Dr. Fay Vaughn-Cooke
As noted by John and Angela Rickford,
She was meticulous, insightful, and… ‘unflinching.’
Dr. Vaughn-Cooke was a pioneer in the study of African American English. Her studies uniquely affected several strands of descriptive and applied research, but her pervasive, enduring influence on the field extended far beyond her rigorous research. In the early 1970s, she conducted research on the rural Southern base of African American Language in Mississippi, not far from her own rural childhood roots in Arkansas. At the time, there were few studies comparing the rural Southern origins of African American Language in the rural South with the Northern, urban varieties that preoccupied sociolinguists at the time. The research reported in her 1976 doctoral dissertation changed that—and helped launch the recognition of the essential role of the rural, Southern base of these varieties. This was followed by her groundbreaking studies with Dr. Ida J. Stockman on the childhood development of African American English—and the first substantive longitudinal study of African American English covering a six-year period in early childhood language development. More importantly, the study was conducted in the natural context of the children’s homes as she and Professor Stockman spent hours playing with children, visiting with parents, and recording the natural use of language in the home. The depth of these studies has never been matched, even though the critical role of longitudinal studies is now widely acknowledged.
Professor Vaughn-Cooke was not content to conduct research in an intellectual vacuum, and her application of research results to the testing of language development in African American children helped change forever the assessment paradigm in the field of speech and language pathology. For several decades, she became involved in prominent social, educational, and political debates about African American English that extended from national broadcast media to local community applications, always expressing the calm, principled reason of a brilliant expert who knew how to speak to any audience.
Not only did Dr. Vaughn-Cooke scale the highest reaches of university administration (with appointments as Department Chair, Dean, Associate Provost, and Vice-President at various universities), but she also made invaluable contributions to research and publication within Linguistics, particularly in the study of the distinctive language varieties of African Americans.
Her work covered a wide range of topics, including: the deletion of unstressed initial syllables (the use of ‘cept for “except” or ‘cause for “because”) in African American Vernacular English [AAVE] and the evidence it provided of decreolization and convergence with standard American English; the divergence controversy; pitfalls that existing tests of verbal ability, intelligence, and language disorders posed for children who spoke AAVE; the Black preaching style; and theoretical and practical implications of national controversies involving AAVE in Education (the Ann Arbor “King” case in 1979, the Oakland Ebonics issue, 1996). In almost every case, her work was independently assessed as the first, most distinctive, or most outstanding contribution to “new knowledge” in its class. For instance, her chapter in a 1986 book entitled Language Variety in the South: Perspectives in Black and White was praised by one reviewer (John Baugh, in American Speech) as “among the very best in the volume,” and her chapter in a 2007 book on Sociolinguistic Variation dedicated to her mentor Walt Wolfram was described by another reviewer (Richard Cameron, in Language) as “unflinching” and his favorite in the volume. Fay’s 1980s Center for Applied Linguistics research project (with Dr. Ida J. Stockman) on the acquisition of AAVE by young African American children (14 months to four and a half years) remains the first and only longitudinal, usage-based study of its kind. Her contributions to the field were distinctive, and her rich intellectual legacy will continue to be consulted and appreciated by scholars for generations to come.