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African American English

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African American English

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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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Key Ideas

  • AAE has a grammatical system that is as systematic as that of Mainstream (Standard) American English. It is not a substandard, uneducated, or lazy way of speaking. For more information about this topic, click here
  • There is debate about some aspects of the history of AAE, but researchers agree that its roots are as deep as those of other social and regional varieties of American English.
  • Despite this history and linguistic standing, there are often negative social consequences to speaking AAE. Speakers of AAE face discrimination because of persistent false stereotypes, for instance about the relation between academic ability and ways of speaking. Speakers may face discrimination via language profiling, which can occur during phone conversations.
  • Not all African Americans speak AAE, and not all speakers of AAE are African Americans. Some African Americans may speak Mainstream (Standard) American English, and some non-African Americans may choose to incorporate AAE features into their speech.
  • AAE has important social functions: Using AAE features signals solidarity with others who use this dialect.
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Key Terms

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Student Objectives

Students will:

  • Understand the inaccuracies of language stereotypes in society and their implications.
  • Understand the roots of African American English and the role it plays in American culture.
  • Identify some of the linguistic features that characterize African American English and the patterns of their use.
  • Develop their understanding of the importance of tailoring speech and writing to a particular audience, purpose, or genre.
  • Increase their understanding of the consequences of dialect prejudice.
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Using the Unit

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:

  • The material in this unit is likely to spark discussion and elicit strong opinions. To foster constructive dialogue, it will help to establish clear guidelines as to what kinds of comments are acceptable and unacceptable while also providing an opportunity for everyone to be heard. Ground rules may include the following:
    • Use “I” statements instead of statements that reflect generalizations.
    • Address ideas, not individuals: In responding to others’ comments, students should make sure not to attack the person but to address the ideas expressed.
    • It is important not to discount or ignore the experiences other students report, but it is also important to distinguish between personal opinions and scholarly research.
  • Many people in the video discuss how they tailor their speech to a particular audience while still maintaining an ethnic identity. Stress to students that the same general phenomenon is true of everyone. No one is monostylistic—we all alter our speech and writing style depending on factors such as setting and audience.

For Non-Linguistics Courses:

  • The Baron essay, "Hooked on Ebonics," and the Eble essay, "Sociolinguistics Basics," are both good introductions for non-linguists about this topic. Further background is presented below.
  • Exercises 4, 5, and 14 help students understand that AAE is rule-governed (i.e., grammatical), just as other language varieties are, and stress that AAE is not simply slang or “lazy” English. These exercises will be more effective when used in conjunction with Wolfram’s exercise on a-prefixing in Appalachian English.

For Linguistics Courses:

  • The more general information in this unit may be familiar to more advanced linguistics students. However, the information is probably appropriate for the beginning weeks of an introductory linguistics course.
  • Exercises 1, 3, and 14 can be adapted to focus on any desired linguistic features: phonological features (e.g., alternations between interdentals and alveolars), morphological features, lexical features, or syntactic features.
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Video Sections Used in This Unit

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                        

Hip Hop (DYSA/1)                   1.11                        [01:50:16]              (4:06)
For more information on accessing the video click here.   
In this unit:

Springville: African American English in Texas (DYSA/2)   2.6   [01:27:18]   (8:33)

African American English in Detroit (DYSA/11.9    [01:38:41]   (5:39)

Dialect in Schooling, the 1979
Ann Arbor decision  (DYSA/1)  1.10   [01:44:20]   (5:56)

Hip Hop
(DYSA/1) 1.11   [01:50:16]   (4:06)

African American English in California  (DYSA/ 3)  3.3   [01:09:13]  (5:50)

*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)

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Description of Video Segments

Springville: African American English in Texas (DYSA/2)  2.6     [01:27:18]   (8:33)
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  [01:50:16]   (4:06)
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/ 3)  3.3   [0109:13]  (5:50)
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 videogame 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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Background Information

Brief History of AAE

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 African Americans.
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The Features of AAE: A Brief Overview

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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Grammatical Features

  • Copula absence: “They hungry.”

