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The Experts

Lorenzo Dow Turner

Let’s start at Lorenzo Dow Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949). Follow in the 1970s with William Labov, Walt Wolfram, Ralph Fasold, Roger Shuy, J.L. Dilliard, William Stewart, Geneva Smitherman, Beryl Bailey, Roger Abrahams, Joan Baratz, Robbin Burling, Ronald Butters, David Dalby, Thomas Kochman, Edith Folb, Philip Luelsdorff, Raven McDavid, Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, Fay Vaughn-Cooke, and John Rickford. These are the scholars whose works have influenced generations’ thinking on African American English.

William Labov

Today, there are many linguists committed to the study of African American English, particularly its structure, it origins, and other related issues like education, culture and politics. They present regularly at several professional conferences including: New Ways of Analyzing Variation and Change (NWAV), Linguistic Society of America (LSA), American Dialect Society (ADS), American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL), Society for Pidgin and Creole Languages (SPCL).

We are looking for references for publications from 2007-present. Send us the reference (using MLA style) by commenting below. For the time being, check out Peter Patrick’s website on African American English.

We will invite an expert to contribute to this blog from time-to-time, so look out for this as well.

Gone too soon are the many individuals who have made great contributions to the study of African American English and related fields. Below is our first remembrance posted. We invite you to share in the lives of others in the section In Memoriam.


Margaret Wade-Lewis

Reflections on the life of Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis (7/18/1945-12/30/2009)
by John Victor Singler, Professor of Linguistics, New York University

In the days between Christmas and New Year’s, the State University of New York at New Paltz announced the death of Professor Margaret Wade-Lewis.  Born in Oklahoma,Margaret received her bachelor’s degree in English from Langston University, graduating summa cum laude.  She then received a master’s in English from Oklahoma State University.  In 1988 she received her Ph.D. in linguistics from New York University.  Her dissertation was entitled The African substratum in American English.  She was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. from the department.

At the time of her death, Margaret was the longtime chair of New Paltz’s Black Studies Department, director of the Linguistics Program, and director of the Scholar’s Mentorship Program, a networking initiative for talented and high achieving general admission students of color.

Margaret was a pioneer, one of the founders of the Black Studies Department and of the Mentorship Program.  It was perhaps her own perspective as a pioneer that led to her interest in the stories of the earliest African American linguists, most significantly the creolists Beryl Loftman Bailey and Lorenzo Dow Turner.  She published several articles on Bailey’s life and contributions to linguistic theory.  While some may assert that Bailey was Jamaican—after all, she was born there and did not leave the island to move to New York until she was 28—Margaret proceeded from the view that New York citizenship is, like a good bidialectalism or bilingualism program, additive, not subtractive.

The great labor of Margaret’s linguistics career was her biography of Lorenzo Dow Turner.  Published in 2007 by the University of South Carolina Press, it received the College Literary Association’s Book Award in 2008.  The book distills Margaret’s extensive research on Turner as scholar and humanist.  As established in Thomas Klein’s 2009 review in the Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, the book makes a major contribution to the history of creole studies.

We are perpetually concerned about the continued underrepresentation of African Americans in linguistics and in academe more generally, but in creole studies—a field where African American linguists play a leading role—we may forget that it wasn’t that long ago when there was only Turner or, a bit later, only Turner and Bailey.  We oweMargaret a great debt for her scholarship.

It’s important to understand that Margaret’s perspective was never simply the significance that these contributions by blacks had for black people.  Her dissertation was about African influence on American English as a whole, not just on African American English.  Similarly, her studies of Bailey and Turner looked at their contribution to creole studies and to linguistics as a whole.

I have spoken about Margaret’s contributions to the field and I have described her as a pioneer, but I not described how remarkable a remarkable human being she was.  When I went to NYU in 1984, Margaret was already a Ph.D. student there, even as she taught fulltime at New Paltz and reared a family.  It was my good fortune that she asked me to take over the supervision of her dissertation.  What Margaret never mentioned to me but which the chair and my other colleagues told me was that, prior to my arriving at NYU, Margaret had fought a difficult battle with cancer, one that—because it involved the oral cavity—had required Margaret to learn a new way of speaking to compensate for what the ravages of the disease had done.  If you only knew Margaret from her giving papers at conferences or from chatting with her, I’m sure you didn’t notice anything unusual about her speech production. Margaret was not someone who called attention to her struggles, indeed to any aspect of herself.  She was soft-spoken, patient, and dedicated.  She had enormous strength, character, and integrity.  Quite simply, she was a lovely person.

After Margaret had completed her dissertation, I didn’t see her often and I relished the times that I did.  Once she had embarked on her research on Turner, I was especially happy to have the chance to talk with her—she was a wonderful story-teller with wonderful stories to tell.

These days if you want to know anything, you go to the Internet.  In closing, I will share with you what happens if you google “margaret wade-lewis.”  The very first link is to, the website that enables students to speak anonymously to the world about their professors.  Here are the three most recent ones about Margaret:
January 4, 2010:  “You changed my perception of human language. MAY YOU REST IN PEACE, Mrs. Wade.”
December 31, 2009:  “Rest in Peace Dr. Wade Lewis, you have no idea the lives you changed and the hearts you touched. New Paltz will never be the same.”
And, from long before Margaret left us:
April 7, 2009:  “Dr. Wade-Lewis is amazing. She is the sweetest, most passionate, caring teacher you could have. and SHE KNOWS HER STUFFFFFFF. Take Her! She will push you!”

Margaret is survived by her husband David Lewis, by three children, and by her eight brothers and sisters.  Margaret’s funeral was held on Wednesday January 6 on the New Paltz campus, and she will be buried on Saturday January 9 in her native Oklahoma.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Samantha permalink
    July 3, 2010 1:13 pm

    Right on. After reading this article about Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, I am humbled by her strength and perseverance. To take on the huge challenge of being a mother, to fight a deadly and painful illness, and to stand up to discrimination to become a pioneer of linguistics and African American English is truly admirable. I’m grateful that there are people like her who are so dedicated to uncovering knowledge that is so valuable to society. Margaret, I honor you.

  2. brownmommys permalink
    December 26, 2013 8:16 am

    She is the type of hero I will certainly teach my children about. Thank you for posting this.

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