American, Black, Creole, Pidgin, and Spanglish English

All-American English

by J.L. Dillard
Random House, 369 pp., $15.00

J.L. Dillard is the author of Black English, which I praised in The New York Review (November 16, 1972) as an important work, controversial but certainly both significant and useful, as well as entertaining. It was a hard act to follow, and Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives anyway; so when I undertook this review I dreaded finding myself cast in the slapstick role of “heah-come-dejedge” which requires me to pronounce the verdict that the author’s second book is inferior to his first and then hit him over the head with an outsize rubber gavel. Well, that which I most feared has come upon me.

Mr. Dillard’s great virtue is that he is a lively writer, incapable of being dull. But the perplexities begin with the title. H. L. Mencken’s title, The American Language, seemed outrageous only to the British and Canadians; but few American scholars have been willing to maintain seriously that American is really a different language from English. “American English,” the accepted description, means that American is a distinctive version but the language is still English. In his preface, Dillard says that he intends his title as a “compromise term” between Mencken and Peter Finley Dunn’s “insight when he said that the English language, when the Americans got through with it, would look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy.”

But what does “All-American” mean, aside from its connotations of show-biz and football and patriotism? It doesn’t mean that all of North America is being considered, for there is no mention even of Canada. Nor does it mean the English of all the United States, for there is little about Hawaii and nothing about Alaska, the Virgin Islands, and so on; aside from the mainland, only Puerto Rico is dealt with at length. So the title has no geographical significance. It certainly does not mean that the language is totally American; this would be either tautological or absurd. Perhaps the suggestion is that Americans are as united in their language as in their love of football. But this seems misleading, inconsistent with the thesis of Black English and true, if at all, only in certain limited and carefully defined senses. Dillard says that a friend urged him to entitle the book American Englishes, and I must say that I agree with the friend.

On the jacket only, there is the subtitle “A History of the English Language in America.” The book is not, however, a balanced or “scholarly” history but a polemical work, intended (I assume) to correct and supplement the existing histories.1 Dillard represents the new emphasis on sociolinguistics and on pidgin/creole studies that has become increasingly prominent in the last ten or fifteen years. Much of the book is essentially popularization of specialized studies of this kind, though some is original and some based on first-hand observation (notably the discussion of Puerto Rican Spanglish).

Before looking at All-American English in detail, let us consider briefly its relation to the earlier book. In Black English there were three principal theses, which might be called the ontological, the historical, and the educational. (1) Black English is different from (Southern) White English not only in vocabulary but in structure. It is not a corruption of White English but probably influenced White English more than it was influenced by it. At any rate, it is a separate, distinctive, and legitimate dialect. (2) Black English originated in a West African/English Pidgin which developed into a Plantation Creole once spoken by slaves all over the United States and still spoken by the Gullahs of coastal South Carolina and Georgia; the characteristic structure of this creole is still preserved in modern Black English. (3) Bilingualism or bidialectism should be the goal of language instruction. This means recognizing both the legitimacy of the black student’s native speech and the special problems he has in learning standard English; in practice, it means teaching him standard English as if it were a foreign language. My own view was that Dillard was successful in establishing (1) and (3), but that (2), the historical thesis deriving Black English from a hypothetical creole perhaps like modern Gullah, while not inherently improbable, rested on a tendentious interpretation of insufficient evidence.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, All-American English deals primarily with (2), the only one I thought dubious. So far as I can see, it adds little evidence, but refines and elaborates the argument. Before turning to that matter specifically, however, let us look at one final way in which the two books differ. Black English argued its three theses with passion and conviction, and its underlying motive was clearly the worthy one of upholding the dignity and legitimacy of Black English. All-American English, however, has no positive thesis (aside from the one already mentioned) except a general recommendation of the study of pidgins, creoles, and the languages other than English upon which they are based.

