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Monday Music: ‘Cause AAE is Still On Top

September 27, 2010

This week African American English (AAE) is still dominating the Billboard Charts. A lot of these hits seem to be playing with phonological (sound) reduction, which can be found in words like ’cause (because), ’fore (before), and ’specially (especially) . Here’s a look at some samples of the AAE-infused songs currently topping the charts.

  • #1 Just The Way You Are- Bruno Mars

AAE lyric: “When I see your face/ there’s not a thing that I would change/ ’cause you’re amazing…”

Here we see a deletion of  an unstressed initial syllable, in which the Standard American English (SAE) term because is shortened to ’cause. Even though this is considered a feature of AAE phonology, it’s important to note that it is also a feature found in many other varieties of English.

  • #3  Only Girl (In The World)- Rihanna

AAE lyric: “Keep thinkin’ of me, doin’ what you like/ So boy forget about the world ’cause it’s gon’ be me and you tonight/I wanna make your bed for ya, then Imma make you swallow your pride.”

The most notable AAE features here are Rihanna’s uses of the verb forms wanna and Imma, which are used in AAE as a condensed form of the verb phrases I want to and  I am going to (or more simply I will). She also uses gon’, a clipped version of the verb phrase going to which is frequently used by African American English speakers.

  • #5  DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love- Usher Featuring Pitbull

AAE lyric: ” ‘Cause baby tonight/ the DJ got us fallin’ in love again.”

Here we see use of got in lieu of it’s SAE equivalent has, which is a grammatical feature of AAE. As we mentioned in a previous Music Monday post, full research on this phenomenon has yet to be done. Usher also uses ng reduction to n’, as noted by the reduced verb fallin’.

  • #6 Dynamite- Taio Cruz

AAE lyric: “I wanna celebrate and live my life/ sayin’ “Ayo, baby let’s go”/ ’cause we gon’ rock this club”

Taio Cruz throws some AAE vocabulary into his lyrical mix of AAE grammatical features. According to Urban Dictionary, his exclamation of ayo means “hey you. It is mainly used when addressing an individual in any given situation to get his or her attention”.

  • #7 I Like It- Enrique Iglesias Featuring Pitbull

AAE lyric: “I ain’t playin’ witcha/ but i wanna play witcha.”

In addition to using other AAE features Pitbull uses ain’t for the SAE phrase am not, which is often done among AAE speakers. Once again, it is important to note that these features are also found in other variations of English, as it may be the case that Pitbull is linguistically working within his own Cuban American English dialect.

  • #8 Just A Dream- Nelly

AAE lyric: “I was at the top an’ now it’s like I’m in the basement/Number one spot and now she found her a replacement.”

Here we see a word-final consonant cluster reduction in Nelly’s pronunciation of and as an’. We also see the use of an object pronoun as a personal dative when Nelly substitutes her for herself. This latter feature of AAE tends to occur after a verb.

  • #9 Club Can’t Handle Me- Flo Rida Featuring David Guetta

AAE lyric: “They watchin’, I know this/ I’m rockin’, I’m rollin.”

Throughout the song, Flo Rida reduces most of his gerunds to n’, as exemplified by the verbs watchin’ and rockin’ for watching and rocking.

  • #10 Like A G6- Far*East Movement Featuring Cataracs & Dev

The Far*East Movement is a music group out of Los Angeles, California. Although they incorporate a number of AAE features in this song (lexical, phonological and syntactic), the group members in fact represent different generations of Asian-American backgrounds (Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean). This appears to be an example of appropriation of AAE by a group outside of the African American community.

One of the songs from the last Monday Music post is still rocking in the top ten: “Love The Way You Lie” by Eminem featuring Rihanna (#2).

*Top ten songs as recorded by Billboard Hot 100 for the week of Oct. 2, 2010.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Schneider permalink
    October 20, 2010 12:22 pm

    The artists seem to use AAE not only for means of demonstrating culture, but also for means similar to used in antiquity. Most often, Greco-Roman poets and bards used such a technique to maintain meter. Many lyricists today seem to use it also for rhyme (in addition to beat in many cases.) I guess there wasn’t as much need to modify words for rhyme in languages with more-or-less standard case-endings like Latin. Yes, I did just compare Horace to Rihanna.

  2. Lindsay H. permalink
    October 31, 2010 12:46 pm

    Rihanna presents an interesting case due to the fact that she is Barbadian. Where in studies it has shown that people of Caribbean heritage are more likely to distance themselves from standard AAE speech production, here Rihanna through music, adapts AAE. Since she was born in Barbados and moved to the US at the age of 16, she should still retain the CA speech patterns. This alteration seen in “Only Girl in the World” could be a result of the environment/audience she produces for, suggesting that she adapts her speech in order to assimilate with the AAE-speaking population. Perhaps deleting syllables and contracting words aligns Rihanna with the larger AA music community and the other artists she competes with. It would be worth while to compare her earlier music, a song like “Pon de Replay,” which is more indicative of her Caribbean heritage, to her later songs such as those on her newest album to determine whether the grammar systems in her songs have altered significantly, maybe by her prolonged presence in the United States and interaction with a predominantly AA artist label.

  3. Melissa B. permalink
    November 1, 2010 2:24 pm

    I think that this is an interesting show of how AAE has been appropriated to slang and is certain features are no longer features of in-speak. For example Imma, wanna, and ’cause are generally things that i associate with the younger generations of any race (for example the Asian only group the Far East Movement). One question that I end up asking myself repeatedly is if it is adopted into a new dialect with new users, what do you call it? For example, the words chic, cliche, and belle are all french but after years of Americans using them, they have shed their french connotations. They are technically french words but are they effectively french words?

