African American English
Curricular Unit Menu
No topic in sociolinguistics has been studied more than the history and the structure of African American English (AAE). Also referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Black English, and Ebonics, there is debate on the status of African American English is a distinct dialect of American English spoken by many African Americans or as a language in its own right (See Rethinking Schools, “The Real Ebonics Debate.”).
Over the past 50 years, linguists have conducted a great deal of scientific research on AAE, but the public has not been well informed about what language features characterize this dialect and where it came from. This unit presents several hypotheses about the development of African American English, looks at how schools have addressed African American English, and investigates the influential role that African American English plays in modern culture and society. The unit promotes student awareness of a dialect that is likely to fascinate them and challenges predominant stereotypes.
AAE and AAVE must be distinguished from hip-hop, or Hip-Hop Nation
Language (HHNL). HHNL, popularly used by young people, refer to a mode
of speaking associated with hip-hop culture—not the same thing as
AAE/AAVE. AAE/AAVE has been spoken in America for centuries and thus
has a much longer history than HHNL, which has been around only for
several decades. AAE is spoken by a wide range of people throughout the
United States, while hip-hop vocabulary tends to be specialized and
used only among distinct social groups. However, most importantly,
while AAE/AAVE and HHNL share a rich and vibrant vocabulary, HHNL does
not differ structurally, whereas African –American Vernacular English
has its own syntactical structure, and may incorporate slang vocabulary
but is much more than simply the use of slang.
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The information presented in this unit is suitable for a variety of college-level courses, especially African American History and Culture and Multicultural Education, but also Introduction to Linguistics, Communication and Culture, Language in Society, and Languages in the United States. It is relevant to a variety of American literature courses in which such genres as slave narratives, the Harlem Renaissance, and modern fiction of slavery and the South are taught.
General Teaching Tips:
For Non-Linguistics Courses:
For Linguistics Courses:
Do You Speak American? is available on both DVD and conventional videotape. Guides for accessing specific sections of the video have been formatted as follows:
Description/Episode DVD Section VT Time Code Running Time
African American English in
Dialect in Schooling, the 1979
Hip Hop (DYSA/1) * 1.11 [01:50:16] (4:06)
African American English in
Total time of video segments: 34:04 (time without the starred section, 25:58)
African American English in Texas (DYSA/2) 2.6 [01:27:18]
features two linguists, Dr. Guy Bailey and Dr. Patricia Cukor-Avila, and the research they have been conducting over 17 years in the rural community of Springville, Texas. The segment includes a brief interview with Willie (a pseudonym), an elderly African American man from the community, as well as Library of Congress recordings of former slaves made in the 1930s. Dr. Bailey and Dr. Cukor-Avila discuss how the speech found in the Library of Congress recordings and among elderly African Americans in Texas is more similar to the speech of elderly European Americans than the speech of younger African Americans is to younger European Americans. The implication is that the speech of Blacks and Whites is diverging (that is, becoming more dissimilar), rather than converging (becoming more similar)—the opposite of what one might expect in a society that no longer has legal segregation. (Of course, de facto racial segregation exists across America where neighborhoods tend to be either largely White or largely Black.)
African American English in Detroit
(DYSA/1) 1.9 [01:38:41] (5:39)
identifies Detroit as a hub of African American culture since the 1960s. MacNeil and linguist Dr. John Baugh visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.They discuss the history of African American English beginning with enslaved peoples in West Africa, whose voices can still be heard among speakers of Gullah who now live mostly in the Sea Islands area of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Dr. Baugh demonstrates research he has been conducting by calling housing-rental agencies using different accents. His research shows that callers may be subjected to linguistic profiling analogous to the more straightforward racial profiling that some people experience.
Dialect in Schooling, the 1979 Ann Arbor Decision (DYSA/1) 1.10 [01:44:20] (5:56)) introduces key members of a class action lawsuit in 1977-1979, Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Childrenv.Ann Arbor School District Board,Three African American mothers argued that their children were being treated unfairly in their mostly White school because of their language. Interviews with three of the students; a mother; the case social worker, Ruth Zweifler; and one of the prosecuting lawyers, Kenneth Lewis, revisit the case and its continuing implications in schools today.
