Carnegie Mellon University

A Historical View of Science Accommodation: The Case of Sociolinguistics and African American English

Author: Daniel Guinn Baumgardt
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2012

Science studies scholars often approach science accommodation by comparing a research article to a salient accommodation of the article that refers to it, what could be called its standard popularization. In such analyses, the view of accommodation is predominantly as a discrete synchronic event.  In this dissertation, I examine the sociolinguistic argument on African American English (AAE) and its role in education, using the field and its treatment of AAE as a case study that adds to a view of science accommodation as a diachronic
process which can take place over several decades and through a variety of genres.
I provide a history of U.S. sociolinguists’ efforts to inform non-linguists of their research on AAE and the educational policies they support. In this history, standard popularizations of AAE show up later in the accommodation process. For several decades, sociolinguists attempted to communicate their understanding of AAE to non-linguists through other genres more readily at their disposal, genres such as the journal article, monograph, and textbook. The history suggests that less visible genres of accommodation have played a large role in accommodating AAE to non-linguists; it also demonstrates an incremental generalizing across the years of the non-linguist audience to whom the sociolinguistic argument on AAE has been addressed.
While I survey a range of texts, I perform more extensive analyses of journal articles and textbooks. I argue that William Labov’s “The Logic of Nonstandard English,” published in 1969, functioned as an accommodation of a core sociolinguistic argument on AAE for non-linguists within the university, helping to spur on an explosion of interdisciplinary research on AAE during the early 1970s. The article also influenced future accommodations of AAE. Beginning in 1973, introductory linguistics textbooks not only feature key points on AAE that Labov had consolidated in his article, but also often Labov’s wording of these points and the overall strategies through which he presents them. I trace considerable stability in how textbooks present this core argument by examining multiple editions of two different textbooks across twenty-five years.
I conclude by addressing sociolinguists’ concern that they have largely failed to accommodate their understanding of AAE for non-linguists.  This perception stems in part from a linguists-inform-public model of communication with non-linguists that sociolinguists have consistently articulated for several decades. I argue that this model has encouraged sociolinguists to conclude more “failure” than historical facts warrant.