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Black English

In response to:

American, Black, Creole, Pidgin, and Spanglish English from the July 17, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

M.K. Spears’s review of my All-American English [NYR, July 17] is lengthy (especially in that it quotes extensively from my more general statements while carefully avoiding any reference to the documentation given) but extremely confused.

As Spears perceives, a major part of the argument—but not by any means all of it—“depends on establishing the priority of Black English and its influence on Southern white speech.” He also cites, accurately enough, my reference to an article by Juanita Williamson bearing on this matter. He is thoroughly confused, however, in that he takes my reference to be to the conclusion to that article (in fact, to the preconception on which the article was undertaken) and not to the data it contains. It may be that the separation of these two factors is too much for the reviewer; but, if that is the case, he should not have undertaken so ambitious a review.

The reviewer appears also to be hopelessly behind in terms of academic developments. For example, in an article published in September, 1974 (and therefore after my own manuscript had gone to the publisher), Walter Wolfram (a researcher with an orientation extremely different from my own) summarized:

It seems only reasonable to conclude that Southern whites speak more like Blacks than Northern whites (although of course not identically), not only because of the settlement patterns of British dialects in America but because some of the distinctive Black speech, if you will, rubbed off. [“The Relationship of White Southern Speech to Vernacular Black English.” Language 50: 527]

It may be too much to expect Mr. Spears to have read, the rather technical journal Language. It is probably not too much, however, to expect anyone with his apparent interest in the subject to be familiar with William Labov’s Language in the Inner City (1972). In so long and so ambitious a review, surely a reader could expect the reviewer to be familiar with that much of the professional literature and to cite it rather than “college-size dictionaries” (p. 37, column 2).

There are some interesting details which might be profitably debated, like the square-dancing terminology to which the reviewer refers. I feel, however, that it is wasteful to go into the particulars of these matters in the absence of responsible orientation toward the large issues.

J.L. Dillard

Santurce, Puerto Rico

Monroe K Spears replies:

Mr. Dillard is a tricky debater, and I doubt that further controversy will prove edifying to anyone. Nevertheless, a few brief points: (1) Mr. Dillard does not distinguish between Ms. Williamson’s conclusion and her data, but strongly—and falsely—suggests that her conclusion is the same as his. He says, “A hypersensitive Black academic trained in dialect geography, Juanita Williamson, was incensed by statements about Black English…from the very first…. The materials she gathered corroborate the influence of Black English (especially nineteenth-century Plantation Creole) on Southern white English” (p. 176). But, as I said in the review, her conclusion is simply that the speech of Blacks and that of Southern Whites is identical. Her article is in no way concerned with which came first or which influenced the other, nor can I see how the data she presents are relevant to this question.

(2) In a long footnote (2) to the review, I quoted the views of numerous scholars on the debatable question of the ethnic identifiability of Black English and its relation to White. As I pointed out, a number of them (including Wolfram) hold positions some-what like Dillard’s, though I discovered no one else so simplistic and dogmatic.

(3) It would be interesting to see what Mr. Dillard could find to debate in the passage about square-dancing terminology. I mentioned “college-size dictionaries” only to note that, in this case, Mr. Dillard was ignorant of material even they contain.

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