African American Vernacular English in Contemporary Music

A linguistic analysis

Bachelor Thesis, 2011

36 Pages, Grade: 2,0

A. Glatz (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background Knowledge on AAVE
2.1 Definition, Origin, Speakers of AAVE and Attitudes Towards It
2.2 Overview of the Most Important Features of AAVE
2.3 Hip Hop and AAVE
2.4 The Research Question

3. Materials and Method
3.1 The Artists
3.2 The Song Selection
3.3 The Method

4. Results and Discussion
4.1 Results
4.2 Discussion

5. Conclusion


Works Cited


List of Tables

Table 1: Blake 1997:

Table 2: Overall deletion and contraction of is/are by artist

Table 3: Deletion and contraction of is/are in Tupac’s lyrics

Table 4: Deletion and contraction of is/are in Jay-Z’s lyrics

Table 5: Deletion and contraction of is/are in 50 Cent’s lyrics

Table 6: Deletion and contraction of is/are in different decades

1. Introduction

This thesis investigates the use of African American Vernacular English in contemporary music. AAVE is an ethnic variety spoken by many, though not all, African Americans living in the United States. This dialect does not have one name only, but is also called “Negro dialect,” “Nonstandard Negro English,” “Black English,” “Black Street Speech,” “Black Vernacular English,” “Black Vernacular English,” or “African American English.” I would like to add that some terms are historical. It is crucial to know that researchers call it differently because to a large degree it depends on the time he/she conducted research on this topic. Today, the dialect is either called African American Vernacular English or African American English.

The words “contemporary music” in the title refer to Hip Hop. This music genre was chosen to be investigated because out of the music genres African Americans are involved in, it is the one that generates most of the sales and is the most popular one. The rappers which are going to be analyzed in this thesis use many of the features of the African American vernacular. Given the huge number of AAVE features, only one of them will be analyzed, the copula verb to be, which in the following will only be called “the copula.” According to Wolfram, the copula is “one of the most often described structures of AAVE” (2008: 517). For this reason, the copula might be an interesting feature to look at. When researchers examined AAVE in the past, they did not necessarily take music as a source of data, but rather spoken language. One has to know that language in music is a different genre of language use, which differs from the usual use of the language. Music can be considered an artistic expression, but not “real” speech. Nevertheless, as music has always been and presumably will always be a big part in African American culture, it should be possible to recognize features of AAVE and use music as a reliable source. In the analysis conducted in this thesis, the use of the copula will be examined by having a look at the lyrics of three famous rappers from the US: Tupac, Jay-Z and 50 Cent. Even though the three of them can be assigned to “gangsta rap”, they all differ from each other. They all started their careers in different decades, come from different cities and have a different style of rapping. What they have in common is that they are African American rappers from a lower class who grew up in poverty and have become successful musicians. The similarities make it possible to compare the three of them and choose a representative corpus for Tupac, Jay-Z and 50 Cent for the analysis. The differences give rise to diachronic conclusions about their use of copula deletion as well, as they had their climax of success in different decades. This means that we can have a look at how the three rappers changed their use of copula deletion in the course of their careers. In the end, the analysis will show that there can be found similarities as well as differences between the rappers. We will see that Tupac and Jay-Z increased their use of copula deletion, whereas 50 Cent decreased it. We will also see that, on average, the rappers analyzed in this thesis have increased their use of copula deletion over the course of time (from their first to their last album).

At the end of the thesis, the question of whether Hip Hop music can be a reliable source of AAVE language will be answered. We will find out that Hip Hop music is not necessarily a good source because language in music is too creative and too dependent on rhythm.

2. Background Knowledge on AAVE

In the first part of the thesis, the theoretical background of AAVE is going to be specified. At first, it has to be made clear what AAVE is, where its origins lie and who its speakers are. Likewise, it is important to consider other issues linked to the current research status of AAVE, such as its role in the classroom or in professional settings, as well as attitudes of the general public towards it. In section 2.2. an overview about the most important phonological, grammatical and lexical features is given with a focus on the copula. In addition, the copula’s origins and its development is going to be pointed out. Subsequently, Hip Hop music and its link to AAVE speakers is going to be discussed in 2.3. Finally, in 2.4 the research question of deletion of copula be in Tupac’s, Jay-Z’s and 50 Cent’s lyrics is going to be explained.

