The Morphology of African American English in African American rap lyrics

Term Paper, 2009
16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Background of AAE
2.1 Terminology and Short Outline
2.2 Debate on the Origin and Development of AAE
2.3 The sociohistorical background for the evolution of AAE

3 Morphological Features
3.1 Verbal –s
3.2 Past Morphology
3.3 Absence of Attributive Possessive –s & Genetive Marking
3.4 Copula Absence

4 AAE features in African American rappers’ lyrics
4.1 Verbal –s
4.2 Past Morphology
4.3 Absence of Attributive Possessive –s & Genetive Marking
4.4 Copula Absence

5 Conclusion

6 List of references

1 Introduction

In the foreword of African American English – a linguistic introduction it is stated that linguists have done more work on African American English than any other form of American English. However, at browsing through studies on this topic, one can observe that there is not so much on the pattern and structure of African American Vernacular English within modern linguistics (Green 2002: 1-6).

This term paper will mainly focus on the morphological studies of Lisa J. Green who is a Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Texas and who published a linguistic introduction to African American English which focuses on the phonological, morphological, syntactical and semantic properties of this variety of American English.

In this paper we will firstly have a closer look at the well researched areas of African American English like origins and (social)history. Subsequently, certain morphological features like verbal –s, past morphology, genetive marking and copula absence will be illustrated. To bring evidence for the linguistic theses concerning morphology that will have been made in the first part, rap texts by two well-known African American rap artists will be taken into account. This is due to the fact that authentic texts with sufficient morphological features of African American English are not easy to find. However, rap lyrics offer a wide range of morphological features that can provide evidence for many linguistic theses illustrated in this paper. On account of this, this paper will analyze 60 rap texts by the African American artists Kanye West and Talib Kweli.

The aim hereby is to see whether African American English consequently pursues a morphological pattern or if the features occur optionally. Is the widespread prejudice among many non-linguists true? Namley that African American English is a non-rule-based variety of English?

2 Background of AAE

2.1 Terminology and Short Outline

The term African American English is the title given to a group of varieties used by North Americans with an African Heritage. Over the decades various names have been used including Black English, Ebonics, Black Vernacular English and African American Vernacular English (= AAVE). In the 1960s, the name “Negro Non-standard English” was more common (Patrick 2008: 1).

Nowadays linguists tend to use the term African American English instead of Black English or even older terms which are righty considered as political incorrect. Particularly the term Ebonics, which was made up in the early 1970s by a “group of Black scholars [...] from ebony (black) and phonics (sound, the study of sound)“ (Rickford 1999: xxi) has become very preferred since the well-known Oakland controversy, which was aroused in 1996 after the California school board passed a law that legitimized Ebonics. In this paper the term African American English (=AAE) will be used.

Lisa Green states that African American English is a variety that has set “phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic and lexical patterns. So when speakers know AAE, they know a system of sounds, word and sentence structure, meaning and structural organization of vocabulary items and other information” (2002: 1) Oftentimes African American English is labeled as informal. The greater part of the vocabulary that is used by many African Americans is not accepted within the space of mainstream or Standard English. African American English consists of unique words and phrases and specific linguistic patterns which make it easy to identifiy it. The African American English lexicon consists of many words which also appear in other varieties of American English, but with different meanings. Green divides the vocabulary into two categories: words and phrases used by speakers of all age gropus and speakers of a specific age group (2002: 12-13). She does not label class or educational status as a major factor but emophasizes that usages do vary from region to region (2002: 13).

2.2 Debate on the Origin and Development of AAE

According to Walt Wolfram, the debate on the origin and development of AAE can be divided into three sides. Firstly, into the Anglicist position, the representatives of this position are convinced that AAE originates from British-based-dialects (2003: 284). Furterhmore, into the Creolists and the Neo-Anglicist position. Whereas Kautzsch states that there are two camps concerning the origin of AAE. For him the creolists and dialectologists positions are the opposing views in terms of nascency of AAE (2000: 4).

Anglicists argue that people under American enslavement spoke different African languages or pidgin and creole varieties. In further stages of the history they learned the regional varaties of the Americans with European heritage they were surrounded by.

The linguists who are in favor of the creolist position, which was established in the 1960s and 1970s, are convinced that AAE started out as a creole which was created by Africans and differed markedly from the grammatical patterns of those English dialects which arose from Great Britain and which were the speech of the major part of the white-colonists (Wolfram 2003: 284).

The neo-anglicits hypotheis maintains that African American speech has a direct connection with early British dialects. Within this position it is believed that AAE deviated in such a manner so that nowadays it differs enormously from present-day European American vernacular speech (Wolfram 2003: 285). Shana Poplack states that AAE “originated as English, but as the African American communitys olidified, it innovated specific features” and that the contemporary AAE “is the result of evolution, by its own unique, internal logic” (1999: 27).

The dialectoligst position can be regarded as an equivalent to the neo-anglistic position. The dialectoligsts see AAE as a dialact of English “which the newly arrived slaves acquired from their masters or the white people they worked with”.They, however, never eliminated the probability of a previous creole stage of AAE (Kautzsch 2000: 4).

In conclusion it is important to note a statemant by Wolfram who thinks that the occurance and co-existence of different positions over decades should forewarn us to jump hastily to a conclusion about the origins of AAE (2003: 285).

2.3 The sociohistorical background for the evolution of AAE

As it was mentioned above, despite the fact that the issues concerning the origins of AAE are still not resolved by linguists, no one can negate that AAE is an English dialect (Kautzsch 2000: 4). Many studies within sociolinguistics deal with the interaciton between black and white since their first encounter in the New World to come to estimation to what extent slaves learned “approximations of white dialects” (Kautzsch 2000: 6). So that this estimation can lead us to the starting point of AAE and consequently to its evolution. The most important point to be made about the conditions fot the contacts between black and white people is that they were not homogeneous. Winford claims that regional differneces, demographics, and economics suggest varying conditions. He also states that from a temporal perspective four phases need to be taken into consideration. (Winford 1997: 314).

At first, the seventeenth century, which means the beginning of colonization. The African slaves were scattered within an environment that was dominated by a majority of Europeans. Winford aussumes that creolized forms of English co-existed with English dialects in some areas. Salikoko S. Mufwene is opposed to this position, because he takes the view that, African slaves did not speak a creole whey they arrived in the US colonies, because he regards the devolopment of a creoloe during the slave transfer as improbable due to the amount of time they had to stay on trading places where the could have aquired a vernacular (quoted in Poplack 1999: 238-241).


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The Morphology of African American English in African American rap lyrics
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
B-Seminar: Morphology
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Morphology, African, American, English
Quote paper
Yasemin Genc (Author), 2009, The Morphology of African American English in African American rap lyrics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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