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African American English

The Ebonics issue
Sources of AAE
Maps for AAE

The term African American English (formerly referred to as ‘African American Vernacular English’ and much earlier as ‘Black English’) refers to the varieties of English spoken by those people in the United States who stem from the original African population transported there. These speakers are currently distributed geographically across the entire country. However, the African Americans were originally settled in the south (from Texas in the West to the Carolinas in the East) where they were kept as slaves to provide a labour force for the plantations of the whites in this region.


With the industrialisation of the United States in the last century a migration from south to north began leading to considerable numbers of African Americans settling in industrial centres, particularly of the north and north east. These latter speakers are severed from the historical core area of African American English and have frequently undergone developments not shared with the original speakers in the south.

There are three basic views on the origin of African American English.

1) Baby talk theory Now completely out-dated; African American English is said to have developed from a simplified form of English used in communication with slaves, supposedly akin to language in early childhood.

2) Creole hypothesis African American English is viewed here as having developed out of the necessity of slaves from different linguistic backgrounds on the plantations of the south to have a form of basic communication, i.e. an English-based pidgin, later a creole with native speakers).

3) Dialect origin view Also known as the segregation hypothesis. This sees African American English as having developed from dialects of English cut off from others hence independent features arose not shared by the input forms.

Phonological simplification The sounds of the English which formed the base for African American English have been reduced, particularly the phonotactics have been affected with consonant clusters being simplified (desk > dess; master > massa, with r-dropping in syllable-final position).

Development of a system of aspect Verbs have two basic modes: tense and aspect. The former is quite developed in Western European languages: the time axis for a verbal action is always explicitly expressed. But there is another equally important axis for verbs: that of aspect. The latter refers to the manner in which an action is carried out or refers to the result of an action or its relation to the present point in time. Typical aspectual distinctions are habitual : non-habitual, durative : non-durative, perfective : non-perfective. The first distinction is present in Standard English (compare the progressive forms of verbs). The second is expressed in African American English by an unstressed form of the verb do: He does be in his office in the morning, i.e. He is in his office every morning for a certain length of time. The third distinction is one which is common in the Slavic languages: the action of a verb is stated as being completed or not. Indeed African American English frequently distinguishes between an Immediate Perfective (I done go = I have gone) and a Remote Perfective aspect (I been go = I had gone). Similar aspectual distinctions are to be found in other varieties of English such as Irish English, however, the relation with African American English is not established.

3) Movement towards an analytic structural type African American English betrays its pidgin origin in a number of ways. One of these is the tendency to develop grammar to the analytic ideal of one-word-one-morpheme. This principle holds for practically all pidgins (at least for the small number of combinations of basic lexeme + inflectional ending).

4) Elimination of redundancy The clearest example of this is to be found with verbs. In the present tense the -s ending of the third person singular is eliminated, e.g. he likes > he like. Analogy may cause the -s to be generalised to the entire tense leading to forms like I likes, we likes. With the past tense of regular verbs the -ed ending is frequently deleted; the context ensures that no ambiguity arises (no confusion with present tense forms without any ending).

Another example of the elimination of redundancy is the deletion of the copula (cf. sentences like He a nice girl in which the lack of distinction between ‘he’ and ‘she’ is also to be seen). Note that copula deletion is common in other languages as well (in Russian for example).

5) Multiple negation A feature both of older English and many dialects including African American English. It refers to the use of two (or more) negative particles to intensify a negation, e.g. He dont know nothing. This feature is also called negative concord as there is a requirement that the tensed verb and the quantifier both agree, i.e. both occur in the negative form in a negated sentence.

The view of an African American novelist

“The language, only the language... It is the thing that black people love so much – the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher’s: to make you stand up out your seat, make you lose yourself and hear youserlf. The worst of all possible things that could happen is to lose that langauge. There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language.”

(Toni Morrison)

The Ebonics issue

A term used in many discussions of the social and political position of African American English. The term is specifically connected with the debate, unleashed by a controversial decision by a school board in Oakland, California in 1996, about whether African American English is so different from General American English to warrant teaching it as a separate language.

Ebonics is a word which combines ‘ebony’ and ‘phonics’, and was intended to describe the language of people of African ancestry, of Black North America, and West African people. It emphasizes African roots and since 1996, it has been used to emphasize an independence from (standard) English.

The initial use of Ebonics was by the psychologist Robert Williams in a dialogue with Ernie Smith in a conference on ‘Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child’ in St. Louis in 1973. Two years later the word appeared within the title and text of a book edited and co-written by Williams, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. Some writers stress how the term speaks for a view of the language of African Americans as African rather than European.

The term Ebonics did not appear within the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989, and it was not used by linguists. The term was not popular among those who agreed with the reason for coining it. It is little used even within the Ebonics book, in which ‘Black English’ is the far more familiar name.

