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Issues in Reconstructing Earlier African-American English

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Despite intense scrutiny over the past several decades, there remain a number of unresolved issues in the reconstruction of the historical development of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). These issues concern the reliability of written texts representing earlier AAVE, the representativeness of the spoken data from ex-slave recordings and remnant transplant communities, the delimitation of the sociohistorical context of earlier AAVE development, the nature of inter- and intra-community variation in earlier AAVE, and the principles for identifying donor sources for AAVE structures. Evidence from representative written sources is compared, along with spoken language data from a long-term, bi-racial remnant community in coastal North Carolina. The spoken language data demonstrate that earlier AAVE was affected both by its original contact history and the localized varieties spoken by European American cohort communities. Furthermore, data indicate that there was considerable intra-community as well as inter-community language variation among earlier African Americans. The analysis shows that sociolinguists need to reconstruct the historical development of AAVE in a way that is consistent with the sociohistorical and demographic circumstances of early African Americans; faithful to an understanding of contact linguistics, independent language development, and dialect diffusion; and sensitive to the local sociolinguistic situations that have contextualized different groups of individual African Americans within these communities.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2000

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