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Not All Black People Talk Alike

June 15, 2010

Not all black people look alike either.

There’s a common misconception that African American English is the same across the United States. Walt Wolfram refers to this idea as the “supraregional myth,”  where it is believed that AAE is monolithic, showing little variation. Just as the label “myth” suggests, this is not actually the case, as we discussed in our post last week on  the the Dirty South.  The idea that there is variation in AAE is of no surprise to its speakers, and has been explicitly stated by the linguist Lisa Green in her 2002 book on African American English.

She says,

…there are regional differences that will distinguish varieties of AAE spoken in the United States. For example, although speakers of AAE in Louisiana and Texas use very similar syntactic patterns, their vowel systems may differ.

How do we break such a myth about AAE?  It will be difficult. As Wolfram notes,

Once a group, public or professional, decides to accept something as a noteworthy fact, it becomes extremely difficult to rescind its acceptance.

But let’s try.

Here are some of the things we know about the linguistics heterogeneity of AAE, notwithstanding a common set of core or salient linguistic features:

1. African American English speech communities use differing amounts of salient linguistic features (like r vocalization where “door,” for example, is pronounced as “doe”) such that some communities may use a feature a lot and others very little.

2. Some AAE speech communities participate in local regional changes thought to be reserved for European Americans like the Northern Cities Shift and Southern Vowel Shift, as well as specific to their local African American community in places like Michigan, North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Pittsburgh, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin (findings have recently been published in two separate volumes).

3. AAE differs by social factors like:

  • class (e.g., middle and lower)
  • sex (e.g., women and men)
  • age (e.g., older and younger generations)
  • ethnicity (e.g., as spoken by those identified as African American and those identified as Caribbean American)
  • style (e.g., informal and formal situations)

It is time that we recognize the depth and complexity of AAE. It is important that we continue to learn about all of the ways that African American English is different, as well as the same, in various communities.

(Note: Picture is of The Temptations)

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2010 5:50 pm

    Great post!
    This topic is one of the things I’m looking at with a dialect survey of US English; I hope to make this the largest ever phonetic survey of US Englishes. If you or your readers would like to participate (it take about 3 minutes), the link to the survey is http://pantheon.yale.edu/~clb3/NorthAmericanDialects/

  2. Ayeska permalink*
    July 1, 2010 12:06 am

    The variation of AAE in regard to ethnicity is a great point!
    Linguistic features that occur often among Caribbean American AAE speakers sometimes don’t occur with African Americans, such as the pronunciation of the #3 as ”tree”.

  3. Chris W permalink
    July 6, 2010 10:23 am

    It is unfortunate, but expected that such mislabeling persists. It seems there is some remarkable ignorance existing even in this day and age in America – take Arizona’s recent sweeping changes as an example… But given that many of these assumptions are so ingrained from generations of incorrect assumptions, or even complete lies, there is a lot of ground to cover to express these feature as well as many others not listed.

    I see two things needing to happen: 1) Time…we need to wait out younger and more open-minded individuals to replace those close-minded ones in policy making positions and 2) Increasing awareness on the subject.

    Increasing awareness of these differences really needs to be introduced early in the development of school. For example, begin introducing simple concepts in primary school. This may cause some uproar, but the entire curriculum need not revolve around this one concept. Instead, AAE and indeed other variations, such as regional varieties of standard American English, Chicano English, and others, can be brought into the course to wrap everything together in an attempt to enlighten people about not only linguistic similarities and differences but also racial and ethnic similarities and differences.

  4. Buritsu permalink
    July 8, 2010 5:43 pm

    I agree that speakers of AAE don’t all sound the same. Even among families. My mother speaks AAE a lot better than me. There are some terms (like you (chu), ask (ax), finna, double negatives, and some of the constant-cluster-reduction terms I use out of habit or second nature) I am good at otherwise I fell like I sound like a very proper person trying to sound black lol.

  5. Shub A permalink
    November 1, 2010 7:14 pm

    It seems that the idea that not all black people talk alike should be obvious. Since dialects can be principally organized by geography and not all black people live in one place, then it seems to go without saying that there are many different types of African American English. It saddens me that traditionally many linguists can accept, celebrate and study the many dialects of white american english but some of the most prominent of sociolinguists (Labov) insist on perpetuating the supraregional myth.

    There should be no doubt about the heterogeneity. Though linguists like Labov may insist that that heterogeneity is due only to phonological differences, it seems to me that his misconception is only further evidence that the depth and complexity of AAE warrants further study.

  6. Sereetta A. permalink
    April 27, 2011 4:12 pm

    Last night while flipping through the channels I stumbled upon a reality show based in New Orleans. I was amazed that I had a hard time understanding some of the conversations taking place during the show. The tones and configurations of sentence structure was foreign to me. Sometimes a local slang was being used but in general I had to readjust my perception of Black English that I have been introduced to. I become really interested in studying the Creole effects of speech in African American English Speakers. Thanks for this article its given me resources to further explore.

  7. Mercedes permalink
    December 2, 2013 5:23 pm

    Although it seems like it should be obvious that there is variation within AAE, one should note that many paint with broad strokes when talking about language, culture, and race. To take it out of English for a moment, many people have a hard time understanding the variations within a language like Spanish. As a student learning Spanish we were often reminded that we were learning Spanish from Spain. This meant that we may have a hard time communicating with someone lets say from Cuba or Puerto Rico, who speak a very different type of Spanish that is often considered improper, much like AAE. What one will notice is that languages that cover large amounts of distance and different regions will inevitably have a high amounts of variation simply because of differences in location. Plus, other influences like socioeconomics, other varieties of the language by other racial groups and so on. It is very hard, especially in a country like America where we pride ourselves on being a “melting pot,” to have a homogeneous anything, let alone a homogeneous language. You cannot simplify AAE to say it’s only slang, and you cannot simplify it to make it seem like all of its speakers sound the same.

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