Turner, Lorenzo Dow

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Turner, Lorenzo Dow

January 1895
February 10, 1972

Linguist and ethnologist Lorenzo Dow Turner, the first important African-American linguist, is best known for the book Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949) and for scholarly articles tracing the influence of African languages on African-American speech. He was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. He attended Howard University Academy, graduating in 1910, then entered Howard University, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1914. He then attended Harvard University, where he received a master's degree in English in 1917. The same year, Turner was hired as chair of the English Department of Howard University. During his time at Howard Turner studied for a doctoral degree in English at the University of Chicago, receiving his Ph.D. in 1926. His thesis, "Anti-Slavery Sentiment in American Literature Prior to 1865," was published in 1929.

In 1928 Turner left Howard University, and he and his brother Arthur began a short-lived newspaper, the Washington Sun, with Turner serving as editor. After the paper's demise, Turner accepted a position as head of the English Department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to teaching, Turner was coeditor with Otelia Cromwell and Eva Dykes of a literary textbook, Readings from Negro Authors for Schools and Colleges (1931).

During the period Turner taught summer courses at various black colleges. Through his work he became interested in rural southern black English dialects. In 1929 he first heard and became interested in the Gullah dialect. The following year, he began to attend summer Institutes of the Linguistics Society (of which he became the first African-American member in 1931), and from 1932 through 1935 he did field work and collected data for the Linguistics Atlas Project on Gullah and Louisiana Creole. Turner and other scholars, notably Melville Herskovits, rebutted the popular assumption that no artifacts of African culture had survived in the New World. Having studied Gullah, Turner began to study African languages to find similarities. In the late 1930s he received a series of grants that allowed him to study African languages in England and France. In 1940 he spent a year in Brazil, where he compiled large amounts of data on customs and language. In the years following his return he published a series of articles based on his research. His research culminated in a book, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949). In this work Turner presented transcribed texts and word lists and explained the relationship between Gullah and African languages of the Niger-Kordofanian family in terms of etymology, syntax, grammar, and pronunciation. His work inspired linguistic studies of Creole dialects, a reevaluation of the role of Black English, and more generally, the nature of African retentions in southern African-American cultures.

In 1944 Turner moved from Fisk's English department to become director of its Inter-Departmental Curriculum in African Studies. Two years later he accepted an invitation to join the faculty of Roosevelt College, an experimental integrated college in Chicago, as professor of English and lecturer in African culture. Turner remained at Roosevelt until his death. During these years he published articles on jazz, Zulu culture, Western education in Africa, and African-American literature. His expertise in African linguistics served him well when he was made Peace Corps Faculty Coordinator at Roosevelt in the early 1960s. He prepared two works dealing with the Krio language, spoken in Sierra Leone, for Peace Corps volunteers assigned there: An Anthology of Krio Folklore and Literature with Notes and Inter-linear Translations in English (1963) and Krio Texts: With Grammatical Notes and Translations in English (1965). Turner died in Chicago.

See also Africanisms; English, African-American; Gullah


Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949).Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974.

Wade-Lewis, Margaret. "Lorenzo Dow Turner: Pioneer African-American Linguist." Black Scholar 21, no. 4 (Fall 1991): 1024.

greg robinson (1996)