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Monday Music on Memorial Day: Swagalicious Countdown

May 28, 2012

Janelle Monae and the band Fun., composed of Jack Antonoff, Andrew Dos, and Nate Ruess.

African American English (AAE) ushers in the holiday week, popping up all over the Billboard Charts. These top ten hits seem to be playing with AAE vocabulary, like swag, and tense-marking-suffixes. Check out some samples of the African American English features in these chart-topping songs:




  • #2 Call Me Maybe- Carly Rae Jepsen

AAE lyric: “Before you came into my life/ I missed you so bad/ and you should know that/ I missed you so so bad”

Here, the Canadian pop star uses -ly reduction when she substitutes bad for its Standard American English (SAE) equivalent badly. Even though this is an example of the consonant cluster reduction feature of AAE, -ly reduction occurs in many dialects, including non-standard American English.

  • #3 Payphone- Maroon5 featuring Wiz Khalifa

AAE lyric: “So you talk about what you see at the top/ or what you could’ve saw”

The most notable AAE feature in this song is Khalifa’s uses of saw (the past tense or preterit form of the verb see) for seen (the past participle form). The SAE version of this lyric would read “… or what you could have seen”.

  • #4 We Are Young- Fun. featuring Janelle Monae

AAE lyric: ” Now I know that/ I’m not/ all that you got”

In this line we see use of got in lieu of it’s SAE equivalent has, which is a grammatical feature of AAE.

  • #5 Starships- Nicki Minaj

AAE lyric: “And if you Ø a G, you Ø a G, G, G./Jump into my hoopty hoopty hoop/ I own that”

As usual, Nicki shows us a thing or two by employing her AAE vocabulary amidst her mix of AAE grammatical features. For this sample, we focused on the word hoopty and G. According to Urban Dictionary, a hoopty is a car (typically an older model) that’s “usually cheap and/or broken down”, although it seems like Minaj is referring to an impressive classic. The site also defines a G as a gangster or someone who is attractive, clever, wealthy, and sociable. Nicki Minaj also uses zero copula (Ø), which is when the present-tense verb is/are is absent. In SAE, the lyric “and if you Ø a G” would read: and if you are a G”.

  • #6 Wild Ones- Flo Rida  featuring Sia

AAE lyric: “All black shades when the sun come through/Uh-oh.”

This lyric reveals the AAE feature absence of third person present tense –s, which is the /s/ that attaches to a verb to signal that someone/thing does something. The AAE lyric “when the sun come through” is equivalent to “when the sun goes through” (SAE). Flo Rida also reduces most of his gerunds to n’ throughout this song.

  • #7 What Makes You Beautiful- One Direction

AAE lyric: “The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed/ but when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell/ you don’t know-o-o”

Here we find ain’t replacing the SAE form is not/ isn’t in the British-Irish boyband’s speech. In AAE, ain’t can only occur in linguistic situations where contraction (is not –> isn’t) is allowed in Standard American English. Like other features of African American English, ain’t is found in other dialects, including nonstandard British English.

  • #9 Boyfriend- Justin Bieber

AAE lyric: “I got money in my hands/ that I’d really like to blow /Swag, swag, swag/ on you/ chillin’ by the fire”

The teen heartthrob broke out his AAE guidebook for this one. In this lyric alone, there is use of got for have (I got vs. I have (SAE)), gerund reduction (where the -ing in chilling (SAE) becomes chillin’), and a few vocabulary items. First we have swag, defined by Urban Dictionary as style, overall confidence, and demeanor. Chillin’ in this case refers to lounging or spending time together.

  • #10 Drive By- Train

AAE lyric: “On the other side of a street I knew/ stood a girl that look  like you”

This is an example of the consonant cluster reduction feature of AAE. The SAE word looked is reduced to look since the word-final -ed is pronounced as a [t].

*Top ten songs as recorded by Billboard Hot 100 for the week of June 2, 2012.

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