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Gullah

In response to:

You Makin' Sense from the November 16, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

While the fairness and understanding with which Professor M. K. Spears reviewed Dillard’s Black English (NYR, November 16) should be apparent to all, two of that reviewer’s criticisms of Dillard’s treatment of the topic deserve rebuttal.

The first is Spears’ handling of the creolist hypothesis concerning the origin of the Gullah dialect and its relationship to other varieties of American Black English. (In brief, that hypothesis holds that Gullah is neither structurally nor historically anomalous in the North American scene, as Turner apparently assumed, but is instead a linguistically conservative descendant of an older and once more widespread plantation creole English from which other varieties of Black English are also descended.) After repeatedly doubting the validity of this hypothesis, as presented in Black English, Spears manages to give his readers the impression that these doubts amount to devastating counterargument by cautioning tolerantly that they “should not be allowed to obscure the book’s positive accomplishments.”

Yet, in assuming or acting as if Dillard’s only evidence for this creolist hypothesis concerning Gullah consists of what is furnished in the text of Black English, Spears is merely demonstrating that he did not follow up Dillard’s references to the writings of other creolists with anything like the diligence with which he admittedly checked out Dillard’s critical citations of dialect geographers. For example, from his own impression (quite valid at one level) that Gullah now sounds quite different from other varieties of Black English, Spears jumps to the conclusion that they therefore must always have been different. And he presents that conclusion as if it were some sort of new and irrefutable counterargument to the creolist hypothesis. Yet, among Dillard’s citations are two articles of my own (“Continuity and Change in American Negro Dialects” and “Historical and Structural Bases for the Recognition of Negro Dialect”) in which I demonstrate that these present-day differences between Gullah and other forms of Black English must be of rather recent origin—a result of the relatively greater decreolization which the original plantation creole underwent outside Gullah territory. And the reason why decreolization was so slow in coming to Gullah speech was clearly their greater isolation—a factor which Spears would have his readers believe we creolists have never recognized.

Indeed, if the reviewer had been as sensitive to differences within Gullah as he was to those between it and the Black English which he was more familiar with, he might have noticed that many presentday Gullahs, in attempting to modify their creole dialect in the direction of standard English and/or local white nonstandard dialect, are independently creating Black-English-like speech forms—thus recapitulating what was probably the earlier course of Black English elsewhere in North America. And should Spears insist that even my evidence is “slender” (whatever that means), I would merely point out that, in contrast, there is virtually no evidence at all for his contention that Gullah and other varieties of Black English were always different from each other in the way that they are now.

The second point on which I would take issue with Spears is his assumption, implicit in his defense of one of the dialect geographers whom Dillard criticizes, that, because that scholar was sociopolitically “pro-black” when he made his statements about the speech of black Americans, those statements could not possibly be as factually wrong as Dillard says they are. Yet, in another article (“Sociopolitical Issues in the Linguistic Treatment of Negro Dialect,” also cited by Dillard) I make the case that much of the misrepresentation of the history of Black English and black-white speech relationships by American scholars was the direct result, not of anti-black racism, but rather of pro-black socio-political sentiments which, responsive as they once were to an assimilationism rooted in pro-European ethnocentrism, saw the only way to assert the Americanism and social worth of black Americans to be an insistance on their linguistic and cultural identity to white Americans.

The other side of this ironic state of affairs is that some of the most accurate and historically useful observations ever to be made about the linguistic and cultural patterns of black Americans are those which were recorded by typically racist (in the explanations they gave of those behaviors) white slaveholders and their immediate descendants. And although Spears obviously knew better than to balk at such sources when Dillard used them, their occasional use in Black English has proven an insurmountable intellectual obstacle for at least one other reviewer (Wilfred Cartey in Black Forum, September/October) of the book.

William A. Stewart

Washington, D.C.

Monroe K Spears replies:

As to the “creolist hypothesis” concerning the relation of Gullah to other varieties of American Black English, my objection was primarily to Dillard’s tendency to present it not as hypothesis but as established fact. It is true that, being in England, I was not able to read all the articles Mr. Stewart cites; but surely my proper concern was with Dillard’s presentation. At any rate, I am not aware of any irrational resistance within myself to acceptance of the hypothesis when evidence is forthcoming; as I said in the review, “There is nothing improbable in the hypothesis that other creoles existed and that they were more or less like Gullah; but this is a long way from proving that they were identical.”

Why Mr. Stewart should think that I assume in my “defense of one of the dialect geographers whom Dillard criticizes, that, because that scholar was socio-politically ‘pro-black’ when he made his statements about the speech of black Americans, those statements could not possibly be as factually wrong as Dillard says they are,” I cannot imagine. I do not hold so Platonic a view of the relation between virtue and knowledge, nor so naïve a notion of the relation between socio-politics and competence. My point was that Dillard’s special animus against Raven McDavid seemed curious since McDavid’s very important article of 1951 provided Dillard with much material and expressed attitudes he must have found congenial (not only pro-black, in general, but also, for example, anti-assimilationist, stressing the difference between Black English and White Southern dialect). Yet, since he is also an Establishment figure and a Dialect Geographer, Dillard vilifies him. I was protesting more broadly, of course, against Dillard’s tendency to mythologize and segregate people into sheep and goats, angels and devils.

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