The linguist John Baugh claims that the term Ebonics is used in different ways by its Afro-centric supporters, among which are references to English: one ‘is the equivalent of Black English and is considered to be a dialect of English," the other "is the antonym of black English and is considered to be a language other than English’.

In 1996, the term became widely known in America from its use by the Oakland School Board to recognize the primary language of many African American children attending school, and to help in the teaching of Standard English. Since then, Ebonics has become an alternative term for African American Vernacular English, emphasizing its African roots and its independence from English.

From the linguistic point of view, African American English is a neutral, independent variety of English. Its social status has to do with attitudes in the United States. Some see it as a sign of slight education, which it most certainly is not. Others think it is an impoverished form of English, against a very false idea. Like all forms of language, African American English has a logical internal structure and evolved in the communities of African Americans over the past few centuries. For many people today it is still a carrier of their linguistic identity.

Some African Americans have internalised negative social views of their variety of English as can be seen with the following well-meaning but misguided publication aimed at “correcting” salient features of this variety.

Other publications and sources exhibit a pride and consciousness of African American English as a rich source of unique language which deserves its rightful place in school education.

Main linguistic features of African American English

I Phonology

1) Non-rhotic (syllable-final /r/ is not pronounced)
       car [ka:], party [pa:ti]

2) Frequent deletion of final /l/, particularly after labials or word-finally with auxiliaries
       help [hep], he’ll be home [hi bi ho:m]

3) Reduction of word-final clusters
       test [tes], desk [des]
       looked [luk], talked [tɔ:k]

4) Fortition (hardening) of initial /ð/ to either [ḏ] (dental stop) or [d] (alveolar stop)
       this [ḏɪs], there [ḏɛ:]

5) In word-final position /θ/ is frequently shifted to [f] (also found in Cockney English). This shift is also found for /ð/ (> [v]) in word-internal position.
       bath [ba:f], teeth [ti:f].
       brother [brʌvə]

6) Velar nasal shifted to alveolar point of articulation (very common in dialects of English)
       She’s comin’ tomorrow

7) The distinction between short /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ is frequently lost before nasals as it is southern white American English (and other forms of English). The neutralisation is to the raised vowel [ɪ].
       pen, pin [pɪn]; ten, tin [tɪn]

8) Glide reduction, a general feature of southern white American English, is also typical of AAE (along with many other varieties of English, such as those in South Africa). It applies to both /ai/ and /au/ with the slight retraction of the onset of the second diphthong maintaining the distinction between the two phonemes.
       wife [wa:f], time [ta:m]
       house [hɑ:s], loud [lɑ:d]

9) Strong initial stress is often found with words of two syllables
       police [ˡpo:lis], define [ˡdi:fain]

II Morphology and syntax

1) Multiple negation is common (as it is in many non-standard varieties of English it serves the purpose of intensifying a negation and not of neutralising one). This type of negation is also termed ‘negative concord’ because polarity particles must agree with each other, i.e. all be in the positive or all be in the negative.
       I ain’t goin’ to give nothin’ to nobody.

2) Existential there is replaced by it
       It ain’t no football pitch at school.

3) Plurals are not marked if preceded by numerals.
       He here for three year now.

4) The genitive is not necessarily marked with /s/ (as position is sufficient to indicate this category)
       I drove my brother car.

5) A formal distinction is frequently made between second person singular and plural. This is realised by you [ju:] in the singular and y’all [jɒ:l] (derived from you + all). AAE shares this feature with southern white American English. The distinction in question is found in many dialects of English, e.g. with you # ye, you # youse or you # yez where ye is the archaic second person plural pronoun and yez is a doubly marked plural form.
       Y’all have to leave now. ‘All of you have to leave now.’

Note: 3) and 4) are examples of the elimination of redundancy as the grammatical categories intended are obvious from the combinations of words and their order in the respective sentences.

II.1 Verbal syntax

1) Third person singular -s is omitted.
       She like my brother.

2) Deletion of copula. As in Russian, the copula is not required in so-called equative sentences, i.e. those of the form X = Y.
        She a teacher. They workers in the factory.

3) Come has been grammaticalised as a type of auxiliary. This is often referred to in the literature as ‘indignant’ come because it contains a connotation of disapproval.
       He come tellin’ me some story. ‘He told me some false story.’

4) Like to has often the meaning of ‘almost’.
        She like to fell out the window. ‘She almost fell out of the window.’

5) Base subject relative clauses are found in AAE though not in standard English. However, such structures do occur in other forms of English, e.g. popular London English.
       He the man (who) got all the old records. (AAE and London English)
       He’s the man she talked to.

6) AAE in common with southern white English in the United States can have two modals within the same verb phrase. This is probably an inherited feature from Scots-derived dialects originally brought to the United States in the 18th century which then diffused into the language of the African-American population.
        He might could do the work.
She may can do the work.

