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Table of Contents
1 Introduction ... 2
2 The Origins of AAVE ... 3
2.1 The Creolist Hypothesis ... 3
2.2 The Anglicist Approach ... 9
3 Linguistic and Sociohistorical Developments after the Civil War ... 12
3.1 Farm Tenancy and Linguistic Convergence ... 13
3.2 The Great Migration and Urbanization ... 18
4 Contemporary Structural Developments ... 20
4.1 The Divergence Hypothesis ... 21
4.1.1 Innovations and Developments in White Vernaculars ... 21
4.1.2 Innovations and Development in AAVE ... 29
4.1.3 Critique ... 35
4.2 Inter-Ethnic Contact Situations ... 37
4.2.1 Shift towards White Vernaculars ... 37
4.2.2 Social Mobility and Neighborhood Effects ... 40
5 Summary and Conclusion ... 43
6 Bibliography ... 46
7 Deutsche Zusammenfassung ... 50
African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is one of the most researched and
controversially discussed varieties by sociolinguists. Debates regarding its status often
degenerate into polemics, fueled by emotions. These emotions are understandable to a certain
degree, as there was a time, in which AAVE was regarded as a deficient dialect that is inferior
to Standard English (Bailey 2001: 51). Fortunately, today, this stance is no longer accepted
and linguists agree that AAVE is a language system with a concrete set of phonological,
morphosyntactic and lexical patterns (Green 2002: 1). Unfortunately though, the prior opinion
had made its way into the public sphere, where AAVE speakers are often met with
discrimination at work, as well as at school, up until today.
As AAVE is a nonstandard, stigmatized variety it is not used in official situations and
researchers have even suggested that AAVE structures have an impact on students'
performances at school. Especially with respect to reading and writing, African American
school children perform well below average, which studies have shown is partially due to
language transfers from AAVE (Patton-Terry & Connor 2010). As a result, a number of
linguists and educators insist on considering the children's vernacular use when teaching the
standard. This bidialectal approach is not accepted by everyone, in particular, not by many
AAVE speakers themselves, as mainstream English, spoken by the majority of the white
community, remains to be the key to success (Green 2002: 229). While on the one hand
AAVE is linked to ethnic identity and pride, in particular after the Ebonics movement, it lacks
overt prestige. Consequently, the relationships between white and black vernaculars are
marked by this conflict between ethnic identity and social acceptability. Therefore, this paper
will analyze how AAVE has developed over time with respect to its neighboring white
vernaculars. Are they assimilating to each other or are they becoming more different? Who
assimilates to whom, and why? If linguistic divergence occurs, what is the main factor driving
In order to adequately research these questions the origins of AAVE are central, as they show,
whether or not the grammatical core is in fact English or African. The degree of substratum
influence, especially with regards to underlying grammatical structures, is essential, when
analyzing its current status and relationship to white vernaculars of English. Therefore, the
controversial origin debate will be discussed first on the basis of the sociohistorical context
and, more importantly, linguistic patterns. Following a chronological order, the way in which
AAVE and Southern White Vernaculars (SWV) developed with respect to each other after
slavery was abolished will be outlined after. In the following chapter, the socioeconomic
impacts of the Great Migration and Urbanization on the African American community will be
laid out, as this historic development is essential in understanding contemporary
sociolinguistic developments. These will finally be discussed by looking at a number of
studies that focused on linguistic innovations and changes that occurred during the 1980's in
different parts of the country. While the focus of this paper lies on AAVE, the development of
a number of white vernaculars spoken both in the North as well as in the South of the US will
be outlined and compared to AAVE as well. Linguistic structural features will be compared,
put into their sociohistorical context and will therefore serve as a basis to describe the overall
dynamics between white and black vernaculars.
2 The Origins of AAVE
To adequately compare and understand contemporary structural developments in AAVE, the
question must be asked, whether its grammatical core is in fact English. To answer this
question, the origin debate is to be settled. The origins of AAVE are disputed due to the lack
of reliable data from early times. Slave narratives, early recordings of former slaves and
varieties spoken in Nova Scotia and Samaná by African American who emigrated in the
nineteenth century have been used to reconstruct features of Early AAVE to differing degrees
of success. As of today, there are two main theories popular amongst sociolinguists as to how
modern AAVE came to be. On the one hand, it is assumed that AAVE started off, similar to
Gullah and English-based creoles found in the Caribbean, as a creole and has undergone
constant, extensive decreolization since then. Consequently, proponents of the creolist theory
claim that the grammatical basis of AAVE is fundamentally different to that of Standard
English. On the other hand, proponents of the Anglicist approach argue that AAVE originated
from learning early white vernaculars as a second language and is therefore to be considered a
dialect of English, with language change patterns and innovations similar to those of any other
vernacular. Both of these theories will be examined in further detail as the origin of AAVE is
closely linked to the sociohistorical context, in particular to its relation to white vernaculars,
and is essential in describing and explaining its modern-day status.
2.1 The Creolist Hypothesis
Since AAVE shares structural similarities with Jamaican Creole and Gullah, proponents of the
creolist hypothesis argue that AAVE descended from a creole similar to that of creoles found
in the Caribbean or in South Carolina and has undergone constant and extensive
decreolization, steadily assimilating to white vernaculars. The antecedent creole might have
either evolved independently or out of already fully established creoles that slaves from
Barbados and Jamaica brought with them.
In either case, the focus does not lie on the target language English, but rather on substratum
influences, as some even argue that AAVE "is structurally related to West African languages
and bears only superficial similarities to English" (Green 2002: 8). Morphosyntactic features
like the absence of the copula and the deletion of consonant clusters, features that AAVE
shares with Gullah and Jamaican English, are one of the main arguments in favor of the
creolist hypothesis (Bailey 2001: 54). In order to test this hypothesis, it is necessary to
consider the sociohistorical context of AAVE, its relation to white vernaculars of the time,
and its structural features. These factors need to be compared to fully formed creoles like
Gullah, in order to see if they share a common history.
Gullah, together with Hawai'ian Creole, is the only English-lexified creole in the US. It is
currently spoken around the coast of South Carolina and in Georgia (Klein 2013:139). It
evolved from the speech of slaves taken from West Africa and the Caribbeans, mainly from
Barbados (Mufwene 2000: 241). Although slavery was officially banned in Georgia in 1734,
slavery proved to be too profitable so that the slave trade went on, resulting in blacks
outnumbering whites by a ratio of 100 or more in coastal South Carolina (Klein 2013: 140). In
Georgia, Africans made up almost 36% of the colonial population already by 1790 (Mufwene
This unequal distribution in population made way for extensive substratum influences from
West and Central African languages, mainly from the Bantu and Mande language families
(Holloway & Vass 1993). Evidence for these substrate influences can be seen in names for
people and places and can even be found in Standard English, as "many Africanisms [...]
were first heard on plantations in the American South during the slavery era and reemerged in
the 1960s as an important part of black dialect before moving into white speech" (Holloway
& Vass 1993: xvii). Therefore in particular Gullah is full of Africanisms with more than 5,300
words identified, with the majority being of Bantu origin. While 30% of the enslaved people
brought to South Carolina were Mande speakers, many of them ended up working as house
workers passing on Mande culture to white Americans, which is still evident as for instance in
popular Uncle Remus stories (xix, xxiv). Bantus however mainly worked the fields, isolated
from mainstream white American culture, which made it possible for them to escape
acculturation and develop their own culture and language further (xxv). This was only
possible due to the high concentration of Africans with similar cultural backgrounds.
The high ratio of the black to white population did not only contribute to the flourishing of
Bantu culture and substratum influence but furthermore Gullah was able to form due to the
fact that new arrivals acquired English not from white English native speakers but from
fellow slaves. Plantation owners closely monitored this process and resorted to forceful
measures, as disobedience or reluctance to learn the language could result in withholding of
food (Klein 2013: 140). This hostile learning environment and the massive amount of people
with similar native tongues and cultures increased substratum influences and favored the
formation of a creole. Gullah was subsequently identified as a variety by the 1750s and is still
actively used today with even a translated version of the New Testament known as the
"Gullah Bible" (141).
Even though AAVE did not have the same sociohistorical conditions as Gullah, some
linguists propose that AAVE descended from a creole very similar to that of Gullah and
creoles found in the Caribbean today. Although whites outnumbered blacks in the majority of
colonies found in the US and the majority of plantations were rather small in size, this does
not exclude the possibility of blacks having had extensive contact with each other and
therefore giving way to creolization. After all, more than half of the enslaved Africans in the
mid-nineteenth century US lived on plantations with more than twenty slaves (Rickford 1998:
158). Furthermore, a considerable portion of the slaves brought to American colonies came
from the Caribbean, where creole English was spoken (157). Therefore it is possible for
established creoles to have been brought to the mainland US, where subsequently a creole
continua formed backwards "with the first generations of Africans acquiring something closer
to metropolitan English, and later generations acquiring successively "restructured" or
creolized varieties as they had less access to white norms and learned increasingly from each
other" (Rickford 1998: 156). To confirm this theory, AAVE shares a number of structural
similarities with Caribbean creoles and Bantu languages that point towards creole roots,
comparable to Gullah.
As mentioned beforehand, lexical borrowing from Bantu languages did not only occur in
Gullah, but also in AAVE, eventually making its way into Standard American English This
was also the case with the words jazz, bug or cop (Holloway & Vass 1993: xvi). However,
lexical similarities do not provide key evidence for the creole origin hypothesis in the same
way as structural parallels in key aspects of grammar do, since creole grammar systems are
primarily based on the substratum language systems while vocabulary is mainly derived from
the target language. Therefore, some of the main structural features of AAVE that point
towards an antecedent creole variation are the absence of the copula and consonant cluster
deletion. AAVE, Gullah and Caribbean English-lexified creoles all share these structural
features (Bailey 2001: 54).
