Not All Black People Talk Alike
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.
…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)