African-American English

Last updated
African-American English
Black English
Region United States
Ethnicity African Americans
Latin (English alphabet)
American Braille
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None

African-American English (AAE), also known as Black English in American linguistics, is the set of English dialects primarily spoken by most black people in the United States; [1] most commonly, it refers to a dialect continuum ranging from African-American Vernacular English to a more standard English. [2] African-American English shows variation such as in vernacular versus standard forms, rural versus urban characteristics, features specific to singular cities or regions only, and other sociolinguistic criteria. There has also been a significant body of African-American literature and oral tradition for centuries.

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It involves analysing language form, language meaning, and language in context. The earliest activities in the documentation and description of language have been attributed to the 6th-century-BC Indian grammarian Pāṇini who wrote a formal description of the Sanskrit language in his Aṣṭādhyāyī.

Black people is a skin group-based classification, which is used for specific people with a mid to dark brown complexion. Not all “Black people” are dark skinned. However, in certain countries, often in socially based systems of racial classification or of ethnicity, it is used to describe persons who are perceived to be dark-skinned when compared to other populations. Depending on the usage, it is mostly used for the people of Sub-Saharan Africa and the indigenous peoples of Oceania, Southeast Asia and India.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.


African-American English began as early as the seventeenth century, when the Atlantic slave trade brought African slaves into the British-colonial North America in an area that became the Southern United States in the late eighteenth century. [3] During the development of plantation culture in this region, nonstandard dialects of English were widely spoken by British settlers, [4] as well as likely some creolized varieties, probably resulting in both first- and second-language English varieties developed by African Americans. [3] The nineteenth century's evolving cotton-plantation industry, and eventually the twentieth century's Great Migration, certainly contributed greatly to the spread of the first of these varieties as stable dialects of English. The most widespread modern dialect is known as African-American Vernacular English.

Atlantic slave trade Slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean between the 16th and 19th centuries

The Atlantic slave trade or transatlantic slave trade involved the transportation by slave traders of enslaved African people, mainly to the Americas. The slave trade regularly used the triangular trade route and its Middle Passage, and existed from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The vast majority of those who were enslaved and transported in the transatlantic slave trade were people from central and western Africa, who had been sold by other West Africans to Western European slave traders, who brought them to the Americas. The South Atlantic and Caribbean economies especially were dependent on the supply of secure labour for the production of commodity crops, making goods and clothing to sell in Europe. This was crucial to those western European countries which, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, were vying with each other to create overseas empires.

British colonization of the Americas American Colonies of England and then Great Britain and the United Kingdom

British colonisation of the Americas began in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia, and reached its peak when colonies had been established throughout the Americas. The English, and later the British, were among the most important colonisers of the Americas, and their American empire came to surpass the Spanish American colonies in military and economic might.

Southern United States Cultural region of the United States

The southern United States, also known as the American South, Dixie, Dixieland, or simply the South, is a region of the United States of America. It is located between the Atlantic Ocean and the western United States, with the midwestern United States and northeastern United States to its north and the Gulf of Mexico and Mexico to its south.

African-American Vernacular English

African-American Vernacular (AAVE) is the native variety of the vast majority of working- and middle-class African Americans, particularly in urban areas, [1] with its own unique accent, grammar, and vocabulary features. Typical features of the grammar include a "zero" copula (e.g., she my sister instead of she's my sister), simplification of the possessive form (e.g., my momma friend instead of my mom's friend), and complexification of verb aspects and tenses beyond those of other English dialects (e.g., constructions like I'm a-run, I be running, I been runnin, I done ran, etc.). Common features of the phonology include non-rhoticity (dropping the r sound at the end of syllables), the metathetic use of aks instead of ask, simplification of diphthongs (e.g., eye typically sounds like ah), a raising chain shift of the front vowels, and a wider range of intonation or "melody" patterns than most General American accents. AAVE is used by middle-class African Americans in casual, intimate, and informal settings as one end of a sociocultural language continuum, and AAVE shows some slight variations by region or city.

