African American English is not Slang!
African American English (AAE) might just be one of the most misunderstood dialects of English. Yes, it is a dialect but most people fail to recognize this fact. In fact, AAE shares many grammatical features with mainstream English and other dialects. The distinctiveness of AAE does not particularly reside in the structure of its sentences. Basic utterance types–e.g. declarative, interrogative, and imperative sentences–are all formed in essentially the same way as they are in other dialects. Despite this, it is ironic that AAE which is spoken by African Americans, who constitute almost 14% of the U.S. population, is yet to be recognized as a dialect. African Americans make up the largest minority community ( by race) within the United States and although not all African American use AAE, a huge number of them do.
Over the years, AAE has been termed various things right from “slang” to “mumbo jumbo” or quite simply “bad English”. A major reason why such stigma exists against AAE is because of a lack of knowledge among the general population about the language and its usage. Of course, the fact also remains that not enough study has been done on the language itself. This is largely because the language differs so much from generation to generation. More importantly however, the language varies by location. For example, African Americans in the south speak AAE differently than those in New York. Despite the differences, there are several rules which have been identified as being used across the border.
Here are a few examples “She ø in the same grade./ People ø crazy! /People are stone crazy?” At first glance, you might think that this is just a typing error. However, the structure of these sentences can be attributed to a phenomenon termed “copula absence”. It is also important to know that there are certain rules which govern copula absence. I have listed some of them below.
- Is and are deleted more often after a pronoun than a noun
- Is and are deleted least often before a noun, more often with an adjective, and most often before going to or its reduced forms, gonna and gon
Another example is the sentence “he be running”. Contrary to what you might think, this is not just another way of replacing “am” for “be” In fact the use of “be” here implies an action which is habitual in nature, meaning “he is usually running, or he will/would be running”. Here are some other similar examples and their meanings. These represent the five present tenses in AAE.
1. He ø runnin. (He is running.)
2. He be runnin. (He is usually running, or He will/would be running)
3. He be steady runnin. (He is usually running in an intensive, sustained manner, or He will/would be running in an intensive, sustained manner.)
4. He(’s) been/bin runnin. (he has been running–at some earlier point, but probably not now.) Also “I been knowing her”=S.E. “I have known her.” Also “About eleven o’clock he been eating”=S.E. “…he was eating.”
5. Stressed Been/Remote BIN: He BEEN/BIN runnin. (He has been running for a long time, and still is.) But not *I BEEN doing that for years.
If you have not previously been exposed to the language, a good place to start would be to watch the movie Precious. Not only is it a touching story, the characters in the movie use AAE extensively which makes it a great learning experience!