African American English (AAE), which is not slang, is a form of communication for some African Americans in the United States. It has been one of the most widely discussed varieties of English since the 1960s. Different topics have been covered in research on AAE: its legitimacy and status as a dialect or language, its origin, and its effects on reading. Some of these topics have been hotly debated and have received media coverage.
From Arguments about Legitimacy to Views about Origin
Research in the 1960s affirmed the legitimacy of AAE by explaining that it was not a deficient mode of speech used by culturally deprived speakers. Early work, such as that by Marvin Loflin and William Labov, showed that AAE had clearly definable patterns of sentence structure, sound combinations, meaning, and vocabulary. Since then, AAE has been characterized as a rule-governed system, although some people have negative attitudes toward it and call it bad English.
As evidence was being presented to support claims about the legitimacy of AAE, linguists were raising questions about the development of AAE—whether it originated as a plantation Creole such as Gullah (spoken in the coastal Carolinas and Georgia) (Rickford and Rickford, 2000), which would have been influenced by African languages, or whether it developed like other dialects of English. Early debates about the provenance of AAE focused on African and Creole origins in research by linguists such as Lorenzo Dow Turner, William Stewart, David Dalby, and J. L. Dillard and later by Charles DeBose and Nicholas Faraclas. Arguments in support of English origins were made by Raven McDavid and Virginia McDavid and later by Salikoko Mufwene, Shana Poplack, and others. Historical research on AAE has expanded to include proposals about gradual development of AAE as a result of contact between Africans and colonial settlers in the South (Winford, 1997). In this research, linguists analyze ex-slave narratives, which have been taken to be representative of early AAE, and historical documents about plantation life in the United States.
Systems of Sounds, Sentences, and Meaning
Much research on AAE has been on language used by adolescent males, but males and females of all ages use it. Speakers know rules of putting sounds and words together. Some speakers use a wide range of AAE rules, while others do not.
AAE consists of systems of sounds, sentence structure, meaning, and vocabulary items and related information. It has been argued that parts of the sound system of AAE share similarities with that of West African languages, in which there is no th sound. In words in AAE in which the th sound would be produced at the beginning of the word, it is pronounced as th in thing or as d in dese ("these"). When the th sound would be produced in the middle of the word, it is pronounced as f in bafroom ("bathroom") or v in brover ("brother"). At the end of the word, it can be pronounced as t, f, or v, as in mont ("month"), norf ("north"), or smoov ("smooth"), respectively. The sound depends on the position of the th in the word and the voicing property of the th; speakers do not haphazardly pronounce t, d, f, or v instead of th. Voicing is a technical term that is used to distinguish the two different th sounds: the th sound in bath and the th sound in bathe. Given the voicing property of th, bath would be pronounced with an final f ("baf"), and bathe would be pronounced with a final v ("bav").
In AAE, inflected be (e.g., is ), which marks present tense, does not have to occur in sentences in many cases, as in The boy_not running. However, it must occur if it is the first person singular form (I'm running.). Habitual be, which is different from inflected be, indicates that some activity occurs habitually, as in Those athletes be running fast ("Those athletes usually run fast."). This be is never inflected and is a source of confusion for non-AAE speakers, who incorrectly assume that AAE speakers are misusing inflected be when they use habitual be.
Often the general public confuse AAE with slang, which has a short life span and is generally used by adolescent to young adult speakers. AAE is not slang, although slang is a component of AAE just as it occurs in all dialects and languages. Slang generally refers to vocabulary items, words, and phrases; however, AAE is a system of communication—including sounds, sentence structure, component parts of words—not just a compilation of cool words and phrases. Some slang items, which may signal identification with a group, are used exclusively in African-American communities or started off in such communities and were adopted by mainstream America. An African American in the adolescent to young adult age group may use She was all up in my grill to mean "She was staring at me while I was talking to someone else" or "She was getting on my case, asking a series of questions." One reason people often define AAE as slang is that they make the link between African-American youth and hip-hop and thus take the language of hip-hop, which includes slang and innovative uses of words and phrases, to be AAE. Hip-hop artists may use AAE, but that cannot be determined just on the basis of their use of slang (e.g., "bling bling" to refer to expensive jewelry). In cases in which slang items in African-American communities cross over into the mainstream, African-American users generally abandon the old terms and coin new ones. Slang may be used in secular environments (e.g., get your roll on, "to cruise in an expensive car") and in religious contexts (e.g., get your praise on, "to praise God"). Other slang items are associated with regions, such as the New Orleans whoadie ("friend").
Some words used by people in African-American communities differ from slang in that they are long lived and used by speakers of all ages. Kitchen ("hair at the nape of the neck") and saditty ("conceited") are old words that are used by speakers of all age groups in AAE-speaking communities throughout the United States.
Because AAE differs from mainstream English and other English varieties in certain ways, questions have been raised about whether it is a separate language. Such questions have socio-political implications; however, it is clear that AAE has its own rules, and some of them overlap with rules of other varieties of English. From a linguistic standpoint, languages and dialects are equal in that they are rule-governed. (See Green, 2002, for further discussion of these patterns.)
Discourse and Rhetorical Strategies
Discourse and rhetorical strategies reflect the link between language and culture. Speakers of AAE understand rules of putting sounds together to form words and words together to form sentences, but they also know that there are rules of speaking that have social and cultural relevance. Topics in this area range from discourse marked by indirectness (Morgan, 2002) to speech events such as toasting, or paying tribute to oneself. In some instances, speakers make their points by indirectness, and the message may carry social, cultural, and historical information. As is the case with the dozens, the goal may be to insult or signify on an interlocutor, so extreme exaggerations may be made about family members, in particular "yo mama." An adult may say, "Common sense ain't so common" in the presence of a group intending to aim the remark at a person who has not displayed good judgment. In one conversation, a speaker directed his comment at another male. The first male asked whether the other had ever gotten a manicure and went on to talk about all the benefits, including a finger massage. The second male looked at his fingers and replied, "No, I don't get my nails did." The second male intentionally used a common phrase get my nails did with the past (did ), not past participle (done ) form, to signify on the first male. He indirectly indicated that getting his nails done was inappropriate for him and that the first male was engaging in bourgeois behavior. The interlocutors knew that get my nails did was used by some African-American females to refer to getting their nails done professionally.