In sociolinguistics, a variety, also called a lect, is a specific form of a language or language cluster. This may include languages, dialects, registers, styles, or other forms of language, as well as a standard variety. The use of the word "variety" to refer to the different forms avoids the use of the term language, which many people associate only with the standard language, and the term dialect, which is often associated with non-standard varieties thought of as less prestigious or "correct" than the standard. Linguists speak of both standard and non-standard (vernacular) varieties. "Lect" avoids the problem in ambiguous cases of deciding whether two varieties are distinct languages or dialects of a single language.

Working class Social class composed of members of the society employed in lower tier jobs

The working class comprises those engaged in waged or salaried labour, especially in manual-labour occupations and industrial work. Working-class occupations include blue-collar jobs, some white-collar jobs, and most pink-collar jobs. Members of the working class rely for their income exclusively upon their earnings from wage labour; thus, according to the more inclusive definitions, the category can include almost all of the working population of industrialized economies, as well as those employed in the urban areas of non-industrialized economies or in the rural workforce.

The middle class is a class of people in the middle of a social hierarchy. The very definition of the term "middle class" is highly political and vigorously contested by various schools of political and economic philosophy. Modern social theorists - and especially economists - have defined and re-defined the term "middle class" in order to serve their particular political ends. The definitions of the term "middle class" therefore are the result of the more- or less-scientific methods used when delineating the parameters of what is and isn't "middle class".

African-American Standard English

African-American Standard English is the prestigious end of the middle-class African-American language continuum, used for more formal, careful, or public settings than AAVE. This variety exhibits standard English vocabulary and grammar but often retains certain elements of the unique AAVE accent, [5] [6] with intonational or rhythmic features maintained more than phonological ones. [7] Most middle-class African Americans are typically bi-dialectal between this standard variety and AAVE, learning the former variety through schooling, so that adults will frequently even codeswitch between the two varieties within a single conversation. Of the phonological features maintained in this standard dialect, they tend to be less marked. [7] For instance, one such characteristic is the omission of the final consonant in word-final consonant clusters, [8] so words such as past or hand may lose their final consonant sound.

Standard English is the dialect of English language that is used as the national norm—the standard language—in an English-speaking country, especially as the language for public and formal usage. In England and Wales, the term standard English is associated with British English, the Received Pronunciation accent, and the United Kingdom Standard English (UKSE) grammar and vocabulary. In Scotland, the standard dialect is Scottish Standard English; in the United States, General American is the standard variety spoken in that country; and in Australia, the national standard is called General Australian English.

In linguistics and social sciences, markedness is the state of standing out as unusual or divergent in comparison to a more common or regular form. In a marked–unmarked relation, one term of an opposition is the broader, dominant one. The dominant default or minimum-effort form is known as unmarked; the other, secondary one is marked. In other words, markedness involves the characterization of a "normal" linguistic unit against one or more of its possible "irregular" forms.

African-American Appalachian English

Black Appalachian Americans have been reported as increasingly adopting Appalachian/Southern dialect commonly associated with white Appalachians. These similarities include an accent that is rhotic, the categorical use of the grammatical construction "he works" or "she goes" (rather than the AAVE "he work" and "she go"), and Appalachian vocabulary (such as airish for "windy"). However, even African-American English in Appalachia is diverse, with African-American women linguistically divided along sociocultural lines. [9]

Appalachian Americans describes Americans living in Appalachia, or their descendants. While not an official demographic used or recognized by the United States Census Bureau, Appalachian Americans, due to various factors, have developed their own distinct culture within larger social groupings. Included are their own dialect, music, folklore, and even sports teams as in the case of the Appalachian League. Furthermore, many colleges and universities now grant degrees in Appalachian studies. The term has seen growing usage in recent years, possibly in opposition to the use of hillbilly, which is still often used to describe people of the region.

Appalachian English dialect of the English language

Appalachian English is American English native to the Appalachian mountain region of the Eastern United States. Historically, the term "Appalachian dialect" refers to a local English variety of southern Appalachia, also known as Smoky Mountain English or Southern Mountain English in the United States, both influential upon and influenced by the Southern U.S. regional dialect, which has become predominant in central and southern Appalachia today, while a Western Pennsylvania regional dialect has become predominant in northern Appalachia. The 2006 Atlas of North American English identifies the "Inland South", a dialect sub-region in which the Southern U.S. dialect's defining vowel shift is the most developed, as centering squarely in southern Appalachia: namely, the cities of Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; and Asheville, North Carolina. All Appalachian English is rhotic and characterized by distinct phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon. It is mostly oral but its features are also sometimes represented in literary works.

