Walt Wolfram Documentary: Talking Black in America

by | September 27, 2019 |

Walt Wolfram Documentary: The Producers

The latest Walt Wolfram documentary is Talking Black in America. Walt is the Executive Producer. And Renée Blake is one of the Producers.

Walt is Distinguished University Professor at North Carolina State University. In addition, he directs the North Carolina Life and Language Project. He is a premier sociolinguist. One who practices community outreach. For example, he has long had a booth at the North Carolina State Fair. There he educates the public about dialect variation. And he helped introduce the study of dialect variation into North Carolina public schools.

Talking Black in America is Walt’s latest educational effort.

Renée is Associate Professor of Linguistics And Social & Cultural Analysis. Her appointment is at New York University. One of her specialities is African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Walt and Renée came to Florida International University this week to screen their new documentary.

Phillip M. Carter introduced the event. Walt is at the desk. And the opening shot of the documentary is cued up.

Walt Wolfram Documentary

Note the decal on Walt’s laptop. Cackalacky is the nickname for North or South Carolina

Professor Carter is the Director of the Center for Humanities in an Urban Environment. The screening was the inaugural event for the Center this year.

Walt Wolfram Documentary: The Heritage

Walt helped pioneer the academic study of AAVE in the 1960s and 70s. He and other sociolinguists determined that it is not a substandard variety of English. Rather, it is a non-standard variety. AAVE is as systematic and richly developed as any other language in the world.

Zora Neale Hurston (1896-1960) is a novelist justly famous for Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

However, in the academic community she is also famous for her ethnographic work. For example, she gave early attention to AAVE. Her Characteristics of Negro Expressions (1934) is a valuable historical document.

Walt and Renée readily acknowledge their debt to Hurston’s work.

And because we’re in Florida, I’ll add that she’s a native Floridian.

Walt Wolfram Documentary: The Documentary

The documentary explores contemporary observations on AAVE. From both linguists and speakers. And all concur that AAVE is about identity, acceptance. In addition, AAVE has a cadence, a beat. If you have ever heard a Black preacher, you have heard its rhythms. People the world over have heard it through rap music.

Furthermore, AAVE has its own grammatical rules.

For instance, consider these two sentences:

He be waiting for me every night when I come home.

He waiting for me right now.

Both are correct.

But now consider:

*He be waiting for me right now.

*He waiting for me every night.

Both are incorrect. (The asterisk means ‘ungrammatical.’)

Why? Because the be + verb+ing construction signals habitual action. The adverbial every night requires the habitual construction. By contrast, the adverbial right now cannot take the habitual construction.

The documentary also explores the history of AAVE. How it has always been a language variety apart. This separateness began on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina.

Here was the first port of entry for enslaved Africans. They were quarantined on the island until they were sold on the slave market. As speakers of many different African languages, they had none in common. So they began to form their own variety of American English.

And the separateness did not stop with the end of slavery. It continued with the Great Migration of African Americans, aka The Exodus. As a result urban ghettoes arose.

Walt Wolfram Documentary


Today AAVE has its own intonation patterns and syntax. Along with its own lexical items. And ever-changing slang.

Check out the documentary:

Walt Wolfram Documentary: A Resounding Success

The auditorium in the Graham Center was full. Faculty and student engagement was high. The Q&A lasted a good hour. All signs of a great success.

Thank you, Walt and Renée!

Walt Wolfram Documentary

Renée fielding questions during Q&A

And Walt gets the last word (and image):

Walt Wolfram Documentary

See also: African American Vernacular English

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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