The most common copula verb in Standard English is the verb to be. It serves four copula
functions: (1) to connect a (pro)noun with a noun predicate, i.e. He is a man (2)
to connect a
(pro)noun with a qualifying word, e.g. He was lame (3)
to indicate a state of change, i.e. He
will be tall (4) to state existence in a place or time, He was in the house ten minutes ago
(Holm 1984: 297). In AAVE the copula verb is often deleted. Holm (1984) concluded that the
manner in which this occurs points towards the influence of West African languages in
particular of Yoruba and therefore towards a creole origin.
Rickford (1998) investigated the
absence of the copula in AAVE in further detail and came to the same conclusion as Holm
(1984), while adding that it has undergone a similar process of decreolization as Caribbean
creoles have as well.
The copula is one of the most studied creole features and data shows
that AAVE shares the same basic copula absence pattern with mesolectal creole varieties from
Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, and South Carolina (Rickford 1998: 173-177). The data
gathered from ex-slave recordings and from Jamaican and Barbadian creole speakers is
summarized in Table 1.
Table 1: Copula absence following grammatical environment
Source: adapted from Bailey (1987: 35), Rickford (1996: 363; 1991c), all as quoted by Rickford
(1998: 165, 176)
As can be seen in Table 1, the basic copula absence pattern for AAVE is the following:
copula deletion is least frequent before a noun phrase, followed by locative predicates. The
occurrence of copula deletion before an adjective is high, even higher before a verb plus ing
inflection, and the highest before the future marker gon(na) (Rickford 1998: 175).
Since AAVE makes this distinction between nominal, adjectival, locative, and verbal
predicates, a distinction found neither in standard nor vernacular varieties of English, Holm
(1984: 297, 301) argues that the zero copula reflects a common African ancestor of both
AAVE and English-based creoles. As Yoruba makes similar semantic distinction in its copula
distribution, he concludes that this is a legacy of Yoruba-speakers who learned English. While
Standard English has only one possibility to express all four functions described previously,
most English-based creoles, in particular basilectal varieties, have "a number of words
appropriate to a number of distinct grammatical categories which the acrolect lumps together
as a single copula be in its various forms" (Holm 1984: 295). Yoruba has eight different types
of copulas, including zero copula before most adjectives, as they are considered a subclass of
verb. This matches with the preference of various creoles, including AAVE, to delete the
copula before adjectives as can be taken from Table 1. Yoruba, however, makes many more
distinctions than English-based creoles do, as for instance the distinction between natural and
Even though Yoruba does have a preverbal marker of the
progressive, English-lexified creoles delete the copula before V+-ing even more frequently
than before adjectives (Holm 1984: 297; Table 1). Nevertheless, even though the two
grammar systems do not match perfectly, this is a clear sign for substratum influence on
modern-day AAVE (Rickford 1998: 186). During the creolization process some distinctions
and markers have been lost due to the rule of simplification. However, the fact that AAVE as
well as Caribbean creole speakers delete the copula frequently before an adjective yet rarely
before a noun phrase points to a similar process of decreolization.
Taking Gullah as an example, early recordings of Gullah showed the use of da as an
obligatory copula before predicate nominals and before unmarked verbs. However, da + V
decreolized to Ø + V-ing. On the other hand, the copula in da + NP was retained and
relexified to iz + NP. This decreolization process explains why copula absence is more
common before verb than noun phrases in mesolectal Gullah. Since AAVE shows the same
tendency, it is to be assumed that it has undergone a similar process of decreolization
(Rickford 1998: 173). Similarly, in Non-Settler Liberian English, a variation spoken by the
descendants of African-Americans who emigrated in the nineteenth century, the zero copula
was introduced as an intermediate stage between the basilectal copulas and the acrolectal
inflected be (177). After considering these decreolization processes and comparing these to
the speech of whites Rickford (1998: 189) concludes:
The very fact that copula absence is widespread both in AAVE and in
mesolectal creoles, but not in white Englishes outside of the American
South (where it can be argued that whites adopted the speech patterns
of blacks) strongly suggests that at least some of the predecessors of
modern AAVE arose from a restructuring process similar to that
which produced the English-based creoles.
Apart from the copula absence, Sutcliffe (2001) identified the occurrence of a number of other
creole-like items in the recordings of former slaves. Some of these items include the use of
genderless third person singular pronouns (he for she), serial verb-like collocations (quit fall),
absence of verbal past inflection markers (deletion of ed) and postnominal dem as an
associative plural marker (Sutcliffe 2001: 130-133). In particular, the "genderless third person
singular pronouns and dem associative plural markers are among the most typical or core
features that distinguish anglophone Atlantic creoles" (131).
Some of these creole features have been retained, as for instance postnominal dem or the
absence of the copula, while others have been lost, which is why Sutcliffe (2001) and other
linguists argue that AAVE falls on a creole continuum with Gullah functioning as the basilect
and Standard English as the acrolect. According to this stance, AAVE formed as a mesolect
variety in the nineteenth century outside of the Gullah area and has since then steadily
converged to Standard English.
In sum, Gullah, a creole spoken in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, was able to form due
to the favorable sociohistorical conditions, since blacks strongly outnumbered whites and
were therefore in the position to build their own community, which gave rise to their own
language. Although the social setup in the rest of the American colonies did not favor the
formation of a creole at first glance, creolists argue that due to deep-rooted structural features
that cannot be traced back to white vernaculars, with the absence of the copula being the
single strongest piece of evidence, AAVE must have descended from a Gullah-like creole
itself. Furthermore, the decreolization process observed in Caribbean creoles and in Gullah
resembles AAVE patterns, pointing to a similar history of origin. However, since African
Americans located outside of the Gullah-speaking areas were largely outnumbered by whites,
these demographics speak strongly against the formation of a creole. Due to these unfavorable
conditions, some linguists have taken a different approach in explaining the origins of AAVE.
2.2 The Anglicist Approach
Poplack (2000) and Mufwene (2000) both argue against the creole origin hypothesis and
rather highlight the importance of English as the target language in the formation of AAVE.
Instead of having descended from a creole that is converging to the lexifier, proponents of the
Anglicist approach argue that enslaved African Americans acquired English regional dialects
from whites, especially from overseers, with interferences from substratum languages due to
imperfect second language learning. Nevertheless, the grammatical core is essentially
identical to white vernacular English and most differences are fairly recent developments as
opposed to remnants of an antecedent creole (Bailey 2001: 54).
The main argument for this stance is the socioeconomic history of Early AAVE, which did
not favor the formation of a creole, as the black population was greatly outnumbered by
whites outside of Gullah-speaking areas. Instead, a new vernacular emerged by restructuring,
meaning that "materials and principles selected from extant systems are re-articulated into a
new system, in which they need not be integrated in the same ways as in the earlier one(s)"
(Mufwene 2000: 234). This, however, did not occur up onto the point of forming a fully-
The hostile learning environment and the dense population of Africans with similar cultural
backgrounds led to the formation of Gullah, as Africans had the possibility to create their own
community, while maintaining and developing their own culture and language. Contact with
whites was most likely sporadic and kept to a minimum (Holloway & Vass: xxv). However,
the social setup for the rest of the US was quite different. Africans were scattered and
integrated within a European majority, so that communication with whites happened daily and
not just occasionally. Due to this close contact, Africans were more motivated to speak and
assimilate to the vernacular of their surroundings, since they did not have a strong community
of their own (Mufwene 2000: 235, 237).
Furthermore, Mufwene (2000: 242) argues, contrary to Rickford (1998), that it is highly
unlikely that AAVE formed out of already existing creoles brought to enslaved people from
the Caribbean, as "Virginia imported only one-tenth of its slaves, and South Carolina only
one-seventh (less than 15%) from the Caribbean in the eighteenth century". He therefore
emphasizes the substrate influences of African languages on the one hand; however, on the
other, he stresses the importance of neither neglecting nor downplaying the importance of
colonial English as the target language. AAVE derived from white English with only slight
differences due to second language imperfections. Many of the structural differences between
AAVE and white vernaculars found today are more likely to be recent developments of the
nineteenth and twentieth century due to racial segregation.
Due to these social circumstances that prevented the formation of a creole, the grammatical
core of AAVE is argued to have derived from earlier English models. Poplack (2000)
collected a number of linguistic essays that highlight the structural influence of English on
AAVE and argues against creolists in the book titled "The English History of African
Walker (2000: 38), for example, criticizes Holm's (1984) claim that the zero copula stems
from Yoruba, as "there is no one-to-one correspondence between copula categories in
Yoruba, EBC's [English-based creoles], and/or AAVE". Since environments that favor
contraction disfavor deletion of the copula he concludes that the zero copula is not a legacy of
African languages, but rather that it was an innovation in Early AAVE to reduce "prosodic
complexity in contexts where contraction is disfavored" (61). He further rejects the idea that
AAVE falls on a creole continuum, since the grammatical constraints that favor the deletion
of the copula have changed in a way that resembles neither Standard English nor any
basilectal creole variety but rather constitutes a unique, recent innovation (47).
This falls in line with Bailey and Maynor's (1985: 206) observation regarding the present
tense use of be in contemporary Texan AAVE. Since is is as common as are in plural and
second person singular environments in AAVE and substantial variation was found in the
plural and second singular marking of fifteenth century English, they conclude that "these
paradigmatic relations suggest the influence of the English superstratum rather than the
African substratum" (Bailey and Maynor 1985: 206). Due to this peculiar distribution of
conjugated verb forms, they argue that the general lack of subject-verb agreement in AAVE,
is due to the influence of older varieties of English. Consequently, both the copula as well as
the auxiliary use of be points towards an English as opposed to a creole origin.
