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Be2-forms: conjugated, contracted and zero forms

Be2-forms: conjugated, contracted and zero forms

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Bt [-forms: conjugated, contracted and zero forms

4.1.1. Methodological problems

There is some disagreement on whether zero past tense forms are a feature

of Black English or not. Whereas those linguists who argue in favour of

the Creole origin hypothesis report cases of past tense copula absence,

some of the leading sociolinguists who are mainly interested in the

synchronic description of Black English (for example Labov, Fasold and

Wolfram) regard the realization of the past tense copula as obligatory (see

Wolfram 1970: 251; also Lourie 1978: 87), so that zero forms in this

environment would lead to ungrammatical utterances such as * Yesterday

he busy (Wolfram 1969: 166).

These contrasting viewpoints are closely related to the different opinions

of the two groups of linguists on the origin of present and past tense zero

forms in Black English in general. The creolists, on the one hand, argue

that zero öe-forms are not the result of deletion (as maintained by Labov

et al. 1969, Fasold 1976 and others), but can be traced back to the process

of acquiring mesolectal forms, i.e. basilectal Creole copula forms were

dropped and mesolectal zero forms introduced (see Aitchison 21991: 116117).

This is the reason why these scholars do not normally refer to copula

deletion but to the absence of copula forms, and although they agree with

the sociolinguists on the non-contractability of past tense fte-forms, this

does not prevent them from claiming the existence of past tense zero

forms. They argue, however, that the latter "cannot be the result of the

deletion of a contracted form because was does not contract in either Black

English or Standard English" (Romaine 1988: 171).63 Thus the occurrence

of zero past tense öe-forms is due to the fact that either there is no past

tense marking in corresponding creole structures (see 4.1.2.), or that the

Creole tense marker has been dropped and replaced by a mesolectal zero


The sociolinguists, on the other hand, generally refer to copula deletion

regarding it as an extension of contraction. Consequently, since "

and were begin with a consonant which is not generally deleted" (Labov

1969: 721-722), these past tense forms are considered to appear regularly

(Labov 1969: 719).

Despite these reservations, the contraction of past tense £e-forms is

occasionally pointed out. Schneider (1989: 125) for example notes the

(albeit rare) use of contracted past tense forms in the WPA ex-slave

narratives. As an example he provides: I's born durin' de San Jacinto war

(see also Tucker 1966: 77). Furthermore, it is reported with regard to

Appalachian and Ozark white rural speech that "[i]n the past tense, for

instance, the singular form was is often contracted in AE [Appalachian

English, T.E.] and OE [Ozark English, T.E.] to 's (/z/), but the plural

Past tense be-forms


form were is seldom contracted to 're" (Christian - Wolfram - Dube

1988: 115). Likewise, Feagin (1979: 204-205) explicitly states that in

Alabama White English the initial w and the medial vowel of was may be


Here another factor comes into play, however, that has not been taken

into consideration by these authors, namely tense switching and the use of

the historical present, a phenomenon that has been dealt with, among

others, by Tagliamonte - Poplack (1988) in Samanä English. Similarly,

Brewer (1973: 15) considers it to be more likely that 's in past tense

environments is a contraction of is rather than of was and holds that "[i]t

may be an example of tense neutralization, that is, optional tense

marking." In HOODOO, there are several examples of tense switching,

for example in sentence (105):


Well, when we starts back on de southboun' track, train

comin' south - we wus on de no 'thboun' track comin'

southwards. (Hyatt 1970, 1: 44; scarma2)

In the next passage the form is is used in an otherwise past tense context:


BISHOP WOMACK ... Ah think this doctah was Dr. Zabah

who operated on her. She had a tumor an' a cancah all this

tuhgethah. HYATT Now, who operated upon her? BISHOP

WOMACK Ah think it's Doctah Zabo', she told me. An'

they say that she had tuh go becuz, ah mean yuh know,

becuz she's an aged woman an' all that corruption an'

stuff. They say they took out a whole bucket full o' stuff out

a her. Well, yo' know, that's a big cancah, ah mean it

growed up in her stomach. An' so that day roun' about 12

o'clock mah wife called me an' tole me that Mothah

Billingsley is [my emphasis, T.E.] leavin' heah fas', an'

they wazn 't gon 'a even much give 'er no treatment because

it was unnecessary. (Hyatt 1978, 5: 4735; flormand)

As a consequence of this explicit use of the historical present the status of

the other three contracted £e-forms in example (106) is ambiguous (i.e. in

it's Doctah Zabo', she's an aged woman and that's a big cancah). Even if

the possibility of was contraction is assumed, the underlying form may

still be present tense is. Likewise, the 's forms in examples (107) to (109)

may be instances of reduced past or present tense forms:


Ah give her lessons. She's black. She was a good worker.