2.1 Definition, Origin, Speakers of AAVE and Attitudes Towards It

In this section, an overview about important background knowledge about AAVE is given. Part of this section will be a definition of AAVE as well as the description of its potential speakers. Also, it is necessary to show where the origins of this dialect might be. Moreover, other research topics, such as how AAVE is treated in the classroom and professional settings, and attitudes towards it in the general public are dealt with in this section.

Green defines AAVE as follows: “African American English refers to a linguistic system of communication governed by well defined rules and used by some African Americans (though not all) across different geographical regions of the USA and across a full range of age groups” (Green 2004: 77). She makes clear AAVE has rules and consequently is a widely recognized system of speech that has syntactical independence. One of the most important information Green provides in this quotation is that AAVE is related to the ethnicity of its speakers. We deal with a “ethnic variety,” which basically means that it consists of “linguistic features which reflect the regular interactions people have – those they talk to most often” (Holmes 2008: 184). In this quotation, Holmes assumes that people with e.g. the same ethnicity tend to have the most interactions with each other. The fact that AAVE is an ethnic variety should not be misunderstood. Not every American with African roots automatically speaks this variety, nor is it impossible that someone with European or other roots can adopt this dialect. It is often claimed that about 80 percent or more of all African Americans are able to speak this dialect. However, Rickford says that this is rather a “guesstimate” (Rickford 1999: 9) than a number that could be proved by serious studies. It is very hard to identify the speakers for two main reasons. The first one is that it is difficult to tell at which point you are a speaker of AAVE. It is not possible to say which of the many features of AAVE you have to use to be an ordinary speaker of this variety. The second reason refers to the fact that many African Americans use AAVE alongside Standard American English (SAE) or some regional standard. There might be speakers who exclusively speak the standard, even though they are able to use AAVE. Some of them might use both dialects, depending on the context of the speech situation, e.g. some might rather use AAVE when talking to someone with the same complexion while tending to SAE when talking to an European American (Rickford 1999: 10). Last but not least, there is a group that exclusively speaks AAVE, who are, by the way, often said to originate from lower classes. As we can see, there are difficulties in stating who is a AAVE speaker or not. Generally, one can say that such speakers often come from urban areas and use it in informal contexts. One also has to keep in mind that there might be variation by age and gender. The question of who the speakers of AAVE are is a major interest in current research.

Another interesting topic is the origin of AAVE. There is only a limited amount of data available on the early stages of the language of Africans in America, i.e. the language of slaves brought to the colonial United States and the following development of the language. For this reason, there is no definite answer that can be given on the origin of AAVE, but several hypotheses were offered by Wolfram and Schilling-Estes (2006), which I am going to present in the following section. The four hypotheses the authors name are Anglicist Hypothesis, Creolist Hypothesis, Neo-Anglicist Hypothesis and the Substrate Hypothesis.

The Anglicist Hypothesis, sometimes called Dialectologist Hypothesis, maintains that AAVE does not derive from African languages to any respect, but only from English spoken by European Americans. According to this theory, English was the main factor that influenced the language of Africans in America. During the time they were held in bondage as slaves, they were forced to interact with their masters and other white people from their local and regional area who were the ones in power. This is the reason why many slaveholders often tried to prevent the contact with other slaves on the plantations. Evidence for this theory is the fact that certain features of AAVE were also found in other American regional or social varieties, such as in the Southern dialect. Thus, the language of African Americans originates from SAE as a dialect.

