero copula which Bailey found in that data set for third person singular, plural and second person subjects combined (a total of 275 tokens, including 4 tokens of be2) according to following grammatical environment. The hierarchical ordering of these environments certainly corresponds to the dominant pattern in modern-day samples of AAVE (see Labov 1972a:86, Rickford et al 1991:121), and the fact that __gonna shows categorical copula absence is striking (because this is not the case in any of the ten modern US samples summarized in Rickford et al, ibid.). But we also need data on the number of tokens for each subcategory and the overall percentage of copula absence, and the article does not provide either.

Poplack and Tagliamonte (1991:319) do provide an overall percentage of copula absence for an overlapping AFS data set, designated in their paper as "Ex-Slave Recordings." (Their "Ex-Slave Recordings" came from the AFS data set, but they included Quarterman's recording, which Bailey omitted, and they did not have access to the data of an additional informant--identified as "Colored Fellow"--which Bailey included.) The fact that their overall percentage of copula absence is so low (16%) would certainly argue against the creole hypothesis. But unless the numbers of tokens in Bailey's subcategories with low percentages (__NP and __Loc) overwhelmingly outnumber the numbers of tokens in the subcategories with high percentages (__Verb+ing and __gonna), it is difficult to see how Poplack and Tagliamonte arrive at such a low overall rate. Further signs that the Bailey and the Poplack/Tagliamonte analyses do not agree are the different hierarchies of following grammatical constraints which they report for this variable, depicted in the first and second rows of table 3. While they agree in showing the auxiliary environments as most favorable to copula absence (with __gonna in the lead), they disagree on the relative ordering of __NP, __Adjective and __Locative, with (among other things) Bailey reporting __NP as least favorable and Poplack/Tagliamonte reporting __Adj as least favorable. The incommensurability of these analyses of what is a substantially overlapping data set may be due to the fact that Poplack and Tagliamonte's analysis is based on a sample of 209 tokens, while Bailey's is based on 275 tokens; with the overall token count so low, a difference of sixty-six tokens can crucially affect the analysis. Bailey's sample includes six tokens of invariant be2, while Poplack and Tagliamonte's does not; but these are too few to account for the differences in their analysis. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that Poplack and Tagliamonte's figures represent variable rule feature weights or probabilities, while Bailey's represent percentages.






Bailey 1987:






Tag-liamonte 1991:






Table 3: Copula absence in the AFS ex-slave recordings by following grammatical environment (adapted from Bailey 1987:35, and Poplack and Tagliamonte 1991:321)

Moreover, Poplack and Tagliamonte compute copula absence as "Labov deletion" (Rickford et al 1991:106-107)--counting tokens of zero as a proportion of tokens of zero and contraction only, while Bailey computes copula absence as "Straight deletion," counting tokens of zero out of tokens of zero, contraction and full forms combined.9 Some variationists regard "Straight deletion" as more valid because it remains closer to observed data and filters it through fewer assumptions and operations. Perhaps we will need more general agreement on how to reconcile or arbitrate between these two methods before we can reliably interpret the different views of the ex-slave recordings wwhich these two satudies provide.

8.3.4: Diaspora recordings (Samaná, African Nova Scotian English, Liberian Settler English). For evidence from diaspora recordings we will consider first the data on copula absence in Samaná English. Without making any connection whatsoever to the creolist hypothesis, Poplack and Sankoff (1987:302) report, that, in contrast with urban AAVE where first person am is absent less than one percent of the time, such absence occurs ten percent of the time in Samaná English. This is in fact a plus for the creolists' side of the issue, because, as noted above, copula absence with first person subjects is characteristic of the Caribbean creoles (see footnote 8 for relevant data) and in American literary texts from earlier periods (see table 2, above). But what Poplack and Sankoff emphasize instead is their very different (and often-cited) conclusion that, "at least insofar as its copula usage is concerned it [Samaná] bore no more resemblance to English-based West Indian creoles than modern ABE [AAVE], and indeed less." This conclusion rests, however, on two types of evidence, both of which are are subject to reinterpretation..

