April 2, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 13

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    Bridging cultural misunderstandings

    Mufwene has high hopes for new book on African American English

    By Shula Neuman
    News Office

    Salikoko Mufwene, Professor and Chairman of Linguistics, has spent much of his career researching the development of Creole languages in the Caribbean and in the southeast United States. After receiving his Ph.D. from Chicago in 1979, he taught for two years at the University of the West Indies and for 10 years at the University of Georgia, where he studied the emergence of Creole languages, particularly Gullah, a Creole language spoken by coastal African Americans in South Carolina and Georgia.

    His most recent contribution to linguistics takes a turn into new territory -- African American English -- as the editor of African American English: Structure, History and Use, published this month.

    How did you become involved in the study of African American English? I was critical of the literature on African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and specifically of theories of its development and of some of the ways people have accounted for its grammatical features, especially when they presented those features as if they were deviations from Standard English.

    Why don't you consider AAVE a deviation from Standard English? In the first place, AAVE should not be compared to Standard English. It should be compared with other non-standard varieties of English spoken in North America -- Appalachian English or Ozark English, for example. There are no two varieties of English that are identical, but these varieties are very similar in structure with AAVE. Their syntactic features are very similar.

    How do such varieties of English develop? All North American varieties of English are new varieties, and they are all the result of the restructuring of linguistic systems. Once English as it came from England reached North America, it never remained the same.

    What should catch our attention is that even though African American English is different from Standard English, it shares so many features with white non-standard forms of English that we should try to understand the connection between these varieties of English, especially because they all developed concurrently.

    How did they develop concurrently? It is not as if Africans arrived here and people were already speaking English. Many whites didn't speak English when they arrived here, and so were in a situation very similar to the Africans. Everyone was appropriating English as their new vernacular. It became their new means of communicating. During this process, nobody acquired English exactly the same way it was spoken by native speakers in the United Kingdom. In the process, English was restructured, a little more in some communities and a little less in others.

    What do you hope to accomplish with your new book? This book accomplishes several things. First of all, it covers a wider range of features of African American English than any other work published before -- it is not just a discussion about the use of the verb "be" in African American English. Second, there is discussion of many other aspects of AAVE's system that are worth knowing about. Third, there are some chapters that focus on the communicative peculiarities that some sub-groups among African Americans use. For instance, it examines what strategies are used in verbal games among women, it looks at some of the vocabulary used by rap artists, and there is a discussion of the ways in which some less-educated people address each other.

    You mentioned that the book was geared toward a more general audience. Why did you chose this approach? This book is the first comprehensive book on African American English. For that reason we thought it should be less technical and written in a more accessible language than most linguistic studies.

    It is my hope that this book can bridge cultural misunderstandings. In my experience of teaching AAVE to a mixed classroom, I have noticed that people have developed special relations and mutual respect for each other. I do hope that more people take classes on AAVE because, as a country, we need to develop respect for AAVE and similar varieties on all fronts. African Americans need to realize there is nothing wrong with the way they speak. At the same time, all people need to realize that there is a division of labor among the varieties of English; they cannot all be spoken everywhere.

    What do you mean by "division of labor"? There is a way to speak in one's home and community and a way to speak in the business world. That is the way the world works. Everybody who speaks a non-standard variety of English may find it necessary to learn Standard English. If a person is not interested in functioning in the business world, they probably don't need Standard English. By the same token, if a person is going to be a teacher in the African American community, it is a professional imperative that they be familiar with African American English, just as if they were to teach English in China they would become familiar with Chinese.

    Where do you see the research in this field going from here? We need more research on the role of social factors, social dynamics. We need to look at the patterns of social integration and segregation, the patterns of interaction between populations, the demographic proportions of different populations. We also need to study historical factors, such as arrival in this country. We should pay attention to all of these things when considering the history and evolution of any language.