African American Vernacular English and its Use in "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston

Pre-University Paper, 2014

16 Pages, Grade: 15



1 AAVE in public consciousness

2 Definition of AAVE
2.1 Definition
2.2 A note on terms

3 Theories about the origins of AAVE

4 A Comparison of AAVE and SE
4.1 Syntax
4.1.1 General remarks
4.1.2 Obvious and camouflaged differences
4.1.3 Negative concord
4.1.4 Negative inversion
4.1.5 Question formation
4.1.6 Tense
4.1.7 Aspect
4.1.8 Structure of the noun phrase
4.1.9 Omission of the copula
4.1.10 The tell-say-construction
4.1.11 Double modals
4.2 Phonology
4.3 Lexicon

5 Social implications of AAVE
5.1 Reasons for the ongoing existence of a separate AA dialect
5.2 Reasons for the further divergence of AAVE and SE

6 Use in Their Eyes Were Watching God
6.1 Zora Neale Hurston’s take on AAVE
6.2 The use of AAVE in Their Eyes

7 Sources
7.1 Primary Sources
7.2 Secondary Sources

1 AAVE in public consciousness

African American English (AAVE) was first brought to the attention of linguists when in the 1960s, the government realised that African American (AA) children from urban ghettoes were worse in school than white pupils. To counteract this, it financed compensation programmes in which AA children should be taught Standard English (SE) “by means of structural drills and techniques adopted from foreign language learning” (Schneider 1989: 12, as cited in Kautzsch 2002: 2). When this approach failed, linguists suggested that AA children only spoke a different dialect than white children and that consequently, it would be necessary to teach them SE as an additional dialect. However, this approach also failed because the failure of AA children in school seems to be a result of a cultural and social divide between AA and white American society, of which separate dialects of English are only a symptom (Cf. Kautzsch 2002: 2).

Then in 1978, the Oakland, California, School Board passed a resolution recognizing AAVE (or as they termed it, Ebonics, on the use of this expression see 2.2) as a language and instructing its schools to “devise and implement the best possible academic program for imparting instruction to African American students in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness [...]and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills”[1]. It further decreed that the funding for the implementation of this resolution were to be provided by the State. This decision initiated a big public debate about the legitimacy of ‘Ebonics’ and AA culture in general, which was further fuelled by the Ann Arbor case in 1979, also known as the ‘Black English trial’. Eleven AAs had been “placed in remedial speech education classes based in pathological linguistics evaluations which failed to take into account their linguistic heritage as speakers of [...] AAVE” (Mufwene et al. 1998: 282). Judge Joiner ruled that “the students were using a systematic variety [and] that a barrier of learning resulted when the school did not take into account the children’s use of language” (Green 2002: 222). However supportive of the recognition and emancipation of AAVE as language these decisions were, they were strongly criticised by the public and the old prejudice that AAVE is just AAVE is just English with mistakes is still largely spread.

It will therefore be the aims of this paper to prove this belief wrong and prove that AAVE is indeed a rule-governed language, to investigate its origins and its use in Zora Neale Hurston’s most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

2 Definition of AAVE

2.1 Definition

African American Vernacular English is an ethnic and social dialect spoken by African Americans who are members of the socioeconomically lower class (Cf. Green 2002: 5f. and Schneider 1989: 5 as cited in Kautzsch 2002: 11). However, this dialect is by no means spoken by all African Americans.

2.2 A note on terms

Over the course of the (albeit rather short) history of the public awareness and later, scientific study, of AAVE, a large number of labels have been given for this variety of English. A list is given below:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Cf. Green 2002:6)

The creation and use of these labels is of course not arbitrary. Negro and Black were used accordingly to the labels for African Americans at the time. Additionally “’English’ is included in a number of the labels for AAE, which suggests that some of its characteristics are common to or very similar to those of different varieties of English. Along these same lines, ‘English’ has been omitted from some of these labels in an effort to highlight African and creole relations” (Green 2002: 6).

Of these labels, African American English, African American Vernacular English and Ebonics are the ones most commonly used today. “In recent publications, AAVE and AAE seem to be used interchangeably, the former probably stressing the working-class setting, the latter emphasizing that it is not a straightforward task to identify the vernacular exactly. [...] These terms are almost entirely academic ones. Most African Americans would possibly name their speech ‘Black English’ or [...] ‘Ebonics’.” (Kautzsch 2002: 11). Ebonics is a term coined by the press (Ebony + phonics) and is not used in scientific discussion of the subject, therefore it does not appear in the above list.