Black English gained much of its drama and liveliness from the myth (assumed throughout) that the academic Establishment has been engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth about Black English because its dialect geographers have a vested interest in maintaining that Black English is the same as the white regional dialects whose origins they trace back to different dialects in Britain. This mythological view of the discipline is continued and broadened in the present book, with creolists and sociolinguists storming the Bastille to free oppressed minority dialects and contact languages, and hauling away in tumbrels the Establishment aristocrats who have refused to recognize anything but dialect geography. Up with minorities and immigrants, down with Anglo-Saxon attitudes! But the drama is less effective than in the first book; what there seemed generous indignation on behalf of black self-respect often appears in this book as a rather strident and exaggerated contentiousness on behalf of a particular linguistic point of view.

But enough of generalizations. The only fair way to represent the book is to describe it chapter by chapter and quote some key passages. Chapter I, “Maritime English and the American Colonists,” is summed up thus:

More than Chicago-based dialectologists could ever intuit, the early American colonists had a maritime orientation and mentality. And to a greater degree than was perceived, it now appears that the language of the sea became the language of the frontier.

The Maritime Pidgin English, transmitted to West Africans in the slave trade and heavily influenced by West African languages, became the English Creole of the plantations from Nova Scotia to Surinam…. Runaway slaves transmitted their own variety of English to the Seminoles and probably to the other Indian tribes; the Plains Indians of the United States were making extensive use of Pidgin English by the end of the eighteenth century. [Page 42]

Maritime Pidgin English goes back, according to Dillard, to the medieval Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean, based originally on Italian, then becoming “in all probability” Portuguese Trade Pidgin, which then became Pidgin English.

The chief impression that emerges from some years of study of the pidgin languages is of their essential unity despite a degree of “local” variation. This unity…is the great prerequisite for understanding the process that produced Black American English and related varieties like the creole dialects of the West Indies and Surinam. [Page 20]

Chapter II, “The American Koiné,” argues that the distinctive feature of American speech from the beginning was “the leveling of differences between the many different British dialects the early groups brought with them” (p. 50). The resultant common dialect Dillard calls a koiné. (He is apparently the first to apply this term to American speech.) The koiné was being formed “slightly before 1700,” was in its heyday around 1730, and its “partial decline began around 1780….”

But this decline was only relative; “The results of the koiné-forming influences are still felt in the prestige accorded to a relatively unmarked American dialect, and even in the insistence upon it in most aspects of the electronic media…, in publishing, and in the schools.” In short, the koiné is not dead, but survives as “Network Standard” (p. 76). The chapter ends with the curious injunction, “If the schools will only remove their kiss-of-death labeling of it as ‘good’ English and utilize it for what it is, the uniform dialect has as bright a future as any other speech variety of mankind.” (The argument of this chapter, if true, would blow the dialect geographers completely out of the water [or perhaps into it, to learn maritime English]; but it is based, as far as I can see, on very little evidence, which is forced and stretched, while the abundant evidence on the other side is ignored.)

Chapter III is called “Immigrants and Migrants—Willing and Unwilling.” It argues, predictably, that “non-British immigrants,” from the slaves on, and migrants such as the American Indians, have had more influence on the language than has been recognized, and far more than British dialects. There is an interesting discussion of how this influence worked, and still works: the most obvious is the substratum principle, or direct influence through interference, as when a Spanish speaker confuses English bowels and vowels (because Spanish has no phonemic contrast between b and v) or is confused by the English word hot, since it covers both the Spanish words caliente and picante. In the attempt to avoid such confusions, the Spanish speaker may describe a person as having a “hot” personality in order not to use the Latinate piquant; Dillard suggests calling this process “reverse carry-over.” A group trying to be unlike its parents may overstress the differences between their language and English”; thus second-generation German-Americans often avoid entirely the use of already because their parents overused it as equivalent to German schon.