Hip Hop (DYSA/1) 1.11
features interviews with and performances by members of the hip hop group Athletic Mic League, who talk about some of the words that they use to describe their hip-hop performances. **Performance contains racially charged language.**
African American English in California (DYSA/
investigates African American English in California. This section begins with a brief interview with Steve Harvey, a radio DJ, actor, and stand-up comedian. He discusses the need for a range of speech styles to meet the communicative demands of various situations. Next, Daniel Russel, an elementary school teacher, uses a game of Jeopardy! to teach style shifting skills (sometimes called codeswitching, a term more appropriately applied to switching between two languages) to his Academic English Mastery class Also interviewed is program director Noma LeMoine, who describes the success the program has had in teaching minority children Standard English by using their proficiency in their home dialects.
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Even after decades of research on African American English (AAE), there is still no consensus as to exactly how it has developed. Although there are additional theories, the two most prominent are featured in Do You Speak American? One theory suggests that when slaves of different language backgrounds were transported from Africa to America, they developed a pidgin—a simplified version of a language used for communication between people or groups who do not have a common language. This language subsequently developed into a full-fledged creole language that children acquired in their homes. (Some creole languages have the word creole in their names—for example, Hawaiian Creole—while others do not—for example, Gullah). It is believed that the Gullah spoken on the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia closely resembles the language used by slaves on plantations. Because plantation slaves were not taught English and had limited contact with English speakers, some features of this creole were passed from generation to generation. These features have survived post-slavery because as AAE developed, it became more than just a means of communicating between groups: It is a source of solidarity among people who use it.
A second theory is that slaves in the South worked alongside indentured servants who spoke non-mainstream varieties of English. African American slaves learned English from these indentured servants (often of Scots-Irish descent). People who believe this explanation for the beginning of AAE say that it explains similarities between AAE and other non-mainstream varieties of English (such as Appalachian English, which shares some linguistic features with AAE).
It is important to note that these theories are not mutually exclusive. The true history of AAE may lie somewhere in between or in both of these theories. It is possible that language developed differently depending on factors such as the number of slaves and indentured servants on a plantation, the crop that was being grown, and the role that overseers played. Whatever the origin of AAE, we do know that it has changed considerably over time, as can be seen by comparing modern day Gullah and AAE, which are quite different despite sharing some characteristics.
The Great Migration of African Americans north and then west, beginning in 1890 and continuing until the 1970s, is responsible for spreading AAE throughout all of the United States. African Americans moved in large numbers to Northern cities such as Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to find better jobs and better living conditions. Often, African Americans as with almost all other immigrants to a new geographical area, settled in their own communities. While this is a common sociological pattern to seek out one’s own community, the social force of racism also served to keep African Americans within geographical boundaries. From not selling homes to African Americans in white neighborhoods to White flight into the suburbs, racism contributed significantly to social an geographical separation between European and African Americans. and maintained social separation from European Americans. This, along with the “White flight” phenomenon, has led to de facto segregation that continues to be maintained. . This, along with the “White flight” phenomenon, has led to de facto segregation that continues to be maintained. Because AAE in all parts of the country has roots ultimately in the American South, we find less regional difference in the speech of African Americans than in that of European Americans—although some regional differences in AAE do exist.
Although AAE is clearly stigmatized in modern American culture, it
continues to be spoken by millions of people. The reasons for this are
many. Within the context of the community, AAE is a valuable resource
and an important aspect of group identity. Not speaking AAE can lead to
being considered an outsider. A person with in-group status will often
have access to local resources and networks that outsiders will not
have. In this sense, using AAE in the community can be as valuable and
important as using Standard English in mainstream professional
situations. Because of the insiders’ prestige that AAE carries, it
continues to be an important resource and symbol of solidarity for
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Although it is not possible to give a complete list of AAE features
here, a few features will illustrate the systematic structure of this
dialect. (See the Resources
section of this unit for more detailed information on this topic.) This
overview simplifies the patterns and structures to make them easier to
understand. (Many of the features that typify AAE are also found in
older Southern White English.) It is important to keep in mind that
speakers of AAE do not always use AAE features when they could do so.
