Bailey, Guy and Natalie Maynor. 1989.

"The Divergence Controversy"

American Speech 64 (1): 12-39.

In this article Bailey and Maynor define the divergence hypothesis, lay out the controversy surrounding it, and then produce their own results to support the hypothesis. The authors claim that the divergence hypothesis seems to be the best explanation for the developing relationships among white and black vernacular varieties of US English. Throughout the study, they clarify misconceptions about the divergence hypothesis, and present new sources and types of evidence to reconsider it.

The divergence hypothesis holds that black and white vernaculars are currently becoming more distinct from each other structurally, rather than growing more similar over time. The hypothesis does not imply that social relations between blacks and whites were better in the past; it does not hold that more speakers use Black English Vernacular (BEV, or AAVE) now than in the past; and it does not assert that white and AAVE vernaculars are diverging in every subsystem of the language. Finally, the divergence hypothesis does not compete with any theory on the origins of AAVE, because it relates only to current developments; in particular, it is not a competitor to the Creole-origins hypothesis.

In addressing the controversy surrounding the issue of divergence vs. convergence, the authors note three main areas that have been called into question: the nature of the data, the interpretation of the data, and what the divergence hypothesis actually claims (see above). The authors further discuss what types of evidence is necessary in order to prove the divergence hypothesis, suggesting that such research should address questions about the elicitation process, time-depth, the issue of age-grading and the social history of the informants. In response to questions concerning the nature of the data, the authors explain their field methods and data collection procedures, and indicate reasons for their confidence in the reliability of their data. In considering the interpretation of their data, the authors first address and then oppose the claim that their results may be more indicative of age-grading than divergence in real time.

In their own study of the divergence hypothesis, the authors extended the time depth by analyzing recorded data from a group of former slaves (see Bailey et al. 1991). In addition, in order to address the rural/urban variable, they included both urban and rural black children in their fieldwork. They gathered interview data and also performed a speech identification task, to determine whether listeners could distinguish the race of the speaker on the basis of speech alone.

The authors looked at the pattern of invariant "be" in the speech of urban and rural children, and compared their patterns to those of elderly adults and the ex-slave narratives. They found differences in the patterns of urban and rural children, with the rural children somewhere between the speech of the rural adults and the urban children. They concluded that the urban pattern was gradually spreading into rural speech as rural children had more contact with their urban peers. They also found that listeners had a more difficult time identifying the race of elderly speakers than children, which they concluded as further evidence of divergence.

Bailey and Maynor posit that, even though BEV and white vernaculars are also undergoing convergent changes like the neutralization of / I / and / E / before nasals (the 'pin'/'pen' merger widespread in Southern speech), the divergent changes are more widespread, fundamental and recent. Examples of recent changes that are sources of divergence are the fronting of back vowels, the development of retroflex allophones of postvocalic / r / and the development of "be" as a marker of durative/habitual aspect (BE-2). Divergent changes represent fundamental changes in the grammar, or changes which have an impact on large groups of lexical items. As Bailey and Maynor put it, "it is not the simple accumulation of divergent or convergent changes that is significant. Rather it is the kind of changes that really matters" (p.22).

Overall, their research indicates that some features are converging while others are diverging, but converging features are older and more restricted while diverging features are newer, fundamental and more widespread. Finally, they conclude that on the basis of these studies, divergence is the most plausible explanation for the developing patterns in black and white vernaculars.

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