In Early AAVE the plural s marker was rarely used, in particular if a numeral or any other
indicator for plurality was present or if the plural-s would result in a consonant cluster.
However, in modern AAVE, the plural s is far more common and has been interpreted by
creolists as a sign for decreolization. Poplack et al. (2000: 98) noted on the other hand that
zero plural used to be part of older English varieties and therefore is not undoubtedly a sign
for decreolization but possibly for linguistic retention. White vernaculars have omitted this
feature while AAVE retained it. After comparing Early AAVE with Nigerian Pidgin English
and English vernaculars spoken in the colonial US, Poplack et al. (2000: 99) concluded that
although Nigerian Pidgin English and Early AAVE share the same plural markers the
conditioning factors for their occurrence differ substantially. Animacy is the strongest
conditioning factor in the plural marking system of Nigerian Pidgin English. This semantic
constraint is a clear sign of substratal influence, as neither Standard (Nigerian) English nor
AAVE make this distinction, yet Igbo, the first language of the Nigerian Pidgin speakers
interviewed, does (97). On the other hand, Early AAVE showed to favor the zero plural
marker in order to avoid consonant clusters or redundancy, when the context is unambiguous
(99). Since the zero plural entity in older English varieties behaved in a similar manner and
the plural-marking patterns in Early AAVE "are consistent with those attested in the
development of contemporary English", the underlying grammatical structures in AAVE are
remnants of early white vernaculars and not the result of (de)creolization (98).
Another source of evidence for its English-based underlying grammar structure is the
negation pattern found in AAVE. De Bose (1994) states that the use of ain't in AAVE
functions as a universal preverbal negator, which is tense- and aspect-neutral and would attest
for the creole origin hypothesis. However, Howe & Walker (2000) argue that the opposite is
the case. The three sources of data they used for analyzing Early AAVE, African Nova
Scotian English, Samaná English and ex-slave recordings, all showed a clear preference of
didn't over ain't in past contexts (Howe & Walker 2000: 119). On the contrary, the
ain't/didn't variation found in present-day AAVE is a rather recent development as it is more
frequently used by younger generations and therefore lends support to the divergence
hypothesis, which will be discussed later in further detail (120). Furthermore, the types of
negative concord found in AAVE show more similarity to nonstandard white vernaculars than
to English-based creoles (132). Negative postposing, meaning "preverbal negation can be
omitted if the VP contains a negative word, as in I have nowhere to go" is found both in
AAVE and Standard English and is therefore of unambiguously English origin (132 f.).
However, negative postposing is generally absent in English-lexified creoles. Similarly,
negative inversion, meaning that the negative finite auxiliary switches positions with the
subject, as in "Won't nobody catch us", can be found in AAVE and SWV, however, not in
Caribbean creoles (134). On the basis of these findings, Howe and Walker (2000: 136) come
to following conclusion:
The key result of our comparison is the discovery that the negation
system of Early AAE displays no distinct or unambiguous creole
behavior. This discovery suggests that, at least as far as negation is
concerned, early African Americans simply learned and spoke the
colonial English they were exposed to, apparently without
approximation or creolization.
In sum, proponents of the Anglicist approach argue that the grammatical core is essentially
English based and that deviations from Standard English are either fairly recent developments
or retentions from older varieties of English. The zero copula is said to have been a prosodic
innovation instead of a creole legacy. Similarly, plural marking and negation patterns of Early
AAVE match early English varieties, but not English-based creoles, and consequently attest
for an underlying English grammar system. Deviations that cannot be traced back to English
ancestors are said to be recent innovations and are more proof for the divergence than the
creole origin hypothesis.
However, neither side, creolist nor Anglicist, denies the impact that both English and
substrate languages had on modern-day AAVE. It is plausible that even though for the most
part African Americans would have tried to assimilate to white speech, some creole elements
and features from substratum languages emerged and became an integral part of AAVE
(Bailey 2001: 58). As Kautzsch (2002: 6) fittingly summarizes:
The overall picture that emerges is that it is very likely that in earlier
days AAE was much more heterogeneous than its relatively
homogenous appearance today would have us assume; and an
integrative approach that takes into account both sides is mot [sic!]
likely to deliver the most accurate assessment of the status and the
evolution of AAE.
3 Linguistic and Sociohistorical Developments after the Civil War
Although its origins are disputed, it can be noted that outside of the Gullah speaking areas,
AAVE was a very heterogeneous variety due to the many different influences that factored
into its formation (Kautzsch 2002: 6). In the nineteenth century and after the Civil War, which
ended slavery, it started to stabilize as a variety and assimilate to especially SWV, due to
close inter-ethnic contact. In the beginning of the twentieth century, this assimilation process
was reversed as African Americans started to leave the rural South for primarily northern
cities, resulting in the majority of the black population living in inner cities up to this day.
This period is known as the "Great Migration" and resulted in de facto segregation of the
black population, which has had both socioeconomic, as well as linguistic repercussions. In
order to understand how this development influenced linguistic features of AAVE and SWV,
first, the sociohistorical condition of each time period will be outlined in further detail,
followed by a diachronic comparison of phonological and morphosyntactic features found in
3.1 Farm Tenancy and Linguistic Convergence
Georgia officially banned slavery in 1734, but reinstated it shortly after due to its
profitableness (Klein 2013: 139). Similarly, the foreign slave trade was banned in the US in
1808, however, clandestine slave trade went on, resulting in a staggering number of 240,000
newly imported slaves between 1810 and 1860 (Bailey 2001: 63). Nevertheless, in the
beginning of the nineteenth century the majority of the slave population did not grow by new
arrivals but by birth. Although Gullah was already identifiable as a variety by 1750, it was not
until this stark increase of native speakers that both Gullah and AAVE started to stabilize
(Klein 2013: 141; Mufwene 2000: 246).
Another important sociohistorical factor that contributed not only to the homogeneity of
AAVE as an identifiable variety but also impacted its relation to white vernaculars was the
expansion of the cotton industry and farm tenancy. Together with the introduction of short-
staple cotton, the demand for cheap labor grew rapidly, especially within the interior South
(Mufwene 2000: 247). Therefore approximately one million slaves were relocated from the
East Coast to the cotton lands and were taken westwards from three different sources: 1) small
plantations from the Upper South 2) from large plantations in the Gullah-speaking region 3)
from the Caribbean and Africa. The majority of the relocated enslaved people came from
small plantations in the Upper South and spoke varieties of English close to the local white
vernaculars. As the vast majority of these relocated slaves spoke some form of English, either
as a creole or vernacular variety, it is to be expected that a distinct variety of English formed
with clear creole and African imprints (Bailey 2001: 60). Furthermore, as the majority of
people originated from regions where "relatively stable AAE vernaculars" had developed,
these varieties were brought to the new cotton plantations, where they stabilized further. This
assumption is also consistent with literary evidence of the time period (Mufwene 2000: 247).
The new cotton plantations were smaller than the former tobacco plantations and although
various forms of discrimination were in place, racial segregation was not implemented until
the end of the century. Due to these conditions, inter-ethnic contact between whites and
blacks occurred more frequently.
Not only the relocation onto smaller plantations but also the implementation of farm tenancy
would increase the contact that whites and blacks shared amongst each other. After the Civil
War, farm tenancy replaced slavery as a means of meeting the large labor demands of the
cotton industry (Bailey 2001: 64 f.). At first, the majority of tenants were African Americans,
but after 1880, Southern whites started to be drawn into tenancy as well after they were
unable to pay off their loans to northern banks. Since northern banks had the right to
determine the amount of farm land devoted to cotton, both the industry as well as tenancy
expanded, resulting in black and white workers living side by side on large cotton plantations.
Consequently, Bailey (2001: 66) summarizes:
The spread of tenancy to Whites and the spatial reorganization of the
plantation created new contexts for Black-White speech relationships
throughout the South, contexts which allowed for interaction among
African Americans and Whites that was probably more widespread
than before the Civil War and that took place among people who were
closer to being socioeconomic equals [...] Hence, we might expect
their vernaculars to have much in common and as indicated below,
they do share many features that emerged during the late 19
As a consequence of this close contact between blacks and whites, who were "closer to being
socioeconomic equals" than ever before, SWV and AAVE share some phonological
similarities that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century.
Table 2: Phonological Features of Contemporary AAVE and SWV
Loss of /r/ after consonants
(after // & in unstressed syllables)
Front stressing of initial syllables
Glide reduction of:
/ai/ before voiced obstruents and finally
/i/ befor /l/
// & // before nasals
/r/ & /or/
Source: adapted from Bailey (2001: 75 f.) and Bailey & Thomas (1998: 89)
The features shown in Table 2 are phonological features that AAVE and SWV share up to this
day. Both the glide reductions of /ai/ and /i/, as well as the //-// and /r/-/or/ mergers
appeared rarely or not at all in recordings of AAVE and SWV prior to the last quarter of the
nineteenth century (Bailey & Thomas 1998: 90). Therefore, recent research suggests that
these features, either emerged or became widespread during the last quarter of the nineteenth
century and first quarter of the twentieth century, although it is not clear from which
vernacular they originated (Bailey 2001: 74; Bailey & Thomas 1998: 91). Some of these
phonological features that were clearly established by the middle of the nineteenth century in
both vernaculars have been retained only by AAVE. SWV lost these features either partially
or completely, so that they now only occur in old-fashioned speech.
Table 3: Phonological Features of AAVE and old-fashioned SWV
Metathesis of final /s/ + stop
Vocalization of stressed syllabic /r/
Vocalization of unstressed syllabic /r/
Vocalization of postvocalic /r/
four [fou], [fo]
Vocalization or loss of intersyllabic /r/
Source: adapted from Bailey (2001: 76)
Table 3 shows features that emerged during this period of close inter-ethnic contact, but are in
the process of being omitted, as today they are only part of older SWV speech. However, they
still appear in the speech of African Americans.
