The Copula "be" in African American Vernacular English

Seminar Paper, 2014

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction: The Copula a Crucial Point

2. Theoretical Analysis of the Copula be
2.1.Variability in Copula Use
2.1.1. Exceptions of Copula Absence
2.1.2. The Invariant be
2.2. Copula Environment
2.2.1. The Preceding Environment
2.2.2. The Following Environment
2.3. Explanation of Copula Absence Distribution

3. Practical Research on Copula Distribution
3.1. Data and Methods
3.2. Presenting Results
3.2.1. The Three Types of Copula and their Use
3.2.2. The Preceding Environment
3.2.3. The Following Environment
3.2.4. Exceptions of Copula Deletion

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

6. Appendix

1. Introduction: The Copula a Crucial Point

The word be is the plainest and most basic element in the English language and its varieties. At the same time, it is probably the most essential. This paper will focus on this one essential item only and analyze its copulative functions in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Within this variety the copula has been one of the most popular and well researched topics for several decades (Kautzsch 2002: 89). Its popularity can be traced back to the dispute about the origin of African American English (AAE) itself. In the discussion whether AAE emerged as a creole or developed solely from English, the copula resembles one of the strongest arguments to support the creolists’ hypothesis. Even the opposing dialectologists admit that the copula “cannot be identified as a legacy of English” (Kautzsch 2002: 89). Besides this continued and hardened conflict the copula marks a significant distinction between AAVE and Standard English (SE) and thus is worth studying. The dispute between creolists and dialectologists however shall only serve as an introducing thought emphasizing the importance of an analysis about the copula in AAE.

This analysis will be presented in this paper in two steps, a theoretical one as well as a practical one. To begin with, paragraph two will provide a theoretical analysis of the copula and its functions. That includes its basic structure and the different appearances in different syntactic environments. Furthermore, those differences shall be explained consulting a theory by Labov, which eventually will enable us to create a structure on how to analyze copula environments and apply it to a contemporary example in paragraph three. This part will contain a practical research on the use of the copula during a comedy show by Dave Chappelle, presented on HBO. For that purpose, the findings will be presented, evaluated and compared to other data from the literature already discussed in the theoretical part, including studies on sociolinguistic aspects. This research again will help to draw a conclusion between the findings of recent literature and our own study; highlight similarities and differences and eventually present an accurate picture of the usage of the copula be in AAVE. The following key questions shall be answered during that process: What are the different functions of the copula? What influences its surface appearance, and how often and to what account are the different forms actually used in spoken language? Those questions will support the understanding of the main purpose of this paper, namely to analyze the use of the different copula forms in different environments with a focus on copula absence.

2. Theoretical Analysis of the Copula be

To begin with, the theoretical study of the copula requires grammatical background knowledge which shall be provided here in brief. In simplified terms, a copula is a connection between the subject and the predicate of a phrase or sentence. Words like feel or get can be used as a copula verb for example. Yet, the predominant copula or linking verb in the English language and in most of its varieties is the verb be, as to be seen in example (1)

(1) She is tall/a doctor (Green 2002: 38)

In this case the infinitive be is inflected to show agreement with the subject she. Green however argues that “verbs in AAVE generally do not show agreement with their subject” in the present tense (Frassica 2009: 3). In fact only the 1st person singular and the 3rd person neuter require the overt copula am/’m or is (Frassica 2009: 4). The 1st person plural as well as the 2nd and 3rd person singular and plural on the other hand can occur without an overt copula on the surface. In those cases the full forms is/are can be contracted to‘s/’re or be omitted completely an occur as a null or zero copula (ᴓ). That applies to the use of the auxiliary be as well. Examples (2) and (3) show the different variations in the 3rd person singular. Green even defines the zero copula as the standard form in the 3rd person singular.

(2) She ’s/is/ᴓ a woman (Kautzsch 2002: 90) copulative environment
(3) He ’s/is/ᴓ coming (Kautzsch 2002: 90) auxiliary environment

Other scientists argue that the choice which copula to use is optional or depends on phonological or sociolinguistic factors (Frassica 2009: 4). Much like the dispute between the dialectologists’ and the creolists’ hypothesis, there are different opinions on the variety of the copula as well. Consequently, AAVE shows great variation in the use of copulative constructions and thus expresses different kinds of information (Heusinger, Maienborn and Portner 2011: 1805). The following paragraphs will help to structure those opinions and compare the different approaches on the variability of the copula.