  4. L. Gardner permalink
    November 1, 2010 2:37 pm

    The idea that Rihanna and other AA artists use these techniques for the sake of meter and beat (going back to antiquity, as Mike says above) is interesting and I think it does influence these uses of AAE features; but it seems like non-AA musicians do not do this as often as the artists listed here. It seems like other styles of music (classical, Indie, rock, etc.) do not alter words or utilize syllabic deletion as often as the pop, R&B, and rap styles. I wonder if it is the sacred style of speech that is influencing this, as the sacred and secular often intersect when it comes to music. It’d be interesting to do the research to see if this is really true or not. It’s also very telling that these are the songs currently topping the charts: AAE is so hip! Surely this also influences the frequent use of these features in popular music.

  5. Chelsea Douglas permalink
    November 1, 2010 8:28 pm

    It’s worth noting that Taio Cruz is not American either, but English. He also makes use of AAE in several of his songs that were hits in the UK but not the US (“Come On Girl” comes to mind). Most likely Cruz, like Rihanna, uses AAE in order to appeal to the AA-dominated markets of both countries.

  6. Cindy L. permalink
    November 1, 2010 8:41 pm

    I have never before thought to identify the language in these songs as AAE. Now that I read this, I can definitely see some fit into that category however I would argue that perhaps not all.
    In the first example, “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars, the feature that is highlighted is the word “’cause” as a shortening of the word “because.” While this is a feature of AAE, I think in this case perhaps it is just SAE slang. If it were surrounded by multiple features of AAE it would seem more likely to be a feature of AAE. As it is, though, I don’t know that I would jump to label this as such. However, the example of “Only Girl In The World” by Rihanna, there are multiple features of AAE, persuading me to hear her lyrics as AAE. Even though I have heard this song and others use the words “’cause”, “gon'” and “Imma” I have never identified them as part of AAE (or, before I knew the term “AAE”, as part of that dialect I associate mostly with African Americans). In reflecting on it, I guess I always took this speech as the lyrics being influenced by the rhythm or beat of the music. I thought that the shortening or changing of words was due to a rhyme or other musical constraints and maybe in some cases they are. Largely, though, I would agree that this is AAE and I’m kind of surprised I never heard it as such before.
    I am a music theatre major and lately in an audition class my classmates have been bringing in more pop repertoire by the likes of Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, etc. I had noticed that something about these songs sounded weird on them. I thought that it was the lyrics and the “slang-ness” of the words was not quite fitting in with their way of speech and therefore their speech in their singing. However, identifying the lyrics as being AAE brings new clarity to why it sounded weird on my classmates; it’s almost like speaking another language but maintaining an American accent. Though they were saying the words correctly and as written, they didn’t have the “accent” of AAE. I’m not suggesting there is actually an accent but there is that factor that makes the speech of any language feel easy, relaxed and natural.

  7. C. Lynn permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:44 pm

    The play on words that Pitbull/Enrique utilize with the single utterance “witcha” is interesting – in the first utterance, they seem to be speaking more to the addressee’s mental state of emotion – they’re not playing with her heart/mind. In the second, it’s instead understood in a physical, sexual context. (At least, that’s how I understand it.)

    In a more immediate example of “witcha” – earlier on the train today, the announcer (whom I immediately perceived to be African-American because of his use of some AAE features, though I really don’t know) made an unusual announcement. Nearly word for word, he said “Now I know its the season to be jolly. Er’rybody tryna be nice to each otha’ an’ all. But don’t let nobody get jolly witcha money. Watch your stuff.” What was interesting what that nearly the entire announcement was in AAE, but the very last utterance “watch your stuff” sounded very much like SAE. There was no loss of R in “your” and the emphasis and intonation (though I can’t really explain why) even sounded like SAE. I was then tapped on the shoulder 4 minutes later by an African-American man who asked “Did you hear what the man on the PA just said? Your bag is somewhat open. I would be watching your wallet if I were you, you wouldn’t want to go home without it tonight, right?” All this was in entirely SAE. Had he been the man on the PA on the train, I would not have been able to assume his race.

    Nice (relevant) read!

  8. Zuleika T permalink
    May 4, 2011 10:34 am

    It is interesting to see how most of the artists mentioned in this article are not American, rather Barbadian, Cuban, Asian, and British. We can tell that the use of AAE is a technique used to appeal to the hip-hop & R&B mainstream and a way of assimilating into young American culture. In class we learned that AAE is primarily used by both African Americans and Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, however, we are now seeing artist like Far East Movement using AAE as a part of their language and image. The use of AAE in mainstream culture is shaping the way we view AAE as a dialect in and of itself. About every decade, a case usually emerges on AAE, for example the Ann Arbor Decision. Another example includes the Oakland, California resolution of 1996, who wanted “Ebonics” to be recognized as the language of African Americans.

  9. J.Pawlak permalink
    May 5, 2011 10:22 pm

    I think it is interesting that many of the comments point out the fact that the use of AAE has become so common in mainstream pop music culture, that it is hardly recognized as different from SAE. In the same respect, many of the comments have pointed out that most of the artists using AAE are not originally from the United States, showing how widespread the incorporation of AAE into mainstream popular culture has become. It seems like language is becoming claimed cross-culturally in a manner reminiscent of jazz and blues music–which brings to mind the importance of remembering historical influences. However, as the article notes, many of the linguistic features being pointed out are present in other dialects of English as well, and therefore could be influenced from diverse histories. Yet, I think this would be a valid representation of the language that commonly is heard in our most popular songs, because they appeal to a culturally diverse audience.

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