The Syntax of Earlier and Contemporary African-American English

Term Paper, 2018

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Main Part
2.1 The History of African American and their Speech
2.2 Its Linguistic Structure and Word formation
2.2.1 Overview of Contemporary AAVE
2.2.2 Grammar of Contemporary AAVE
2.2.3 Differences between earlier and contemporary AAVE
2.3 Historical Song in Earlier AAVE, Analyzed and Compared to Songs in Contemporary AAVE
2.3.1 Analysis of the Song ''I don't do nobody nothin''
2.3.2 Analysis of the Song ''In Da Club'' by 50 Cent and ''Anaconda'' by Nicky Minaj
2.3.3 Comparison

3. Conclusion




One may intuitively think of artists like Nicki Minaj, 2pac or other black celebrities when hearing the term African-American English. This is due to the fact that they utilize several syntactic features in their lyrics which are unlike General American (GA).

African Americans have been part of American History since the first arrival of African slaves in the seventeenth century. Over the course of many years they have extensively grown in number and it was of no surprise that they would eventually develop their own culture with its own distinctive features. With the rise of their new cultural space came their own dialect ( Staff 2009). Their iconic dialect was the result of the inclusion of many features in the fields of grammar, syntax and pronunciation that derived from the slaves' African tribal languages. It developed over the course of many years and is still contemporary (Rickford: As it is with any language, the African American dialect is still evolving today and its corresponding accents have branched into many different regional variations. Many factors, such as dense and exclusively black urban communities have especially shaped AAE in re-cent years (Wolfram 2008: 510-513). The only question that remains is; What exactly has changed regarding older and more modern AAE and to what extent did it change?

Due to the large extent of information concerning the topic, this term paper merely focuses on the grammar of early and today's African-American English, as well as its origin, its history, its development and the areas in which it is commonly spoken today. More precisely the paper will outline the construction of African-American English and will further provide a comparison of early and contemporary AAE by including the lyrics of a slave song as a visualization for its syntax.

Even though AAE consists of more than just grammatical distinctions such as the phonological, morphological and semantical, the focus will solely lie on the syntax, because it was primarily the topic of the seminar.

2.Main Part

2.1 The History of African-Americans and their Speech According to Walt Wolfram (2008: 328)

In the study of ethnic dialect in the history of English, no dialect has received more attention than African American English. It is by far the most scrutinized dialect of American English and has now become widely recognized throughout the English-speaking world.

The first Africans arrived as slaves in the early 17th century. Slavery started in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia with the arrival of a Dutch ship that brought the first 20 slaves to America. Over the course of the next two centuries many African slaves were bought by European settlers and brought to the New World as a cheap form of labor. Some estimates state that over seven million African slaves made their way to the United States in the 18th century alone. Most slave owners in the 17th and 18th century lived in the south and had tobacco, rice and indigo plantations where their slaves worked. In the north, slavery was generally less important as in the south and consequently played a minor role in its economic development. Therefore, following the American Revolution, people in the north compared the oppression of Black Americans to the British oppression of the colonies on which account they called for the abolishment of slavery. Finally, between 1774 and 1804 slavery was abolished in all of the northern states. In the meanwhile, the institution of slavery remained vital to the south. Approximately one third of the south's population consisted of black slaves who predominantly worked on large plantations. Slave owners tended to put up many rules for their slaves in order to make them more dependent on them, for example by not allowing them to learn how to read and to write. Additionally, most slaves were extremely limited in their mobility. It was also quite common that female slaves were sexually taken advantage of and sometimes rewarded if they had been obedient ( Staff 2009). As these Black slaves usually lived and worked together, they eventually developed their own language variation, dialect and accent. The exact origin of AAE, though, is still disputed in scientific circles. Jon R. Rickford notes the following:

On this point, linguists are quite divided. Some emphasize its English origins, pointing to the fact that most of the vocabulary of Ebonics is from English and that much of its pronunciation (e.g. pronouncing final th as f) and grammar (e.g. double negatives, "I don't want none") could have come from the nonstandard dialects of English indentured servants and other workers with whom African slaves interacted.

