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4: African American English (AAE)

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    African American English Vernacular (AAE), from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    The next dialect that we're going to work on is African American English Vernacular, or AAE. Again, I have a bit of a story to tell them this one.

    I grew up in San Mateo, California, and I was in high school in the early 90s when the topic of Ebonics came to the main stage. It was a really interesting time to be fascinated with language. At the time, I was learning Spanish, and I was learning Italian. Specifically, I was trying to understand the Italian that my family spoke compared to what I was learning in the classroom. I was listening to all of my friends speak all of these different languages: Spanish, French, Samoan, Tongan, Tagalog, Ilokano, Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Japanese, and the list goes on and on.

    When the Ebonics debate started, it fascinated me. It came out of Berkeley, and it was a revolutionary way to address the kids who were living specifically in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond, also the greater Bay Area and the country at large, with respect to inner city African American youth. The struggles, specifically, that they were having with writing and reading in English. This perspective, to say, “Look, they don't just speak poor crappy English. They speak a different dialect of English, and it is a radically different dialect.” You have to treat it as such; you have to address it, and say, “Okay, that is really great for certain times, but if you want to be a ‘proficient English speaker reader and writer’ (massive air quotes, right?), then you need to be using Mainstream American English, so we need to switch your dialect. Not put your home dialect down, rather to raise it up. But understand that there's this other dialect that you need to use within society in different situations.” To take a formerly prescriptive idea and make it more descriptive, that was the power of the Ebonics movement. It absolutely fascinated me.

    Growing up in San Mateo—even when I grew up in San Mateo, which is very different than what it is now—there were not too many folks there that were African American and spoke Ebonics, at least not regularly and out in the open. However, there were plenty of other languages that I was hearing on a daily basis, both within my family, in my community, and in my schools. What was really interesting was when I would go to East Palo Alto for something having to do with work, or I went to a Giants game in Candlestick Park—which is in Hunters Point—or if I visited my family out in Fairfield and other parts of Solano County—where there were (and still are) strong pockets of African American culture and African American English vernacular. It was really interesting to see to see this debate in the San Francisco Chronicle, in public forums, and to hear people using that dialect that was very different than mine.

    With that let's talk about African American English Vernacular, about its historic ties to another dialect that we've talked about, and especially about what makes it rich and unique. It’s another dialect of English that has been studied well for over 100 years.

    We’re going to start with the phonology; that probably shouldn't be surprising by now. One of the things that we can see is a distinct reduction in diphthongs. Remember that diphthongs are when we have two vowels or a vowel and a semi consonant or a glide combined into the same nucleus of a syllable. We regularly see monothongization—so only one vowel instead of two. What is also really interesting as you see a lot of the same patterns in the dialects of Appalachian region and of Gulf American English—think of the dialects that are spoken in Alabama, Mississippi, the panhandle of Florida, and that area. You have first how these terms are written in Mainstream American English, and then you have African American English pronunciation, and then you have Standard or Mainstream American English pronunciation. There's a consistent monothongization with respect to these terms; it is not just these five terms, rather it is throughout the dialect.

    We also see neutralization and deletion of certain sounds. We have mergers. Remember, if you think back to phonology and phonetics, we talked about how rare English is seven to 14 different vowel sounds; that is really rare. What we see with African American English Vernacular is actually a reduction to something that's closer to what most languages have. Depending on the subvariant, AAE or AAVE has between five and seven vowels; that's a little more typical.

    We also see regular deletion of liquids, so r- and l-sounds, and we see a labialization of interdental sounds. Sometimes they can be just dentalized, but frequently their labialized. If you think about how Ruth and brother are said, in African American Vernacular English they're really frequently as 'roof' or 'root' sometimes, and not 'brother', but 'brudder' or 'brover'. We also see a shift of the stressed syllable to the first initial syllable of the lexicon.

