Features of African American English in the Context of Language Varieties

With an exemplary analysis of the use of AAE in rap lyrics

Seminar Paper, 2012

28 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Origins, Development, and the Socio-historical Background of AAE

3. Features of AAE
3.1 Phonological Features of AAE
3.1.1 The “th”
3.1.2 Consonant Cluster Reduction and Simplification
3.1.3 The non-rhotic “r”
3.2 Grammatical Features of AAE
3.2.1 Negation
3.2.2 Time Reference
3.3 Morphological Features of AAE
3.3.1 The Verbal -s
3.3.2 Past Morphology
3.3.3 Genitive Marking and Absence of Attributive Possessive –s
3.3.4 Copula Absence

4. Exemplary Analysis
4.1 Phonological Features
4.2 Grammatical Features
4.3 Morphological Features

5. Conclusion

Bibliographic References


I who am poisoned with the blood of both

Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?

I who have cursed the drunken officer of British rule, how choose

Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

Betray them both, or give back what they give?

(Walcott 816.26-31)

1. Introduction

African American English[1] in general is used to describe a wide range of language varieties spoken mostly by the black population in the United States (cf. Mufwene 2001: 291). During the past decades however multiple names and definitions have been established including Black English (BE), Ebonics, Black Vernacular English (BVE), and African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The term “Negro Non-standard English” used until the late 1960s has been abolished by now due to the fact that it insinuates the presence of a superior “White Standard English” (cf. Patrick 1).

In the preface of her book African American English: A Linguistic Introduction Lisa GREEN points out that there has been a substantial amount of linguistic research on AAE, oftentimes however neglecting a closer look at the structural patterns and features (cf. Green 1-6). This is where the focus of the paper presented shall be on. After some developmental and socio-historical background information concerning AAE, phonological, morphological, and grammatical attributes will be examined and subsequently illustrated by an exemplary analysis of three different rap songs. The focal point here lies in the lyrical/ textual presentation of AAE in rap music and not in the actual vocal performance.

The aim of this paper and the entailed analyses is to ascertain whether AAE consequently aims for persistent, stable patterns on some or even all linguistic levels or if certain features occur in a more elective, non-obligatory way. The rap songs chosen for the analyses offer a creditable alternative to hard to find authentic text material and display sufficient characteristic of AAE. A complete version of each rap text is attached in the appendix of this work. The textual extend of this paper is substantiated in the amount of examples given to illustrate features of AAE.

2. Origins, Development, and the Socio-historical Background of AAE

The questions of how AAE developed and where it actually has its linguistic roots seem to be still lacking uniform answers. According to Walt WOLFRAM, the altercation over the origin and development of AAE can be subdivided into three camps: the Anglicist theory, which is based on the convincement that AAE originates from British-based dialects, the Creolists investigating AAE as a creole language emerged from contact between Africans and Europeans, and the Neo-Anglicist position suggesting that early AAE was more similar to its post-colonial white counterpart than assumed (cf. Wolfram 284).

Alexander KAUTZSCH however argues that there are only two opposing views concerning the origins of AAE: the Creolists and the Dialectologists, latter of which can be considered equivalent to the Neo-Anglicist direction viewing AAE as a specific dialect of English, which evolved through contacts between slaves and their European masters (cf. Kautzsch 4). Shana POPLACK states that AAE “originated as English, but as the African American communities solidified, it innovated specific features” and that the contemporary AAE “is the result of evolution, by its own unique, internal logic” (Poplack 27).

Considering the presence of so many diverse and yet contemporary positions, one has to mind the danger that lies in jumping to conclusions prematurely and assuming one right answer to the question about the origins of AAE (cf. Wolfram 285).

Despite the continuing issues concerning the origins of AAE, quite a number of sociolinguistic studies deal with the question as to what extend African slaves attained “approximations of white dialects” (Kautzsch 6). This again results in another challenge, the determination or more realistically the estimation of the point in time when communicative interaction between black and white people led to the development of AAE. And consequently research has to take into account the various conditions such as regional, demographic, and economic differences, under which those contacts occurred.

