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images of former texas slaves from the wpa collection
from sea to shining sea
images of former slaves from the wpa collection

videoRobert MacNeil pays a visit to Guy Bailey and Patricia Cukor-Avila in "Springville"

When Worlds Collide
Trace the origins of African American English

Managing Language

Understanding language diversity
is key to community cooperation

Up from Slavery
Library of Congress recordings of ex-slaves and their descendants

Additional Resources
African American Index

Observing Change
For more than 17 years Guy Bailey and Patricia Cukor-Avila have been conducting a remarkable piece of research into the language of local African Americans in a real Texas town they re-named "Springville" to protect the citizens' privacy. Their studies have national implications and indicate African American and white English are moving further and further apart.

(Excerpts from remarks by Robert MacNeil,  Friday, May 7, 2004, San Francisco, CA.)

After the Civil War, the plantation system was replaced by share cropping and tenant farming, for blacks and whites, and the emergence of the general store as the anchor of the Southern economy. In these stores, both races mingled to buy tools and provisions, and to secure credit against their future crops. Then industrialization began, the Jim Crow segregation laws were passed and the races were again segregated. By the early 20th century, frustrated blacks began migrating north to what they called "the Promised Land." There is one community in east-central Texas which has changed little since the days of tenant farming and it has been the focus of intensive research for clues to the evolution of modern Black English. For  their research, the linguists named it Springville. In the 1930s and early '40s workers from the Works Progress Administration made a series of recordings and photographs in this part of Texas. Among their subjects were elderly black people who were born into slavery in the U.S. It is haunting to look at the photos of these people, in shabby clothing, work-worn bodies, yet their faces to us expressing more dignity than the faces of some of the gaunt, half-starved white migrants in the famous photographs of the dust bowl victims of the same Depression years. Suddenly slavery advances out of the "long ago," to within living memory, an impression reinforced by listening to their voices.

One WPA interviewee was Laura Smalley of Hempstead, Texas, south of Springville, in the same river country. Laura was born to a slave mother imported from Mississippi; she said she was nine when "freedom broke," her term for the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Lincoln's proclamation freeing slaves in the Confederate States in the middle of the Civil War, was issued on January 1. The slaves in Texas were not told of it until June. She said, "All of them went to the house to see old master. An' I thought old master was dead, but he wasn'…. He had been off to the war, an' come back. (We all) gathered aroun' to see ol' master again. You know, an' ol' master didn' tell, you know, they was free. They worked there, I think know they say they worked them six months after that, six months. And turn them loose on the nineteen of June. That's why, you know, they celebrate that day. Colored folks celebrates that day."

It is true that in Texas June 19th, or Juneteenth, as they call it, was a bigger holiday for blacks than the Fourth of July and is still widely celebrated. In transcribing the speech of black people like Laura, the researchers were intrigued to notice how different this speech was from current African American Vernacular English.

In some respects the syntax and grammar were more similar to white speech of the time. Many of the features that are common to contemporary black English are absent: what linguists call "the invariant be," as in they be working, or the "deleted copular," that is leaving out the auxiliary verb in they working, instead of, for example, they are working. The researchers interviewed people of several generations living in Springfield. The younger the African Americans they studied, the more the speech began to resemble urban black speech of today. One notable feature, and easy for non-linguists to grasp, is the use of -s on the third person singular of verbs. Among black speakers of the earlier periods, the use of the verbal -s (as in he goes to work) is typical, it starts to shift in the next generation but is gone in the speech of Springville residents born after 1960. The youngest were saying things like, His sister go where she need to go. The linguists called this a "new development" within the black grammatical system. Besides the loss of verbal -s, other innovations are the use of be plus a verb in the present participle, for example, he be working, and the use of had plus a past participle, as in Yesterday I had went, or Yesterday I had saw him  - features not found in black speech before World War II.

These insights led to the conclusion that urban black speech appeared to be diverging from rather than converging with white speech, as a result of the great black migration to the north, when some six million blacks left the rural south for the major cities of the north between the First World War and the 1920s. In the North, whites and blacks did not mix. In fact, the movement of southern blacks into city centers often started "white flight" to the suburbs, creating black ghettoes. Bailey said, "In the large cities you had spatial segregation but you also had the formation of separate communities often with a kind of oppositional culture to the rest of the U.S. This created an ideal context for African American Vernacular English to develop along a sort of separate track." Linguist Guy Bailey believes that white and black grammars "are very different today, probably more different than they've ever been."

To speak of black "grammar" will disconcert many Americans, white or black, who think that Black English is merely a lazy, or broken English. That's a common assumption. In 1969, William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania concluded that Black English had a consistent internal structure, grammar and syntax. In 1997, Labov told a Senate hearing: "This African American Vernacular English is a dialect of English, which shares most of the grammar and vocabulary with other dialects of English.

But it is distinctively different in many ways, and more different from standard English than any other dialect spoken in Continental North America. It is not a set of slang words, or a random set of grammatical mistakes, but a well formed set of rules of grammar and pronunciation that is capable of conveying complex logic and reasoning." We left "Springville," Texas, with the sobering realization that a hundred, even fifty years ago, rural black and whites sounded more alike than we might have thought. Today whites and inner city blacks sound more different than we might have hoped. After decades of genuine civil rights advances, and significant achievements by the growing black middle class, the majority of African Americans and white society are growing farther apart, because more separate languages mean more separate peoples.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • African American Text, University of Virginia Online text relating to African American language from literature, politics and the social sciences.
  • Baugh, John. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Rickford,John and Russell, John, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English,  Wiley Press, 2000.
  • Thomas, Erik, and Wolfram, Walt, The Development of African American English, Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
Guy Bailey is Provost and Executive Vice-President at the University of Texas at San Antonio and continues the work he began on Texas speech in the 1980s. A Texas native, Jan Tillery is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio who researches the dialects of Texas and Southern American English generally.
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