Southern American English or Southern U.S. English is a regional dialect or collection of dialects of American English spoken throughout the Southern United States, though increasingly in more rural areas and primarily by White Southerners. The dialect is commonly known in the United States simply as Southern, while formal, much more recent terms within American linguistics include Southern White Vernacular English and Rural White Southern English.

African-American Outer Banks English

African-American English in the North Carolina Outer Banks is rapidly accommodating to urban AAVE through the recent generations, despite having aligned with local Outer Banks English for centuries. [10]

Outer Banks barrier islands in North Carolina

The Outer Banks is a 200-mile-long (320 km) string of barrier islands and spits off the coast of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, on the east coast of the United States. They cover most of the North Carolina coastline, separating Currituck Sound, Albemarle Sound, and Pamlico Sound from the Atlantic Ocean.

High Tider or Hoi Toider is a dialect of American English spoken in very limited communities of the South Atlantic United States—particularly, several small island and coastal townships in the rural North Carolina "Down East" that encompasses the Outer Banks and Pamlico Sound as well as in the Chesapeake Bay. The term is also a local nickname for any native resident of these regions.

Older African-American English

Older or earlier African-American English refers to a set of many heterogeneous varieties studied and reconstructed by linguists as theoretically spoken by the first African Americans and African slaves in the United States. Of primary interest is the direct theoretical predecessor to AAVE. Mainly four types of sources have been used for the historical reconstruction of older AAVE: written interviews, ex-slave audio recordings, the modern diaspora dialects of isolated black communities, and letters written by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African Americans. [11] The use of the zero copula (the absence of is or are, as in she gon' leave), nonstandard plural forms (the three man, mans, or even mens) and multiple negatives (as in no one didn't leave me nothing) were occasional or common variants in these earlier dialects, and the latter item even the preferred variant in certain grammatical contexts. [12] Other nonstandard grammatical constructions associated with AAVE are documented in older dialects too; however, many of them are not, evidently being recent innovations of twentieth-century urban AAVE. [13]


Sea Island Creole English, or "Gullah", is the distinct language of some African Americans along the South Carolina and Georgia coast. Gullah is an English creole: a natural language grammatically independent from English that uses mostly English vocabulary. Most Gullah speakers today probably form a continuum with the English language. A sub-dialect of Gullah is also spoken in Oklahoma and Texas, known as Afro-Seminole Creole.

In literature

There is a long tradition of representing the distinctive speech of African Americans in American literature. A number of researchers [14] have looked into the ways that American authors have depicted the speech of black characters, investigating how black identity is established and how it connects to other characters. Brasch (1981 :x) argues that early mass media portrayals of black speech are the strongest historical evidence of a separate variety of English for blacks. [15] Early popular works are also used to determine the similarities that historical varieties of black speech have in common with modern AAVE. [16] [17]

The earliest depictions of black speech came from works written in the eighteenth century, [18] primarily by white authors. A notable exception is Clotel (1853), the first novel written by an African American (William Wells Brown). [19] [20] Depictions have largely been restricted to dialogue and the first novel written entirely in AAVE was June Jordan's His Own Where (1971), [21] though Alice Walker's epistolary novel The Color Purple is a much more widely known work written entirely in AAVE. [22] Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun also has near exclusive use of AAVE. [23] The poetry of Langston Hughes uses AAVE extensively. [24] [ page needed ]

Some other notable works that have incorporated representations of black speech (with varying degrees of perceived authenticity) include: [25]

As there is no established spelling system for AAVE, [29] depicting it in literature is instead often done through spelling changes to indicate its phonological features, [30] or to contribute to the impression that AAVE is being used (eye dialect). [31] More recently, authors have begun focusing on grammatical cues, [19] and even the use of certain rhetorical strategies. [32]

Portrayals of black characters in movies and television are also done with varying degrees of authenticity. [33] In Imitation of Life (1934), the speech and behavioral patterns of Delilah (an African American character) are reminiscent of minstrel performances that set out to exaggerate stereotypes, rather than depict black speech authentically. [34] More authentic performances, such as those in the following movies and TV shows, occur when certain speech events, vocabulary, and syntactic features are used to indicate AAVE usage, often with particular emphasis on young, urban African Americans: [35]