Others emphasize Ebonics' African origins, noting that West African languages often lack the sounds and final consonant clusters (e.g. past), and that replacing or simplifying these occurs both in US Ebonics and in West African English varieties spoken in Nigeria and Ghana. (Rickford:

As most slaves lived in the rural south, AAE was undoubtedly founded in that region. This did not prevent the language variety of spreading across the entire USA, as it is currently predominantly present in non-Southern urban areas (Wolfram 2008: 510). One of the major factors that kick-started the spread of AAE was the ''Great Migration in which African Americans moved from the rural south to large metropolitan areas of the north in the early and mid-20th century'' (Wolfram 2008: 510). Statistics show that by 1970 nearly half of all Black residents lived outside of the south, most of them in metropolitan areas, predominantly New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Los Angeles and Baltimore (Bailey 2001: 66). Recent demographics continue to show large and often segregated Black communities within urban areas (Wolfram 2008: 511). Wolfram further points out the ideal conditions that encouraged the development of AAE in those areas and states: ''The increasing number of African American in-migrants in these urban contexts, the shared southern rural cultural heritage, the segregated living conditions, and the biracial ideology characteristic of more northern urban cities certainly provided an ideal context for nurturing ethnolinguistic distinction.'' (ibid, 512-513). The complexity of the development of AAVE caused it to change its name several times. The terms that were used to describes the African American dialect were as following: “Negro dialect, American Negro speech, Black communications, Black dialect, Black street speech, Black English, Black Vernacular English, African American language and African American English” (Green 2004: 77). Nowadays it is known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

2.2 Its Linguistic Structure and Word Formation

2.2.1 Overview of Contemporary AAVE

Due to differences in grammar between contemporary urban AAVE and contemporary rural AAVE mainly spoken in the south, this paper will not merely focus on the grammatical differences between contemporary urban AAVE and General American, but further it will also concentrate on important factors that distance urban AAVE from its rural counterpart. Finally, this paper will illustrate how contemporary AAVE, in general, compares to earlier versions of English that were spoken by Black people in America.

That being said, there are a vast majority of differences between contemporary urban AAVE and General American English (GA), also known as Standard American English, which is an umbrella term referring to the dialect commonly spoken by most Americans today (Wells 1982: 470). Urban AAVE, on the other hand, derived from the southern states and was heavily influenced by Black slaves who, in large numbers, moved to urban centers in the northern and western portions of the country. The Great Migration of Black Americans caused AAVE to spread all across the United States, where it managed to develop its own distinct features and characteristics. Over the course of many years it has now become one of the most common dialects spoken in today's black urban communities (Wolfram 2004: 1). Its differences to General American (GA) range from the absence of copula and auxiliary and the inclusion of double negatives as intensifiers to a negation, to the use of the invariant be and the completive done (Wolfram 2008: 517-524).

Up to this day, linguists still debate various issues surrounding AAVE, including its creole origin and historical development, as well as its current relationship to contemporary White American dialects. Although it is still up for debate “whether AAVE is currently diverging or becoming more different from white vernacular dialects in the US”, there is no debate about the many instances in which both speech varieties clearly and extensively differ from one another (Rickford 1998:

2.2.2 Grammar of Contemporary AAVE

At this point I will outline the main structure of AAVE grammar to illustrate the previously presented features, such as the absence of copula and auxiliary, double negation, the invariant be and the completive done.

To begin with, the absence of copula and auxiliary in a sentence is one of the most common traits of both, urban and rural AAVE. An example for such an absence could be as following; “They acting silly or She nice” (Wolfram 2008: 517) . In this instance, the conjugated form of to be is absent. Up to this day, it is still uncertain, whether or not this absence derived through a grammatical or phonological process (ibid).

The most common trait of AAVE is the invariant be, also indicated as habitual be or non­finite be, which frequently functions as will or would and emerged through a phonological process from the loss of the /l/ and /d/.

Wolfram represents the invariant be in sentences as following:

1. She be here in a minute.
2. If they get a DVD player they be happy.
3. Sometimes they be playing tag.

Furthermore, another trait of AAVE is the completive done and the sequential be done. The use of the completive done is more often used in rural settings and is therefore more common in rural AAVE than in urban AAVE. The sequential or resultative be done, on the other hand, is exclusively being used in urban areas. By using done in the past tense as in ''I done told you not to mess up'' (ibid: 519), the done appears like a perfect and describes actions of the late past. On the other hand, sentences that comprise of be done, like ''My ice cream be done melted by the time we get there''(ibid), refer to the future or an upcoming conditional state.

The next grammatical function that occurs with the past tense form in AAVE is the remote béen. The function and the meaning in sentences like ''She béen married'' (ibid: 520) might be baffling because one could think that the referent is no longer married although it, in fact, rather implies that the referent had been married a long time and is still currently married. In recent years the us of the remote béen has become more common in rural AAVE.