Like all speakers, they shift between less formal and more formal
varieties of English.
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AAE speakers will occasionally omit any form of the verb to be in sentences that require a form of to be in Standard English. Example sentences would include She going or They hungry. But am and past tense was and were are never left out, thus you would never hear sentences like *I going or *They hungry last night.(The asterisk that precedes these sentences is a convention that linguists use to mark forms that would not be characteristic of a particular speech variety.)
Perhaps the most stereotypical feature of AAE is what linguists refer to as habitual be: using the unconjugated form of the verb to be to signal a habitual or regularly occurring action, as in sentences like We be playing basketball or She be working late, which mean “We play basketball from time to time” or “She works late a lot” (but which do not mean “We are playing basketball right now” or “She is working late right now”). Despite the stereotypes, people who use this feature do not use it in all sentences with the be verb, and they do not suffer from a lack of ability to conjugate be. Rather, uninflected be is used only to refer to habitual or regularly occurring actions. In other types of sentences, speakers of AAE will use inflected be or no be verb at all, as in We’re playing basketball right now or We playing basketball right now. Note that Standard English does not have a special form of the be verb to indicate habituality. It uses an adverb or adverbial phrase with the verb to indicate this meaning (We usually play basketball; She often works late).
Another common feature of AAE is omitting the –s with verbs following a third person singular subject (compare Mainstream English I jump, you jump, we jump, they jump--but she jumps).
Also common in AAE is what is called double negatives, as in We
don’t know nothing bout nobody. White Appalachian dialect speakers
also use this construction—and it can be found in Chaucer and
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Differences in speech between Blacks and Whites have consequences in all aspects of society, none more crucial than education. Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Childrenv.Ann Arbor School District Board determined the responsibility of teachers to accommodate the speech of African Americans and other non-mainstream English-speaking children. The lawsuit was filed in Detroit, Michigan, in 1977 on behalf of 15 African American children. These children all resided in the Green Road housing project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and attended Martin Luther King Junior Middle School, a predominately White school in suburban Ann Arbor. The children were disproportionately placed in special education classes and speech/language pathology services. The plaintiffs argued that the school was failing to properly educate the children by not taking into account their cultural and language background. It was these actions and inactions that essentially handicapped the students. Three mothers, as well as a social worker familiar with the housing project, Ruth Zweifler, sought the help of lawyers Gabe Kaimowitz and Kenneth Lewis. Together with linguists serving as expert witnesses, they convinced Federal Judge Charles W. Joiner that the children’s poor performance at school was not related to mental retardation, language disability, or behavioral problems and that the children were intelligent kids who could learn if taught appropriately. The judge found that the school board had failed “to recognize the existence of the language system used by the children in their home community and to use that knowledge as a way of helping the children learn to read Standard English. . . . No matter how well intentioned the teachers are, they are not likely to be successful in overcoming the language barrier caused by their failure to take into account the home language system, unless they are helped . . . to recognize the existence of the language system used by the children in their home community.” Because the court found that it was not African American English that was the barrier to attaining an education but rather the school’s reaction to AAE, teachers were ordered to attend workshops to learn how to better accommodate non-mainstream varieties of English into the classroom. The Academic English Mastery Program, demonstrated by Daniel Russell in Do You Speak American? is one concrete way of meeting the need to address linguistic diversity in education.
Springville: African American English in Texas (DYSA/2)
1. Slavery in Texas: The linguists Dr. Guy Bailey and Dr. Patricia Cukor-Avila maintain that the distinctive language variety used by African Americans was formed primarily in the 20th century and that it may still be becoming more dissimilar from mainstream American English. What do you think might have caused a divergence of AAE from other varieties of English? Why would a group develop and maintain a distinct variety of English?