2.1. Variability in Copula Use

Regarding zero copula constructions like He ᴓ a liar or She ᴓ coming, many linguists initially concluded that there is no copula or auxiliary be in AAVE. Similar to Green they deduced that the zero copula follows such a common pattern that might be the standard form. It seemed reasonable since many languages like Hungarian or Hebrew do not have a present copula as well (Labov 1969: 717). This hypothesis has been supported by the instance that in the process of language acquisition children between 18 and 24 month do not use copula constructions (Labov 1969: 717). However, as already presented in the preceding paragraph, nowadays linguists know for a fact that the zero form is only one of three possibilities to express a copulative or auxiliary construction with be. The question is; when do we use the zero form, when the full form and when the contracted form? One of the first comprehensive studies concerning that question has been done by William Labov in 1969. He found out that despite the dominance of copula absence, the full form and the contracted form regularly appear in AAVE as well. Furthermore, he postulated that the occurrence of the zero copula obeys a categorical rule (Labov 1969: 718). There are certain syntactical environments that prohibit copula absence; exceptions where the full form or the contracted form is favored over null form.

2.1.1. Exceptions of Copula Absence

First, he ascertained that copula absence is restricted to present tense only. Forms of be other than is and are, like the past tense forms was and were for example are rarely deleted, even in the 3rd person singular (Labov 1969: 718). He argues that both was and were are obligatory simple past tense makers that cannot be omitted much like the negative marker ain’t (Labov 1969: 719). Consequently, it can be concluded that the zero copula does not appear in the past tense on a regular bases, according to Labov. Kautzsch consents with this hypothesis and notes that “it is fairly safe to regard zero copulas as present tense items” (Kautzsch 2002: 93). That is the reason why this paper will focus on the present tense copula only.

Further exceptions of the use of the zero form can be found in the 1st person singular. The subject I for example prefers the contracted form ‘m over the full form and the null form.

(4) I’m tired, Jeannette (Labov 1969: 719)
(5) I’m not no strong drinker (Labov 1969: 719)

Labov however admits that there are rare cases of simple I ᴓ, I is or even I’m is forms to be found. Yet they only make up less than 1% of the cases and in a non-standard variety like AAVE the form I’m can thus still be considered the pattern (Labov 1969: 719). Another environment where the zero form does not exist involves sentences or phrase that specifically emphasizes a form of be:

(6) Allah is God (Labov 1969: 719)

A deletion of the copula would mean a deletion of accentuation as well. Thus the finite form is obligatory in those cases. The same goes for yes-no questions (Labov 1969: 719). Here, the initial copula indicates a question. Copula absence would make the question appear like a declarative statement as to be seen in examples (7) and (8).

(7) Is he dead? vs. ᴓ he dead? (Labov 1969: 719)
(8) Are you down? vs. ᴓ you down? (Labov 1969: 719)

Tag questions follow the same model. Example (9) shows that are is an essential part of the tag question and can thus not be omitted. Furthermore it is combined with the negative marker not, which is also necessary. The main clause however contains an auxiliary environment which makes it possible to delete the finite form and use a zero copula instead.

(9) You ᴓ finshed, aren’t you? (Green 2002)

Additionally, a copula cannot be deleted if it marks the end of a sentence. The result would simply be an incomplete phrase. Those clause-final positions are extremely common in elliptical responses (see 10), WH-questions (see 11) and comparative constructions that are combined with an ellipsis (see 12) (Labov 1969: 719).

(10) You ain’t the best sounder, Eddie! I ain’t! He is! (Labov 1969: 720)
(11) I don’t care what you are (Labov 1969: 721)
(12) It always somebody tougher than you are (Labov 1969: 721)

Examples (4) to (12) clearly show that there are certain syntactic environments that require a full form or a contracted form of the copula or the auxiliary be. Those exceptions of copula absence prove that the zero copula cannot be the standard form in AAVE as it has been suggested in the beginning of the paragraph. In all nine examples the finite forms of be carry a syntactical meaning that is necessary for the sentence structure. A deletion of those forms on the surface structure of the sentence would thus not be possible.

In addition, the copula absence is not only restricted by environments that favor a finite form of be, but also environments that require the infinite form, namely be itself. Imperative constructions for example cannot be recognized as such if it was not for the be (Labov 1969: 720). Imagine the following examples without be, they would rather be single words than full sentences.


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The Copula "be" in African American Vernacular English
University of Würzburg  (Englische Sprachwissenschaft)
Varieties of American English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
639 KB
African American English, Copula, Practical Research, Copula Absence, Standart English, Variety of English, American English, Creole, Vernacular
Quote paper
Daniel Horway (Author), 2014, The Copula "be" in African American Vernacular English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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