In this paper, I have decided to use ‘African American Vernacular English’ as all the situations where it is used in Hurston’s novel are in an informal, working-class setting and I will in chapter 6.2 further investigate the intentions behind and challenges of putting vernacular language into print.

3 Theories about the origins of AAVE

There is a long standing debate among linguists about the origins of AAVE. Traditionally, there are two different camps: the dialectologists and the creolists. The dialect hypothesis claims that “the grammatical core of contemporary AAVE developed from an English base, many of whose features have since disappeared from all but a select few varieties [...], whose particular sociohistorical environment have enabled them to retain reflexes of features no longer attested in Standard English. [Thus] many grammatical distinctions between contemporary varieties of AAVE and American and British English are relatively recent developments” (Poplack 2000:1 as cited in Kautzsch 2002: 5). In opposition, the creolists hold that AAVE started as a creole[2] similar the creoles spoken in the Caribbean as “creole speech might have been introduced to the American colonies through the large number of slaves imported from the colonies of Jamaica and Barbados, where creoles were common” (Rickford 1999b: 327, as cited in Kautzsch 2002: 5). This theory is also called the substrate hypothesis because “it is argued that the West African or substrate languages influenced the sentence and sound structures of AAE” (Green 2002: 9).

However, it is of course highly difficult to find reliable sources for the reconstruction of both AAVE and the southern white vernacular as a vernacular is rarely used in print and even if it were, the AA slaves of that time did not have the means to write down or print anything that would have endured until the present. Almost the same circumstances hold true for the southern white vernacular and for English creoles. The study and comparison of these is naturally the only basis for the investigation of the origins of AAVE (Cf. Kautzsch 2002: 5).

Kautzsch (2002: 4-6) opts for a compromise: he thinks that “this dichotomy is not a categorical one. The dialectologists have never ‘excluded the possibility of a previous creole stage of Black English, expecially with respect to the initial stages of slavery, nor have they denied the existence of African or creole remnants in the present-day dialect’ (Schneider 1989: 25). On the contrary, most creolists concede that some influence of white speech on black ‘is clearly to be expected, but the degree and importance of this influence is thought to be relatively limited’ (Schneider 1989: 25).” He then suggests that “an integrative approach that takes into account both sides is most likely to deliver the mot [sic] accurate assessment of the status and the evolution of AAE” (Kautzsch 2002: 6). Similarly, Winford (1997) goes for a “compromise between the traditional creolists view and the more moderate dialectologist view” (Winford 1997: 307) and gives three explanations for the development of the features of AAVE: 1) several features from earlier varieties of English were adopted into AAVE, 2) many features appear to have resulted from imperfect second language learning and 3) several features can be explained as a result of retention of creole structure and meaning (Cf. Winford 1997).

4 A Comparison of AAVE and SE

4.1 Syntax

4.1.1 General remarks

When examining the syntactic features of AAVE, it is important to realise that none of the properties of AAVE are unique. As Mufwene et al. (1998: 119) argue, “AAVE is generally not unique: those syntactic structures purportedly found only in AAVE are in fact part of the dialects spoken by other groups, especially but not limited to Anglo-American vernacular English speakers who live in the southern United States”.

4.1.2 Obvious and camouflaged differences

In order to describe the Syntax of AAVE and to prove that it is a systematic variety, it is important to first understand that some of the most obvious differences “do not involve differences in syntax but rather the lexical peculiarities of certain AAVE verbs.” (Mufwene et al. 1998: 12). They are thus irrelevant for the underlying structure of AAVE. Examples are the use of go to denote the static location of an object or an intransitive form of the verb beat. In contrast, there are “AAVE structures which at first look similar or identical to those in other varieties of English, but which in fact mask underlying differences” (Mufwene et al. 1998: 13). This is called linguistic camouflaging: “the phenomenon in which a vernacular form closely resembles a standard form while being different in structure or meaning” (Mufwene et al. 1998: 14). Examples for this are the aspectual marker be (see chapter 4.1.8) and the tell-say-construction (see chapter 4.1.11).

4.1.3 Negative concord

Negative concord, or multiple negation, is “the use of two or more negative morphemes to communicate a single negation” (Mufwene et al. 1998: 17) when in SE, a sentence must not contain more than one negative morpheme. However, this does not automatically mean that all negatable forms in that sentence have to be negated.

a) Ain’t nobody gonna spend no time going to no doctor.

b) Nobody is going to spend any time going to a doctor.

