Historically, African American linguists have been overlooked. However, their contributions have provided significant insights into indigenous, African, European, and creole languages that are spoken throughout the world. In honor of Black History Month, we’re shining a spotlight on three famous African American linguists, and the work they’ve done to advance the field.
Lorenzo Dow Turner (1890 – 1972)
Dubbed the father of Gullah Studies, Lorenzo Dow Turner was one of the first African American linguists. He’s best known for his research on the Gullah language of the Low Country in South Carolina and Georgia. Although Gullah was classified as a dialect of English, Turner argued that it should be considered a separate language due to the influence from African languages. In 1949, he published Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, which explores this linguistic phenomenon.
Throughout his career, Turner traveled to Louisiana, Sierra Leone, and Brazil to study Creole and Portuguese. He also served as the Head of the English Department at Howard University and Fisk University for a combined total of 30 years. While working at the latter, he developed the first African Studies curriculum in the United States.
Mark Hanna Watkins (1903 – 1976)
The first African American to earn a PhD with a dissertation in linguistics, Mark Hanna Watkins is known for his research on indigenous and African languages. In 1933, he completed a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago. His thesis focused on the relationship of seven related indigenous languages in Mexico. Three years later, he completed his PhD in Anthropology. His dissertation, A Grammar of Chichewa: A Bantu Language of British Central Africa, remains the only full-length reference on the grammar of the language.
Turner spent most of his career researching and writing about the languages and cultures of Africa, Native Americans, African Americans, and Haitians. While serving as a professor at Fisk University, he became one of the six faculty members to join the first African Studies program.
John Hamilton McWhorter (1965 – )
Better known to the public for his cultural criticism, John Hamilton McWhorter is the only living linguist on our list. An associate professor of English Literature at Columbia University, much of his academic research is on creoles and their relationships to other languages. He has a particular interest in the Surinam creole language Saramaccan.
In addition to his academic research, McWhorter has written two non-academic books on linguistics: What Language Is and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. He also hosts a podcast on linguistics and language learning called Lexicon Valley.
Are there any other African American linguists you’d like to celebrate? Give them a shout out in the comments!