The chapter contains some additions to the historical thesis about Black English. For example:

The internal reconstructive tradition in linguistics has always insisted that a much heavier proportion of British “regional” dialect was retained in the speech of American Blacks than in any other dialect of American English. This is, on the face of it, absurd. It says, in effect, that the population group whose ancestors had the least history of residence in the British Isles must be considered linguistically the “most British” of all the population groups in the United States (and, as it happens, of the West Indies). [Page 89]

But the objection is absurd, seeming to assume that actual residence in the place of origin of a dialect is a prerequisite to speaking it. Traditional historians believe that the slaves learned their English from the Southern whites who owned and worked with them, and neither Dillard’s insistence that the slaves learned Maritime Pidgin English first nor his argument that the Southern whites spoke koiné rather than a regional dialect in the eighteenth century seems to me to render that belief implausible. Dillard is, of course, convinced to start with that the influence was all the other way: “With the heavy concentrations of slaves in the Southern states…and with the greater opportunities for assimilation that obtained in the North, Black English became, to a great degree, a Southern dialect. It seems to have very strongly influenced the speech of Southern whites…” (p. 97). He also adds evidence for his case (made in Black English) that Pidgin English was transmitted from the Africans to the Indians.

Chapter IV, “Frontier Speechways,” stresses the role of minorities and especially of blacks and Indians. Chapter V, “Taking Stock, or, Where Is You Englishmans At?,” recapitulates the whole argument and further elaborates it. After some jeers at the “party line” of the “dialect-geography establishment” which does not “include slavery and the dispossession of the Indians” and in fact excludes “minority groups and the less praiseworthy aspects of American history altogether” (pp. 156-157), Dillard urges the superior importance of sociological factors and contact languages. Network Standard, he repeats, “obviously has its roots in the koiné,” and “it has been shown to be the dialect preferred by diverse groups of Americans” (p. 165).

The evidence cited for this preference is, however, the same study by Lambert and Tucker that was cited in Black English as proving that hearers could tell black from white speakers—on tape—80 percent of the time.2 If there is no physiological difference and no difference in the dialects, how could they tell? And surely All-American English is not divided into black and white subdivisions? But it must be, if there is an ethnically definable Black English. At any rate, Dillard’s central point is that, contra the dialect geographers, “There is a dialect that is recognizably American, which, in one form or another, is part of the language behavior of all but the most disadvantaged adult Americans, and which does not correlate with any region” (p. 166).

The problem of the ghetto child is the major thorn in the side of the established, received picture of the history of American English…,” which is based “entirely” on study of the white population. “Unless Blacks match (or derive from) whites, the whole conception is suspect” (p. 175).

It has always been known that there are a few major exceptions to the Anglocentric formation of American English dialects. The most striking is Gullah…. As I tried to show in Black English, a generalized Plantation Creole, based on an even more generalized Maritime Pidgin English with a heavy admixture of African influence, provides an even greater exception to the putative pattern. With the additional demonstration of the existence of a colonial koiné, I hope to have shown that the formerly received picture is almost totally invalid. Without the existence of Black English, however, probably no one would have thought of looking for the other kinds of patterns. [Page 175]

I have quoted this statement at length because it shows how Dillard conceives of the relations of his various theses.

As Dillard realizes, his argument depends on establishing the priority of Black English and its influence on Southern white speech. He cites as evidence an article by Juanita Williamson, saying, “The materials she gathered corroborate the influence of Black English (especially nineteenth-century Plantation Creole) on Southern white English” (p. 176). But they do not, for two reasons. First, the examples he quotes are mostly elliptical futures, not peculiarly Black uses of the verb be (“This be all right”; “She be fifteen in November”; “That be all?”); second, and more important, Miss Williamson’s thesis in the article is simply that the speech of blacks and that of Southern whites is identical. She says nothing about which came first and which influenced the other. In fact, her argument is fundamentally in contradiction to Dillard’s, for she denies that there is such a thing as Black English.