The next hypothesis, the Creolist Hypothesis, states that today’s AAVE developed from a creole language which emerged after Africans were brought to America. Before a creole can develop in a speech community, a pidgin has to be used first. Amberg and Vause define pidgin as “a language that arises when people who do not speak the same language come into contact” (2009: 155). As the language situation was quite difficult with English, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese slave traders and African slaves, they had to develop a way of communication to understand each other. This was how the pidgin was “born”. If speakers of a pidgin have children and these children continue to speak this language and develop further grammatical and other linguistic features, we are talking of a creole, which can be seen as a full-fledged new language. The evidence for the Creolist Hypothesis lies in the fact that today’s AAVE has several similarities with some of the Caribbean creole languages. If we think about AAVE for a moment, we realize quite quickly that today it rather resembles SAE than an assumed creole. Wolfram & Schilling-Estes explain this development of the former creole by referring to a process called decreolization, which is described as follows: “In this process, creole structures are lost or replaced by non-creole features. Decreolization, however, was gradual and not necessarily complete, so that the vestiges of its creole predecessor may still be present in modern AAE” (Wolfram 2006: 221). According to them, the former creole adopted almost all features from SAE and only some features of the creole remained, such as the copula be absence, which is dealt with in this paper later on.

Coming to the next hypothesis about the origin of AAVE, it is important to know that in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of new data on the language of African Americans emerged and showed that their language was much more similar to European American English than assumed before. Linguists started to doubt that AAVE had its origin in a presumed creole. For this reason, the Neo-Anglicist Hypothesis emerged. It maintains that present AAVE is “directly linked to the early British dialects brought to North America” (Wolfram 2006: 222), and since then the language diverged so much that you are hardly able to reconstruct the original language. Labov asserts that “the general conclusion that is emerging from studies of the history of AAVE is that many important features of the modern dialect are creations of the twentieth century and not an inheritance of the nineteenth” (Labov 1998: 119). Thus, AAVE diverged from SAE “on its own” because its speakers established new linguistic features.

However, there was not much support for this theory, so that Wolfgang & Schilling-Estes introduced the Substrate Hypothesis, which maintains that enduring differences between AAVE and European American English have always existed, even though there might have been some features that AAVE incorporated from regional dialects. This hypothesis states the two dialects have influenced each other in so far that substrates such as inflectional –s absence or copula absence came into being. This constellation of two languages influencing each other so much that the differences between the two endure beyond the original contact circumstance, Wolfgang & Schilling-Estes call a substrate effect (cf. Wolfgang 2006: 223). Thus, the early contact between the dialects is responsible for today’s differences. In comparison with the Anglicist or Neo-Anglicist Hypotheses, the Substrate Hypothesis does not claim that earlier AAVE and European American English were identical.

Though researchers were able to find evidence for all of the above hypotheses, no clear answer about the origin of AAVE can be given. Given the limitations of data, a final answer seems to be impossible. For now, one has to accept the fact that there are only hypotheses trying to explain the origins of AAVE.

Another controversial topic on AAVE is the attitude towards it in educational or professional settings. As Rickford states, speakers of AAVE need a certain proficiency in SAE in order to become successful in the Unites States (cf. Rickford 1999). A big problem is that too many African American students have very poor reading skills and a low academic achievement in general. The issue is that Standard English is required in all professions and seems to be the most accurate form to talk when being at work (cf. Green 2002: 223). Attitudes in professional settings are very negative towards AAVE, but to other non-standard dialects as well. If AAVE is heard by co-workers or employers in professional settings, the speaker is often perceived as someone with low communication skills because she/he is unable to communicate in the appropriate way. The general public often perceives AAVE as unintelligible speech not to be taken seriously as a dialect on its own. For this reasons, researchers such as Lisa Green demand an adjustment of African Americans to the linguistic requirements at work:

employees have the obligation to speak what the employer deems appropriate for the company, and the employer has the power to demand a particular variety of language. The message is that AAE [African American English] is not appropriate language for use in a professional setting. (Green 2002: 223)