“With the exception of the phrase I béen known or I béen knowin' (phonetically quite similar if not identical to known [noun]) in casual speech, the use of remote béen in urban areas appears to be receding.” (ibid)

Another feature of AAVE is the use of had + a past form of the verb. The utilization of this feature is comparable to the use of the simple past in GA. Rickford exemplifies two sentences to show the difference between the AAVE feature and the standard use of simple past: ''They had went outside and then they had messed up the yard'' (ibid) as opposed to ''They went outside and then they messed up the yard'' (ibid). Specialized auxiliaries that refer to a certain mood, such as come, steady and finna, are also not rare in AAVE. Each of them indicates something else. Come, for example, signifies annoyance or indignation, as in ''He come walking in here like he owned the damn place'' (ibid: 521), while steady refers to a severe and intense activity and finna marks a future event, as in ''Ricky Bill be steady steppin' in them number nines'' (ibid) and ''I'm finna go''(ibid). Another quite eminent aspect of AAVE is the absence of the 3rd sg. -s, which is also called the subject-verb agreement or subject-verb concord. African Americans tend to say ''she have money''(ibid: 522) instead of “she has money” or ''she walk'' (ibid: 522) instead of “she walks”. At last, AAVE often consists of double or multiple negation. This sentence structure, also referred to as the negative concord, is not exclusive to AAVE, but is frequently used in a multiple of English vernacular dialects. For example, a speaker of AAVE would rather say “I don't got no time!” instead of “I don't have time!”, or “They didn't do nothing about nobody having no money or nothing like that” (ibid: 523) instead of “They didn't do anything about nobody having money or anything like that”. Finally, the use of the preverbal negative ain't also differs to a certain extent from its use in other vernacular forms of English. In AAVE, ain't can be used to replace didn't as well. Other than that, the words which can be replaced with ain't are not exclusive to African American Vernacular English as outlined in the following excerpt of Walt Wolfram's text Urban African American Vernacular English: Morphology and Syntax from the 2008 book Varieties of English:

Like other vernacular dialects, AAVE uses ain't as a general preverbal negative for present tense be (am not, isn't, aren't) and for the perfect auxiliary haven't - hasn't as in she ain't here or she ain't been there lately. In this respect, AAVE is no different from other vernacular varieties of English.

2.2.3 Differences between Contemporary and Earlier AAVE

Differences in speech African-American speech are not solely found between urban and rural AAVE, but between contemporary modern AAVE and early AAVE as well. As early AAVE functions as the basis for contemporary urban and rural AAVE, many modern features of the dialect developed over time and were not present in earlier AAVE. In certain instances, one may also come across dialect features that were already present in earlier AAVE but are only present in either rural or urban AAVE nowadays. This leads to the conclusion that those particular features were lost over the course of years of regional AAVE dialect development.

One of the features that are present today but were not common in the past is the habitual be. Furthermore, in earlier AAVE the resultative done was also not utilized whereas today it is only existent in urban areas. Additionally, the indignant come, which only occurs in urban areas as well, did not exist in the past either. Another feature that is completely new and was not present in earlier AAVE is the use of the auxiliary had + a past form of the verb.

Moving on, there are many language structures and features that are timeless and were therefore present in the past, as well as in contemporary rural and urban versions of AAVE. The following table was taken from an excerpt of Varieties of English (Vol. 2) and depicts those particular language features that match the aforementioned criteria of timelessness:

Urban Rural Earlier AAVE AAVE AAVE

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Finally, there are also the traits that existed in the past but were somehow neglected along the way over time in urban areas, up to the point where they became entirely extinct in urban AAVE. Although some aspects of earlier AAVE were certainly disregarded, the case in which a given language feature eventually disappeared completely and is nowhere to be found today, in neither urban nor in rural AAVE, does not exist. This so-called extinction of dialect features is quite common and the number of possible examples are therefore extremely large. In the interest of quantity management, the number of given examples will be severely limited, the first one being a-prefixing. In this grammatical feature, a speaker puts an “a-” in front of a present participle. One example for a-prefixing would be: “I was a-huntin'.” (Wolfram 2008: 528). Another example for trait extinction in urban AAVE would be the use of the third person plural -s (3rd pl -s). This feature already existed in early AAVE but is currently purely present in rural varieties of AAVE. In this grammatical concept, one adds an -s at the end of a verb in third person plural, i.e.: “The dogs barks.” (ibid). Last but not least, the use of a different past form is also a feature that has its origin in earlier AAVE and is merely utilized in rural areas today, for example the past form of the verb rise is defined as riz such as in ''it riz up in front of me'' (ibid: 529)


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Syntax of Earlier and Contemporary African-American English
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
syntax, earlier, contemporary, african-american, english
Quote paper
Munise Özevran (Author), 2018, The Syntax of Earlier and Contemporary African-American English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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