Language and gender has not been widely researched in the AAE speech community with respect to social practice or linguistic patterns. Women use AAE on all levels; they are prime users of language (Smitherman, 1995). Troutman (2001) notes that African-American women's language includes a range of features from the general African-American speech community, such as signifying, and from the African-American women's speech community, such as assertiveness, "smart talk," and "sweet talk."
Features of AAE in Popular Culture
Features of AAE are evident in popular culture. Patterns from the grammar of AAE occur in rap, so habitual be is used by some rappers. Also, some vocabulary items in rap make their way into the slang component of AAE. For instance, bling bling and fo' shizzle ("for sure") first occurred in rap and then made their way into speech of adolescents to young adults. In some cases, vocabulary items in rap undergo broadening such that their meanings move from specific to general. For instance, gangsta or g could be used in a greeting as a general term for a male without reference to gangster behavior. Two rhetorical strategies that are used in rap are boasting and toasting. Rappers use a braggadocio tone to boast about their verbal prowess and material possessions. As more women enter the rap scene, they are also noted for mastering these verbal strategies. Toasting is certainly not just a property of rap or a strategy used by males. Chaka Kahn's "I'm Every Woman" is a toast that showcases the artist's talents and power.
AAE in Literature and Media
Different strategies are used to portray characters in literature and the media as speaking AAE. Eye dialect can be used to make the characters' language look like dialect or to distance it from mainstream English. This spelling technique may represent an AAE sound pattern, as in bof ("both"), or it may not reflect any change in pronunciation, as in enuf ("enough"). Some authors use strategies other than spelling techniques in representing the language of AAE speakers. Zora Neale Hurston, a twentieth-century African-American author, used sound, sentence structure, vocabulary, and meaning patterns in AAE, and it is necessary to understand linguistic and cultural meaning to get the gist of her characters' messages. For instance, come followed a verb ending in –ing (e.g., "come pulling") indicates speaker indignation, so when John in Jonah's Gourd Vine says, "She de one come pullin' on me," he is communicating indignantly that the woman had the audacity to pull or grab him. In John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers, AAE is used in contrast to "good English." Wideman associates rhetorical strategies such as rapping and trash talking, a form of bragging, with AAE and its users. Also, habitual be is used by AAE speakers in that book.
One marker that is used to signal black speech in the media is habitual be. Although the use and meaning of habitual be are not well understood by members outside of the AAE-speaking community, it is well known that the marker has a prominent place in AAE. It is used frequently in Fresh, a film about the coming of age of a streetwise adolescent. At times, the marker is used ungrammatically—in ways in which it is not used in AAE—and this suggests that its mere presence is intended to signal black street speech. Also, slang items are used in the media in representations of AAE. They occur in Spike Lee's movie Bamboozled, especially in the speech of a prominent white executive who tries to convince those around him that he is legitimately linked to the African-American community. African-American characters in Malcolm D. Lee's film The Best Man use language that is appropriate for them. One character who arguably has "street" and worldly experience uses habitual be. The characters also use slang items such as cheese ("money") and get her lil swerve on ("for her to have fun") and rhetorical strategies such as signification.
AAE Speakers and Education
Since the 1960s the relationship between AAE and education has been addressed in the literature. Two important events, Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board (1979) and the 1996 Oakland, California, Ebonics controversy, called attention to the effect of AAE on students' success in school. In King, the judge acknowledged that AAE served as a barrier to education when teachers did not take it into consideration in teaching its speakers. The media misrepresented the situation in Oakland; however, that school system recognized that AAE is rule-governed and that it is beneficial to make students aware of the difference between AAE and mainstream English. (See Baugh, 2000; Perry and Delpit, 1998; and Wolfram, 1999, for more discussion.)
One issue that continues to be in the forefront of study of AAE and education is the relationship between reading and use of AAE. This issue is crucial because of the low reading performance of many African-American youth. Some school systems have addressed this problem by implementing mainstream English proficiency programs that are used to help students distinguish AAE and classroom English and use them in appropriate settings. Understanding that AAE is systematic is useful in combating negative attitudes towards the variety and its users and teaching speakers more effectively.
See also Creole Languages of the Americas
Labov, William. Language in the Inner City: Stories in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.
Morgan, Marcyliena. Language, Discourse and Power in African American Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Perry, Theresa, and Lisa Delpit. The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language and the Education of African American Children. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Rickford, John R., and Russell John Rickford. Spoken Soul. New York: Wiley, 2000.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin' That Talk: Language, Culture and Education in African America. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Troutman, Denise. "African American Women Talking That Talk." In Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English, edited by Sonja L. Lanehart. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001.
Winford, Donald. "On the Origins of African American English—A Creolist Perspective Part 1: The Sociohistorical Background." Diachronica 14 (1997): 305–344.
Wolfram, Walt. "Repercussions from the Oakland Ebonics Controversy—The Critical Role of Dialect Awareness Programs." In Making the Connection: Language and Academic Achievement among African American Students, edited by Carolyn Temple Adger, Donna Christian, and Orlando L. Taylor, pp. 61–80. McHenry, Ill.: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems Co., 1999.
lisa green (2005)