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Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English Paperback – 3 Jan 2001


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From the Back Cover

In Praise of Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English " Spoken Soul brilliantly fills a huge gap. . . . a delightfully readable introduction to the elegant interweave between the language and its culture." – Ralph W. Fasold , Georgetown university "A lively, well–documented history of Black English . . . that will enlighten and inform not only educators, for whom it should be required reading, but all who value and question language." – Kirkus Reviews "Spoken Soul is a must read for anyone who is interested in the connection between language and identity." – Chicago Defender Claude Brown called Black English "Spoken Soul." Toni Morrison said, "It′s a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher’s: to make you stand out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language." Now renowned linguist John R. Rickford and journalist Russell J. Rickford provide the definitive guide to African American vernacular English–from its origins and features to its powerful fascination for society at large.

About the Author

JOHN R. RICKFORD is the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. He lives in Palo Alto, California. RUSSELL J. RICKFORD , a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer , lives in Philadelphia.

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First Sentence
Denying or denouncing Spoken Soul requires either missing or forgetting the cadences and capabilities of the vernacular in everyday speech, and the way its "beauty, poetry and wisdom" have been tapped by black and white authors for more than two hundred years. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 9 reviews
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
A book everyone should read 23 Aug. 2000
By Tara Gibbs - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book was meant for every teacher, journalist, voter, politician, mother, writer, speech-giver, and person interested in language usage. It is a very smooth read with the rigor and content of a scholarly work and the clarity and craftsmanship of a New York Times bestseller. It would be a perfect book for a Freshman seminar or to read on a warm summer afternoon.
This book has five sections. The first section is the introduction.
The second section is for everyone interested in Speech Communication, Rhetoric, Writing, Rhetorical Style, Code-switching and Genre analysis--folklore, prayers, writers, music, poems, etc. In addition to discussing discourse level topics, it also introduces phonological and syntactic markers of the different speech varieties. It also describes the difference between hip-hop slang and the systematic language variation in sound, grammar, and rhetorical style that characterize AAVE.
The third section, devoted to illustrating the phonological, syntactic, and evolutionary (linguistic/etymological) systems of AAVE, is written for the lay reader, but it is useful for advanced students of linguistics as well who would like to gain an overview of how the language works. It is very thorough in illustrating the systematic rule system of AAVE, including socio-linguistically predictable frequencies of feature occurrence, and it explains linguistic notions in lay concepts for those without a background in linguistics. It is extraordinarily clear and easy to understand, but theoretically thorough and deep. It is careful to explain the linguistic environments of AAVE rules, and illustrates every point with multiple examples. Nearly every page of the book contains data illustrating the richness of the language being described and the linguistic notions being discussed. The data is presented in a format digestible to the lay reader, but Rickford is careful to preserve all of the information that a linguist may wish to pull out of the data. The last chapter in this section is devoted to historical linguistics. It describes century by century what data is available and how to use it to triangulate a theory of language origin. It explains the anglocentric, creolist, and afrocentric positions on the origins of AAVE. The book then goes point by point through all of the syntactic and phonological characteristics described in the previous two chapters and describes the theoretical positions of all three camps on these points. It is one of the best descriptions, point by point, that I have ever read on the origins of AAVE.
The fourth section deals with the Oakland Ebonics controversy. It explains the issues involved from all perspectives, the history of the issues, the players, and the media issues. Most usefully, it includes information on educational research showing the outcomes of various educational programs for language minorities here and abroad which never got aired during the controversy. It also describes a number of programs which showed substantial improvement in outcomes, but which were discontinued for political reasons. It is a case study worthy of any political science, media, public relations, or educational administration course.
The last section deals with language and identity. It is short, but poignant with many illustrative examples. It touches on important socio-linguistic concepts, but it could be expanded greatly.
The rest of this is intended for instructors considering this for a Freshman survey course. The points are excessively nit-picky and not at all relevant to anyone other than an instructor.
What I wanted more of:
1) more unscripted examples of code-switching and analysis of reasons for it 2)discussion of why the Nova Scotia, Liberian, and Sierra Leone data is so valuable (i.e. comparative method for the lay person) 3) more specific explanation of the "universals" of pidginization and creolization 4)discussion of decreolization. The terms basilect, mesolect, and acrolect with weak explanation of their significance. This is quite uncharacteristic of the book as a whole, which carefully explains or avoids linguistic jargon. 5) more extensive discussion of educational research on literacy acquisition 6) more in-depth examples of comprehension issues. There is a lot of discussion about the work Labov is doing on this, but there is a paucity of examples. (Again, uncharacteristic of the book as a whole.) 7) presentation of more scholarly theory and research on psychology of education and its effects on learning 8) more extensive explanation of network theory, which is mentioned several times but only briefly explained, 9) more information about the differences between regional varieties of Black English in previous centuries, 10) more information about differences between regional varieties of AAVE now. The book shows that variation is extensive along social class and social network lines, however, it gives the impression that there is now little to no regional variation in it. The book could be more overt in stating to what extent they believe this is true.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Spoken Soul is an enlightening and enriching experience. 11 Mar. 2000
By OTIS H KING - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I found the book to be very enlightening and was quite impressed by the scholarly approach of the authors, particularly their discussion of the origin, history and development of Black English in this country and in the Caribbean area. For example, their explanation of the substitution of ³d² for ³th² in spoken soul, their term for Black English, because there is no ³th² sound in the West African languages used by the black slaves in early America provided a clear basis for this usage that made good sense to me. That explanation dispelled any pejorative notions that this pronunciation was due to some kind of laziness of tongue or simple-mindedness on the part of the speaker. The book is very well organized, well written, and introduces the reader to the many uses to which Black English or spoken soul has been put in music, humor, poetry, novels and the theater. Although it is a scholarly work, it flows quite smoothly and is easy to read. The discussion of Ebonics and the actions of the Oakland School Board is must reading for anyone who followed that controversy. It puts that whole affair and the media¹s role in it in its proper context. I bought a copy for one of my colleagues and another is reading my copy. After finishing the book, I had a greater appreciation of my own home language. The book is must reading for anyone interested in having a better understanding of the multi-layered society in which we live, the beauty and richness of the languages we speak and the contributions speaker of soul have made to the beautiful mosaic that is the United States.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
An informative introduction to AAVE, though with some weaknesses 17 Feb. 2010
By Christopher Culver - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
SPOKEN SOUL: The Story of Black English is a comprehensive introduction to African-American Vernacular English by the father-and-son writing team of John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford, one a journalist and the other a linguist. It was published by Wiley in 2000. SPOKEN SOUL essentially consists of three distinct parts that may not all appeal to the same audience.