Miss Williamson begins by describing Beryl Bailey’s famous article of 1965 in which she analyzed selected structures characteristic of Negro speech, using as her material the speech of the narrator in Warren Miller’s The Cool World. She then compares, in terms of the four features Miss Bailey found characteristic of Negro speech, an article by a white Klansman in a Tennessee periodical, the dialogue of white characters in numerous Southern novels, and white Southern speech as quoted in various travel books, articles, and newspapers, adding finally examples from her own observations of Southern white speech. All of them exhibit the same four features. “That the four features are found in Dude’s speech [in The Cool World] is no surprise, for most Negroes, wherever they might live outside the South, migrated to that place from the South. And it should be no surprise that they carried their Southern language patterns with them.”3

Dillard could hardly have cited a worse source, for the article undermines his foundations. Perhaps he was so deeply convinced of the truth of his convictions that he misread the article. He is given to large statements about evidence, as when he says that “there is a vast amount of historical documentation” of decreolization as an explanation of Southern English, and then cites his own Black English and two articles by William A. Stewart! (p. 177).

The last two chapters can be dealt with briefly, for they are not part of the main argument. Chapter VI, “Puerto Rico: Bicolonialism and Bilingualism,” is based on first-hand observation (Dillard now lives in Puerto Rico) and contains many amusing examples of matters already discussed and many sensible comments. One example:

Puerto Rico has functioned less as a link to Latin America than as an extension of New York City slums. The “window on the world” has turned out to be no wider in its view than the airline trip from San Juan to New York. The mixing of English and Spanish, the demotion of Spanish to an “L” status diglossically, and all the rest of it are the linguistic correlates of the process that has meant not so much acculturation to US values as deculturation from Puerto Rican values. The only salve for our consciences is that we may justifiably wonder whether the Spanish would have done any better. [Pages 220-221]

A World Language—And How to Understand It” is the seventh and final chapter. That American rather than British English is now the world’s second language, or lingua franca, is the result of the nation’s military and commercial power rather than of any special characteristics of the language, says Dillard realistically. He gives amusing and useful examples of the kinds of problems that can arise when native speakers of other languages speak English, especially when they have been taught by the direct method:false cognates,4 overtranslation, and the like. Dillard’s somewhat paradoxical recommendation is that “the old grammar-translation method of language teaching” might be more successful than the direct method in at least enabling Americans to understand their own language as spoken by those to whom it is not native (Spanglish, etc.). But he is more enthusiastic about the study of linguistics—of his particular kind. As to usage, he hasn’t much to say, except to advise leaving your language alone.

In conclusion, let us try to sum up what needs to be said both about this book and about the approach that it represents. Near the end Dillard says:

In the preceding chapters, I have tried to show how little is revealed about even American English by a consideration of what rural corner of England a particular verb form or turn of expression may possibly have come from. In fact, it elucidates American English very little to place it within the conventions of the reconstructive tradition. Even less is revealed about the world language of many, many Africans, Asians, Semitic peoples, and non-Germanic Europeans if we trace English back to the hypothetical three Low German tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) who may have effected a crossing to the British Isles somewhere around 449. Significant as it was in its own way, that crossing would not amount to a heavy day’s traffic on the Staten Island ferry today. The extensive use of English by groups that would more than dwarf those three Germanic tribes has removed modern English from that historic tradition and placed it, whether we like it or not, in an international context in which rural England and nearly prehistoric Germany seem exceedingly trivial. [Pages 246-247]

Why is this so offensive? Well, it is obtuse and vulgar in its assumption that size and modernity determine importance and in its appeal to prejudice in the reader rather than to rational argument or to evidence. It employs the techniques of the worst kind of debater, more interested in scoring points off his opponents than in discovering the truth, sneering at them and treating their case with scorn and contempt while seizing upon and exaggerating anything that seems to support his own side. Its effect upon the reader (or at least this one) is to provoke him into a similar contentiousness, so that he wants to answer every sentence with a “No!” or “Irrelevant!” or “Non seq.” This is unfortunate, because Dillard does of course have a case. But by exaggerating it, by allowing his opponents no merit, he demonstrates that his case will not stand alone. The creolist and sociolinguistic points of view are extremely valuable, but they supplement rather than replace the traditional ones.

