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Dr. Fay Vaughn-Cooke

Dr. (Anna) Fay Vaughn-Cooke died peacefully on Wednesday, October 20, 2010 at Washington Home Hospice. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in linguistics from Georgetown University in 1976. She became a prolific scholar in the fields of linguistics and speech-language pathology, with seminal studies on language acquisition of African-American children. Fay Vaughn-Cooke was an influential contributor to the national debate on the language diversity of African Americans. She was a Fulbright Scholar and received numerous national awards for her scholarly contributions and academic leadership.

As noted by John and Angela Rickford,

She was meticulous, insightful, and… ‘unflinching.’

Her critique of the “divergence” controversy–published in American Speech in 1987–was incisive, drawing its data in part from her detailed dissertation study of language change among three generations of African Americans in Mississippi. Although Fay’s loss to her family and friends is, of course, much deeper and cannot in any sense be compared, the field of Linguistics and African American language study has lost a titan in Fay, and we will all miss her so much.

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.

She was a board member of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC. In addition, the last stage of her professional career extended to university administration, as she became a Department Chair, Dean, Associate Provost, and Vice President, evidencing a lifelong commitment to Historical Black Colleges and Universities. She worked as part of the team at the University of the District of Columbia to make it the first HBCU institution in the US to be accredited by American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, no small accomplishment for a struggling public university dedicated to serving the residents of the District of Columbia with limited resources. She moved from there to enable Black scholars who needed support for their research by exponentially increasing funding for early-career scientists at Florida A & M University. This administrative commitment may have symbolically derived from her own experience as an early-career scholar seeking federal funding for her research. Dr. Vaughn-Cooke often confronted and encouraged federal agencies to address their underrepresentation of people of color in their research portfolio –making a difference in future grants, including funding for her own pioneering research.

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.

Linguist Walt Wolfram had the following to say of Dr. Vaugh-Cooke:
‘I was privileged to know Fay for almost four decades in a full range of settings, as she was transformed from a student and mentee at Georgetown University and the Center for Applied Linguistics to a professional colleague and my supervisor at the University of the District of Columbia. From this personal vantage point, I can faithfully testify that I have rarely—if ever—known a person who consistently combined such principled, unwavering commitment with such gracious, human compassion. There only a few of these special folks who cross our path in life. Dr. Anna Fay Vaughn-Cooke was one of those—and her professional and personal legacy will abide forever.’
Dr. Fay Vaughn-Cooke is survived by her loving husband, Denys Vaughn-Cooke; her children, Dr. Anika Vaughn-Cooke (Isaac Ewell) and Hamilton Vaughn-Cooke; and her grandsons, Che’ and Marley Ewell. She will be mourned by her brothers and sisters and their spouses, Joseph Boyd (Charlotte), Sandra Boyd, Mona Boyd (Kuma Kumahia), Monroe Boyd (Linda), Brenda Barnes (Nathaniel) and a wide circle of devoted extended family, friends and colleagues.
Further information about Fay Vaughn-Cooke’s life and accomplishments may be found here on the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) website.
–Modified from Obituaries written by Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor of Linguistics, University of North Carolina and John R. Rickford, J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Linguistics & the Humanities, Stanford University.
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