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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.

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    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).

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