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Auteur: Patricia CUKOR-AVILA

Co-Auteur(s): Patricia C. Rector

Temporal reference and verb morphology in the narratives of African American Vernacular English speakers

Abstract/Résumé: The use of the Historical Present (HP) in narratives, and the alternation between past tense and HP in complicating action clauses to highlight sequential events (cf. Wolfson 1978, 1979; Schiffrin 1981) has been documented in numerous studies of middle and working class white Americans. Research on HP in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is limited to two distinct populations – Harlem (Labov et al. 1968) and the Ex-Slave recordings (Myhill 1995) – with Labov and Myhill both suggesting that HP is rare in AAVE narrative discourse. While these studies provide important descriptive evidence about the use (or non-use) of HP, to date, there are no quantitative studies on tense marking in AAVE narratives. The present study provides this analysis. Since tense marking is often absent in AAVE, distinguishing verb tense in narratives is difficult. Weak verbs are often uninflected because of [t, d] deletion (Guy 1980), present tense verbal –s is often absent in 3rd singular and variably present in other persons (Poplack and Tagliamonte 1991; Cukor-Avila 2001), and determining tense for uninflected verbs (e.g., put, cut, hit) is problematic, especially in 3rd singular. Thus, HP in AAVE narratives can reliably be determined only for strong verbs. Myhill also notes that HP forms in the ex-slave recordings typically occur outside of complicating action clauses, unlike their occurrence in other varieties of English. Using data from additional AAVE speakers, this study will shed light on the issues surrounding the use of HP raised in Myhill’s analysis. Narratives for the present analysis come from an on-going panel study of rural AAVE speakers recorded periodically since 1988. These data are unique because: (1) the recordings are from life-long community residents; (2) the narratives are unsolicited; and (3) many of the speakers have been recorded over time by the same fieldworker in natural community settings in a variety of interview contexts. Narratives from 15 males and females born between 1895-2002 have been extracted from the recordings, analyzed for narrative structure (Labov 1972), and all verbs have been coded for temporal reference and verb morphology. A initial analysis of these data suggests ambiguities in tense marking similar to those reported in Myhill (1995); however, the use of preterite had+past by speakers born after 1945 may serve to disambiguate temporal reference for weak verbs in narrative clauses (Cukor-Avila and Bailey 1995). The preliminary analysis also supports earlier findings that the use of HP in AAVE narratives is sporadic and has no clear function that parallels its use in other varieties of English.