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Sunday, May 20, 2012

African Elements in African American English

In his essay African Elements in African American English, Molefi Kete Asante argued that because African American slaves could not logistically retain any of their cultural artifacts from their homeland, they instead retained basic components of the African experience.   Specifically, this “experience” included a general retention of African linguistic behavior, including combinations of “classes of sounds, units of meaning, and syntax behaviors[i].” The linguistic similarities Asante detailed did not include an array of actual African lexicon, but rather grammatical style and verb conjugation patterns. Asante prefaced his argument with a scathing criticism of the early scholars of African American culture. There are both strengths and weaknesses in the argument Asante posed in favor of the retention of African linguistic behaviors and the argument he posed against the early scholars of African American culture. Overall, I found Asante’s argument against the early scholars of African American culture to be very weak, and the arguments he posed in favor of African Americans retaining portions of African linguistic behaviors to be interesting and worthy of consideration and continued study. 
The primary weakness of Asante’s argument against earlier scholars of African American culture is that he discredited pioneers in the field, such as Herskovits, Turner, Jahn and Gonzales and then subsequently used some of their research and theories as an authoritative voice to support his argument against other scholars.  Asante wrote: “They theorized on the basis of field research in African cultures, diasporas and continental, challenged many interpretations about the African connection…they provided in effect, novel interpretations of old substances.”[ii] These “old substances” Asante was referring to were previously mentioned in his essay as the prevailing ideas among early American scholars of African culture, including thoughts that the language used by African Americans was “a corruption of English”, “the babbling of children”, and  “unworthy of investigation [iii].”  If we are to agree with Asante that Herskovits, Turner et al merely provided a new twist on the same old story, then we must discredit their scholarship entirely.  In doing so, it is then very difficult for the reader to move on to the next few paragraphs, where Asante, in his example using the misinterpretations of the Gullah language by Ambrose Gonzales, uses one of the very scholars he has discredited (Turner) as a voice of authority.  Asante wrote: “The point made by Turner is that white American linguists refused to consider the possibility that blacks used African words in their vocabularies.[iv]” Here, Asante is agreeing with the very same scholarly opinion that he has just spent an entire page arguing against.  
While some may not consider it a weakness, Asante suggested, but did not come out and say, that the early scholars of African culture and African retention in the diaspora were inadequate and that while their efforts were “gallant”, they were lacking because the linguists themselves were white.  Asante wrote: “Earlier, Ambrose Gonzales, like many other white American linguists…[v]”, and “the point made by Turner is that white American linguists…[vi]”, and “in fact, the evidence demonstrates that whites unfamiliar with either African languages…[vii]”  All of these examples of why the early scholars where to be discredited included this descriptive notation of their race.  This weakened Asante’s argument, as Herskovits’s extensive studies in Africa and his concluding theories about African cultural continuity should not be undermined because of his biological race.
While Asante did allow that the conclusions of Herskovits, Garrett and the like were “interesting, provocative, and a valuable addition to our knowledge,” [viii] he concluded that they “cast too narrow a mold that often depended on continuity of specific words from several ethnic regions of Africa…. and do not make an argument for a more general retention of African linguistic behavior applicable to most black Americans.”[ix]   It appears that Asante is discrediting these pioneers of African Studies merely because of the very specifically traceable lexicon approach of their work.  One must remember, Herskovits was a cultural anthropologist, not a linguist.  Asante’s criticism would be similar to comparing specific empirical evidence and concrete examples (Herskovits and specific lexicon), to that of more inferential and broad applications (Asante and linguistic behaviors.) Both approaches are valid and applicable to different situations.  However, using one methodology to discredit another is unwarranted, especially given the small amount of research in the field of African American linguistics in comparison to other fields of study. 
Asante does, however make very plausible and creditable arguments for the transference of African linguistics to the linguistic behaviors of African Americans. The primary strength of his argument exists in the flow he created documenting the West African languages of Niger-Congo, to Pidginization, to Creolization, to Englishizatioin, (refered to as Ebonics.)  This point exemplifies how Ebonics contains structural remnants of certain African languages while maintaining an overwhelmingly English vocabulary.  Specifically, the use of aspect rather that tense in many verb conjugations and constructions is apparent.  Of particular interest is the Niger-Congo tense-aspect of Present (he go), Near past (he gone), Remote Past (he been gone), Future (he going to go), Aspect of progress (he going), Aspect of completion (he done gone) and Past aspect of repetition (he been going.)  This pattern of West African verb conjugation is obvious in American Ebonics.  The relationship between the verbs within a given construction is also of great importance and a major difference between American Ebonics and English. Asante explains: “In some sentences Ebonics speakers use several verbs, whereas Standard English has available a single verb to express the completed action. “ [x]  Examples of this include “Turn loose and drap down from dar” (Come down from there),  “I hear tell you went home” (I hear that you went home), “Go home and see about those children” (go home and attend to those children) and “he picked up and went to town” (he went to town.) [xi]  Asante pointed out that giving every action a verb and using verb tenses that are grammatically incorrect in Standard English is a common practice by African Americans.  I was unaware that these tense-agreement usage patterns are an important part of West African languages, as seen in examples like “He clumb de tree to shake de simmons down whilst I be pickin em up” (He climbd the tree to pick the persimmons)  and “Fore I knowed it I done fell slap to sleep” (before I knew it, I fell asleep!) 
Asante continued by saying that “done” is a verbal aspect of completed action, without reference to time, as opposed to the perfective (have/had/has), which is marked for time (in Standard English).” [xii]  This makes the sentence “I done ate” in Ebonics “I completed the action of eating” in Standard English, where the verb “done” specifies nothing in reference to time.  Asante points out that the American English speaker assumes the speaker of Ebonics is referring to something completed within a reference to time, when in fact, this is incorrect. 
While I find Asante’s theory that African American English (Ebonics) was a direct “descendant” of the language of the West African slaves to be convincing and academically sound, it is not lost on me that one of the very arguments he uses to discredit earlier scholars on the subject (that they were looking for too specific lexicon and word roots) is the very same proving method Asante used as he discussed verb conjugations and tense forms! In this case, he too was looking for an exact, specific link. 
Overall, much can be learned by the scholarship of pioneers such as Herskovits and Turner, and the more current linguistic approach of Asante.  As Ebonics remains one of the most obvious points of differentiation between Americans, an understanding of the roots and formation of the language is crucial for both blacks and whites in this country. 

[i] Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr, 2006. Pg. 68.
[ii] Pg 66
[iii] Pg 65
[iv] pg. 66
[v] Pg 66
[vi] Pg. 66
[vii] Pg. 66-67
[viii] Pg. 68
[ix] Pg, 68
[x] Pg. 75
[xi] Pg. 76
[xii] Pg 78

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