2. Slavery in Texas: MacNeil concludes section 2.6 by saying, “More separate languages mean more separate peoples.” Does language divide people in America? Must the multiple varieties of English spoken here divide people – is it an inevitable consequence? Or, are there ways you see people choosing various modes of expression that originate in different speech communities?”Or can you think of examples in which people who speak different dialects of English cooperate in many endeavors? Are you familiar with the language situation in another country that offers a different perspective on this issue of separation by language?
African American English in Detroit (DYSA/1)
3a. Linguistic profiling: The housing agents that Dr. Baugh calls make assumptions about him based on his voice and respond accordingly. Listen to Dr. Baugh’s production of African American English, Chicano English and Standard English. Does a person have to be African American to speak AAE? Does a person have to be Chicano to speak Chicano English? Is there a connection between ethnicity and Standard English? Explain your answers.
3b. Linguistic profiling: What are the implications of linguistic profiling research? Does it suggest that people need to be able to shift between different language varieties and use more prestigious ones in certain situations? Does it suggest that the society should learn to accept different ways of speaking? If so, how could that be accomplished?
3c. Compare and contrast linguistic profiling and racial profiling.
Dialect in Schooling, the 1979 Ann Arbor Decision (DYSA/1)
4. Ann Arbor, MI: MacNeil says: “When they spoke as they did at home—in African American English—their instructors simply assumed they couldn’t do school work.” What do you assume about people when you hear them speak (e.g sex, age, attitudes, personality)? What assumptions do you think people make about you based on the way you speak? Are some of these assumptions wrong? Are such assumptions similar to or different from those made about people based on visually observable attributes? Discuss the usefulness and the dangers of such assumptions.
Hip Hop (DYSA/1)
5. Hip Hop: The hip-hop
group, Athletic Mic League, uses a
specialized set of terms such as pronasty and spittin’. Do
you participate in any group (friends, sports team, band, etc.) that
has its own set of words that outsiders may not understand? Are they
new words or are they new meanings for old words? Why do groups use
terms in unique ways?
African American English in California
6. Academic English Mastery program: The program director, Noma LeMoine, says that it’s important not to devalue students “in any way by virtue of their cultural and linguistic differences” because this would alienate them from education. Does this seem to you like a worthwhile program? Discuss its advantages. Why hasn’t it spread across America? What possible problems or disadvantages do you see?
7. AAE and other ethnic dialects: As of 2003, the Hispanic population surpassed the African American population as the largest minority group in the United States. Both groups have a number of speakers that do not use Mainstream English to communicate. Are their linguistic issues fundamentally similar or different? In what ways? For more information on Chicano English, see the unit on it.
7a. AAE and Standard English: Some individuals in Do You Speak American? hold the view that there is one and only one correct way to speak American—that way being what is called Standard English. Often the term “Standard English” is used, which sets up this particular way of speaking English as standard, that is as normative and central, an arguable position given the rich variation of spoken English. The concept of an English speaking standard may be understood as more of a political orientation than accurately addressing the various modes of English speaking, watch with their own integrity and claim to centrality within their own speech communities. In asking students, ‘What is considered Standard English”, the discussion is open to examining who is invested in a standard for spoken English, and what is at stake in either accepting or rejecting that such a standard exists. Other Americans (some featured in the video) do not conform to Standard English conventions. Do you foresee tension building in future years as linguistic diversity in America increases? Do you think the government will ever make English our official language? What would it mean if it did so—for speakers of the Standard variety? for speakers of nonstandard varieties? for Americans who do not speak English? for learners of English?
7b. Language and
Social Identity: Consider the case
Esperanto, a so-called universal language that was created (based on
existing natural languages) by a linguist in the 1880s. Today,
Esperanto is considered little more than a novelty that has never
gained everyday, native use in an actual speech community. Why do you
think Esperanto never gained a foothold as a living language? How
important is language to social identity?
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Any of the discussion questions above could be used as a prompt for an essay or position paper, a journal entry, assessment, or general writing assignment. Here we have made additional suggestions for writing assignments:
1a. Now imagine that you are an African-American living in a White community in which everyone communicates using Standard English but understands AAE. You are new to this community and speak both AAE and Standard English fluently. Describe your experience in this community if you only used AAE. How would this experience change if you only used Standard English?