According to Green, employees speaking AAVE should not insist on speaking their

speaking their dialect, but rather adjust to the norms set on the workplace. As dialects in general are often evaluated negatively, speakers should try to speak SAE without being offended that they are not allowed to speak however they want. The same counts for the use of AAVE in the classroom. In many cases the teacher’s negative attitude towards AAVE can discourage a student’s will to learn SAE. If a teacher has a negative attitude towards a dialect (which could be any dialect in this case, not only AAVE), he might already have low expectations for this student. If the teacher then puts the student into special language courses to get rid of her dialect, this rejection towards the student’s dialect might cause the student to be offended and to become demotivated. For this reason it is often hard for AAVE speakers to learn SAE. Another reason might be that they often interact with people speaking the same dialect. Consequently, they might lack practice in SAE and are not able to overcome the differences between AAVE and SAE. Because of the fact that society wants them to speak SAE in official situations, some AAVE speakers might have a very bad motivation, thinking that SAE is a characteristic of the majority, i.e. white people. The fact that they interact mostly with people speaking the same dialect and identifying the most with them lead to a negative perception towards SAE.

2.2 Overview of the Most Important Features of AAVE

In this section, I will give an overview of the most important phonological, grammatical and lexical features of AAVE in comparison to SAE as presented by Tottie (2002) and Rickford (1999). I will first introduce a few of the phonological features of AAVE.

The largest differences with regard to phonology can be found in the consonant system. One prominent feature of AAVE is that it is non-rhotic, which basically means that the letter r is not pronounced in certain contexts. Besides the word-final r (as in the word letter), it is also possible to leave out an intervocalic r, i.e. an r between two vowels (e.g. barrel, which then sounds like [bæl]). Other features are the realization of final velar ng as alveolar n, such as in singin’ for SAE singing), and the “reduction of word-final clusters in words like test, desk, hand, build, child are frequent, so that they sound like tess, dess etc.” (Tottie 2008: 220). Another interesting feature is the devoicing of word-final voiced stops after a vowel, i.e. the realization of [d] as [t], such as in bad, which becomes [bæt] or [k] for [g], as in [pɪk] for pig.

The grammar of AAVE differs the most from SAE and is the most noticeable one if you listen to AAVE speakers. The verb phrase is probably the most prominent aspect of the grammar with regard to AAVE. According to Tottie, AAVE “has more possibilities of indicating for instance whether an event or action is ongoing, habitual or repeated, recently finished, or finished in the remote past“ (Tottie 2008: 221) than other varieties of English. AAVE speakers use an invariant form of the verb be to indicate that an action is habitual. An example for this is the sentence Lisa be mad, which basically means “Lisa is always mad”. Another feature is the use of stressed been, spelled BIN, which refers to the fact that an action started a long time ago in the past and is still going on. Rickford uses the example “She BIN married”, meaning “She has been married for a long time (and still is)” (Rickford 1999: 6). In case AAVE speakers want to express future meaning, they use the word will, but because of l -deletion (l is sometimes vocalized in the end of words) it often sounds as if will is not used. Thus, “He’ll miss you tomorrow” sounds as “He miss you tomorrow” (Tottie 2002: 223). People who are not familiar with this variety aspect might assume that AAVE speakers simply leave out will. The form will have is expressed by substituting will have with be done as in the following example by Rickford: “She be done had her baby” instead of “She will have had her baby” (Rickford 1999: 6). The third person singular is often not indicated in AAVE, i.e. -s is simply left out: “He sing” instead of “He sings”.

Negation is special as AAVE speakers use the expression ain’t as a generalized negator. Ain’t can substitute “am not”, “is not”, “are not”, “has not”, “have not” and “ did not”. For instance, it is possible to use ain’t in both sentences “He ain’ here” and “He ain’ do it”, although ain’t signifies “is not” in the first example and “did not” in the second. Also note that ain’t is often pronounced as ain’. Beside this, AAVE has a feature called double or multiple negation, which means that there are two or more words that express negation but do not cause a change in meaning. In a related fashion, “nothing and no are used instead of the standard forms anything or any, as in “I ain’t got no car” for “I don’t have a car”. Tottie quotes a sentence, in which we find four (!) negatives: “Ain’t no cat can’t get in no coop”, meaning “There is no cat that can get into any cage” (Tottie 2002: 224).