As can be seen in Table 3, r-lessness is a phonological feature of both vernaculars, yet it is
more common in AAVE than in contemporary SWV. R-lessness in SWV occurs more
frequently in old-fashioned, upper-class white speech than in contemporary working-class
speech (Feagin 1997: 125). Therefore, contrary to the North, non-rhoticity is seen as a
prestige marker in the South. Due to its prestigious status, r-lessness was explained to have
come as a result of the extended contact that the South had with the British. It was assumed
that the prestigious Standard British pronunciation of South-Western England was adopted by
the Southern upper-class (127). Feagin (1997: 130) however argues against this stance and
states that instead it is due to the influence of African Americans that it became a widespread
linguistic feature in the South. It is true that the South did share extensive contact with
England, sending their children off to English boarding schools and such. However, this
explanation fails to account for why r-lessness extended westwards in the South, while it did
not do so in New England and New York (127). Looking at the expansion of the Cotton
Kingdom and the geographical distribution of r-lessness, it shows clear ties to plantation
speech. AAVE was noted to have been r-less from an early stage on and it was commonly
perceived as a distinguishing factor for black speech. Therefore, r-lessness in the South is the
result of African American influence.
Another argument in favor of this notion is the evidence for substratum influence. This
phonological feature is not exclusive to AAVE, but rather very common in Gullah and other
creoles that stem from West African substrate languages. Since the major West-African
language groups favor coda-less syllable structure, eliminating tautosyllabic postvocalic "r"
became a prominent feature in these creole varieties (Feagin 1997: 129). Consequently, on the
basis of Uncle Remus stories and other literary evidence, it was shown that r-lessness was
also an integral part of AAVE and a distinguishing feature between black and white
vernaculars. House servants influenced the speech of the planation owners' children who took
over r-lessness, which later on spread westwards, together with the extension of the cotton
plantations (Feagin 1997: 126-128). Evidence for this is in the parents' fear of their children
being influenced by the speech of their servants, which is one of the reasons why sending off
their children to boarding schools in England was quite popular (126). Some confederates
even openly attributed their own pronunciation of "pooah" for poor or "mattuh" for matter to
African-American influence (126 f.). It is highly unlikely that whites of the time would admit
that African Americans had influenced their speech, if r-lessness could have come from the
more prestigious Standard British variety. Furthermore, this same phenomenon that black had
on white speech was not only noted in English, but in Brazilian Portuguese and Caribbean
Spanish, as well (130). Consequently, r-lessness was firmly established among the middle and
upper classes of the Deep South by 1860 due to the influence of AAVE (126).
However, even in the nineteenth century some differences in the development of phonological
features were reported. Known as the Southern Shift, white speech fronted a number of
vowels, while they remained back in AAVE. This change in vowel space affected mainly
SWV and is one of the main phonological differences between the vernaculars that gradually
expanded over time (Bailey 2001: 78-80). Nevertheless, the lengthening and glidening of
vowels, commonly referred to as the Southern Drawl, and the wider pitch range of SWV
compared to Northern dialects are additional examples of African American linguistic
influence (Feagin 1997). This shows that SWV and AAVE share a number of phonological
similarities, which emerged as a result of close inter-ethnic contact and reciprocal influence.
AAVE and SWV do not only share phonological features but also some morphosyntactic
similarities. For instance, AAVE and SWV share the same negative constructions (Howe &
Walker 2000). The use of ain't for negative be in all person/number environments is a
common feature both in AAVE as well as in SWV. It is interesting to note though that older
white speakers used ain't more frequently than younger generations, while the exact opposite
tendency was reported for African Americans (Maynor 1997). This shows once again that
AAVE and SWVE used to be more similar in the past than today. Ain't however is a verb
form which is found in many different varieties of English. There are however some negative
constructions that are found exclusively in AAVE and SWV. One of these constructions is
clause-external negative concord, i.e. I wasn't sure that nothing wasn't gonna come up at all
(Wolfram & Christian 1976: 113 as quoted in Howe& Walker 2000: 130).
of negative concord to verbs outside the main clause was documented for both AAVE as well
as for Appalachian English. It is however part of neither Standard English nor English-.based
creoles (Howe & Walker 2000: 130). Negative inversion, often combined with negative
concord, i.e. Didn't nobody get hurt or nothin', is another feature that AAVE shares with
SWV, like Appalachian and Ozark English, but neither with English-based creoles nor
Standard English (Christian et al. 1988: 169 as quoted in Howe & Walker 2000: 135).
Although clause-external negative concord as well as negative inversion occurs relatively
seldom in both AAVE and SWVE, they are unique features that do not occur at all in any
other nearby variety. This shows that they are a product of linguistic assimilation due to
former close inter-ethnic contact and share the same history of origin.
To summarize, as a consequence of the expansion of the cotton industry in the interior South,
blacks were relocated onto smaller plantations westwards, where the majority spoke some
form of English. Furthermore, as more and more enslaved people were born on US-American
soil and were therefore native speakers of English, AAVE and Gullah stabilized as varieties in
the beginning of the nineteenth century. The speech of African Americans influenced SWV
from the start, especially in intimate contexts between house servants and children. However
the majority of linguistic similarities between SWV and AAVE emerged in the second half of
the nineteenth century, in which whites and blacks shared close contact with each other due to
the introduction of farm tenancy. After slavery was abolished, farm tenancy took over, which
created an environment, in which blacks and whites were able to interact more as
socioeconomic equals. Since racial segregation was not implemented until the end of the
century, this close inter-ethnic contact fostered a number of linguistic assimilations, mainly
phonetic. Vowel patterns and r-lessness are one of the main similarities that these varieties
share, many of which emerged or became widespread in this period of time. However, some
of these features that are still common in AAVE are only common in old-fashioned SWV.
These patterns show that AAVE and SWV once used to be more similar than they are today
and that since the beginning of the twentieth century these two varieties have been diverging
from each other. The main contributing factor to this development has been racial segregation.
3.2 The Great Migration and Urbanization
The Great Migration started in the beginning of the twentieth century, peaked shortly after
WWII and ended in the 1970s. It is one of the most significant demographic events in the
history of the United States. In this time period, a large portion of the African American
population of the South emigrated to northern cities, where highly segregated inner-city
neighborhoods formed. As had been explained previously, farm tenancy brought the white
and black community closer together. However, Jim Crow laws, racial violence and economic
disadvantages in the South led African Americans to leave their hometowns and settle in
northern cities. In the North, a different kind of institutionalized racism, especially in the form
of residential policies, manifested itself. This led to the majority of the black population living
in impoverished, inner-city neighborhoods, while the white population left the city and
formed middle-class suburbs in the outskirts. This development had a strong impact not only
on the socioeconomic conditions of the African American community, but also on the
structures of AAVE and its relationship to white vernaculars, due to limited inter-ethnic
The close contact between whites and blacks brought about by farm tenancy did not last very
long but rather new rigid forms of racial segregation provided the first socioeconomic context
for linguistic divergence after 200 years of common development (Mufwene 2000: 248).
After the Civil War the economic situation improved very little for blacks. Farm tenancy left
most African American farmers landless and gave them little opportunity to advance
economically (Tolnay 2003: 214). Jim Crow Laws were introduced in 1877, which restricted
African American's access to jobs and welfare entitlements, as well as segregated
neighborhoods and public facilities (Mufwene 2000: 248). Occupational segregation gave
African Americans little opportunity to pursue any other professions besides unskilled jobs
for men and domestic service for women (Tolnay 2003: 214). Apart from these economic
factors, a number of social factors, like inferior educational opportunities, personal freedom
restrictions, political disenfranchisement and racial violence, factored into African
American's decision to leave the South.
Out of these discriminatory circumstances, a first Black Exodus, in which 20,000 African
Americans moved to Kansas, arose in 1879 (Mufwene 2000: 250). It was not, however, until
after World War I, when the US imposed stricter immigration laws, that emigrating to the
north presented itself as a feasible alternative for African Americans (Tolnay 2003: 215). The
demand for cheap labor in the North was previously met by immigrants from southern and
eastern Europe, yet, due to the new immigration policy, American corporations needed an
alternative. Therefore, employers situated in and around large metropolitan areas of the North
started to hire black (and white) workers from the South. Most migrants moved from the rural
South to inner cities, forming large, predominantly black neighborhoods. Consequently, "by
1970, 47% of the African American population lived outside the South and 77% lived in
cities. In fact, in 1970, 34% of African Americans lived in just seven major urban areas
New York, Chicago, Detroit Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Baltimore"
(Bailey 2001: 66). Not only did the demographic situation change dramatically for the African
American community, but also for the cities themselves, as prior to this immigration wave
there had only been a small black community. In Chicago, for example, the city's black
population increased from 2.0% to 32.7% between 1910 and 1970 (U.S. Bureau of the Census
1913,1973 as quoted by Tolnay 2003: 221).
This geographical concentration of African Americans is not only due to the location of large
companies, but also due to social factors. On the one hand, African Americans were attracted
to areas, where a strong African American community had already been established. This in
turn would strengthen the community further and attract new migrants, so the process repeats
itself (Tolnay 2003: 217). On the other hand, since the black population grew so rapidly, the
white population reacted with a number of racist measures that would expand segregation and
limit social mobility for the black population (221).