7) The numbers of forms of verbs is reduced vis à vis standard English. Typically in the past there is one form, based either on the simple past or the past participle. While reduction of verb forms is common in creoles it is also widespread in dialects of English, such as those from Ireland which had an influence on AAE in its early days (both in the Caribbean and in the southern United States).
       I have already ate.
Bruce have drunk chocolate milk before.

II.2 Aspect

This is a grammatical category which determines the internal structure of a temporal event. In a way it is a refinement of tense (see above). Whereas tense only says whether an event is located in the past, present or future, aspect specifies how it occurred or how its occurrence was viewed by the speaker, by indicating whether an action has just started (inchoative), just ended (terminative), continued over a period of time (progressive), took place repeatedly (iterative), took place repeatedly for a certain length of time (durative), was not terminated (imperfective) or was indeed finished (perfective), to mention some of the more common aspectual types.

1) Uninflected be functions as a marker of the habitual aspect
       They be out on the street at night. ‘They are always out on the street at night.’

2) An iterative aspect is expressed by means of steady which can occur in final position.
       They steady rappin’ outside our house. ‘They are always talking outside our house.’
       They high steady. ’They are always high on drugs.’

3) A stressed of been occurs to indicate the remote past
       I ˡbeen travel to New York. ‘I travelled to New York a long time ago.’
       Jodie, she ˡbeen marry to Chuck. ‘Jodie married Chuck a long time ago.’

4) An intentional aspect is found with the particle a which precedes the verb form.
       I’m a drive to town. ‘I’m about to drive to town.’
       I’m a gonna meet her. ‘I’m about to meet her.’

5) The unstressed past participle form of do, done [dʌn], is used to signal an action which has just occurred. This is similar to the immediate perfective found in other varieties of English and realised in different ways, cf. Irish English I’m after breaking the glass ‘I have just broken the glass’.
       The mirror done broke. ‘The mirror has just broken.’
       The cook done cooked the food. ‘The cook has just/already cooked the food.’

III Vocabulary

1) Some vocabulary items are clearly of West African origin, such as buckra ‘white man’, tote to carry. Even more obvious are terms referring to food also found in African, e.g. goober ‘peanut’, yam ‘sweet potato’.

2) Many semantic extensions of existing English words are also to be found such as homies for close friends (often those with whom one shared a spell in prison), bloods for other blacks, whities for white people, rednecks for poor southern whites. Some of these terms appear to have some sound symbolism such as honkey for a white person, though this is difficult to quantify.

IV Varieties of AAE

1) There are considerable register differences within present-day AAE. Slang terms are fairly general, such as bad for ‘good, admirable’, cool for ‘good, neat’, hip ‘knowledgeable’, dude ‘male’ (often disparaging). Some of these terms have diffused into general American English and from there to other languages, e.g. the word cool.

2) In-group language is characteristic of black street gangs in the major cities of the United States (such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago). Here as elsewhere in AAE the pragmatics of discourse is quite different from that of white Americans. Verbal insulting can take on ritual forms and a volatile, rhythmic eloquence is known as rappin’.

Obligatory and variable rules

The rule which deletes the ending of regular verbs in the past, cf. looked [luk], is obligatory whereas that which leads to the reduction of clusters within a single word, cf. desk [des], is variable, i.e. it does not always occur for all words which could possibly undergo this reduction.

Sources of AAE

This set of varieties can be traced back to forms of English which developed in the 17th century in the Caribbean. The reason for English existing in this area to begin with is that the slave trade was initiated by European powers, notably Spain and England, in the 16th century. This trade consisted of taking native Africans from the region of West Africa slaves and transporting them to the islands of the Caribbean where they worked on the plantations of the European powers. Later, with crowding on smaller Caribbean islands such as Barbados and Montserrat, black slaves were moved to the southern coast of the present-day United States and put to work on tobacco and cotton plantations. These historic facts supports the linguistic assumption that the native Africans first developed a pidgin in West Africa (as they were mixed with members of different tribes to prevent plotting) and then when moved to the Caribbean the following generations developed this make-shift language into a fully-fledged one, a creole based on fragments of English and dramatically re-structures with constructions not found in the input varieties of English.

The second major hypothesis concerning AAE is that its specific features arose due to contact with dialects of English which had been transported to the southern United States by white settlers and which continued to develop in isolation in this region for a couple of centuries. While it is undeniable that AAE has developed features of its own, the structural similarities with Caribbean creoles (copula deletion, aspectual distinctions such as the habitual) point towards an origin as a creole which has undergone varying degrees of decreolisation (approximation to more standard varieties of English surrounding it, in this case American English).

The exact status of structural characteristics in AAE is much debated. For instance, the habitual aspect is a prominent feature of Caribbean creoles but also found in many West Atlantic languages which provided the substrate input to early forms of English in the Caribbean area. Thus habitual aspect may not so much be an indication of creolisation as an inherited features from African languages. Against this one can point out that other creoles - those in the Pacific region, for instance - also show habitual aspect so that this feature may be prototypical for creoles.


The slave trade with the trade triangle during the colonial period