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. 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 …
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Black English October 2, 1975