A Survey of Afro-American English
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 12: 335-354 (Volume publication date October 1983)
J Baugh
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to my Tutor….

My dear Madame,

As is often the case, I have waited too late to write to you given the deadline I set for myself.  I’ve been ill, but the situation would mostly likely be the same if I weren’t.  Still, I will say a few things…

My rural Mississippi hometown was in a predominantly black county and it typified Baugh’s statement  that “urban and rural varieties of BVE [nonstandard black vernacular English] are maintained most by those individuals who have limited contact with nonblacks.”  While a great many of the adults in the area had the “ability to shift their speech styles depending on the social situation and their relative linguistic dexterity,” (Baugh), many of the older members of the community did not perform such shifts.  Because of the stigma associated with BVE, one sometimes had to be careful not to appear disrespectful when addressing these older members of the community in the sense of not subtly implying by use of “standard English” that one thought them stupid or less worthy of respect.  In these cases a fluidity in speech style came in handy.

Several of my elementary school teachers, including my favorite one, strongly encouraged the use of standard English.  What I took from these teachers was that speaking standard English gave “them” one less derogatory thing to say about “us.”  The thinking mentioned by Baugh was definitely floating around–that BVE indicated some genetic inferiority or that black children weren’t learning a real language or that black children were incapable of learning standard English.  My teachers emphasized that style of speech did not speak to intelligence or capability, no matter what “they” said.  We read black authors who used BVE deliberately in their writing because it communicated experience that couldn’t be related otherwise.  We read speeches by black orators, such as Sojourner Truth, that showed that use of BVE was not at odds with wit and intelligence.  I liked this approach by my teachers.

Recently, I’ve noticed on a social media site that black people from my hometown will often spell words in such a way as to make it clear that they are using BVE intentionally and without shame.  I wonder whether this is evidence that the same attitudes present when I was in elementary school are still around.

Ok, if I stop now, I will just make the deadline.  Still reading “America Day by Day.”  Hope to comment more on that soon.

Ever true,