Dillard is also careless, in large matters and in small. The paragraph quoted above is supported by two footnotes, one of which elaborates the attack on the “reconstructive tradition” (ignoring the fact that Dillard’s “Plantation Creole” and “colonial koiné” are almost as much hypothetical reconstructions as Indo-European is). (Dillard becomes almost comic in his insistence that the Indo-European migrations are unimportant because they took place on land and involved only small numbers.) The other is full of errors: according to Bede’s “Historia Ecclestica [sic]…the Anglos [sic], Saxons, and Jutes” were led by “Hengst [sic] and Horsa,” and since we know little about this event, we should “form our notions” of it from “what we know about the North American immigration by Europeans, not vice versa” (p. 323). This is a curious notion of historiography. The historical details about the Anglo-Saxon invasion are, of course, irrelevant; there is no question of the fact that it did take place at about the date Bede gives.

A few other examples may be given of errors or defects. Arguing against the conventional assumption that the Mayflower colonists spoke the language of Shakespeare, he says, “But there is not all that much resemblance between the speech to be found in the records of the early colonies and that of Shakespeare’s plays. For example, impersonal constructions like it dislikes me…are not found in the American records…” (p. 4). To expect colonial records to sound like Shakespeare is wonderful. Attacking the dialect geographers’ explanation of Southern forms as deriving chiefly from Southern British dialects, he continues: “Under pressure of the challenge of the creole origin of Black English vernacular, however, dialect geographers have tried to trace features of Southern English to any and all English dialects, including not only Northern and Western dialects but even Scottish and Irish dialects!” (pp. 250-251). Why this should be thought surprising I cannot imagine, for of course many of the Southern settlers—including some of my own ancestors, as a matter of fact—were themselves Scots, Irish, or Scotch-Irish. Discussing English-Spanish relations in Arizona, he quotes square-dance calls:

Ally man let ‘n’ shassay;”

Bal’nce to yer podners ‘n’ all han’s roun”

Dozy dozy—chaat ‘n’ swing”

Ally is obviously also French—aller, ‘to go’ or allez, ‘(you) go.’ The phrase man let seems meaningless to me; but in a square-dance context, ‘to the left’ would not be an impossible interpretation. In that case, it might come from nan, ‘in’ (French Creole, related to Portuguese Creole na), and let for English left, perhaps a simplification of the consonant cluster -ft by a foreign speaker. Dozy dozy probably means ‘two by two.’ It can be derived either from French deux et deux or from Spanish dos y dos—or, in the mad world of this kind of language contact, from both. [Page 133]

Were Mr. Dillard a square-dancer, he would recognize immediately that Ally man is allemande, a very common step, and Dozy dozy is dos à dos, “back to back” in French. It is forgivable not to know this, but it is information readily accessible in even college-size dictionaries.

In my final comment I may verge on criticizing Dillard for not writing a different book from the one he did write—a most unfair tactic in a reviewer. He is breezy and simplistic, interested chiefly in language as communication, and sure, like most linguists, that one language or dialect is in every respect just as good as another. But language, as we who are concerned with literature know, is much too serious a matter to be left to the linguists. Though creolist studies are interesting and instructive, they do not provide a new key to the whole phenomenon of language or answers to any of its mysteries. Dialect geography is and will remain perennially fascinating because the relation of people to places is important to their individual and collective histories. The way a man speaks is one of his most significant characteristics, and different in each individual; hence the study of language is infinitely complex. “A sentence uttered makes a world appear.” To purify the dialect of the tribe, as Eliot and Mallarmé put it unforgettably, is a task worthy of a lifetime for us as for our dead masters; trying to learn to use words requires all the knowledge, cultivation of taste, and subtlety of discrimination we can manage to acquire.

In this light Dillard’s vision of Network Standard (sturdy descendant of colonial koiné) surrounded by International English is not very inspiring. Creole languages seem to have little potentiality as literary mediums; I can’t think of any important literary work written in one. (If we accept Black English as a creole, we could cite works written in various forms of it, from Uncle Remus to The Cool World; but they are surely in dilute forms.) Good bilingual writers, like Derek Walcott or Jean Rhys or in India R.K. Narayan, N.C. Chaudhuri, Dom Moraes, all write standard English with a distinctive flavor but no real interbreeding.