(Hyatt 1970, 2: 1417; flormal)




Β&i-forms: conjugated, contracted and zero forms

Ah wus married ... when ah wus married an' de girl she

wus quite young, she wus 'bout fifteen, an' ah wus livin'

ovah dere ... An' dere's a young fellah roun' dere an' he

wanted tuh spo't wit mah woman - spo't. (Hyatt 1970, 2:

1056; ncarmal)

So ah 's figurin' - so ah thought he kicked me undah de gun.

(Hyatt 1973, 3: 2027; tennwo5)

Example (109) is interesting in particular because one could argue that 's

can only be a contracted past tense form because of the first singular

environment. This does not have to be the case, however, as the 's in

sentence ah's 48 yeahs ole now (Hyatt 1970, 1:930; florma3)

undoubtedly represents a contracted present tense form. In the entire

corpus the first singular cooccurs with 's(e) three times (twice in EARLY

and once in LATE) two examples of which could be interpreted as

referring to past tense.

Another aspect that might be of interest with regard to the alleged past

tense example quoted by Schneider (I's born durin' de San Jacinto war,

see above) is the fact that Black English speakers use (unambiguous)

present tense forms in a number of utterances where one would expect a

verb form in the past, judging by Standard English usage:




Ah don' have any Creole blood in me while ah'm bo'η

heah. (Hyatt 1970, 2: 1282; louiswo7)

Ah bo'η Octobah thuh twenty-seventh, nineteen hunderd

and nine. ... My mothah is bohn [born] in Sou' Ca'lina.

(Hyatt 1978, 5: 4614; flomanc)

Yo' see my fathah as ah tole yo' befo' is bo'η [born] in

Africa. Mah mothah bo'n in Sou' Ca'lina. (Hyatt 1978, 5:

4657; Flormanc)

In the light of these examples it appears doubtful whether any clear-cut

distinctions can be drawn between present and past tense forms. For the

sake of simplicity I will assume that past tense forms are not contracted,

which is also accepted by most other authors, so that contracted forms are

considered to have present tense reference. As a consequence of the

disagreement on the occurrence of zero past tense forms, I have decided to

categorize zero forms as examples of either past or present tense forms

depending on the linguistic environment, i.e. the possibility of tense

switching will not be taken into account in thi* case.

This seemingly contradictory approach has been chosen because the

occurrence of past tense zero forms in particular might be important for

the study of the origin of Black English. If Black English can be traced

Past tense be-forms


back to a former Creole, then the proportion of zero forms should be lower

in LATE than in EARLY because of the progress of decreolization. In any

case, this kind of categorization will not have a major effect on the

analysis of present tense forms because there are relatively few zero past

tense forms. Similarly, tense switching is not a frequent phenomenon in


Finally, another aspect is important, namely the problem of

phonological neutralization that has already been explicated (see 3.4.1.).

Among others, examples (113) to (115) may be cases of phonological

neutralization if one assumes tense switching (i.e. the use of 's in past





HYATT Was she sitting on the front seat with you?

BISHOP WOMACK: No, she sittin' [my emphasis, T.E.]

on the back seat. HYATT Oh! She was sitting on the back

seat. ... BISHOP WOMACK She - no ah was drivin' the

car. (Hyatt 1978, 5: 4731; flormand)

He wus aportah an' he wus crazy 'bout his wife, ... while

he wus at work, an' she tell dese white people she scared

[my emphasis, T.E.] of her husban', undahstan', didn't

want dese white people 'low him on de place. (Hyatt 1970,

2: 1571-1572; tennmal)

"The fellow who visit your house, he had plenty of money he spending [my emphasis, T.E.] and enjoying and he had

a good time." (Hyatt 1970, 2: 1089; louiswol)

Because of their unclear status, these and similar forms will be dealt with

as a separate category and referred to as "ambiguous" in the following


4.1.2. Absence of past tense fte-forms

The creolists point out that certain occurrences of zero fte-forms bear a

strong resemblance to corresponding creole attestations. Thus Stewart

(1968 [1973]: 65) considers examples (116) and (117) to supply evidence

for the creole origin hypothesis:



We was eatin' - an' we drinkin', too. (Black English)

We bin duh nyam - en' we duh drink, too. (Gullah)

The corresponding examples in nonstandard White English are either We

was eatin' - an' drinkin', too or We was eatin' - an' we was drinkin', too,


Bej-forms : conjugated, contracted and zero forms

i.e. they differ characteristically from their Black English equivalent. If

the subject pronoun is repeated, the auxiliary was has to be present in

White English and if was is not used, the subject pronoun must be

dropped as well.

