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Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English

4.3 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0471399575
ISBN-10: 0471399574
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In 1996, an America Online poll about Ebonics sparked more responses than did its survey on O.J. Simpson. And that's just a taste of the controversy and debate that Black English has provoked over the years. Called "Spoken Soul" by Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land, the dialect of African Americans has been lauded, derided, questioned, and discussed for decades, but never so comprehensively and fairly as in this historic, sociologic, and linguistic overview and analysis by John Russell Rickford (the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University) and Russell John Rickford (a journalist, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer).

They discuss the attitudinal impact of socioeconomic factors, as well as the effect of generation and gender. They look at the place of black vernacular in literature and family, identity and culture, education and politics. And they track previous debates, from Paul Laurence Dunbar's considerations in the late 1800s to the black intelligentsia of the Harlem Renaissance to the issues raised by the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the recent Ebonics discourse.

Part 2, entitled "This Passion, This Skill, This Incredible Music," takes a close look at the richness of Spoken Soul, as recorded in literature (both black and white), from John Leacock's 1776 play The Fall of British Tyranny to DMX's rap lyrics of today. They look at the language of preachers and comedians, actors and singers, and scores of writers, and then they delve deeper, into the components of the living language, examining the vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and history of the black vernacular. And finally, the Rickfords discuss the role of Spoken Soul in terms of African American identity. The result? A thoughtful, erudite, and provocative narrative that lifts the discussion of Black English out of the knee-jerk negativity that arose from the Ebonics controversy of 1996 and into the loftier and more appropriate realms of linguistics, literature, and culture. --Stephanie Gold --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

A lively, well-documented history of Black English with particular focus on the recent Ebonics controversy. John Russell Rickford (Linguistics/Stanford Univ.) and Russell John Rickford, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, dispel myths that Black English is simply substandard English. Too many people took the Oakland, California school board's decision on Ebonics to be ``one more spirited attempt at multiculturalism.'' The authors contend that Spoken Soul, the dialect of African-Americans, is rich and potent, with a distinct, consistent pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar largely derived from African roots. For example, the ubiquitous ``be'' fills in the gap for a missing past and present continuous verb in standard English, and ``teses'' is a correct plural for ``tests'' to avoid a triple-consonant ending. Though they agree that all African- Americans must master standard English for survival in school and success in the business world, they emphasize the value of Spoken Soul as a linguistic tool not only among black people, but in society at large. Culling examples from the work of such acclaimed writers as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Maya Angelou, they show how even writers who had ambivalent feelings towards Black English employed it to enrich American literature. Preachers, lyricists, and comedians still use it. How then can educators teach their students standard English without debasing a rich oral linguistic tradition? They must, insist the authors, develop an awareness and appreciation of Spoken Soul. They must avoid thinking of Black English as ``bad English'' or ``lazy English.'' They must learn its distinct grammar and pronunciation so that they can contrast it with standard English. Only then will they be equipped to teach the masses of black youngsters the language skills they need to survive in the larger world. A polemic that will enlighten and inform not only educators, for whom it should be required reading, but all who value and question language. -- Copyright ©2000, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley (November 22, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471399574
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471399575
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #137,956 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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.
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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.
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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.
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