Where AAVE in a) permits more than one negative morpheme in one sentence, SE uses at least on negative polarity item (NPI); “a quantifier word or phrase(e.g. any, ever, a bit) that occurs within the ‘scope’ of the negative” (Mufwene et al. 1998: 18). Negative concord in AAVE should not be confused with logical double negation found in most other dialects. In that case, one negative morpheme undoes the other to form an emphatic positive. Logical double negation sentences can – in speech – be distinguished from negative concord sentences by the stress usually laid on one of the two negative morphemes (Cf. Mufwene et al 1998: 17-18).

4.1.4 Negative inversion

Negative inversion sentences are sentences in which subject and auxiliary change places (subject-auxiliary-inversion, cf. Mufwene et al. 1998: 26). These sentences occur with “supporting do [...], aspectual [...] or linking be [...] or a modal” (Mufwene et al. 1998: 26) in existential sentences. While most linguists argue that negative inversion is used to place additional emphasis on the negation, Green (2002: 80) disagrees and states that “a number of factors in addition to the initial placement of the negated auxiliary can determine prominence”.

4.1.5 Question formation

The most apparent difference in AAVE and SE question formation is the possibility of a non-inverted question in the former. A non-inverted question is a “direct question without inversion of the subject and auxiliary verb, usually with rising intonation” (Rickford 1999: 8). Non-inversion is only possible when the subject is represented by a relatively short noun phrase. Although not a feature unique to AAVE, this kind of question formation is not found in other varieties of English (Cf. Mufwene et al. 1998: 29).

4.1.6 Tense

The tenses of AAVE are given in the following. Other phenomena like the omission of the copula or any phonological variation are ignored for the moment in the example sentences.

- Present tense, e.g. “I/he eat”

- Past tense, e.g. “I/he ate”

- Preterite had, e.g. “I/he had ate”

- Future tense, e.g. “I/he will eat”

- Present progressive, e.g. “I’m eating”/”He eating”

- Past progressive, e.g. “I/he was eating”

- Future progressive, e.g. “I/he will be eating”

- Present perfect, e.g. “I/he ate”

- Past perfect, e.g. “I/he had ate”

- Present perfect progressive, e.g. “I/he been eating”

- Past perfect progressive, e.g. “I/he had been eating”

- Modal perfect, e.g. “I/he should have been eating”

The tenses in which the formation differs from that in SE are highlighted in bold print. The following patterns can be found in them:

- “The first person form of the verb may be used with all persons” (Mufwene et al 1998: 42)

- The copula be may be omitted (see 44.1.11)

- The past form (in this example, ate) is also used in present perfect and past perfect in addition to the simple past

- Preterite had is an auxiliary to indicate preterite meaning and not the pluperfect

(Cf. Mufwene et al. 1998: 40-42 and Green 2002: 36-38)

4.1.7 Aspect

- Habitual, e.g. “I be eating” (I am usually eating)

- Remote past a), e.g. “I been eating” (I have been eating for a long time)

- Remote past b), e.g. “I been ate” (I ate a long time ago)

- Remote past perfect, e.g. “I had been ate” (I had eaten a longtime ago)

- Resultant state, e.g. “I done ate” (I have already eaten)

- Past perfect resultant state, e.g. “I had done ate” (I had already eaten)

- Modal resultant state, e.g. “I should have done ate” (I should have already eaten”

- Remote past resultant state, e.g. “I done ate” (I finished eating a long time ago)

- Remote past perfect resultant state, e.g. “I had been done ate” (I had already eaten a long time ago)

- Habitual resultant state, e.g. “I be done ate” (I have usually already eaten)

- Future resultant state, e.g. I will be done ate” (I will have already eaten)

- Modal resultant state, e.g. “I might be done ate” (I might have already eaten)

The patterns that can be found in the above aspects are the following:

- Aspectual be “signals the recurrence of a process or state of affairs” (Mufwene 1998: 45)

- Been (or bin, to emphasise the different stress) indicates that the starting point of the action lies in the remote past

- Done denotes the perfective aspect

(Cf. Mufwene et al. 1998: 44-45 and Green 2002: 45-47)

4.1.8 Structure of the noun phrase

While most of the formation of the noun phrase resembles that in SE, there are a few significant differences. The associative plural strategy, e.g. “Felicia and them done gone” instead of “Felicia and her friends/family/associates have gone” is a feature that AAVE shares with English creoles rather than with other dialects of English and may be reduced to nem, e.g. “Felicia nem done gone”. However, this is a phonological feature, not a syntactical one.



[2] ‘creole’ here meaning a pidgin language that has become the native language of a new generation

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African American Vernacular English and its Use in "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston
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