    These are really common and it's been interesting to see the historical connections. As I said, there's some real strong connections with what we see here and with Appalachian English. It does seem like the Africans who were brought over here as enslaved folks and forced to learn English, that they mostly learned it from folks who had an Appalachian dialect. Therefore, it is not shocking to see that, phonologically, these two dialects have many similarities.

    Let's talk about the morphological and morphosyntactic aspects of AAVE. When we have simplification of consonant clusters at the end of a lexicon in African American Vernacular. This is also not uncommon; this seems to be the case in many dialects outside of the United States. It is also interesting to note that most of you who speak Mainstream American English, if you really get going and talk at a fast pace, you do the same thing, so this is a very common change that we see.

    We also see some really important changes with certain verbs, and the main verb to talk about here is the verb to be. The fact that we have not just to be as a concept, but that it may exist or may not be used. This is not random; it is directly related to its function. If we're talking about habitual be, as in ‘John is generally happy’, then in African American English, for the most part, you would say, John be happy. However, if you're talking about a non-habitual or even stative, as in you're talking about his condition right now, that is not going to be the case. Instead, be is completely left out: John happy. Why would that happen, because this is something that does not happen in most English dialects. There are a couple of reasons: one is connected to the various languages that were spoken by the slaves that were brought over from Africa, especially Western and Central Africa. Most of the languages there do not have a stative be; the verb to be is only used when you're talking about something that is generally happening. However, there's a secondary explanation, and this has to do with something we'll talk about towards the end of this chapter with respect to creolization. Frequently when we see creoles, if there's a version or a use of the verb to be that does not get continued on, it's going to be the stative, non-habitual version. That's pretty interesting.

    More morpho-syntactic and morpho-semantic aspects of AAVE:

    • Multiple or double negation: again, we saw this with Appalachian English, and this happens in a number of dialects.
    • Frequently, the determiner there, as part of the phrase there is or there are, is deleted in African American English and often replaced with either it or just left out entirely.
    • We also have a lack of subject verb agreement, specifically with the third person singular. That is really interesting because if you think about the present tense conjugation of English, the only time we see inflection is third person singular. To have that completely be deleted is an interesting concept. It makes it more isolating in some ways.
    • There's a completive or prospective done: it's not just you have messed up, rather, it's you done messed up. This is something that also connects that to Appalachian English.
    • We have two different types of been, both stressed or unstressed; depending on what it is that you're doing.
    • Add to this the concept of fixing to, meaning I’m about to do something or I’m going to do something. This is pervasive throughout the entirety of the South East of the United States—doesn't matter what dialect we're talking about-from about Oklahoma or Kansas, south through Texas, and all the way across to the Atlantic coast, fixing to is a phrase of is used and has been used for 200 years at least. In African American Vernacular English, that fixing to has changed to finna, and it is very common.
    • You also have a deletion of the –‘s, that possessive or genitive marker.
    • Again, there is a higher reliance upon word order, although English was pretty strict with respect to word order.

    Just as with Appalachian English, we're not going to go into the lexical differences; that's too long of a discussion, but this is an interesting little tidbit with respect to African American Vernacular English: It is not a poor version of English. Quite the opposite, it is highly rich highly complex. In one of your journal assignments, you have the option of watching a little bit about Gullah English. what makes Gullah English so important is that it is a documentation of how the slaves used to speak their version of English, which has been crystallized. In many ways, Gullah English is the precursor to African American Vernacular English; it still has aspects of various Central and Western African languages that got mixed into the English as the slaves were forced to learn their new language. It's interesting to see how over generations and generations of use, and more contact with Mainstream American English, how this has been a dynamic dialect. It continues to change; it used to be said that there was really only one, maybe two sub-dialects of African American Vernacular English. Current investigation says otherwise, that there are at least 20 different sub-dialects. So, the next time you listen to an African American musician, rapper, artist of some kind, and they're trying to encapsulate so much of their culture in history, listen to how they talk listen, to that dialect. You will hear a lot of what we have been talking about in that. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    4: African American English (AAE) is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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