Linguistics Colloquium: John McWhorter

17/12/2019 - 14:00 - 15:30

John McWhorter, Columbia University

Title: Revisiting invariant am in early African-American Vernacular English

Scholars of AAVE have typically assumed that the invariant am typical of minstrel depictions of black speech was a fabrication, used neither by modern nor earlier black Americans. However, the frequency with which invariant am occurs in transcriptions of ex-slave speech has always lent a certain uncertainty here, despite claims that these must have been distortions introduced by the transcribers. I argue that the use of invariant am in a great many literary sources written by black writers with sober intention, grammatical descriptions of black speech which note invariant am as a feature, and the use of invariant am in regional British dialects imported to the New World suggest that invariant am was a now extinct form in earlier AAVE, largely eclipsed by World War II but once common among black slaves and their immediate descendants. What have been interpreted in some second-pass edits of interview transcriptions as corrections of mistaken hearings of invariant am (Maynor 1988) were actually, I argue, prescriptive maskings of invariantam tokens actually uttered by the interviewees.

Place: Building 403 room 2
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