Black English October 2, 1975

  1. 1

    Sometimes Dillard does sound as though he feels that his work, is so much greater in importance that not only the standard books on American English (Mencken, Krapp, Marckwardt, Laird, etc.) but the histories of the English language are hardly worth bothering with. “…The history of the English language gives much more attention to a few million Anglo-Saxons than it does to over two hundred million contemporary American speakers of the language. And of course a few hundred million foreign speakers never get mentioned at all. The approach also tends to produce disproportion in that extensive attention is given to ‘historical’ facts, which are only hypothetical, and very little to events within recent historical time, which are extensively documented and thoroughly studied by historians” (p. 322).

  2. 2

    On p. 311, n. 9, he cites a book and two other works, both unpublished, which seem to refer to other evidence. The question of the ethnic identifiability of Black English is, of course, a highly complex and debatable one, which Dillard tends grossly to oversimplify. In the anthology A Various Language, edited by Juanita V. Williamson and Virginia M. Burke (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), Raven McDavid says, “Few people can really identify the race of a speaker by pronunciation and voice quality,” and cites as nonsense the “belief that there are ‘racial’ dialects, independent of social and cultural experiences” (pp. 64, 52). W.E. Farrison says, “As dialectologists know, there is no such entity as Negro dialect nor a racial dialect of any other kind” (p. 191). “Ever so many of the words and locutions and most of the substandard grammar which have been said to be characteristic of Negro dialect have been current at one time or another in almost every section of the United States, including areas in which the number of Negroes has always been incomparably small” (ibid.). Thomas Pyles says, “The fact is that uneducated Negroes in the South by and large differ little in their speech from the uneducated whites” (p. 76). The “only distinctive Negro speech in this country,” he continues, is Gullah (p. 77).

    In another anthology, however (Contemporary English, edited by David L. Shores, Lippincott, 1972), there are several articles maintaining the opposite point of view. Thus Jean Malmstrom holds that black Nonstandard in widely separated cities agrees, while black Nonstandard differs systematically from white Nonstandard in Appalachia as well (pp. 21-23). (In general, she cites the same sources to which Dillard refers.) Fasold and Wolfram say that “Negro dialect is a fully formed linguistic system in its own right, with its own grammar and pronunciation rules…. It is spoken by some, though not all Negroes, particularly those of the lower socioeconomic classes” (p. 54). They continue: “There are two possible reasons for the distinctiveness of Negro dialect, one being the fact that the linguistic history of the dialect is partly independent…. It has been postulated that several of the features…are traceable, not to British dialects, but to African languages via the Caribbean Creole languages. Even if this is not the case, the persistent segregation patterns of our society are sufficient cause for Negro dialect to develop its own character.”

    William A. Stewart, in three articles, argues essentially the same case as Dillard (for whom he is a principal source), but with more qualification. He also calls for more work on the two questions: “1) the relationship between Gullah and other Negro dialects, and 2) the relationship between Negro dialects (other than Gullah) and white dialects” (p. 105). (Dillard seems to consider his own answers to these questions in need of no confirmation.) Stewart shows that the speech of uneducated Negroes is different from that of uneducated whites in Appalachia, whatever may be the case in other areas (p. 114).

  3. 3

    In A Various Language, p. 497. (See footnote 2.) The four “selected structures” found by Miss Bailey to be distinctively Negro and used by Miss Williamson are: “the absence of the copula (zero copula), the marked forms which are ‘past and future,’ the negation markers ain’t and don’t, and the treatment of there and ‘possessive their‘ ” (p. 497).

  4. 4

    Dillard cites as examples traducir, which means “translate” in Spanish; cf. English traduce; and molestar, which means in Spanish “bother, annoy,” but in English molest usually has sexual connotations. A French friend of mine (a teacher of English) once left a sign in his bathroom for my benefit: “Please do not molest the spider. He is a tame pet.”