In order to understand this hostile development in the relationships between the white and
black community better, it is noteworthy to briefly revisit Blalock's (1960) Power Threat
Hypothesis. This hypothesis states that when a racial minority is minuscule, the dominant
racial group does not act as a group and does not form elaborate ideological frameworks to
justify discriminatory behavior. This is because the minority group is not perceived as a threat
and racist discrimination is implemented in a subtle manner. However, once the racial
minority grows to a considerable size, "[o]rganizational effectiveness must be improved if the
power advantage is to be sustained" (Blalock 1960: 58).
This dividing dynamic is exactly what happened in northern cities as a response to the Great
Migration. Targeted violence, restrictive covenants, redlining, and racial steering limited the
residential options for African Americans and pushed them towards the least desirable
neighborhoods of the city, where primarily other blacks resided (Tolnay 2003: 219, 221).
Consequently, impoverished, inner-city neighborhoods are where the majority of the black
population ended up in. The white population however started to leave the city, accelerating
and establishing residential segregation further. After World War II, the Affordable Housing
Act gave white soldiers the possibility to move outside of the city and form predominantly
white suburbs (Tolnay 2003: 222). As African Americans did not have the same easy access
to affordable mortgages, the black community was confined to the economically deteriorating
inner city. Consequently, following the Great Migration, northern cities ended up being more
racially segregated than before, limiting inter-ethnic contact.
This de facto segregation persists up onto this day and has had drastic, negative consequences
on the socioeconomic situation of the black community, including educational, professional,
social and economic discrimination. Furthermore, Labov and Harris (1986) and other linguists
argue that due to this racial segregation and in line with the Power Threat Model white
vernaculars and AAVE are not assimilating but are rather moving away from each other. This
stance is commonly referred to as the divergence hypothesis and will be the main subject of
the next chapter. To understand the linguistic changes AAVE is undergoing currently, it is
however important to keep in mind the sociohistorical context.
4 Contemporary Structural Developments
Currently, the twenty largest metropolitan areas show a high concentration of the black
population. The U.S. Census of 2010 (Rastogi et al. 2011: 17) reports that "[t]he proportion of
the non-Hispanic Black alone population living inside the largest principal city surpassed 40
percent in all of the northeastern metro areas shown" and non-Hispanic blacks were more
likely than other races to live in metropolitan areas. This racial divide in housing, jobs and
education brought about a number of consequences both of economic, social as well as of
Following the creolist viewpoint, prior to the study of Labov and Harris (1986), it was
assumed that AAVE would undergo further decreolization and steadily assimilate to Standard
English. However, Labov and Harris (1986: 2) studied the English of black Philadelphians
and came to following conclusion:
The English spoken by black Philadelphians is quite distinct from that
of whites, and the differences appear to us to be increasing. There is a
close parallel between residential segregation and linguistic
segregation, and between residential language differences and
The question, whether or not AAVE was in fact becoming more and more different from
Standard English, was quickly picked up by the media and sparked a large debate amongst
linguists and educators alike (Wolfram & Thomas 2002: 29). Both the linguistic as well as the
social implications that this observation entails, were too immense to be ignored.
This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the divergence hypothesis. It states that contrary
to prior decreolization assumptions AAVE and Standard English are not becoming more
similar but that they are diverging from each other. To assess this stance, first developments
found in white vernaculars that occurred during the second half of the twentieth century will
be discussed and compared to AAVE. Then, recent linguistic innovations made by AAVE
speakers during the same time period will be examined. It is important to take into account the
linguistic evolution of both varieties to understand whereto they are headed and their relation
between each other. Since the divergence hypothesis is not generally accepted by all
sociolinguists of the field, counterarguments that critique the formerly mentioned studies will
be presented at the end.
However, both the social as well as the linguistic relationship between ethnic groups are more
complex and have been changing over the past decade. Recent census data shows that both
the suburbs as well as the inner cities are becoming more diverse. Hispanics have
outnumbered blacks in most American cities, while "[m]inorities represent 35 percent of
suburban residents, similar to their share of overall U.S. population" (Frey 2011: 1). Taking
into account this new positive development in race relations, the relationship between white
and black vernaculars in contact-situations will be analyzed lastly.
4.1 The Divergence Hypothesis
Put simply, the divergence hypothesis states that white vernaculars are becoming more diverse
while black vernaculars are becoming structurally more and more similar to each other. This
in turn implies that AAVE is becoming a strong nation-wide variety that is deviating from
regional variation found in particular in white vernaculars. It furthermore presupposes that
white and black vernaculars were more similar during the nineteenth century due to the
working conditions that brought whites and blacks in closer contact to each other. As racial
segregation has increased since the end of the nineteenth century, so has linguistic divergence.
It is important to note here, that this hypothesis does not suppose that the overall political and
social condition was better for blacks before. Linguistic assimilation does not automatically
indicate social equality (Bailey & Maynor 1989: 15). Yet, it does reveal the consequences of
residential segregation on language systems.
White vernaculars underwent linguistic change, mainly phonological, that showed divergence
from neighboring white vernaculars. At the same time, local African Americans did not
participate in many of these changes, in particular in highly segregated cities in the North.
Consequently, it can be said that white vernaculars are diverging from AAVE, as well as from
each other. In the South, however, the situation is more complex, as SWV share a different
relationship with AAVE than Northern White Vernaculars (NWV) do. Therefore, linguistic
divergent tendencies in the North will be discussed first, followed by changes in the speech of
The original study that sparked this heated debate on whether or not AAVE is diverging from
Standard English was performed in Philadelphia during the 1980s by Labov (2014). Labov
(2014) found that starting from the mid-twentieth century, a vowel change occurred in the
speech of white Philadelphians, in which black Philadelphians did not partake. Some of the
characteristics investigated by Labov (2014: 529) were:
1. The backing of /ahr/ in car, part, etc.
2. The raising and fronting of /ae:/ in man, hand, etc.
3. The fronting of /uw/and /ow/ in too, moved, gog, and code.
4. The raising and fronting of /aw/ in house, down, etc. from [au] to to [e']
5. The raising and backing of /ay/ before voiceless consonants in fight, like, etc. from [ai]
to a back central nucleus
6. The raising of /ey/ in checked syllables in made, lake, etc., from [e
] to [e^
7. The lowering of the short vowels /i/, /e/, and /ae/.
On the basis of telephone surveys, Labov (2014: 531) found that the upper classes participated
in this sound change more than the lower classes did. This shows that in particular the more
recent innovations, characteristics 4-7, are overt prestige markers, as these changes were
mainly driven by the classes with the highest social prestige. Furthermore, Labov (2001: 266)
states as a general linguistic principle that "women show a lower rate of stigmatized variants
and a higher rate of prestige variants than men:" As women were more prone than men to
partake in this vowel change, this gives further proof that the variants in question are of overt
prestige (Labov 2014: 531).
Philadelphia underwent similar sound pattern changes in the past due to ethnic diversification.
Immigrants from Germany, Italy, Ukraine and Jews were the driving force behind sound
change in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which would make the Philadelphia
accent distinct from dialects of nearby cities like Boston and New York (Labov 2014: 534). In
the 1980s, the white community took these tendencies further. With the small exception of
Italians slightly lagging behind other ethnic groups in the fronting of /uw/ and /ow/, Labov
(2001: 258) showed that all white Philadelphians participated in the aforementioned vowel
change. This change occurred regardless of ethnicity but not regardless of race. Labov (2014)
explains this innovation due to the influx of the black population and the white community's
need to fortify its own racial identity.
The renewed emphasis on local identification is accompanied by a
strenuous reassertion of local rights and privileges by the ethnic
groups who hold them, and a continued resistance to the pressure
from black citizens of Philadelphia for their share of the jobs,
housing, and political priorities in the city. The division of the city into
two distinct communities by political educational and economic
barriers is mirrored by the increasing divergence of the white and
(Labov 2014: 534)
Once again, taking into account Blalock's (1960) Power Threat Model described earlier, with
the influx of a racial minority group, the dominant racial group resorts to measures that
reassert their social position. Power dynamics can be established through segregation not only
on a conscious, political level, but also on an unconscious, linguistic level.
To assess this bold statement it is noteworthy to look at who is the driving force behind the
change and what its motivation could be, when considering sociolinguistic reception. Labov
(2014) and Labov and Harris (1986: 18) showed that the social origins of these changes in the
local white Philadelphian community, as they are driven by the people with the highest
prestige, "serve as symbolic claims to local rights and privileges: to jobs, housing, special
ordinances and exceptions that form the background of local business and local social life".
Black Philadelphians did not participate in this innovative vowel change. This becomes
apparent in particular when looking at the diphthong /aw/, which younger, white
Philadelphians front. Black speakers do not front this diphthong, yet their pronunciation does
not resemble any of the older variables found in Philadelphia either. In contrast, the nucleus in
diphthongs in out, doubt, and south of Black speakers begins back of center, /:/, and moves
up towards the vowel /u:/. This pronunciation is unlike any white Philadelphian sound, old or
new (Labov and Harris 1986: 18).
This variable was further examined by Labov and Harris (1986) with respect to its racial
connotation. The phrase No doubt about it and I've got to get out of the house was used to see
if the alteration of the vowel /aw/ would influence the listener's assumption of the speaker's
race. The "white stimulus" was perceived as "sounding more white" by the majority of blacks
(60%), whites (83%) and Latinos (53%) (Labov 1986: 19). This observation further asserts
that the vowel change observed in the speech of white Philadelphians is an assertion of racial
However, the situation in the South of the US is quite different. The South has undergone a
Southern Vowel Shift, with two main changes: 1) the Back Shift, in which the back vowels
are shifted towards the front and 2) the Front Shift, in which tense and lax front vowels
exchange phonological position "with the nuclei of the tense vowels becoming lower and
more central, while those of the lax vowels are rising and becoming more forward" (Feagin
1986: 83). Feagin (1986: 94) examined the speech of white Alabamans and concluded that the
shift started in rural areas and is being completed by younger members of the working class in
cities across the South. Fridland (2003) found that, contrary to assumptions made by Feagin
(1986: 91), African American Memphians have been affected by the Southern Vowel Shift,
although to slightly different degrees. Younger white speakers, women and middle class
Memphians show more signs of back vowel fronting, than older speakers do, while African
Americans show no fronting of /ow/ at all (Fridland 2003: 7, 19). Concerning the Front Shift,
however, speakers over 40, showed very similar language change patterns with only minor,
idiosyncratic differences (9-11). Similarly, younger speakers were affected by the front shift
as well. When comparing this parallel development to the divergent tendency in the North, the
question arises why language change appears to behave differently in the South.
