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5 Present Tenses of AAE

May 19, 2010

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.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    May 20, 2010 2:25 pm

    I don’t want to troll on a nice post, so I’ll say that I agree with your larger points, but I think some of the details here are a little off.

    First, I think you should note the liberties that you took with the Toni Morrison quote. In the Rickford piece linked to in the post, the quote is “a child with five different languages,” not “a child with five different present tenses.”

    Second, I believe that 2, 4, and 5 are unique features of aspect in AAE, not tense. I don’t think it takes anything away from your larger point to call it aspect. Also, isn’t 3 just an adverbial modification? It’s a unique modification to AAVE, granted, but it’s not a tense. Including 3 in your list of AAE “tenses” brings all possible AAE adverbial modifications into consideration, as well as all possible SAE modifications.

    Lastly, the point you make about the expressiveness of AAE and SAE is an interesting reversal of the typical (and racist) notion that AAE is a broken and illogical language. The idea that AAE is less expressive than SAE is a socially harmful one, and the idea that AAE is more expressive than SAE is possibly a socially beneficial one. However, I don’t think that either idea is a factually accurate or meaningful one. There are languages with more complex tense and aspect (and everything else) systems than both AAE and SAE. In fact, along the continuum of morphosyntactic complexity, all forms of English lie on the least complex end. What should be said about this state of affairs? The ability of a speaker to express their thoughts and feelings in their own native language is, I think, largely separate from the morphosyntactic complexity of that language. What is generally true is that speakers are less good at expressing themselves in a nonnative language or dialect, which brings us back to the difficulty of AAE speakers in academic settings. Restriction to SAE must definitely be part of their troubles, and if use of AAE in academic settings were legitimized, they may fare a little better. However, the reason is probably not that SAE is a worse language for expression, but that SAE is just not their native dialect.

    But, like I said, I don’t want to hate on the larger points. AAE is a form of human language, thus as complex and rule governed as any other, and its stigmatization is harmful to its speakers and unjustifiable.

    • African American English permalink*
      September 27, 2010 3:42 pm

      Thanks for the comment Joe. Okay, we will revisit your points in another blog. A couple of things. “Five present tenses” comes from a quote Toni Morrison made in a 1981 interview with Thomas Le Clair appearing in the New Republic. She says, “It is the thing that black people love so much — the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher’s: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language. 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 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. He may never know the etymology of Africanisms in his language, not even know that ‘hip’ is a real word or that ‘the dozens’ meant something. 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.” Toni Morrison is not a linguist, so she cannot speak to the specifics of AAE, but what is interesting about her words is that she has sense of the depth of the AAE verbal system (which we will discuss further).

  2. Neal Whitman permalink
    May 31, 2010 2:35 pm

    I’d call #4 a perfect tense.

  3. Devin D. Moss permalink
    March 24, 2011 10:57 pm

    Reading this article reminds me of how validating Professor Blake’s course has been for me. I grew up in Mississippi/Tennessee, and always knew I did some things with my language. I did not think I was as ‘bad’ as my family is though. However, this class has taught me that I should not be ashamed of my use and knowledge of the language that I use. I was first a little embarrassed that I could use certain expressions rather easily whereas some of my classmates struggled. However, I embraced my use of AAE because of what Morrison and Baldwin have contributed. They have basically said it is an inherent expression of African American heritage. It makes me feel connected to Africa for the first time outside of acknowledging slavery.

  4. Eric Silver permalink
    April 26, 2011 10:47 pm

    This quote is extremely important for AAVE. This dialect is usually written off as a collection of obscure and confusing hip-hop slang and “-izzle” suffixs. But AAVE is so much more than that. It reflects the significance of linguistic acrobatics in the African American community. Harkening back to the oral tradition of and the griot, this community has imbuede so much weight it the spoken word. It is the comedian, the poet, the public speaker who receive the most respect. Therefore, it is a necessity to have such a complex dialect. There must be five present tenses in order to properly tell a moving story, toast a relative, or impress an audience.
    I think the fact that Toni Morrison, a woman prominent not only in the Black community but in the entire history of poetry and prose, was the one who said this piece of wisdom. As someone who has deftly and gorgeously mastered SAE and AAVE in her written work, she has the authority to comment on the power of the English language, no matter what dialect. Her ability is a shining example of the beauty and richness of AAVE.

    • Rocky Durham ( nom de plume ) permalink
      September 9, 2014 6:41 pm

      The richness of any language is its power to describe and define the world of those who use it. The cadence and musicality of any language should carry the poetry of the user and the experiences of those who have shaped and been shaped by its rhythms. you dig?

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