1b. Compare your responses to 1a. and 1b. Were there aspects of these questions that were more difficult than others? Why or why not?
2. Habitual be exercise. One of the most noticeable features of AAE is the use of uninflected to be to indicate habitual or recurring actions, as in a sentence like “He always be late for dinner.” This use is called habitual be. Habitual be is NOT typically used in sentences indicating long-term states or one-time actions. For example, speakers of AAE would say “He’s nice” or “He nice” rather than “He be nice” and “He’s late tonight” or “He late tonight” rather than “He be late tonight.”
The following dialogue demonstrates how speakers use habitual be. (This dialogue is invented in order to show the use of habitual be; it is not a transcript of an actual conversation.) In this exercise, locate all the uses of the to be verb, including habitual be. In each case, state what form of be is used and why. Support your answer by looking at the context surrounding the to be verb each time it is used. (Hint: It is not enough to simply look for all the to be forms in the dialogue. Make sure you have supporting clues from the context that imply a recurring or ongoing act.) Remember that the inflected forms of to be in the present tense are am, is, and are (as well as contracted forms as in I’m, she’s, you’re and they’re).
Mary: How’d you like pastor’s sermon today?
Katrina: Oh Momma! He be preachin’ ’bout curing world hunger every week! Sometimes, his sermons be gettin’ me so hungry!
Mary: Oh, now stop it! You’re gettin’ on my nerves today. I’m gonna fix dinner as soon as I can. I tell you, child—it’s a good thing I be prayin’ for you!
Katrina: Sorry, momma. I know you always be telling me to think before I speak. It’s just—when it come to food, I be forgettin’ myself. The pastor is a nice man, and you’re the best momma ever!
3. Quiz on AAE features
For each sentence pair below, choose the one sentence in which habitual be would be used in AAE and explain your choice:
4. Vocabulary, hip hop: Many hip hop artists pride themselves on their lyrical ability and spontaneous creativity. The hip-hop group Athletic Mic League created the word pronasty by combining professional and nasty to mean having professional lyrical ability. Combine a mainstream word with a word you only use with your friends or words you find on an AAE word database. Create your own new words and illustrate their meaning in a vignette where the words are used in context.
5. Exercise on slang: Many people refer to AAE as slang. Slang may be defined as a word or phrase that changes rapidly, is used by an in-group, and is often used in the place of common word to refer to a taboo subject such as sex, drugs, or intoxication. With these characteristics in mind, come up with a list of slang words for a particular subject. What is the relationship between AAE and slang?
(Adapted with permission from Dr. Stuart Davis, Indiana University)
7. Challenging Stereotypes: Some have referred to AAE as lazy, incomprehensible, and ungrammatical English.Review the characteristics of AAE described in this unit. What are the implications of labeling AAE an ungrammatical language variety? Find examples of negative references to AAE or speakers of AAE in the media, music, etc. Use the knowledge you have gained in this unit to write a rebuttal to the claim you find.
8. Understanding linguistic patterns of AAE: Consult the book by Green or the one by Rickford and Rickford or use your own knowledge of AAE to select another feature of AAE not mentioned in this unit. Write a short description of the feature in your own words. Listen for this listed feature being used in conversation and on television and describe the speaker using the feature, the context in which the feature was spoken, and any additional details.
9a. Research paper: In Do You Speak American?, researchers presenttwo opposing views about the origins of AAE and its relationship to Mainstream English. The first view, discussed in segment 1.9, maintains that African American English arose from a creole language and is preserved in Gullah, spoken in the Sea Islands off the southern Atlantic coast. Linguists who adhere to this view believe that since the time plantation creole was spoken, Mainstream English and AAE are becoming more similar. On the other hand, linguists such as Drs. Guy Bailey and Patricia Cukor-Avila (seen in segment 2.6) believe that AAE is becoming more dissimilar from Mainstream English. Research this question further and write a 3-5 page paper discussing the evidence for each theory.