The last grammatical feature I would like to describe is the most significant one for this paper: the absence of copula/auxiliary is and are for present tense states and actions, as in the following example: He happy. It is important to mention that the absence of to be almost never occurs in the first person singular, i.e. am. The copula is one of the most studied features in the course of AAVE studies and therefore an interesting one to look at when it comes to music as there has not been a lot of research so far. As the copula absence is the linguistic item to be analyzed later in this thesis, we should have a closer look on the historical and current development of this feature. Dialectologists and creolists oppose each other when talking about the origins of the AAVE pattern of copula deletion usage. The crucial question is the following one: “Do speakers have is as an underlying aspect of their dialect, or does the vernacular have a vacuous (that is Ø) form that gradually gives way to the intrusion of is as speakers gain more exposure to standard English?” (Baugh 1983: 19). Dialectologists maintain that AAVE speakers actually have in mind that the copula is used in certain positions and that a natural process in the development of the AAVE dialect caused the absence. Creolists, on the contrary, are of the opinion that the null copula derived from English-based creoles and pidgins that were spoken in the African diaspora. As speakers had to deal more and more with the English language proper and its copula use, speakers adopted this feature in some cases as part of decreolization. However, AAVE speakers still leave out the feature in some positions. All in all, it is quite well possible that several causes led to the development of copula absence in AAVE. Winford asserts the following about its source: “the copula pattern of AAVE is best explained as the result of imperfect second language learning, with transfer from creolized or restructured varieties playing a significant role. In other words, multiple causation was at work here” (Winford 1998: 111). Instead of assigning the source of AAVE to one of the two opposing views, Wolfram and Thomas state that the explanation might be a combination of the two of them.

Another copula-specific issue is that it is sometimes left out by European Americans as well. So, copula deletion is a feature that can also be assigned to SAE. Wolfram and Schilling-Estes present the current research status on copula deletion in the South of the US compared to AAVE in one chapter of their work “American English.” They state that “neither European American nor African American speakers delete the copula when the form is am” (Wolfram 2006: 215). This means that is and are are the only cases where be is deleted from speech. Moreover, the deletion of are is the most common one in both dialects, but it is far more frequent in AAVE (Wolfram 2006: 215). As a last point, the two authors say that when the copula is followed by gonna, both speech communities delete is (e.g. She gonna do it), but European American do not delete is very often when other words than gonna follow it (less than 5 percent). African Americans, on the contrary, show high levels of frequency (e.g. She crazy) (Wolfram 2006: 216).

Coming back to the most important features of AAVE, the vocabulary “is less distinctive than its grammar and phonology, but it has certainly added much to American English” (Tottie 2002: 225). There are some expressions which are modified in AAVE, so that they acquire a new meaning. An example is the word cool, which means “excellent” among other things and originally came from AAVE. Nowadays, it is an established expression in SAE that everybody uses. The word bad has the meaning “very good” in AAVE and uptight has the meaning of “tense, anxious”. Another feature of the vocabulary is the expression call oneself, meaning “claim, pretend” in SAE, such as in “He calls himself a cook”, which basically wants to tell us that the person thinks she/he is a cook, but in fact does not cook very well.

2.3 Hip Hop and AAVE

In this section, we have a look at Hip Hop and its relationship to AAVE. It is crucial to know what Hip Hop really is and where it originated from, before coming to its cultural and linguistic relationship to AAVE. As Hip Hop has its own language, it is necessary to have knowledge about in how far it is similar to AAVE.

