High School 9-12 Levels
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 as 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 or AAVE must be distinguished from hip-hop, or Hip-Hop Nation Language (HHNL). HHNL, popularly used by young people, refers to the 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, even while 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.
Standard 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
This unit addresses style shifting in oral communication depending on audience and purpose.
Standard 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
This unit supports students’ learning about the patterns of language structure and language use that characterize AAE, as well as attitudes toward this and other dialects.
Before You Teach
Teaching The Unit
After You Teach
Description/Episode DVD Section VT Time Code Running Time
In this unit:
African American English in
Dialect in Schooling, the 1979
Hip Hop (DYSA/1)* 1.11 [01:50:16] (4:06)
African American English in
*Material may not be suitable for all audiences. The hip hop performance contains strong language that teachers may find inappropriate for in-class viewing. Teachers should preview this section before using it in class.Total time of video segments: 34:04 (time without the starred section, 25:58)
Springville: 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
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 using different accents in calling rental agencies. His research shows that callers may be subjected to linguistic profiling, which is 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, (link to AAVE Class Action Suit). 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.
African American English in
California (DYSA/3) 3.3 [01:9:13]
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.
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 several 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—languages that have developed out of pidgins and have acquired native speakers—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 to this day 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.. 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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Materials for Teachers
Select discussion questions that address your lesson objectives and tailor them to achieve the outcomes you expect.
Springville: African American
from Springville, Texas (DYSA/2)
1. Slavery in Texas: The linguists Guy Bailey and 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. Have students discuss what might have caused a divergence of AAE from other varieties of English following the end of slavery. 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.” Ask students whether they think that people in America are divided by separate languages. Do they think Americans are divided by the many varieties of English spoken here? Or, are there ways you see people choosing various modes of expression that originate in different speech communities? Have them think of examples in which people who speak different dialects of English cooperate. If any students are familiar with the language situation of another country, ask how is it the same as or different from the one here.
African American English in
3a. Linguistic Profiling/John Baugh: The housing agents that Dr. Baugh calls make assumptions about him based on his voice and respond accordingly. Have students listen to 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? Have students explain their answers.
3b. Ask students whether, to avoid housing discrimination, individuals should try to speak Standard English when they talk to rental agents? If an individual has not learned Standard English, can we fault him or her for not speaking Standard English? Should housing agents, and the broader society, be held responsible for their discriminatory attitudes and practices? Why or why not?
3c. Have students discuss what assumptions they make when they hear a stranger on the telephone. Have them list and discuss some advantages and disadvantages of making assumptions about people they don’t know.
4. Creole/Gullah, language mixing: In the film, we see that African Americans living on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia speak a language that is different from AAE. Ask students why it is different: What conditions exist in Africa and in the Sea Islands that have allowed the trade languages and Gullah to persist while African Americans in other parts of the country have changed their speech?
Dialect in Schooling, the 1979 Ann
Arbor decision (DYSA/1)
5. 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.” Have students discuss what they assume about people when they hear them speak (e.g., age, sex, attitudes, personality). Have them speculate about what assumptions they think people make about them based on the way they speak. Which of these assumptions are likely to be right and which wrong? Are such assumptions similar to or different from those made about people based on visually observable attributes (e.g., sex or age)? Discuss the usefulness and the dangers of such assumptions.
6. Ann Arbor, MI: The lawyer who tried the case, Kenneth Lewis, says that a person applying for a job in his law firm would require particular language skills—and that if he himself wanted to work as a DJ for an R & B (rhythm and blues) station, he would need a different set of language skills. Ask students whether one person can have two completely different sets of language skills. Have them talk about which different styles of language they feel competent using, in what situations they feel the need to shift their speech style, and what styles they think are most useful or important to have.
Hip Hop (DYSA/1)
7. Hip Hop: The hip-hop group, Athletic Mic League, uses a specialized set of terms such as pronasty and spittin’. Ask students whether they 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
8. Steve Harvey: Steve Harvey says that to get by in America you have to be able to switch between different ways of speaking. Have students evaluate the difference between being able to switch between different varieties of English and being able to switch between different languages.
9. Academic English Mastery program: The program director, Noma LeMoine, says that it’s important not to devalue students “by virtue of their cultural and linguistic differences” because this would alienate them from education. Ask students whether they think the Academic English Mastery program values cultural and linguistic differences, based on what the video shows. Discuss whether some students’ language is preferred at your school (or at another school with which students are familiar), and have them give examples to support what they say. Ask whether they or their friends have ever had any difficulty at school because of their home language.
1. Journal, portfolio, or writing assignment: Any of the discussion questions above could be used as a journal writing prompt, a possible portfolio writing, or other general writing assignment.
2. Ann Arbor, MI: The lawyer who tried the case, Kenneth Lewis, says that a person applying for a job in his law firm would require particular language skills—and that if he himself wanted to work as a DJ for an R & B (rhythm and blues) station, he would need a different set of language skills. Have students consider their own career goals and discuss what language styles will be useful.
3. Academic English Mastery Program: Have students imagine that they have a friend who is having difficulty in school because of his or her home language. Students can write a letter to their teacher or principal describing their friend’s predicament, making suggestions about how classes could change to address his or her home language. (Referring to segments from Ann Arbor and the Academic English Mastery Program may help in this activity.)
5. Vocabulary, Hip Hop: Manyhip-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 and defined it as having professional lyrical ability. As the Athletic Mic League has done, have students combine a mainstream word with a word used with their friends or words they find on an AAE word database. Have them create their own new word and use it in a sentence.
6. Literature-based exercise: Many people believe that hip-hop and rap use only language that is offensive, homophobic, and sexist. Have students find examples of hip-hop with a political/social/spiritual message and analyze it as poetry, identifying poetic devices such as meter, rhyme, and metaphor. This assignment can be extended to include a comparison of the devices used by African American poets like Langston Hughes or other Harlem Renaissance poets. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech also offers a rich text for analysis since it illustrates combining AAE discourse features and Standard English features for maximal rhetorical resonance.
7. Research report: Have students create a chart comparing issues and events relating the Ann Arbor, Michigan, case and the Oakland, California, Ebonics policy. Have the students present their chart and discuss arguments supporting and opposing AAE in the classroom.
8a. Habitual be Exercise. One of the most noticeable features of AAE is the use of uninflected 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, have students locate all the uses of the to be verb, including habitual be. In each case, have them state what form of be is used and why. Have them support their answers by referring to the context surrounding the to be verb each time it is used. (For habitual be, they should have supporting clues from the context that imply a recurring act.) Remind students that the inflected forms of to be in the present tense are am, is, and are (as well as contracted forms).
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!
For each sentence pair below, ask students to choose the one sentence in which habitual be would be used in AAE and explain their choice:
1. a. Sometimes my ears be itchin’.
b. My ears be itchin’ right now.
2. a. Momma be workin’ today.
b. Momma be workin’ every day.
3. a. I be tellin’ you just now, I ain’t hungry!
b. I always be tellin’ you I ain’t hungry, but you never listen.
4. a. That baby be so cute!
b. That baby be laughin’ and playin’.
5. a. They be singin’ ’cause they in the choir.
b. They be singin’ so loud right now I can’t hear myself think!
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.