The first part is a basic presentation of AAVE as a phenomenon in the African-American community, with a history of how it has been embraced or shunned by African-American intellectuals. Much of this part seems essentially directed to AAVE-speaking Americans in an attempt to instill pride in their heritage. What I take issue with, however, is the author's tendency to praise AAVE as more expressive than Standard English. African-Americans must retain AAVE, they write, because with it they can say more than speakers of Standard English. Now, this may be in some sense true, but it needs a boatload of qualifications. One shouldn't reinforce the public's tendency to hold the Sapir-Whorf fallacy, and the authors seem to perpetuate stereotypes that African-Americans are naturally smooth and suave, "soulful", while white Americans are square and lack some essential mojo.

The second part of the book is a linguistic description of AAVE. The authors attempt to outline the ways in which AAVE differs from Standard English in a fashion easy for layman to understand. I nonetheless think that most readers are going to find this too hard going unless they have prior training in basic linguistics. For me, the diachronic dimension in this description was especially interesting, presenting how the community is split between some scholars who see a great deal of influence on AAVE from West African languages, and others who feel that AAVE is based more on the non-standard British dialects of their neighbouring whites.

The third part is an ample history of the Ebonics controversy of the 1990s, when the Oakland School Board's consideration of using AAVE in instruction got picked up by the media and generated controversy all over the US. This history even includes a detailed description of Ebonics jokes that appeared in newspapers and how faithfully they represented AAVE as it really is. I personally found this section the most unpleasant to read, as I've tried hard to retreat into the ivory tower and ignore how the general public inevitably mangles any linguistic matter that reaches them. Sociolinguistically-minded readers, however, will find this a useful summary.

The authors' sources are listed in detail at the end of the book. All in all, this is a book with a great deal of useful information, but no readership is going to be entirely satisfied. As a linguist, I dislike some of the oversimplifications, while readers without any real training in linguistics may find even this relatively simple to be too abtruse. Also, it would be good to see a second edition of this book, as I'm sure scholarship has moved much further over the last ten years.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant 7 Oct. 2008
By doc peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Recommended to my by a colleague, I had my doubts about _Spoken Soul_. Lingustics is intellectually rigorous, and frankly I was a little intimidated. Furthermore, like many Americans, I had always thought of "ebonics" as slang. That "ebonics" (or "African-American vernacular English" - AAVE) is in fact a language, governed by grammatical rules and with a rich history is the subject of _Spoken Soul_.

Written by Stanford lingustics professor John Rickford, _Spoken Soul_ begins with a primer in linguistics. It is testament to the brilliance of Rickford that he clearly and easily explains speech analysis, linguistic syntax and grammatical rules so the layperson can understand. From here, Rickford shows how AAVE is, in fact, a language - going so far as to illustrate its etymology to West African languages (through sentence structure and grammatical rules.) The last chapters of the book - on the controversey of teaching ebonics in schools- was of less interest to me, but certainly relevant to the larger issue of language and power in a society.

The book is a real eye-opener, not only in terms of the broader implications of the power of language (consider for a moment vanishing languages around the world - and the reasons why this is happening), but also testament to the living linguistic heritage of African-Americans. I am a big fan of Richard Wright, August Wilson and Zora Neale Hurston. To understand now that the voices their characters spoke (and that some of my students speak) isn't "poor English" but a language (or dialect if you will) of its own was a profound realization to me. Recommended reading.
Spoken Soul is an enlightening and enriching experience. 11 Mar. 2000
By OTIS H KING - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I found the book to be very enlightening and was quite impressed by the scholarly approach of the authors, particularly their discussion of the origin, history and development of Black English in this country and in the Caribbean area. For example, their explanation of the substitution of "d" for "th" in spoken soul, their term for Black English, because there is no "th" sound in the West African languages used by the black slaves in early America provided a clear basis for this usage that made good sense to me. That explanation dispelled any pejorative notions that this pronunciation was due to some kind of laziness of tongue or simple-mindedness on the part of the speakers. The book is very well organized, well written, and introduces the reader to the many uses to which Black English or spoken soul has been put in music, humor, poetry, novels and the theater. Although it is a scholarly work, it flows quite smoothly and is easy to read. The discussion of Ebonics and the actions of the Oakland School Board is must reading for anyone who followed that controversy. It puts that whole affair and the media1s role in it in its proper context. I bought a copy for one of my colleagues and another is reading my copy. After finishing the book, I had a greater appreciation of my own home language. The book is must reading for anyone interested in having a better understanding of the multi-layered society in which we live, the beauty and richness of the languages we speak and the contributions speaker of soul have made to the beautiful mosaic that is the United States.
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