Black English and Gullah, on the other hand, often repeat "the subject

pronoun in a conjunctive clause while omitting the auxiliary - even when

this indicates past tense" (Stewart 1968 [1973]: 66). From Stewart's

viewpoint the Black English example shows that the past tense marker

may be omitted in this variety if the time reference is made clear by the


This is what Mufwene (1992: 151-152) refers to as "relative tense"

system in contrast to the "absolute [-relative] tense" system employed in

Standard English. The construction we drinkin' "would have been

interpreted with reference to the speech event time, i.e., in the present, if

it had been used alone, related to no other clause with past time reference"

(Mufwene 1992: 152).

According to Stewart (1968 [1973]: 67), Black English has this feature

in common with Creoles, but not with Standard English nor with

nonstandard American and British dialects. This opinion is shared by

Mufwene (1992: 148) who claims that "[n]o dialect of English has a rule

which can delete the copula in the past tense."

It is important to point out, however, that similar forms do occur in

Hiberno-English although this has not been referred to in publications on

Black English, not even by the dialectologists. In Hiberno-English there

exists a construction called "subordinating and" (albeit a quite rare one)

"which involves the use of and to introduce a subordinate clause lacking a

finite verb" (Filppula 1991: 52). The subordinate clause may contain a

past or present participle as in example (118), an infinitive, an adjective,

or an adverbial phrase:


He fell and him crossing the bridge '... while he was

crossing the bridge.' (Filppula 1991: 52)

This construction, which expresses a temporal relation between two

clauses, is a residual feature mainly found in conservative rural speech.

As claimed by Harris (1984b: 305), it is "apparently unique to HE

[Hiberno-English, T.E.] and is clearly a caique on the Irish adverbial

structure agus+subject pronoun+ag+verbal noun."

According to Hughes (1966: 269), this type of construction is quite

conspicuous in Hiberno-English and caused by the lack of an elaborate

system of subordinate clauses in Old Irish. As an example he provides

they were both reading and them eating: "When Joyce2 shows (p. 34) that

Irish grammar explains even the puzzling use of the accusative in this

Past tense bt-forms


idiom {and them eating), there can be little doubt of its origin in the Irish

language" (Hughes 1966: 269).64

Other examples given by Hughes (1966: 269) are (119) and (120) in

which the subject pronoun is used after and. Here the two clauses contain

different subjects:



I saw him, and he sitting by the fire.

... the foe and the stranger would tread ο 'ver his head, And

we far away on the billow.

Example (120) is a quotation from Wolfe's poem The Burial of Sir John


Similar forms can also be found in the present corpus. Two of the

examples which have been classified as instances of phonological

neutralization resemble the examples provided from Hiberno-English and

sentence (116) quoted by Stewart from Black English. Since the

classification as phonologically neutralized forms is a rather vague one

and these cases could after all be instances of the zero copula, it is worth

mentioning them as well:



Ah wuz settin' down, ...Ah went an' got de cartridges an'

came back an' she settin' down dere. (Hyatt 1970, 2: 1832;


An' mah sistah-in-law ah saw huh [angel] come out an' she

shoutin' right chonder [yonder] cornah of mah church.

(Hyatt 1978, 5: 4509; florwomb)

Examples (123) and (124) which have been attributed to the group of zero

forms also correspond to this category:



Ever' now an' den, down heah would show roun' near his

feets yo' know, see where he walked all over de stars ...

walked in dem stars down in dere. An' ah sittin' right dere

an' looked at it. (Hyatt 1970, 2: 1057; ncarmal)

We went on de -... An' we jes' walkin' 'long, an' here wus

distrain. (Hyatt 1970, 1: 44; scarma2)

Thus several sentences with zero copula forms in past tense environments

bear a strong resemblance to Creole forms as well as to examples from

Hiberno-English, which makes an attribution to one source or the other

practically impossible.