    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.)

  • Habitual be: “We be playing basketball after school.”

    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).

  • 3rd person singular–s deletion: “He jump high.”

    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).

  • Double negatives: “Ain’t nobody can beat me.”

    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 Shakespeare!
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Pronunciation features

  • AAE also has distinctive pronunciation features. Perhaps most stereotypical is pronouncing these, with, and birthday with a “d”, “t”, or “f” replacing the “th” sounds of Mainstream English (“dese,”“wit,” and“birfday”).
  • Another pronunciation pattern of AAE is “g-dropping” at the end of –ing words, as in fishin and fightin. (It is important to note that this pronunication is not unique to AAE speakers but is used by speakers of Standard English, as well, in casual speech.)
  • AAE speakers often tend to drop the second (or third) consonant sound in a string of consonants occurring at the end of words. For example, the word mist may be pronounced as “mis.” Interestingly, mist and missed are pronounced exactly the same in English, and the same process can make the word missed come out as “mis”—thus giving the illusion that it is a present tense verb instead of a past tense verb (for more information about how this process works, including when it is more or less likely to occur, see Eble’s article "Sociolinguistics Basics").
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The Ann Arbor Decision

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 videoDaniel Russell in Do You Speak American? is one concrete way of meeting the need to address linguistic diversity in education.

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Discussion Questions

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 (DYSA/3)

        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 of 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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Student Activities/Exam questions

Writing assignments

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:

  1.  We be leavin’ right this minute.
  2.  They always late to my show.
  3.  Sometimes my ears be itchin’.
  4.  She in high school when she was fifteen.
  5.  I always be tellin’ you I ain’t hungry, but you never listen .
  6.  Ask Joshua what he think about it.
  7.  He ain’t got no shoes.
  8.  You act like you grown.
  9.  She love her toys so much.
  10.  Yesterday, we at the pool.
  11. They be singin’ so loud right now I can’t hear myself think!
  12. They plays ball all day.

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)

Research-based activities

6. Read (and respond) assignment: Read the essays by Wolfram, "Studying Language in its Social Setting," and Baron, "Hooked on Ebonics," and present overviews to the class.

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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  • Bailey, Guy, Natalie Maynor, and Patricia Cukor-Avila. Emergence of Black English: Text and Commentary. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1991.
  • Green, L. J. African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • A Linguistic Introduction to the History, Sounds, and Structures of African American English. This text examines the linguistic and social status of African American English and its use in modern American culture.
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent. New York: Routledge, 1997.
    Attitudes toward accents and dialects, including AAE, are institutionalized in courts and perpetuated in the media and at work. Those whose accents are not considered prestigious may suffer discrimination.
  • Rickford, John R., and Russell J. Rickford. Spoken soul: The Story of Black English. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000.
    This engaging and comprehensive account of Black English (also known as African American English [AAE]) includes discussions of the artistic forms associated with AAE, pronunciation and grammatical patterns, the history of AAE, AAE and education, and language and identity. This is a must-read for anyone interested in getting the real story on African American English—what it is, what it isn’t, and how it got to be the way it is.
  • Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin that Talk: African American Language and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.
    This volume brings together Smitherman’s writings on the interrelationship among language, education, and culture in African America.
  • Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes, American English: Dialects and Variation, 2nd ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
    Intended for readers with little or no background in linguistic science, this college-level textbook includes a chapter on AAE as well as chapters on the range of regional, social, and ethnic variation in American English; language and gender; style shifting; the history of English in America; and the general nature of language variation.
  • Other:

  • Adger, C.T., and N. Schilling-Estes. African American English: Structure and Clinical Implications. CD-ROM. Rockville, Md.: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1994.
    Intended for training speech/language pathologists, this resource identifies and exemplifies features of AAE.

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Video Key:

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 Description
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.)

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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.


National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett


Rosalind P.

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Corporation of New York