5 Present Tenses of AAE
In an interview with The New Republic on March 21, 1981, Toni Morrison stated:
The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language [that black people love so much]. There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language. It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with those books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging… This is a really cruel fallout of racism. I know the Standard English. I want to use it to help restore the other language, the lingua franca.
1. He ø runnin. Standard American English (SAE )= He is running.
2. He be runnin. SAE = He is usually running or He will/would be running.
3. He be steady runnin. SAE = 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. SAE He has been running–at some earlier point, but probably not now.
Other examples: I been knowing her. SAE = I have known her.
About eleven o’clock he been eating. SAE = . . . he was eating.
5. He BEEN/BIN runnin’. SAE = He has been running for a long time, and still is.
-This is a use of the African American English (AAE) stressed been/remote BIN.
When most people think of African American English, they think of the lexical items that they hear on the radio or in the media. Yet while this is important, the soul of AAE really is its phonology and grammar. Slang is constantly changing and appropriated by different communities so much so that it ceases to be purely African American. It also differs between generations and regions. But grammar and phonology is more consistent among generations and regions and is something unique to speakers of AAE.
These tenses attest to the rule-governed systematic nature of African American English. Many of its uses can be seen here and one can imagine the benefits in terms of the depth of communicating one’s thoughts. These five different present tenses demonstrates the richness of AAE, and are part of why speakers of AAE sometimes struggle in academic settings where they cannot express themselves as fully if restricted to SAE.
Check out John Rickford’s discussion on the topic: Ebonics Notes and Discussion.