The first is the low overall rate of copula absence which Poplack and Sankoff (1987:304, table 3) report for Samaná English--20% with pronoun subjects, which is slightly more than the comparable figures of 16% for Harlem adults in formal speech, 10% for Middle class Detroit adults, and 18% for Lower Class Texas adults which they list in the same table, but less than the figures of 51% for Working class Detroit adults and 27% for Harlem adults in group style which they also report. (The Detroit, Harlem, and Texas data are from Labov 1972a, Wolfram 1969 and Bailey and Maynor 1985 respectively.) However, the 20% figure for Samaná is heavily influenced by data from the first person subject category (80 tokens) and by the cases of it, what, and that as subjects (162 tokens). In the AAVE data with which Samaná is compared, these categories are excluded on the grounds that contraction is virtually categorical therein. If, for the sake of comparability (and because contraction in these categories in Samaná is around 80%), these categories are excluded from the Samaná data, the rate of copula deletion with pronoun subjects in Samaná doubles to 40% (71/176). 10 And since it is known that overall rates of copula absence can vary significantly by style--Poplack and Sankoff themselves (1987:304) report an 11% difference between Labov's Harlem adults in "formal" and "informal" style; Winford 1980:57 reports differences of 49% and 69% respectively between the careful individual and peer group styles of his working class and lower middle class Trinidadian informants; Rickford and Blake 1991:262 report a 74% difference in a Barbadian's speech to his peers versus the interviewer; and Rickford and McNair Knox 1994:247 report a 30% difference between a California teenager's speech to a White versus a Black interviewer--it is possible that Poplack and Sankoff's speakers have an even more Creole-like and copula-free vernacular than the one they elicited. This is of course a possibility for all sociolinguists. All of our attempts to elicit vernacular varieties are subject to the methodological axioms (including Style-Shifting: "there are no single style speakers") and the Observer's Paradox adumbrated by Labov (1972b:208-209) 11, and it is only through complementary methods like peer group recordings, rapid and anoymous observations (Labov 1972b:210), and repeated recordings with different interlocutors (Rickford 1987b) that we can be confident that we have tapped into the vernacular. In this regard, it is interesting that in more recent recordings of Samana speakers made by Stanford graduate student Dawn Hannah (see Hannah 1996, table 3), the percentage of copula absence with pronoun subjects (including WIT subjects) was 48%, more than twice that reported by Poplack and Sankoff in 1987.

The second kind of evidence on which Poplack and Sankoff base their conclusion is the fact that the constraint ranking for copula absence in their Samaná data, particularly by following grammatical environment (see the first row of table 4), is "similar to those attested" for urban AAVE "in Harlem, Detroit and rural Texas" but "quite different from the few creoles which have been studied quantitatively" (p. 310). Note, however, that Poplack and Sankoff's Samaná data differ quite sharply from previous AAVE data sets in showing __NP as more favorable to copula absence than both __Loc and __Adj (see Rickford et al 1991:121 for a comparison of several AAVE data sets with respect to following grammatical environment), so the "similarity to AAVE" evinced by these data is not perfect. Moreover, the copula absence pattern which Poplack and Sankoff took as their baseline creole pattern--a higher Ø rate before adjectives than before Verb+ing, for instance (based on Jamaican and Gullah data in Holm 1984)--has been shown to be spurious, the result of analytical errors in Holm 1984 (see Rickford and Blake 1990:261, Rickford 1996:359) and the result of reliance on copula patterns in Caribbean creole basilects rather than its mesolects or intermediate varieties, which are more similar to those of AAVE synchonically and in terms of possible diachronic derivation (Rickford 1974:93, Winford 1992a:23). When the errors in Holm's data are corrected, Poplack and Sankoff's (1987:307) Samaná hierarchy of following grammatical constraints on copula absence is much more similar to that reported for Barbadian, Jamaican and Trinidadian--especially insofar as the positions of __Ving and __gonna at the top of the hierarchy are concerned (Rickford and Blake 1991:268).12 (See figure 1.) Finally, when we compare the constraint hierarchy for
Figure 1: Copula Absence in three African American dialects (Jamaican statistics based on DeCamp's 1960 data, revised; source: Rickford 1996:368)

Samaná reported by Hannah (1996)--see the second row of table 4--__NP ranks as the least favorable environment and __Verb+ing and __gonna as the most favorable environments, precisely as found for other sets of AAVE and Caribbean creole data. 13






San-lkoff 1987






Hannah 1996






Table 4: Copula absence (Labov deletion) in Samaná English by following grammatical environment (adapted from Poplack and Sankoff 1987:307 and Hannah 1996, table 4)

Let us consider now the diaspora data from African Nova Scotian English (ANSE), introduced by Poplack and Tagliamonte (1991). The overall rate of copula absence which they report (p.319) for the descendants of nineteenth century refugeee and fugitive field-slaves whom they recorded in North Preston, Nova Scotia (Canada) is 20%, identical to the rate found by Poplack and Sankoff (1987) for Samaná English, and equally inimical to the creole hypothesis. However, the ANSE data set similarly includes tokens of the copula with first person subjects and with it, what , and that as subjects--and it is just as likely that the overall rate of copula absence would rise if these were excluded, as they were in most earlier studies of AAVE. One point worth noting--though it is not commented on by the authors--is that copula absence with first person subjects in the ANSE data set appears to be relatively substantial (feature weight of .29); in fact ANSE is more similar in this respect to Barbadian (feature weight of .47, Rickford and Blake 1990:267) than to Samaná English (feature weight of .06, Poplack and Sankoff 1987:307), and certainly moreso than to urban AAVE (less than 1% for AAVE in East Palo Alto, California, Blake 1997:64, table 3).

