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African American English is not Slang!

April 19, 2010

From the movie "Precious"

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!


11 Comments leave one →
  1. Brittney permalink
    April 20, 2010 12:29 am

    I think Precious is a great movie. Though extremely hard to watch, it deals with very important issues that need to be addressed–including the education of poor young people. Precious definitely uses her share of AAE features.

  2. zekea permalink
    April 20, 2010 1:00 am

    Whenever someone asserts that someone else’s speech is good, bad, improper, elevated clever or stupid, that person invokes contentions of cultural politics. Some like to imagine that there’s a general consensus about what speech is correct and what isn’t, but that’s quite far from the truth. English isn’t Catholicism. There is no Grammar Pope. No one can authoritatively claim that one kind of speech is good while another is bad. Still, we know that there are different kinds of speech that use different rules according to different sensibilities. We know that these differences relate to distinctions such as class, education and region. So while it may be reasonable to suggest that one type of speech is typical or atypical of a given demographic, when someone says that such speech is “incorrect” they may really be implying a value judgment on that demographic. If the way many African Americans speak is wrong, what about the people themselves?

  3. April 27, 2010 1:52 pm

    I just want to make an observation that a dialect is a variety of language limited by a determined territory therefore AAVE or AAE can’t be, IMHO, considered a dialect. But as long as there will be disputes about what is and what is not a language perhaps we still can define erroneously what is a dialect & what’s not even close.

    Love the blog by the way 🙂

  4. Maryam permalink
    April 27, 2010 2:17 pm

    Actually, Kitty, that’s not right. A dialect of a language can (and often is) bound by geographical constraints, but really it is more accurate to think about dialects as language varieties that are characteristic of a certain group of speakers bound by some sort of broad social construct. Geographical region is perhaps the most common of these, but dialects can also be a consequence of social class, ethnic affiliation, or something else. This makes determining what is a dialect perhaps trickier than your more narrow, but still erroneous, definition, but that is the name of the game in sociolinguistics.

  5. Frank Rossini permalink
    April 27, 2010 5:13 pm

    I think that many people question the idea that AAE is a “legitimate” dialect because they don’t know (often, haven’t been taught) that a dialect of a language possesses a consistent underlying structure, primarily built on the structure of the mother language. They also tend to think of a language as fixed and inert rather than evolving and dynamic. The use of terms like “good,” “proper,” “correct,” and even “standard” further obscures the validity of AAE. Forty years ago, when I was studying for a degree in education, the work of William Lebow opened my ears to the linguistic consistency of AAE. Just as importantly, it opened my ears to its creative expressiveness as evidenced in the writings of authors like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Amiri Baraka. It’s encouraging that now, even without a formal linguistic background, many young people from a variety of backgrounds are able to recognize the “legitimacy”of AAE as a dialect. When I was a boy, many of the people from my grandparents’ generation spoke “poor” English. Years later, I realized that they , having grown up in New York’s Little Italy, spoke a dialect which was an ingenius linguistic and phonetic combination of English and Italian. I look forward to reading the articles and discussions in your journal.

  6. April 28, 2010 5:49 pm

    of course you’re right 🙂 i wasn’t precise, that’s for sure; maybe we should just talk about AAE as a SOCIAL dialect just to differ it from the dialect as a geographical variety that is used in the traditional meaning which in fact is still considered in modern linguistic investigation.
    I love Labov, I love AAE but I’m just a humble Spanish student so there’s more for me to learn 😉

  7. Maryam permalink
    April 28, 2010 7:00 pm

    I think the issue isn’t that you aren’t being too precise, but rather the opposite. You are being really strict with the sorts of parameters you are placing on what is a dialect and what isn’t, and now how to deal with “geographical” and “social” varieties of English. I’m not really sure what would push you to delineate the two. Labov doesn’t even bother to do that really, although there is a lot of interesting work now that shows the dialectal differences that place geography and AAE. The thing is that the “traditional meaning” of dialect allows for both ethnic and geographic distinctions without any conflict.

    I think that there is an issue in saying that AAE is a SOCIAL dialect because some people think of it as “just a social dialect” and that sort of makes it seem like you are saying that AAE is a less legitimate variety of English than something like say New York City English. This is just not the case.

  8. eib permalink
    July 1, 2010 3:11 pm

    It’s really about time that African-American English was recognized as a language in its own right. It has regional dialects and integrity over time.

  9. Yo Dawg permalink
    September 4, 2012 12:12 am

    It’s interesting that while much energy is spent trying to legitimize ebonics and make it seem downright scientific, the articles and the commentary employ the Queen’s English. How can that be? Let’s hear some AAE and how it can be used. Perhaps there are constructs that can be more widely adopted.

    • African American English permalink*
      September 4, 2012 3:12 am

      We feel you. And point well taken especially in light of the fact that AAE is generally understood by speakers of the dialects of American English. We need to think about this. That said, African American English is basically communicated through spoken not written language, so there are some challenges to what you suggest. Thanks for reaching out to us.

  10. Myles B. permalink
    November 24, 2013 11:08 am

    Looking back to the time I grew up in Los Angeles, I can remember a lot of my classmates who spoke African American English. However, in the context I was in at the time, I had no idea they were speaking a language with a legitimate system or that their language had rules. I wonder if my teachers knew that too. There were plenty of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes available, but I don’t recall any African Americans being in those classes. I’m pretty sure it was mostly hispanics. There was actually a documentary shot at my high school about tracking, where minority students are assigned to certain classes by their advisors because of their race. Check it out:
    I think it shows how even at a very diverse school, there is still a large divide and misunderstanding of academic potential and ability. I think if teachers and students were taught about language there would be less a divide. People wound understand that kids aren’t “speaking wrong” or “using slang”.

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