One might assume that since blacks have historically been in the South longer, that they share
more contact with the white population and are therefore more likely to be influenced by
linguistic change. Yet, first of all, Memphis is a highly segregated city with especially a
highly segregated educational system similar to Philadelphia. Secondly, Fridland (2003: 19)
came to the surprising result that "the stronger the speaker's ties within the African American
community, the more the front shift appears to have affected his or her system". Stronger ties
to the white community, however, did not push linguistic change, in particular with regards to
the Back Shift (19). In other words, more contact amongst African Americans promoted
convergence to the vowel shift of SWV.
This counterintuitive development is due to the close history as well as to their similar
sociolinguistic status that SWV and AAVE share, as they are both non-standard, stigmatized
varieties. As has been mentioned previously, due to centuries of common history, AAVE and
SWV share many structural similarities. One of these features is for instance the merger of //
and //, in words like pen which are pronounced like pin. This feature is commonly associated
with black speech in the North. It is however racially neutral in the South (Edwards 1992). A
number of studies showed that African American vernaculars in northern cities either retained
or even adopted features of SWV and shows therefore a far more amiable relationship to
Southern white speakers (Anderson 2002; Edwards 1992).
In the South, including Memphis, the distinction between white and black vernaculars is made
by morphosyntactic and other phonological features, yet not by the aforementioned vowels
affected by the recent shift (Fridland 2003: 21). In Philadelphia, on the other hand, the
different vowels have a clear racial connotation (Labov 1986). Therefore, the vowel shift of
white Philadelphians serves to fortify racial identity, while the Southern vowel shift found in
Memphis enhances a local identity (Labov 2014; Fridland 2003).
Furthermore, both SWV as well as AAVE show no signs of overt prestige, while the vowel
change by the northern middle-class is closer to the prestigious standard variety used in
official settings (Fridland 2003: 22; Labov 2001). Therefore, the power dynamics are not as
uneven between SWV and AAVE as they are between NWV and AAVE. Consequently, this
situation creates more possibility for a regional identity to be formed on the basis of a shared
dialect. The Southern vowel shift therefore crosses over more freely through different classes
and ethnicities, since it addresses a different dimension of identity.
Wolfram & Thomas (2002) found a similar accommodation process in Hyde County. White
speakers started dropping distinct regional variants of the diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ in favor of
the more general pronunciation found throughout the South, while retaining the regionally
marked fronted /o/. African Americans in Hyde County also started omitting the regional
variants, but converged to the nation-wide AAVE instead of general SWV pronunciation.
However, they retained the /o/ variant just like the white speakers did. Wolfram & Thomas
(2002: 123) explain this phenomenon with the lack of racial connotation of the /o/ variant.
This would once again fall in line with the observation that African Americans participate
more in linguistic changes that are not racially marked. This trend of incorporating SWV
phonological variants in AAVE speech can even be found in the North. Due to more equal
power dynamics and shared identity, Detroit AAVE speakers levelled to phonological
features unique to white Appalachian English (Anderson 2002). As this development is due
to recent inter-ethnic contact, it will be discussed in further detail under the chapter "Inter-
Ethnic Contact Situations".
African Americans and white Southerners both seem to be moving towards r-fullness,
although African Americans do so at a far slower rate and lesser extent than whites. This
movement towards rhoticity has started in SWV after World War II and is therefore a quite
recent development (Bailey & Thomas 1998). Nevertheless, it has been a quite drastic and
rapid development, as well, affecting the speech of all social classes. Also, it affects a large
number of lexical items, far more than the merger of // and // for instance does. Therefore,
this is a dramatic change in SWV, which fundamentally changes their phonology.
Table 4: Percentage of Constricted /r/ in all environments in AAVE and SWV in Texas
Source: adapted from Bailey & Thomas (1998: 91)
As can be seen in Table 4, younger white speakers have rapidly increased their use of
constricted /r/, pronouncing the /r/ five-times more often than their older counterparts (Bailey
& Thomas 1998: 91). This shows convergence to the more prestigious, North-American
Standard, which is generally rhotic. As Labov (2006) found, rhoticity is generally perceived
as a prestigious variant in the North. Although the opposite was the case in the South for a
long time, with extended contact between the North and the South the prestigious northern
variant spread (Feagin 1997).
R-lessness is a distinct feature of AAVE and younger African
Americans continue to be more r-less than older whites (Table 4). However, younger African
Americans in Texas show a slight increase in the vocalization of constricted /r/ and therefore
partially participate in the general sound change of the region. Considering the magnitude of
the change in SWV, it comes as no surprise that AAVE would be affected to some extent.
However, the effect is minimal.
Wolfram and Thomas (2002) even found the opposite to be the case, with AAVE speakers
moving increasingly towards non-rhoticity. In Hyde County, r-lessness was historically not
particularly wide spread compared to other SWV. In this region, whites are becoming more
and more rhotic as the rest of Southern whites, while African Americans are moving towards
r-lessness (Wolfram & Thomas 2002: 144). In this case, the two vernaculars are clearly
diverging from each other.
This reluctance or even rejection of participating in SWV's shift towards rhoticity can be
attributed to its close ties with racial identity. Since r-lessness is a variable that is generally
perceived as "black" and most likely even originated from African American speech, it comes
as no surprise that linguistic change affecting this variable could result in divergence between
black and white vernaculars (Feagin 1997). Bailey & Maynor (1989: 31) found that when
testing how the race of a person was perceived based on linguistic variables, a young white
boy was misidentified as black 42% of the time, the highest rate of misidentification, for
being partially r-less. In contrast to the //-// merger or the vowels affected by the Front Shift,
r-fullness bears a strong racial connotation. Considering the reluctance of AAVE speakers to
participate in the movement towards r-fullness, once again proves that changes that affect
linguistic variables that are closely linked to racial identity promote divergence between
AAVE and white vernaculars. However, if the innovation affects a variable that is racially
neutral, the structural development spreads across racial lines more freely, leading to
In general, it seems that white vernaculars, both in the North as well as is in the South, have
not shown many morphosyntactic innovations within the past decades. In Hyde County
however, Wolfram & Thomas (2002) noted a trend among younger white speakers to
increasingly replace wasn't with weren't, i.e. I weren't there. Elderly whites in Hyde County
levelled to weren't only 34,6% of the time, compared to 77.3% of the younger speakers
(Wolfram & Thomas 2002: 74). As this variant is exclusive to the Hyde County dialect, it can
be said that with respect to this grammatical feature, regional variation is being amplified in
This dramatic increase occurred, however, exclusively in the speech of the white population,
as the younger African Americans moved in the exact opposite direction, away from regional
diversification. While older white and black speakers used similar amounts of the weren't
variant, younger African Americans relinquished this regional variant. Instead, they
increasingly favored the nation-wide AAVE, and supra-regional SWV past tense marking
pattern of replacing were with was, i.e. We was here (Wolfram & Thomas 2002: 74, 76).
Bailey and Maynor (1985: 199 f.) found that is occurs in the plural and the second person
singular as often as are does and that are deletion occurs more frequently than is deletion in
the speech of Texan African Americans. Since the singular form is preferred in the present, it
is to be assumed that similar deletion and substitution rules hold true in the past as well. With
regards to the observations by Wolfram and Thomas (2002) in Hyde County, it can be seen
that African Americans are moving away from the local dialect and towards the general
Therefore, two important observations can be made with respect to the weren't variant. First,
nonstandard phonological changes in SWV become part of AAVE more quickly than
nonstandard morphosyntactic changes do. Secondly, while white vernaculars are becoming
increasingly more diverse, emphasizing regional identities, African Americans are taking the
opposite direction. It seems that African Americans favor linguistic variants that are
connected to their racial over their regional identity.
To sum up, most innovations and developments found in white vernaculars during the second
half of the twentieth century are mainly phonological. The Great Migration and the formation
of predominantly black neighborhoods in formerly predominantly white northern cities,
triggered the emergence of a vowel shift in the speech of (upper) middle-class white residents.
These new vowels in the North do not only fortify the local but also the racial identity.
Consequently, the African American population in these cities did not participate in these
vowel changes and therefore, the two vernaculars are diverging from each other. While white
vernaculars are becoming increasingly more diverse, AAVE speakers show a movement
towards a nation-wide uniform variety. However, when linguistic variants are not so strongly
connected to race, African Americans have shown to assimilate to the changes found in white
vernaculars, in particular when it comes to nonstandard phonological changes. Due to the
shared history and similar sociolinguistic status, this process can be observed in particular
with regards to SWV, even in northern cities, where SWV variants are preferred over
Northern White Vernaculars (NWV) variants.