The effect of following grammatical environment which Poplack and Tagliamonte (1991) found in ANSE is shown in table 5. 14 Discussing these results, the authors observe that they are similar to the findings of Labov (1969) for peer groups in Harlem, and "to many other studies of this variable in AAVE," and that they are "quite different from the ranking found by Holm (1984) for Jamaican Creole and Gullah" (p. 319). The counter-arguments to this claim which we expressed in discussing the Samaná data in table 5 apply equally to these data, however. Poplack and Tagliamonte do mention (pp. 320-321) the evidence in Rickford and Blake that Holm's "creole" data should not be taken as archetypical, but they go on to suggest (following Holm's theoretical argumentation) that if a prior creole origin were to leave its vestiges in a decreolizing or decreolized variety, we would expect to find the following patterns of copula absence: 15

(3) __gonna > __Verb+ing > __adjective > __locative > __NP

The authors then go on to ask, inter alia, why the expected ordering of adjective and locative does not obtain in the ANSE and other putatively decreolized data sets (like Samaná and Barbadian). This is a valid question, and one of several about the AAVE constraint hierarchy which Mufwene (1992) has challenged creolists to explain; we shall return to it below.






Tag-liamonte 1991






Table 5: Copula absence in African Nova Scotian English (ANSE) by following grammatical environment (adapted from Poplack and Tagliamonte 1991:321)

For the final set of diaspora evidence, let us turn now to Liberian Settler English. Singler (1991b:132) reports the following rates of nonpast copula absence for three Settlers from different parts of Liberia: Carolina 78% (n=138), Albert 58% (n=173) and Slim 54% (n=223). These rates are all high, and argue in favor of the creolist position. Another pro-creolist feature of LSE speech is the fact that copula absence occurs there in the past tense as well (compare Barbadian, Jamaican). This is particularly true of the speech of Carolina, who comes from Sinoe County, a region in Liberia which had a heavy influx of Mississippi Settlers, and is very isolated (Singler 1991:150). 16 An example follows:

(4) When it [Ø was] good flour, twelve cent a pound. (Carolina, Singler 1991b:131).

In non-past environments (that is, the environments on which copula analyses in AAVE and creoles normally focus), copula absence is also common in LSE with first person subjects, occurring 64% of the time (n=53) in the speech of the three speakers examined in Singler (1991b:134), and 54% of the time (n=150) in the speech of the fourteen Sinoe County speakers discussed in Singler (1993). As noted above, first person copula absence is common in the Caribbean creoles but not in contemporary AAVE, and its frequency in LSE suggests that the English of the African American Settlers who set out for Liberia in the nineteenth century may have been more creole-like than contemporary AAVE is.

The effect of following grammatical environment on the copula absence of Singler's three LSE speakers is shown in table 6. 17 While the LSE hierarchy follows the AAVE (and creole) copula absence hierarchy insofar as a following NP is least favorable to copula absence and a following __gon most favorable to copula absence, 18 Carolina's pattern differs from the others', and the rates and relative orderings of the intermediate categories differ from those of AAVE in a way that deserves comment. Carolina clearly has a bifurcated pattern--some copula presence with a following NP, and (near)-categorical copula absence everywhere else. This is clearly the pattern of the LSE basilect, and it is similar to the one which Winford (1992a) reports for Trinidadian Creole, particularly for the group sessions (p. 34) and for are (p. 37). 19 Albert and Slim represent points further along the continuum to Standard English, showing near-categorical copula absence only with __Verb+ing, __Loc and __gon, 20 and somewhat greater variability with a following adjective (65%, 43%). It is their data which establish, more firmly than Carolina's, the relative LSE ordering of __Loc as the second most favorable environment for copula absence (after __gon), __Verb+ing as the third, and __Adj as the fourth. Poplack and Tagliamonte (1991:322-3) suggest that the locative > adjective copula absence ordering in Samaná and ANSE runs contrary to the adjective > locative creole pattern reported by Holm (1984). The LSE data provide additional evidence--along with that established by others for Barbadian and Trinidadian (Rickford and Blake 1990, Winford 1992a)--that precisely this ordering obtains in some creole communities. 21 Why __Verb+ing should be less favorable to copula absence than __Locative is in LSE is not clear, however. This is certainly not the case in Trinidadian and other Caribbean data sets, and it would be interesting to see it the pattern is replicated with other LSE speakers.

Overall, the LSE copula absence data provide fairly strong support for the creolist position. One caveat, however, is that the high rate of copula absence in LSE may reflect the destandardizing influence of contact with pidginized Non-Settler Pidgin English (NSPE) over the years, just as the low rate of copula absence in ANSE might reflect the standardizing influence of contact with Canadian English over the years. With respect to the LSE case, Singler (1991b:153) argues that "while the general absence of nonsettler influence points to the conclusion that LSE's high rate of copula deletion is not a result of nonsettler influence, one cannot be certain of that."
























Table 6: Copula absence in Liberian Settler English (SE) by following grammatical environment (adapted from Singler 1991b:146)
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