Thursday, June 15, 2017

AAVE

The history of African-American Vernacular English is in some ways not unlike that of other dialects of US English -- except of course that it begins not with immigration but enslavement. And yet despite this any many other economic and political obstacles, African-American varieties of English have been a significant -- perhaps the most significant -- contribution to our national linguistic strength and variety since America was first colonized by Europeans. And yet, at the same time, more so than any other dialect, it's been haunted by a distorting shadow in popular culture, from the 1830's until the present; Its authentic cultural productions from Spirituals, Blues, and Jazz, to Rock 'n'Roll and Hip-hop -- have always had to compete with imitation, parody, and appropriation, in the form of stereotyped white versions of these same genres.

Blackface Minstrelsy may very well have been the single most popular American form of entertainment from the 1840's through to the 1940's. Its popularity waxed and waned, from a peak in the 1850's, through a gradual decline until a revival in the 1880's, followed by a gradual shift toward more "refined" versions produced by both amateur and professional companies in the period between WWI and WWII. The 1940's saw its permanent decline, in large part due to social changes, integration of the armed forces, and the post-war rise of television, although it still survives in a few isolated places such as Derby Connecticut, where a clown-face "Gang Show" is now in its 90th year (they stopped using blackface in 1944). In the UK, where minstrelsy had been enormously popular from its earliest period, the Black and White Minstrel Show remained on the air until 1978!

Of course it is easy to see this tradition as fundamentally compromised from the start, as it relied upon a distorted, comical, theatrical version of "blackness" devised by white entertainers. And yet, from the beginning, it was a hybrid form, appropriating bits of actual Black culture and mixing them with elements such as Irish jigs, regional "rustic" humor, melodrama, and early skits and vaudeville routines. And, as early as the 1850's there were a number of Black Blackface troupes -- "Black people in blacker faces," as Bamboozled's Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayons) puts it -- some of which enjoyed even wider success than white troupes. The commercial success of the form, for better and for worse, paved the way for other artforms which were, or were perceived as, "Black," including Dixieland jazz, blues, and Black vaudeville.

Fortunately actual history of AAVE is more complex, and infinitely richer, than its pop-cultural avatars. Its origins can be traced to various West-African languages and trade pidgins (these were argots drawn from languages along a trade route, such as the Congo river). When slaves were deliberately sold in lots in which there was no common dialect, the trade pidgin formed the basis of communication; when latter agglomerated within various colonial languages, they became "creoles." Jamaican "patwa" is an English creole, and there are Spanish, French, and Portuguese creoles scattered through the Caribbean and the Cape Verde Islands. AAVE, in its origin, was also a creole, but as its speakers were part of a much larger population surrounded by land instead of water, there was a longer period of addition and assimilation. Modern AAVE is a full, complete, English dialect which preserves some features of West African languages, such as a "habitual" mood of the verb "to be."

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