9b. Position paper: What do you think is the best explanation for the persistence of AAE? Write a paper that supports your opinion, based on what you saw in the broadcast (see question 8a) or on your own research on the history of AAE (see the Resources section).
10. Position paper: Conduct a review of newspaper articles that focused on the Oakland School Board’s decision to acknowledge Ebonics as a home language in the mid 1990’s. What were the social goals and main arguments of each side of the issue? Describe what you would do to mediate a discussion between people on either side of the issue. (Modified with permission from Dr. Stuart Davis, Indiana University, author of The Ebonics Controversy)
11. Position paper: Take a position on what the role of AAE should be in the education of African American children who speak it. Should the goal be to eliminate this dialect in favor of Standard English? Should the goal be the maintenance this dialect along with Standard English? Be sure to state the pros and cons of each position. (Used with permission from Dr. Stuart Davis)
12. Position paper: In May 1978 a Michigan court began assessing the relationship between teachers’ ignorance of AAE and unequal education for African American speakers of AAE in Ann Arbor. Examine articles about the trial and evaluate how fairly the media presented each side of the issue. Compare the coverage of the Ann Arbor case with the Oakland court case in Oakland twenty years later. (Modified with permission from Dr. Stuart Davis)
13. Identifying more AAE features. The following dialogue contains instances of several features of AAE, some of which have not been discussed in this unit. Consult Rickford and Rickford’s book Spoken soul (or another resource) to identify the features and find the linguistic terms for them. Write a short paper telling what features you identified and expressing, in your own words, the rules for their use.
Katrina: Hey Mama! How you been?
Mary: Katrina, why you wasn’t at the church potluck yesterday?
Katrina: Oh Mama! You know I always be cookin’ for those church events. I’m tired of it! Old man Otis keep tellin’ me my cookin ain’t up to par.
Mary: You be complainin’ bout Otis all the time. If he botherin’ you so much about your cookin’, go get the dog on him.
Katrina: You want me to get Birchwood on old man Otis? That dog be done killed that man before he could open his mouth to yell! But anyway, why you botherin’ me about this church potluck anyway?
Mary: Well, you know what the girls be sayin’ bout these church events. You can catch yourself a fine lookin’ man!
Katrina: Oh Mama! If I cook as bad as old man Otis be sayin, I ain’t
gonna find nobody!
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Baron, "Hooked on Ebonics"
Baugh, "Comprehending Ebonics"
Wolfram, "When Linguistic Collide"
AAVE Class Action Suit in broadcast
Ed Online Web from Thirteen/WNET Each month, Thirteen/WNET New York creates a monthly theme on its Web site for educators and students, Ed Online (http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/). January, 2005 will feature Do You Speak American? with a links to the program Web site and two original learning activities: one for the Afterschool community on the language of Hip-Hop and the other engages teens with activities that teach the evolution of teen slang throughout pop culture.
DVD Episode & Chapters: For DVD users, DYSA has been broken down into episodes and chapters. (The term chapter is industry standard for sections or "breaks" programmed into the DVD video. A number indicating the DYSA episode will always be followed by a number indicating the DVD chapter within an episode. (i.e. 1.2 is Episode 1, Chapter 2. The numbers 1.2 appear on-screen for DVD users.) DVD users may watch a DYSA episode straight through or alternatively, jump to specific sections of the program by referring to a main menu available on the DVD.
Chapter (or section) descriptions are available on-screen for DVD users only, and include a text description along side the episode number and the chapter number within the episode (i.e. 1.2 Pronunciation in Maine). Videotape users will need to refer to printed versions of the curricular units to benefit from the chapter descriptions.
Running Time The running time indicates the length of the section of video.
Videotape (VT) Time Code Videotape users should fast forward or rewind to the corresponding number displayed in the videotape counter window in the front of the videotape playback device. (i.e. Videotape users should insert the videotape in the player and shuttle to [01:27:19] in the counter window to see the beginning of the Springville,Texas section.)
The Do You Speak American? curriculum was made possible, in part, by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.
William and Flora Hewlett
© COPYRIGHT 2005 MACNEIL/LEHRER PRODUCTIONS. All Rights Reserved.