Press Release: Linguist William Stewart Dies Pioneer in Studies of Afro American Vernacular English

William Alexander Stewart --- a groundbreaking linguist who was the "world's foremost authority on Gullah" according to The New York Times (March, 29, 1977) --- died Monday, March 25, in New York Presbyterian Hospital of Columbia University. He was 71. The cause of death was congestive heart failure brought about by adult onset (type 2) diabetes. His ashes will be interred at the National Cemetery in Honolulu.

On the faculty of The City University of New York Graduate Center for more than 25 years, Professor Stewart is best known for his study of "creoles," which are languages such as Gullah that result from contact between two different languages. He was the first linguist to prove that African-Americans who spoke nonstandard English were in fact speaking the remnants of a creole formed from contact between the languages of African slaves and the English of American settlers. He documented certain features of the creole --- such as "he busy" meaning he is busy at the moment; "he be busy" meaning he is habitually busy --- as evidence that African-Americans who spoke nonstandard English were speaking what amounted to a different language, and the demand that they simply conjugate the verb in Standard English would not reflect what the student was trying to say.

Far from having a purely historical interest, however, Professor Stewart's work led to an understanding of how grammatical differences of this separate language can lead to misunderstandings in the classroom. African-American children who speak nonstandard English in American schools were testing far below their white peers in reading and writing. A pioneer of what would later be popularized as Ebonics, Professor Stewart said that language difference explained some African-American children's poor performance in school. (The application of his work to educational curricula is discussed in the attached backgrounder.)

Professor Stewart was born September 12, 1930, to Donna McPhee Stewart and William Carr Stewart in Honolulu, Hawaii. An only child, Professor Stewart grew up in the ethnically diverse district of Oahu. He migrated with his parents to California at age eight. His parents died in a car crash a year later and he was raised in West Los Angeles by his father's parents. He grew up speaking four languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hawaiian). Drafted into the Army in 1952, Professor Stewart served as a translator in Frankfurt and Paris. He earned a BA from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1955 and an MA in 1958. He was awarded a Fullbright scholarship at the Universidade de Pernambuco, Brazil, from 1959-1960. Professor Stewart's later work would be informed by his own multilingual experience as a child and in the Army.

In 1960 Professor Stewart was a staff linguist at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, which led to travel in the Caribbean and Africa. By then, he was fluent in German, French, Dutch, Wolof, Haitian, Sranan, Papiamentu, and Gullah, as well as the languages he grew up speaking. His essay "Creole Languages in the Caribbean" was the first study that linked creoles from different origins. He also developed a method for quantifying the use of multiple languages in a society that is still in use today. He co-edited Linguistic Reading Lists for Teachers of Modern Languages in 1963, edited Non-Standard Speech and the Teaching of English in 1964, and developed the Introductory Course in Dakar Wolof for the Peace Corps in 1965.

Professor Stewart made the discovery in 1965 that it was not the vocabulary and pronunciation of African-American vernacular English but the grammar that caused reading problems. By comparing the speech of African-American children and the language of instruction, Stewart realized that the resulting learning problems were similar to someone trying to learn English as a foreign language. In 1968, Professor Stewart became co-director of the Education Study Center in Washington, D.C., which was founded to help ghetto children to read. He was awarded a five-year grant in 1973 by the National Science Foundation in to study how Gullah, a dialect that began in 16th century Barbados, had developed since the Civil War in the coastal area of South Carolina and Georgia.

In his early academic career, he lectured in Spanish and Portuguese at Georgetown University from 1962 to 1967, and was a lecturer in social psychology at Johns Hopkins University, 1967/68. He joined the faculty of Columbia University Teachers College in 1968 and remained until 1978. In 1973 Professor Stewart began teaching at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York as an adjunct associate professor. Professor Stewart became full professor at The Graduate Center in 1984 (he had been appointed a visiting professor in 1982) and taught courses in pidgins and creoles, phonetics, sociolinguistics, applied linguistics, and forensic linguistics. He was also an editor of the Oxford Student's Dictionary of American English, published in 1983.

Beginning in 1984 Professor Stewart was also called before various state and federal courts as an expert witness in linguistics, testifying in cases like the Caesar's Palace/ Trump Place case, the  "Webster's" Dictionary case, and the Minute Rice/Minute Tapioca case. In the 1986 Caesar's Palace case, Trump v Caesars World, Inc., the court accepted Professor Stewart's conclusion that the word "palace" had not become a generic (and therefore unprotectable) term signifying an establishment offering luxurious accommodations and entertainment but rather a term that requires a modifying adjective or noun to transform the literal meaning to a metaphorical one. In 1990 he co-edited an edition of the Annals of the New York Academy of Arts and Sciences devoted to forensic linguistics.

J. L. Dillard dedicated his book Black English to Professor Stewart, who he said made the serious study of African-American English possible.

Backgrounder

Classroom applications of the late William Stewart's work on African-American English

To combat the low achievement of African-American children, Professor Stewart promoted teaching of English using methods that were used to teach English as a foreign language. Professor Stewart believed that the failure to teach them as nonnative speakers, and not anything intrinsic to their character, was the cause of their poor performance. He argued that education's focus on neurological or emotional defects, or certain features of a lower-class environment‹such as depressing surroundings, excessive noise, poor childcare, substandard nutrition, physical abuse, the absence of a father‹would not help students to succeed. He wrote that education failed to efficiently or fairly educate "linguistically-different" children and thus contributed to their poor performance.

From there, Professor Stewart published a series of articles that demonstrated how African-American children's failure to learn was due to teaching materials. In his 1966 essay "Social Dialect" Professor Stewart attacked the theory that the English of African-American children was evidence of their diminished capacity for learning. African-American English was then, as it is today, confused with street slang that employs a specialized vocabulary and nonstandard pronunciation. Speakers of African-American English were often regarded as careless, lazy, ignorant or stupid. Stewart recognized that they were speaking a dialect with its own rules, and it was a matter of language difference and not language deficit that was to blame. Thus he was an early observer that test scores reveal the cultural bias of the test and not the abilities of the tested population.

In addition Professor Stewart suggested that teachers be educated in the rules of African-American English so that they could better help their students adapt to Standard English and prepare curricula that reflected their student's knowledge. He also argued that primers used in the teaching of students who did not speak Standard English should reflect their dialect, so that the material would be relevant to the students and that language differences would not interfere with their learning to read. Primers in Standard English did not require white students to learn anything new; the speakers of nonstandard English, primarily poor African-American children, had to learn a new way of speaking before they could learn to read. Professor Stewart developed materials that used the modern methods of foreign language instruction to improve the English of nonstandard speakers, including three primers in African-American dialect that anticipated later efforts to have Ebonics recognized as a foreign language.

Professor Stewart's perceptions of the origin of African-American English and the process of decreolization gave the first understanding of African-American English as the product of historical linguistic and sociolinguistic processes, thus removing it from a contemptuous perception. Professor Stewart's typology of sociopolitical language types continues to figure in most foundational discussions of language and society. Recently, his work with Professor Guy Carden, at Simon Fraser University, on French Creole reflexives made considerable impact and stimulated the debate on acquisition in creole studies.

Submitted on: APR 1, 2002

Category: Linguistics, Press Room