In education

Nonstandard African-American varieties of English have been stereotypically associated with a lower level of education and low social status. Since the 1960s, however, linguists have demonstrated that each of these varieties, and namely African-American Vernacular English, is a "legitimate, rule-governed, and fully developed dialect". [38] The techniques used to improve the proficiency of African-American students learning standard written English have sometimes been similar to that of teaching a second language. [39] Contrastive analysis is used for teaching topics in African-American Vernacular English. Both the phonological and syntactic features of a student's speech can be analyzed and recorded in order to identify points for contrast with Standard American English. [39] Another way AAE can be taught is based on a strategy, communicative flexibility, that focuses on language used at home and analyzes speech during dramatic play. [40] Using this method, children are taught to recognize when SAE is being used and in which occasions, rather than conforming to the speech around them in order to sound correct. [40]

Although the stigmatization of AAE has continued, AAE remains because it has functioned as a social identity marker for many African-Americans. [41] The goal with teaching SAE is not to end its use, but to help students differentiate between settings where its use is and is not appropriate. [41]

See also


  1. 1 2 Edwards (2004), p. 383.
  2. Di Paolo, Marianna; Spears, Arthur K. Languages and Dialects in the U.S.: Focus on Diversity and Linguistics . Routledge. p. 102
  3. 1 2 Kautzsch (2004), p. 341.
  4. McWhorter (2001), pp. 162, 182.
  5. Rickford (2015), pp. 302, 310.
  6. Spears (2015).
  7. 1 2 Green, Lisa J. (2002). African American English: a linguistic introduction. The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211, USA: The Press Syndicate of The University of Cambridge. p. 125. ISBN   0 521 81449 9.
  8. "What is Ebonics (African American English)? | Linguistic Society of America". Retrieved 2018-04-01.
  9. Wolfram, Walt. (2013). "African American speech in southern Appalachia". In Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and Community, edited by Nancy Hayward and Amy Clark. pp. 81-93.
  10. Wolfram, Walt; Kohn, Mary E. (forthcoming). "The regional development of African American Language". In Sonja Lanehart, Lisa Green, and Jennifer Bloomquist (eds.), The Oxford Handbook on African American Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 154.
  11. Kautzsch (2004), pp. 342-344.
  12. Kautzsch (2004), pp. 347-349.
  13. Kautzsch (2004), pp. 347.
  14. For example,Holloway (1978), Holloway (1987), Baker (1984), and Gates (1988)
  15. cited in Green (2002 :166)
  16. Green (2002 :166), citing Dillard (1992)
  17. Walser (1955), p. 269.
  18. Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 13.
  19. 1 2 Rickford (1999), p. ??.
  20. Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 19.
  21. Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 21.
  22. Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 22.
  23. Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 28.
  24. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (New York: Vintage Classics, 1994).
  25. Examples listed in Rickford & Rickford (2000 :14)
  26. "Hurston Reviews".
  27. Archived June 14, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  28. Sapphire (1996). Push. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN   9780679446262.
  29. Green (2002), p. 238.
  30. Green (2002), pp. 168, 196.
  31. Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 23.
  32. Green (2002), p. 196.
  33. Green (2002), p. ?.
  34. Green (2002), p. 202.
  35. Green (2002), pp. 206–209, 211.
  36. Trotta & Blyahher (2011).
  37. Smith, Ben T. (9 August 2011). "Language Log on the Accents in "The Wire"". dialect blog.
  38. L. Bond, Bowie (1994). "Influencing Future Teachers' Attitudes toward Black English: Are We Making a Difference?". Journal of Teacher Education. 45 (2): 112–118. doi:10.1177/0022487194045002005.
  39. 1 2 ASCD. "Using Ebonics or Black English as a Bridge to Teaching Standard English". Retrieved 2018-04-01.
  40. 1 2 Glover, Crystal (2013-03-01). "Effective Writing Instruction for African American English". Urban Education Research & Policy Annuals. 1 (1). ISSN   2164-6406.
  41. 1 2 "Salikoko Mufwene: Ebonics and Standard English in the Classroom: Some Issues". Retrieved 2018-04-29.

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Further reading