In contrast to white vernaculars, AAVE has shown a number of recent innovations in its
morphosyntactic structure, in particular with regards to new aspect markers. These
developments and innovations follow two tendencies. First of all, as they are unique to
AAVE, they generally do not occur in white vernaculars and fall therefore in line with the
divergence hypothesis. Secondly, while white vernaculars have shown to emphasize regional
variation, AAVE speakers relinquish regional dialect variants in favor of forming a stable
nation-wide AAVE variety. The urban varieties serve hereby as the model variety. The
different structural developments that have occurred in AAVE speech will be discussed one
by one, with regards to their evolution and impact on relations to neighboring (white)
One of the most important innovations in AAVE grammar, which Labov (1987: 8) described
as "the most startling", is the reinterpretation of verbal s inflection to mark the historic
present. First off, research shows that AAVE lacks general underlying subject-verb
agreement. Therefore, verbal s inflection on the third person singular is a variable that
mainly serves the sociolinguistic purpose of indicating formality, especially when talking to
whites (Myhill and Harris 1986: 26).
However, apart from this stylistic function, Myhill and Harris (1986) found that verbal s was
assigned a new, narrative function. Verbal s inflection was reinterpreted by AAVE speakers
and is used to mark the historic present. This conclusion was made on the basis of data
gathered from five AAVE speakers, which was analyzed and compared with regards to the
occurrence of verbal s in narrative and nonnarrative contexts. Myhill and Harris (1986: 26)
defined a narrative clause "as one referring to a single past action which would conceivably
be rendered as a historic present in Standard English". On the basis of these interviews, they
found that 50% of all narrative clauses were marked with verbal s inflection, while only 4%
of nonnarrative clauses were.
Table 5: Percentage of use of /s/ (all five speakers)
Source: Myhill and Harris (1986: 27)
As can be seen in Table 5, in particular third person singular was marked. This goes against
the assumption that it might have been taken and retained from older varieties of English that
also used s inflection to mark the historic present. Yet, in the case of early white English it
was most iconic in the expression "I says". Since the AAVE speakers interviewed rarely
marked the verb say or the first person, it is unlikely to be a vestigial of older Standard
English (Myhill and Harris 1986: 30).
Another observation that speaks against the notion that this characteristic has been retained
from older varieties of English is the asymmetrical marking of conjoined verbs. The first verb
is inflected, while the following ones in the series are not, as can be seen for example in the
utterance: "An when I like was steppin' off, this guy RUNS behin' me, this white guy RUNS
behin' me an' BEND down, SAY: "Hold it!" (Myhill and Harris 1986: 28). This observation
was made in a number of verb series and would not only show that the occurrence of -s
inflection of the historic present is actually higher than the percentages of Table 4 indicate,
but that the systematic marking pattern falls outside of Standard English grammar rules.
Therefore, Myhill and Harris (1986: 30) conclude instead that "this function is an innovation
in BEV [Black English Vernacular] made possible by the presence of a marker which, to
speakers of this dialect, is clearly a verbal inflection but which has no clear function." Labov
(1987: 9) notes further that since this feature is neither found in the speech of people over 40,
nor was it recorded in his New York field study during the 1960s, that it must be a recent
innovation that marks divergence.
In sum, AAVE does not have general subject-verb agreement, however, verbal s inflection in
AAVE serves primarily two functions: the sociolinguistic function of formality on the one
hand, and the grammatical function of marking the historic present on the other. The first is
used in particular by speakers who are in close contact with speakers of the standard variety.
The latter, however, was noted amongst speakers with limited or varying degrees of inter-
ethnic contact. It did not serve any sociolinguistic function of accommodating one's speech to
the standard, but rather it showed that verbal s was used to mark narrative clauses and
therefore presents a unique innovation in contemporary, deep AAVE.
Another structural change that speaks in favor of the divergence hypothesis affected the past
tense marking system of AAVE. Past perfect took over functions previously assigned to
Cukor-Avila (2001) conducted an 11 year-long field study, documenting and analyzing the
speech of residents in Springville, a small rural community in Texas. The residents
interviewed were born between 1894 and 1995, due to which an extensive analysis of
language change and the relationships between SWV and AAVE in this rural community was
possible. On the basis of this study, she found that SWV and AAVE were more similar in the
past than they are today. She concludes:
Of the 32 grammatical features [examined in this study], 26, or 81%,
are features that have been shared, at one time or another by both
AAVE and SWVE speakers in Springville. [...] Only six of the features
studied are unique to AAVE, at least two of which have emerged
within the past 50 years. This suggests that in the recent past (mid
nineteenth/early twentieth century), the grammars of AAVE and
SWVE were much more similar than they were different and that it is
only over the last few decades that change has caused an independent
development in the grammar of AAVE
Cukor-Avila (2001: 113)
Especially older varieties of AAVE and SWV share many structural features that are no
longer used in contemporary speech, including but not limited to the verb series for to, non-
habitual invariant be and a + verb + -ing. This is not surprising, as during the nineteenth
century farm tenancy and sharecropping led to close contact between blacks and whites in the
rural South, resulting in structural similarities between SWV and AAVE. Nevertheless,
starting with the Great Migration and increasing racial residential segregation the two
varieties started diverging from each other, also in the South. On the one hand, some features
that occur in old SWV have only been retained by AAVE, like singular copula absence and
zero third person singular s. On the other hand, new innovations in the speech of African
Americans are recent developments that have emerged primarily within the last century.
One of these recent innovations is the grammatical reinterpretation of had + past participle to
mean simple past. In Standard English had + past participle signals past perfect, i.e.
something precedes the aforementioned past event. Cukor-Avila (2001: 112), however, noted
the occurrence of this construction in discourse contexts that would normally presuppose
simple past, like single past events, listings and narrative evaluation. She takes her data in
particular from the interview with an African American female speaker who did not use this
feature as a child. However, as a teenager, her social networks changed and consequently
started identifying more with urban culture. As a result, she also began assimilating to the
urban vernacular, which explains the increase of innovative past marking in her speech
(Cukor-Avila 2001: 112 f.). It might be assumed that incorporating urban variants might just
be a fad amongst adolescents that adults will drop over time. However, with respect to this
new use of had + past, the assimilation to the urban variant did not disappear once speakers
had matured. As this feature stabilized over time and did not diminish with age, Cukor Avila
(2001: 111) argues that this new past marking system is a stable innovation in AAVE as
opposed to a temporary age-graded phenomenon.
40% of all events of innovative had + past participle recorded in the more recent interview
occurred in the context of a single event (Cukor-Avila 2001: 113). One example for this
unique verb construction is: I had wanted that shrimp fried rice they be havin'. As single past
events are unambiguously marked with simple past in Standard English, the high occurrence
of this new past marker in this context further emphasizes the notion that the underlying
structures of the past marking system in AAVE have undergone a fundamental change.
The divergence hypothesis resulted from mainly two independently conducted studies: (1) the
study by Labov and Harris (1986) concerning the vowel shift in Philadelphia, which has
already been discussed and (2) the study of Bailey and Maynor (1989) that observed a change
in AAVE's tense-aspect system.
Invariant be, meaning a non-conjugated form of the verb to be, occurs in the speech of all
AAVE speakers, ranging from early slave recordings up to contemporary time. However, a
change in frequency, and more importantly in grammatical function has been noted. In a
previous study, Bailey and Maynor (1985: 204) concluded that although there is some
evidence that point towards a habitual or iterative semantical core, "that evidence does not
prove, however, that be
[invariant be] contrasts systematically with other forms". After
analyzing younger speakers, however, they found that not only do they use invariant be more
often, compared to older speakers, but that they have also grammatically reinterpreted
invariant be to indicate a durative and habitual action. This new form has, therefore, been
coined "habitual be".
Bailey and Maynor (1989) interviewed and analyzed the speech of lower-class African
Americans in Texas from three different age groups: (1) teens and preteens (2) adults and (3)
former slaves. They found that the older speakers used invariant be only occasionally as a
variant of both auxiliary and copula be and before predicates, yet never before gonna (Bailey
& Maynor 1989: 13). For children and teens, however, they noted a strong preference of
invariant be in one particular grammatical context, namely before V + -ing. This indicates that
a deeper underlying structural change has occurred, that affects the semantic function of the
form. Upon further analysis, Bailey and Maynor (1989: 16) found that urban children marked
habitual phrases with invariant be 77% of the time. Older speakers preferred the zero copula
in this environment and used invariant be in only 6% of all habitual phrases.
They also found that this change started in urban environments, which goes hand in hand with
one of the divergence hypothesis' main claims, namely that linguistic divergence is a result of
de facto segregation in metropolitan areas. There seems to be a rural/urban dichotomy, in
which rural children slowly started making use of this new aspectual form, yet still not as
much as the urban children did (Bailey and Maynor 1989). Even amongst friends, they found
that the speaker from an urban area would make extensive use of habitual be, while her rural
friend preferred the conservative forms in the same environments, like zero copula or the
conjugated form (Bailey and Maynor 1989: 29). However, habitual be has been taken on by
African Americans in rural areas as well, where it is found quite commonly today.
This phenomenon in which linguistic innovations emerge in cities and spread towards rural
areas, where local variants are dropped in favor of the nation-wide variant, has been observed
in a number of cases. Another such structural change in the aspect system that had its start in
the city from where it then spread is quotative be like. Cukor-Avila (2002) observed that after
be like had established itself as the preferred quotation marker for adolescents and young
adults in Philadelphia, this verb series made its way to rural areas, where it is being adopted
by younger generations, as well. Older generations rarely use this variable though. In general,
the quotation system in Springville shows divergent tendencies of both black and white
vernaculars. Older white Texans did not make use of quotative go, i.e. An' I'm goin', "God! I
hope they [...]", while younger white speakers did so frequently (Cukor-Avila 2002: 8 f.).
Quotative go, however, was not recorded in the speech of African Americans in Springfield,
Texas, at all, regardless of age. Rather, younger generations of African Americans are taking
on the urban variant be like to mark direct speech, i.e. I was like, "What's your name?"