Other examples of zero past tense forms in HOODOO are:


Be [-forms: conjugated, contracted and zero forms


Well, she seemed to have been my best friend before she

knowin' dat my husband was goin' tuh marry me. (Hyatt

1970, 1: 172; virgwo6)

An' why ah said that, becuz ah have found out, people say

they are religious an' they gamblah, they liah, they

whoremongah, they cheatah, they beatahs, ... Preachahs

was gamblin', they playin' the dogs, playin' the horses,

playin' Cuban numbahs, ... (Hyatt 1978, 5: 4703;



Example (126) contains two parallel constructions in the present and past

tense respectively in which the initial be-foxm serves as tense indicator and

in the following corresponding constructions the be-ϊοττα is left out.

According to the Creole theory, this would be an example of the "relative

tense" system of Black English discussed above.

As pointed out by Mufwene (1992: 152), however, the postulation of

such a system is based on partial data because there is frequent "tense

re-orientation" in Black English, i.e. past tense forms are used although

this reference tense has already been introduced by a preceding verb form.

Mufwene (1992: 152) draws the conclusion that "[i]n the face of such

counter-evidence the only way out for creolists would be to invoke

decreolization. However, there is for this no historical evidence consisting

of earlier native speakers' speech in which the time reference system is

that of the basilect of Creoles."

Table 17. Past tense forms in EARLY and LATE1


was/were + ambig.
















'All subjects and complements have been combined. Zte-forms in exposed

positions and forms without a subject have been excluded, which also applies to

tables 18, 19 and 20.

Past tense be-forms


These reservations expressed by Mufwene also apply to H O O D O O where

in the great majority of utterances (see examples 106 and 108) several

successive past tense forms are used.

On the whole, the ratio of zero forms amounts to 2.9% of all past tense

fee-forms in EARLY and to 4.3% in LATE (see table 17). This means that

the ratio of zero forms is higher in LATE than in EARLY, although this

difference is not statistically significant.

Table 18 shows the frequency of copula absence in relation to -ing/going

to as compared to the remaining complements.

Table 18. Ratio of zero forms with -ing/gn and other complements in past

contexts (singular and plural subjects combined)
























It is conspicuous that the ratio of past tense zero forms is higher with

-ing!going to than with other complements in both corpora. The difference

is even statistically significant (p < 0.001 in both EARLY and LATE)

and the question arises of how to "explain" this finding.

Neither the sociolinguists nor the creolists are able to offer a satisfactory

answer. According to the former, zero past tense forms should not occur

at all, and according to the creole substratum theory the past tense marker

was would have to be used with equal frequency with all types of

complements. 6 5 This is because the past tense marker binl(b)en (the use of

which is not obligatory) in English-based Creoles such as Gullah and

Jamaican Creole cooccurs with all kinds of complements, i.e. with the

progressive marker (corresponding to the -ing form in Black English) +

active verbs, with stative verbs that are equivalent to adjectives, with

locative complements and noun phrases (see Holm 1988: 157, 176; Holm

ed. 1983: 18; Hellinger 1985: 156, 159, 161).

Similarly, Day (1974: 40) reports that in the post-creole continuum of

Hawaii the form waz is used in all syntactic environments whereas there is


Β&i-forms: conjugated, contracted and zero forms

an implicational patterning for iz with regard to different syntactic


At first sight, one may hypothesize that an explanation for the findings

in the present corpus might be provided by the creolists' claim that in

Black English aspect marking (in this case by means of -ing) is

compulsory whereas tense marking is optional (Dillard 1972a: 43-44; also

Fickett 1972: 17-19). Since this optionality of tense marking would apply

to other complements as well, this approach does not help to solve the

problem, however.

Possibly the above-mentioned Hiberno-English constructions might

supply some hints. Although Filppula (1991: 52) states that the

subordinate clause introduced by and may contain a variety of syntactic

structures such as present and past participles, infinitives, adjectives and

adverbial clauses, most examples cited from Hiberno-English contain a

present participle. This kind of explanation is rather speculative, though,

and it is doubtful whether the phenomenon can be explained at all.

The fact that any explanation must remain tentative relates to the unclear

status of zero past tense &e-forms in general (owing to tense switching, see

above), but in HOODOO it is also connected with the use of -ing forms.