Donald WINFORD defines four stages leading to the development of AAE, bestowing special attention to the heterogeneous nature of the language contacts (cf. Winford 314). The early seventeenth century, representing the first stage, marks the beginning of colonization and the concomitant spread of slavery. Black slaves, mostly from the African West Coast, were shipped over the so-called “West Passage” to colonies situated in North America to work on cotton, tobacco, sugar, and coffee plantations. Some linguists believe that during these early stages of contact between Africans and Europeans creolized forms of English coexisted with other, already established English dialects (ibid.). Others argue that certain circumstances essential for the development of a pidgin or an English-based creole were simply not given. Certainly, there have been “interlanguage phases” (Mufwene 1999: 237) during the acquisition of colonial English, but the slaves were mainly “scattered and integrated within a European majority” (Mufwene 1999: 237). During the eighteenth century slave labor became increasingly important, establishing a successful plantation economy and resulting in closer communicative contacts between blacks and whites and therefore fostering the emergence of several varieties. WINFORD defines this time as the second phase and maintains that here it is where the “grounding for the development of AAVE” (Winford 315) lays.

The third stage stretches into the first half of nineteenth century until reconstruction when about 250 000 slaves were relocated, consequently giving rise to a certain degree of consolidation of AAVE and the so-called “Southern White Vernacular English” (SWVE) and subsequently leading to an enormous spread of African American English vernaculars all displaying certain similarities and common speaking style patterns (cf. ibid. 322 et seq.). When, due to the “Jim Crow” laws in 1877, racial segregation was legalized, the intercommunication between the African population and the majority of European Americans decreased and “provided the setting for linguistic divergence” (Kautzsch 2002: 6). Phase four is to be situated from 1910-1930 during the time of the Great Migration. Millions of African Americans had migrated to the United States starting their new lives mostly in urban areas and beginning to create and to stabilize their own subcultures and sub-societies. The language therefore extended its function way beyond the role of a communication device. It has been functionalized to a tool of binding and bonding, displaying solidarity and distance to other groups and fostering a sense of personal identity (cf. Smitherman 2006: 3). Interaction with people not belonging to the African American community was oftentimes limited to the time spent at the workplace. Donald WINFORD calls this last stage the “post-emancipation period” (Winford 323).

Since there are no tape recordings of actual languages or language varieties the slaves used to communicate, linguistic research has no choice but to “rely on reconstructions of black talk based on indirect evidence […] written reproductions of the dialect in journals, letters, and diaries […]” oftentimes written by white people (Smitherman 1977: 5). This might explain the divergence of opinions and theories on the emergence of AAE. While KAUTZSCH states that AAE diverged from white vernaculars primarily since the beginning of the twentieth century due to irregular lines of development attributable to historical circumstances described above and utilizing WINFORD’s phases as foundation (cf. Kautzsch 7), linguists like William LABOV and Wendall HARRIS insist that AAE continues to increasingly differ from English spoken by non-African Americans (cf. Labov/ Harris 2). SCHNEIDER takes this theory even further, describing it as a trend of “contemporary neocreolization” (Schneider 21).

As the large and diverse fields of study show, AAE has become more than just a language variety. During the past 25-30 years it has been commercialized turning the sphere of “Black Entertainment” into a big business. Rap and hip hop music hereby seem to have been turned progressively into “flagships” of AAE and the African-American culture. Before this paper is going to examine the use of AAE in rap music lyrics, phonological, morphological, and grammatical features which may help to differentiate AAE from other varieties and the standard variety of English have to be specified.

3. Features of AAE

According to Salikoko MUFWENE a feature is defined as “any phonological, syntactic, semantic, or pragmatic characteristic that distinguishes one language variety from another” (Mufwene 2001: 294). This description, however true, requires further explanation, since the use of features of AAE is not uniform and often depends on the speaker(s), their relationship to one another, the pragmatic situation and the environment. So, it is important to mention that oftentimes not all features of AAE are used by any speaker at any given time in any given place. Certain linguistic components are considered to be highly casual reducing their communicative use to less formal domains (cf. ibid. 295).

Since this paper offers only an introductory and basic orientation on the topic of AAE and its features, the focus hereby shall lie on some main and widely used phonological, grammatical, and morphological aspects considered characteristic for AAE.

3.1 Phonological Features of AAE

The following chapter is going to present some main features of AAE that seem to be systematically organized sounds of this particular language variety. The term “phonological” describes hereby that the characteristics mentioned within this subchapter are concerned with the sounds and sound patterns of AAE (cf. Ballard 4).

