October 04, 2006

Speaking of missing words in American history

While David was posting about Armstrong night before last (see yesterday's follow-ups here, here, and here), my wife Karen and I were watching the rebroadcast of (the first episode of) Eyes on the Prize on our local PBS station. There's a segment about the horrible, horrifying, and heartbreaking story of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, and the subsequent trial in which the all-white-male jury acquitted Till's killers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. (A few months later, Milam and Bryant admitted their guilt to a reporter for $4000.)

Till's very courageous great-uncle, Mose Wright (pictured), was a witness on the stand. He was asked to identify the man who came to his door with a gun to take Till away on the night he disappeared. Wright stood up, pointed to Milam (or to both Milam and Bryant; reports are mixed), and said: "Dar he" -- helpfully translated as "there he is".

Now I'm no expert on African American Vernacular English (AAVE), but as I understood it -- that is, until I did just a little more research on the question yesterday -- the absence of a form of the copular verb be in AAVE (in sentences where a form of the copula would be expected in Standard English, SE) has the same distribution as contraction of the copula ('m, 's, 're) in SE. Contraction of the copula is ungrammatical phrase-finally in SE -- *There he's, where the '*' indicates ungrammaticality -- so (I reasoned) absence of the copula must be ungrammatical in AAVE -- *There (dar) he. (My understanding of this is based on Bill Labov's classic 1969 article in Language, "Contraction, Deletion, and Inherent Variability of the English Copula" -- and while you're at it, you may as well have a look at Ralph W. Fasold's article in the same issue, "Tense and the Form be in Black English".)

So I wondered, briefly: did Mose Wright say a very reduced or quiet "is" that the people present just didn't catch? There is lots of footage from the trial but apparently (and if so, unfortunately) no recording of Mose Wright saying these words, so we can't try the kind of audio analysis that David, Mark, or Peter did for the moon landing.

In this half-minute audio clip from Eyes on the Prize (starting at minute 11:43 of the relevant segment), the story of Mose Wright saying these words is told by James L. Hicks, a reporter for the Cleveland Call and Post who was at the trial (see his reports of the trial here). Consider what Hicks says:

[Mose Wright] stood up and there was a tension in the court room. And he says -- in his broken language -- "Dar he."

The "broken language" comment might indicate recognition that the missing be was unexpected even to Hicks, who either speaks or is familiar with prototypical AAVE speech. (Incidentally, the second voice in the clip is that of the documentary's narrator and chairman of the NAACP, Julian Bond.) This suggestive piece of evidence made me think that Mose Wright indeed did not pronounce the copula. This in turn made me doubt (my read of) Labov's article, however: maybe absence of the copula is grammatical in some places where contraction of the copula is not, at least for some AAVE speakers. I guess I just couldn't believe that someone could make a grammatical mistake like this one, no matter how poor or uneducated.

A little bit of research on the matter revealed that I may be right. Emily M. Bender completed her PhD thesis six years ago at Stanford (Dr. Bender is now at the University of Washington). The title of Bender's thesis is Syntactic variation and linguistic competence: the case of AAVE copula absence, in which Bender provides several types of counterexamples to Labov's earlier description of the relevant AAVE facts. One type of counterexample Bender found was the possibility of copular absence in AAVE in cases of what's called "complement extraction", where contraction is impossible in SE. The following examples are from p. 90 of Bender's thesis:

  • How old you think his baby? (AAVE) / *How old do you think his baby's? (SE)
  • I don't know how old his baby. (AAVE) / *I don't know how old his baby's. (SE)

(Consistent with the "broken English" remark is the fact that Bender found significant variation on the acceptability of examples like these; see her footnote 17 on p. 90.)

"Complement extraction" refers to the idea that sentences like those above involve some kind of relationship -- the exact kind depends on the theory -- between the position of a certain phrase (in these examples, the phrase "how old") and a position elsewhere in the sentence. For example, in the SE question How old do you think his baby is?, the position of the underlined phrase how old is thought to be related to an empty position right after is, based in part on the position of the underlined phrase in a prototypical answer to the question, such as I think his baby is two years old.

It's not just direct questions that involve complement extraction, as shown by the I don't know how old his baby (is) example above. Here's where we get to the point: a sentence like There he is also arguably involves complement extraction, in part given the alternative form He is there. It's not the case that all examples of complement extraction allow copula absence -- Labov provided examples where it's not allowed, and Bender discusses the technical differences between Labov's examples and her counterexamples -- but it's at least not completely unexpected in Dar he.

[ Update -- I wrote to Emily Bender to ask her about this example, and here's what she had to say:

I think you're right that "Dar he" would get a similar analysis to "How old your baby?", where "Dar" is a preposed complement of "he". This suggests it ought to be possible to [have] it long distance: "Dar they said he". [...]

[T]here's a comment on p.125 [of the thesis] leaving an account of which complements can and cannot be extracted [when the copula is absent] to future work. In the past 5 years, however, I've been working on very different things and have not come back to this problem. There's a footnote on that same page with some further perplexing data.

Thanks to Emily for this response, and for writing such an interesting thesis. (And I can certainly sympathize with not having had time to get back to problems left to future work in a thesis ...) -- end update ]

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at October 4, 2006 04:04 PM