To begin with, it needs to be clarified what Hip Hop is and what its relationship to rap is, as people often tend to interchange the two words. First of all, Hip Hop is not a music style, but a culture consisting of four subcultures: MCing (rapping), DJing (turntablism), breakdancing and graffiti art (spraying). Accordingly, rap as a music style is part of Hip Hop. Furthermore, Alim defines rapping as “the aesthetic placement of verbal rhymes over musical beats” (Alim 2004: 388). Rap music developed on the streets of the Bronx and Harlem in the early 1970s. On street parties, DJs supplied the music while an MC (Master of Ceremonies) provided “rhythmically syncopated spoken vocals” (Borthwick 2004: 157). One after the other, the other three pillars of Hip Hop developed on the streets of New York City. Early rappers received the inspiration for their lyrics in their immediate environment. One can say that they were highly influenced by the economic and political changes in the inner city, such as de-industrialization, globalization and the rise of the New Right. The problems that arose for the poor black underclass in the inner city are often depicted in rap lyrics. Central themes in rap lyrics were poverty, problems with the family, conflicts with the law and the state, etc. While rap lyrics dealt with real problems in the beginning of its history (reality rap), it turned to more fantastic topics. The main goal was to escape from the streets by dreaming of wealth and fame.

In the late 80s and early 90s, a form of rap called gangsta rap evolved. It is important to know what it is, as all three artists analyzed in this paper rap in “gangsta style”. Gangsta rap had an “edgy, noisy sound” (Bogdanov et al. 2003: viii), meaning that it is more aggressive and more dynamic than earlier rap styles. Most of the lyrics deal with urban crime, such as drug dealing, pandering or robbery. In some cases, the lyrics are highly exaggerated and do not correspond to the real world. Explicit lyrics and controversial topics are used to attract attention from the media. Accordingly, gangsta rap has often been accused of promoting crime. Anyway, this strategy works as gangsta rap is the most commercially successful form of Hip Hop.

Coming to the significance of rap and Hip Hop in Africa American culture, one can say that they have their roots in African American oral tradition and African folk music. During the time of slavery, slaves had special ways to communicate with each other, e.g. they used drums to communicate messages between themselves. As soon as the slaveholders got to know about this, they forbid the use of drums. Since then, African (American) rhythms are considered to be a protest against the white American society. Rap continues this development by commenting on the inequalities within the society. Rose says that rap music and African American culture go together, as it “is a black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of an urban America” (1994: 2-3).

However, there still is the question what the relationship between AAVE and the language of rap is. As Hip Hop is rooted in African American culture, one might think that the language that is used in Hip Hop is AAVE. This not the complete truth. It surely adopted almost all its grammar from AAVE, but there are some aspects that need to be kept in mind. For instance, “users of hip-hop language tend to be members of certain social groups, while AAE users spread across all demographic groups throughout the United States” (Amberg 2009: 155). Moreover, AAVE exists since ages, whereas Hip Hop language does so only since the eighties. Hip Hop language is also used only in certain contexts, such as DJing, MCing or dancing (see also Amberg 2009: 155). H. Samy Alim found an example in which the syntax of Hip Hop language (or “Hip Hop Nation Language”, how he calls it) and AAVE do not correspond. This is the case with invariant be before noun phrases (e.g. “Dr. Dre be the name”), which is found quite often in Hip Hop lyrics, whereas it is hardly noted in “conversation-based AAVE studies” (Alim 2004: 387). Furthermore, Hip Hop language is far more innovative than AAVE. New words are invented in song lyrics, which are then adopted into AAVE everyday speech. Rapper E-40, for example, is one of the biggest innovators in the Hip Hop show business. He came up with expressions such as communicator (meaning “cell phone”) or to underdig, which basically means “to understand” (cf. Alim 2004: 397). These words then found their way into everyday language of AAVE speakers and Hip Hop fans. All in all, we can say that Hip Hop language can be seen as a subordinated area of AAVE.


Excerpt out of 36 pages


African American Vernacular English in Contemporary Music
A linguistic analysis
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
3259 KB
Analysierte Songtexte nicht im Volltext in der Arbeit enthalten
Rap, AAVE, Hip hop
Quote paper
A. Glatz (Author), 2011, African American Vernacular English in Contemporary Music, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: African American Vernacular English in Contemporary Music

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free