3.1.1 The “th”

According to MUFWENE, the “variable absence of interdental fricatives” can be considered “one of the most common stereotypes of African American English” (Mufwene 2001: 295). In word-initial position such as in think or them, interdental fricatives are often replaced by a t - or d -sound like tink and dem. The two distinct realizations of the word-initial positioned th in AAE can be explained when looking at the transcription of the words think and them: [ðəm] and [θɪŋk]. It becomes obvious that the voiceless th (ð) is here realized or replaced by the voiceless t -sound, while the voiced th (θ) is substituted by the voiced d -sound (cf. Green 118 et seq.). In intervocalic and word-final position the th is sometimes substituted by the labiodentals fricatives f and v, turning mouth and weather into mouf and weaver (cf. Mufwene 2001: 295). Again, there is a differentiation between the voiced th being replaced by the voiced v and the voiceless th being substituted by the voiceless f. GREEN concludes in her generalization that the voiced sounds d and v occur in the same environment as the voiced th -sound occurs in Standard American English (cf. Green 118 et seq.).

Although striking, this phonological feature is not an exclusive characteristic of AAE. It can also be found in other non-standard forms of English like in New York working class vernacular, which does not automatically reflect a connection between New York City varieties and AAE (cf. Bailey/ Thomas 87).

Therefore, the absence of interdental fricatives alone cannot be valued as a reliable indicator for AAE in use.

3.1.2 Consonant Cluster Reduction and Simplification

Some phonological features “such as final consonant cluster reduction […] occur in all or most varieties of African American English” (Bailey/ Thomas 86). Consonant cluster reduction can be described as the omission of consonants in final, post-consonantal word position in words such as desk and worst turning them into des and wors.

Phrases in which the consonant is followed by an obstruent with the same place of articulation like in worst thing, the final consonant is omitted since there is a cluster of two or more consonants (cf. Bailey/Thomas 86.). Taking the example of worst thing, the final consonant t of the word worst would be lost since the last letter of the first word and the first letter of the last word have the same place of articulation, the alveolar oral stop resulting in the phonological phrase wors thing (cf. ibid.).

The consonant cluster reduction can be explained by voicing generalization, an articulatory feature used to describe consonant sounds by distinguishing them through the degree of opening of the vocal folds while producing consonant sounds. A final consonant cluster like in desk and first is reduced by deleting the final element of the cluster if the two consonants forming the cluster have the same voicing value, in which both are [+voice] (voiced) or [-voice] (voiceless). Are the vocal folds together and air forces its way through causing the vocal folds to vibrate, voiced sounds are produced. Voiceless sounds are produced when the vocal folds are apart and the air flows freely through producing voiceless consonant sounds (cf. Bailey/ Thomas 86 and 92). Voicing generalization illustrates the consonant cluster reduction/ simplification is not a random feature but follows distinct grammatical rules.

Another linguistic phenomenon of AAE is plural production in cases where a reduction of consonant clusters occurs. As already mentioned, singular words display a consonant cluster reduction of the last consonant. “Thus guest, desk and wasp are often pronounced without the final stop as guess, dess and wass, which are pluralized as guesses, desses and wasses.” (Mufwene 2001: 296). According to MUFWENE, this rule“ applies to the alveolar stops /t, d/ more frequently in monomorphemic words such as past than in polymorphemic words such as passed […],” (ibid.).

Consonant simplification does not only take place in form of deleting the final consonants. There are cases in which it is not the final consonant but a mid-word consonant that is omitted like in he’p (help) or where missing consonants are replaced by a vowel sounds such as in afta (after). These options for simplification however only occur in clusters including l and r when preceded by a vowel.

Switching consonants is another way of simplifying consonant clusters. Instead of deleting final consonants, their pronunciation is eased by changing the position within the word, turning for example ask into aks. Here, John Russell RICKFORD and Russell John RICKFORD claim that a connection between AAE and Standard English can be established, since the verb to ask, as an “example of metathesis” (Rickford/ Rickford 103) was spelled in Middle English axen and asken, displaying the same switching of consonants to achieve easier pronunciation and therefore linking former British English and AAE (cf. ibid.). A certain closeness between AAE and Southern White English has already been mentioned and can be further established by looking at their similarities concerning stress. Some words normally stressed on the second syllable, display a stress on the first syllable, e.g. pólice or Détroit (cf. ibid. 297).


[1] Further abbreviated as „AAE“

Excerpt out of 28 pages


Features of African American English in the Context of Language Varieties
With an exemplary analysis of the use of AAE in rap lyrics
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistik)
Varieties of English
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
649 KB
Ebonics, Black English, AAE, Rap, African American English, varieties, linguistic features, phonological features, past morphology, copula absence, genitive marking, grammatical features, negation, double negative, non-rhotic r, th, consonant cluster reduction, time reference, sociolinguistics, origin, realis time, irrealis time
Quote paper
Janine Lacombe (Author), 2012, Features of African American English in the Context of Language Varieties, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/267180


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