The meaning of this form and its relation to the unmarked verb form are

not clear, which is revealed by the following utterances:



"Ah b 'lieve ah ΊI sing," he says, ...He went tuh singin' an'

he sing a lot - he sing - sing - louder. (Hyatt 1970, 1: 44;


Well, then yo' take an' yo' carries him in yore pocket and

when yo' come to shootin' crap sometime, jest touch him.

(Hyatt 1970, 2: 1416; flormal)

There are quite a number of these constructions for which it is difficult to

decide whether the infinitive be has been left out or whether the -ing form

is used as an infinitive. The latter explanation probably applies to

example (129):


An' then she goes aroun' there the nex' mornin' to find out

how come she didn't goin'. 'Cause ask 'er how come she

didn't go. (Hyatt 1978, 5: 4530; florwome)

Conversely, there are some examples in which the infinitive replaces an

-ing form:

Past tense bt-forms



When ah got to dis man, ah went down to de - wusn't make

much, jes' makin' 'bout three or fo' dollahs. (Hyatt 1970,

1: 247; scarma2)

Yo' jes' sprinkle a little jes' lak yo' wus season' it or

somepin, ... (Hyatt 1970, 2: 1570; tennmal)


In some further examples one can assume either a zero copula form (this

has been done in table 18) or a participle construction:


An' when ah look back he wus behin' me- jes' lak, yo'

know, he not payin' any 'tenshun to anyone. (Hyatt 1970,

1: 44; scarma2)

The ambiguity of Black English sentences containing an -ing form is also

shown by a somewhat different example provided by Berdan (1980: 152):

The policeman trying to find the man beat the woman. In Standard English

only one interpretation is possible (trying to find the man is an embedded

relative clause with past tense reference), whereas in Black English there

is an additional meaning, namely 'The policeman is trying to find the man

who beat the woman.'

This example shows that for a speaker of Standard English it may at

times be exceedingly difficult to interpret Black English utterances

correctly, and this may also affect the tabulation of zero £e-forms.

Table 19. Influence of the subject on the occurrence of the zero copula in past

contexts (all complements combined)







plural +

2nd sg.









3rd sg.









1st sg.










B&i-forms: conjugated, contracted and zero forms

Table 19 depicts the influence exerted by the subject on the use of past

tense £e-forms, i.e. the way in which plural/second singular, third

singular and first singular subjects affect the occurrence of zero forms in


It can be seen that in EARLY as well as in LATE copula absence occurs

most frequently with subjects that require a plural verb form in Standard

English (p < 0.05 for plural/second singular vs. first singular in EARLY

and for plural/second singular vs. third singular in LATE respectively).

It should be noted that the reason for this may also lie in the fact that

these subjects cooccur disproportionately often with those complements

that favour the use of zero forms. In LATE 37.6% of all plural subjects

cooccur for example with -ing/going to as compared to 18.4% of all third

singular subjects (for EARLY the corresponding figures are 26.7% vs.

14.9% respectively).

The complements cannot be the only factor favouring zero forms,

however, because in EARLY first singular subjects show the highest

cooccurrence rate with -ing/going to (29.6%) but nevertheless the lowest

rate of copula absence. Here it is again difficult if not impossible to

conceive of any explanation for the finding that certain subjects seem to

favour copula absence.

4.1.3. The use of concord and non-concord forms

Past tense (non-concord) zero forms have already been discussed so that I

will focus on the variable use of was and were including their negative

variants. In HOODOO, the different realizations are was, wus, waz, wuz,

wa', 'us, were, wure, whar, wasn't, wusn't, wasn', wusn', wazn't, wuzn't,

weren't, wa 'n't.

The negative form ain't does not occur in the past tense. Other forms

that are not included in the following tables are 6e-forms in exposed

positions, for example no mattah whut yore trouble were (Hyatt 1978, 5:

4516; flormana) and those occurring in questions and tags. These

categories comprise only relatively few forms (88 in EARLY and 62 in


It is generally pointed out that in Black English past tense £e-forms

show even less agreement than present tense forms. According to Fasold

(1981: 168), this is one of the features that Black English shares with

other English dialects. Different studies of these forms lead basically to

the same result: was is the normal past tense form with singular and plural

subjects, whereas were is relatively rare (see Harrison 1884: 250; Jones

1972: 94). Lourie (1978: 87) even states that in the past tense the copula

"is regularized to was throughout the paradigm."

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Be2-forms: conjugated, contracted and zero forms

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