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Music Monday: Vocabulary Lessons

April 26, 2010

As usual, AAE is strongly influencing this week’s top ten.  This week it’s all about the wordplay.  Here are some samplings of lyrics:

  • #1 Nothin’ on You- B.o.B. featuring Bruno Mars

AAE Lyric: “You shouldn’t worry about what they say/ ‘Cause they got nothin’ on you, baby.”

“Got” here is non-standard AAE grammar often used in place of have; however, the full research on the matter has yet to be done.

  • #3 Hey, Soul Sister- Train

AAE Lyric: “You’re so gangsta, I’m so thug, you’re the only one I’m dreaming of.”

Here, Train (a band of white musicians) uses two AAE vocabulary words, “gangsta” and “thug.”  “Gangsta” can have positive and negative connotations depending on context (UrbanDictionary has many interesting examples of the negative examples, most laced with profanity).  Basically, The Free Dictionary defines “gangsta” as an AAE term meaning either 1) “a member of a youth gang,” or 2) “a person who is of equal standing with another in a group.”  Train is clearly using the second definition.  Thug is a more interesting case in that (definitions extraneous to this case aside) it has two main definitions that are seriously divergent.  The first is the definition derived from Tupac Shakur, referring to a person who lives a life full of struggles, but intends to make something of themselves regardless.  The second is, as taken from Princeton University’s WordNet, “an aggressive and violent young criminal.”  From context we can assume that Train is using the first definition.  However, even with the proper AAE definitions in place, the question arises, what is the intended meaning of this line?  Perhaps it was only written this way to preserve the rhyme scheme.

  • #4 Break Your Heart- Taio Cruz featuring Ludacris

AAE Lyric: “And I may break your heart./ But I don’t think there’s anybody as bomb as me.”

Ludacris refers to himself as “bomb” and no, he doesn’t mean the explosive.  He is using it in the sense where “bomb” means “awesome” or “cool,” usually combined with the article “the.”

  • #6 In My Head- Jason Derulo

AAE Lyric: “Everybody’s looking for love./ Ain’t that the reason you’re at this club?/ You ain’t gon’ find it dancin’ with him.”

Although it is also a feature in other non-standard dialects of English, the use of “ain’t” for negation is a common feature of AAE that is not found in SAE.  Also notable is the clipped verb “gon.’”  Speakers of AAE often shorten the verb “going to” this way.

  • #8 OMG- Usher featuring

AAE Lyric: “I fell in love with shawty./ When I seen her on the dance floor.”

Here we see another AAE vocabulary word in “shawty,” defined on UrbanDictionary as “A term orginating in Atlanta that, in the beginning, referred to a short person or child, but the span of the word has grown to include any and all people, especially a girl that is attractive.”  Also, the use of the past participle “seen” in place of the simple past tense “saw” is a common feature of AAE.

Two of the songs from the last Monday Music post are still rocking in the top ten: “Rude Boy” by Rihanna (#2) and “Telephone” by Lady Gaga featuring Beyonce (#7).

*Top ten songs as recorded by Billboard Hot 100 for the week of May 1, 2010.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Julie permalink*
    April 26, 2010 10:37 pm

    Ludacris also uses AAE when he says “see I’m not tryin’ to lead you on, I’m jus tryin’ to keep it real”. The term “real” here, within the context of AAE, means Ludacris wants to be honest and straight forward with his listener. Right?

  2. April 27, 2010 4:20 pm

    Welcome to the linguablogosphere! I’m still reading thru the other posts, but I had to stop and comment on this one, since I just blogged about AAE in current pop music myself. (There’s more at the concurrent piece I did for Visual Thesaurus, linked to the post.) My post was on imma, but in the course of researching lyrics, I had to visit UD myself to learn about this “shawty” that kept appearing, and found the definition you quote, so it was fun to run into it again. I look forward to more posts like this one!

  3. Louisa permalink
    April 27, 2010 4:57 pm

    Here’s a website that defines rap lyrics. Anyone can add a definition for a posted lyric.

  4. Zeke permalink
    May 13, 2010 2:05 pm

    This post reminds me of when white people found out about the term “da bomb”. Ugh. That was almost as rough as the onset of “jiggy with it”.

  5. Lizzy Sell permalink
    November 1, 2010 11:08 pm

    I was surprised to see that the terms “thug” and “gangsta” are still given negative definitions alongside the more current ones. As long as I have been in touch with popular media, these words have always been used to express camaraderie and something inherently “cool”. It seems like there is a cultural trend with words such as these taking on more positive meanings, and I wonder if this can be attributed to the incorporation of AAE music into mainstream pop culture. Even with the N-word, it seems that the adverse associations are on there way out (although not nearly as far along as “thug” or “gangsta”), and are being replaced with affirmative ones. I’d like to think that this is because the views on AAE are expanding to encompass positive meanings of the dialect, but I am afraid that it is more like that the idea of using slang from AAE gives the speaker a sense of coolness, and it is this coolness that people hold onto. With the media perpetuating these ideas and the constant creation of new slang within the AAE community, AAE words are taking over SAE dialects and are being credited as not a legitimate dialect, but as being the cool things to say.


  1. Thoughts on Imma « Literal-Minded

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