(Cukor-Avila 2002: 7). Wolfram and Schilling (2016: 380) confirm the rapid distribution of
quotative be like in AAVE, where it is rapidly replacing other possibilities to introduce a
quote like say. It can even be used to render thoughts or imagined quotes, as opposed to literal
quotes. This therefore shows that it has been a highly productive innovation that took over.
Another aspectual change that occurred in AAVE during the 80's was the grammatical
reinterpretation of be done. Formerly, be done in AAVE was used to mark future perfect and
substitute will have, as it is used in Standard English and other dialects. However, Baugh
overheard a conversation on the streets of Los Angeles, where an African American man said:
I'll be done killed that motherfucker if he tries [...] (Baugh 1983 as quoted in: Labov
2010:17). In this context, be done obviously does not refer to future perfect, as it would not
make sense. Rather it is meant as a direct consequence of the second action. Consequently,
this new resultative be done functions as a marker of mood, which indicates the high degree
of certainty that one action will result due to another (Labov 2010: 17).
Stressed stay is another new aspectual marker that recently emerged in the speech of African
Americans in New York and throughout the Northeast Coast (Spears 1999). Unstressed stay is
used as an auxiliary by older generations as well, although it follows a different function. One
example for this is: You gone stay hit from him? (Spears 1999: 14). This phrase can be
roughly translated to "Are you going to allow him to hit you and get away with it?". As can
be seen, its meaning and function are quite difficult to render, which is why Spears (1999: 14)
simply called it the "save-face" stay. Amongst younger generations, however a new auxiliary
version of stressed stay has been noted that functions as a frequentative, iterative habitual
aspect marker. The utterances He STAY flossing ("He's always dressed very well") and She
STAY pregnant. ("She is frequently pregnant") are just two examples of this new aspect
These findings in the aspect system are important for a number of reasons. First of all, they
indicate that urbanization indeed gave rise to linguistic innovations that are unique to AAVE,
as they originated in black urban vernaculars and do not occur in white speech. Consequently,
black and white vernaculars are diverging from each other. Secondly, the changes recorded by
Bailey and Maynor (1989) show divergent tendencies on a more deep-seated, structural level
compared to Labov and Harris' (1986) findings. This gave rise to more research that showed
further innovation in AAVE's unique aspect system (Cukor-Avila 2002; Spears 1999; Labov
2010). A change in the aspectual system shows that not merely the phonology and lexicon of
the two vernaculars are becoming more different from each other but their underlying
grammar systems, as well. As a number of studies have shown, AAVE structures affect the
performance of low-income African American children, in particular with regard to reading
and writing (Patton-Terry & Connor 2010; Green 2002). Therefore, these structural
divergences might further widen the gap between the language used at school and the
language used at home, which could possibly lead to further social disenfranchisement. This
divergent tendency shows on the one hand the current unequal social situation and on the
other possible future social consequences.
Because of these grave social implications and accusations that Labov and Harris' (1986)
initial hypothesis imply, it sparked a lot of media attention and criticism from fellow linguists.
Some have criticized the divergence hypothesis, due to lack of evidence or flawed
methodology, while others even took it a step further, arguing in favor of the convergence
hypothesis, as a result of evidence that show the exact opposite direction.
One of these critics is Vaughn-Cooke (1987), who stated that Labov and Harris' (1986) as
well as Bailey and Maynor's findings (1989) were not fit for diachronic language analysis as
they missed the variable time depth. She states that in the case of Labov and Harris (1986), it
is a noteworthy synchronic language description, yet it does not adequately describe language
change as the age of the black informants is not taken into consideration and it does not
compare two different points in time. The findings of Labov and Harris (1986), however, are
based on the findings of Labov's (2014) previous study, in which he described phonological
changes in white vernaculars. This study extended from 1973 to 1977 and took the age of the
participants into consideration. It focused on the speech of white speakers because it
described language change occurring in white vernaculars, not in AAVE. Since the variables
analyzed did not occur in the speech of any African American noted, regardless of age, gender
and social class, one can say that Vaughn-Cooke's (1987) argument does not hold, since the
result is that they simply did not participate. One does not need to go back in time to analyze a
change that obviously did not occur.
With regards to Bailey and Maynor's (1989) study, both Vaughn-Cooke (1987) and Wolfram
(1987) argue that habitual be is an age-grading phenomenon rather than a linguistic
innovation. Vaughn-Cooke (1987) bases her critique on other studies that also found invariant
be to occur more frequently in the speech of younger generations but that drew different
conclusions. Three of these studies concluded that invariant be is an age-grading phenomenon
that solely occurs in the speech of adolescents and therefore does not suggest linguistic
divergence. "Bailey and Maynor's results cannot be used as evidence for the divergence
hypothesis until the age-grading issue is resolved" (Vaughn Cooke 1987: 20). Bailey and
Maynor (1989) responded to this claim directly. Since invariant be in the speech of (pre)teens
and children does not merely differ in frequency but follows a new set of grammatical and
semantic constraints, compared to older generations, it is unlikely that this is an age-grading
phenomenon, but rather an extension of the already elaborate aspect system of AAVE (Bailey
& Maynor 1989: 18).
Black adults do use invariant be, they just do not use it in the same
way that children do. For adults, it is simply an occasional variant of
both copula and auxiliary be; for children it is used primarily as an
auxiliary to signal durative/habitual action. It seems unlikely that age-
grading would result in the adult loss of a grammatical distinction
without the loss of the form which signaled the distinction
(Bailey & Maynor 1989: 18 f.)
They stress that their findings refer mainly to its grammatical function as opposed to mere
number of tokens. This argument also answers Wolfram's (1987: 44) doubts regarding Bailey
and Maynor's elicitation techniques, claiming that the questions asked about childhood games
and activities would generate present habitual responses in children, while adults would
answer in the past tense. This of course would distort the number of invariant be tokens and
the overall results. Bailey and Maynor (1989: 18) defended their data by stating that first of
all, adults did have ample opportunity to use the form, since a variety of questions were asked,
and secondly, more importantly, that their argument does not build on the frequency of
occurrence of invariant be but on its grammatical interpretation. Therefore, the number of
tokens elicited is secondary compared to their grammatical usage.
Wolfram (1987), furthermore, questions, whether or not the observations made by Myhill and
Harris (1986) regarding narrative s inflection are really a sign for divergence. He argues that
it is not a recent development but rather a recent discovery, made possible through more
advanced field procedures (Wolfram 1987: 43). Myhill and Harris (1986: 30) did not rule out
this possibility themselves, stating:
[I]t is possible that this usage is quite widespread, having gone
unobserved by linguists because in the social situation created by
most linguistic interviews, the /s/ inflection is likely to be used by the
interviewee as a consequence of the interviewer clearly being of a
different social class, thereby producing many linguistically
unsystematic tokens of this inflection. The social function of /s/ in this
situation obscures its linguistic function.
Labov (1987: 9), however, argues against this stance as "it is found uniformly among younger
core speakers of BEV, but not for anyone over forty, though they may show extreme
vernacular patterns in other respects. Furthermore, there is no trace of it among the blacks
studied in New York City in the 1960s, at any age". As was described before, one cannot rule
out the possibility of increased narrative s inflection documented due to improved field
methods, but the fact that it had never been recorded previously, hints towards divergence.
Surely, this feature would have occurred in studies where other deep vernacular variables
were recorded as well.
More compelling arguments against the divergence hypothesis can be found in research that
displays converging tendencies found in AAVE. Vaughn Cooke (1987: 22), for instance,
found that when comparing three different generations of speakers, younger generations
would increasingly pronounce unstressed initial syllables, in words like afraid, instead of
saying `fraid, or `lectric instead of electric. This resyllabification process was interpreted as a
sign for decreolization. A slight direction towards rhoticity was also noted by Bailey and
Thomas (1998) as was noted before, however, by far not too the same degree as in white
speakers. These converging tendencies however do not speak against the divergence
hypothesis per se, but they do show an overall more complex picture. Therefore, when
considering the relationships between AAVE and white vernaculars, different dimensions
must be taken into consideration. Regional, economic, historic, prosodic, but the probably
single most important factor in this analysis remains to be the degree of contact that whites
and blacks share. Therefore, structural developments that occur in contemporary inter-ethnic
contact situations will be analyzed finally.
4.2 Inter-Ethnic Contact Situations
Even in highly segregated cities like Detroit, contact situations between African Americans
and white Americans give way to linguistic change. African Americans are, however, more
likely to adapt to white vernaculars, even in the case of stigmatized varieties, than vice versa.
This tendency was, for example, noted in Detroit, where AAVE shows signs of language
contact with Appalachian Americans. Appalachian Americans are the only white community
to be found in Detroit, as the majority of white Detroiters lives in suburbs outside the city.
The monophtongization of /ai/ to /a:/ is common in both AAVE, as well as, SWV, however, it
generally does not occur before a voiceless obstruent. Most SWV and AAVE only reduce the
glide before a voiced consonant, like tide, but retain it in front of a voiceless consonant, like
tight (Bailey & Thomas 1998). In Texas and Appalachia, however, some regional varieties
have shown to reduce /ai/ in front of a voiceless consonant as well. Typically, this feature
bears a strong racial connotation. "In fact, in the South, raht and whaht are thought of as
Anglo American pronunciations while tahm and tahd are simply considered Southern"
(Wolfram& Schilling-Estes 1998: 180).
It is therefore particularly interesting that this "white, Southern" feature was noted in Detroit,
amongst African Americans, in particular amongst younger generations (Anderson 2002). As
many whites from the working-class South headed North and settled in the inner-city and the
already established white residents of Detroit are increasingly moving to the suburbs,
Southerners share more contact with blacks than Northerners do. Furthermore, many African
Americans interviewed even described their dialect and Detroit culture as "Southern",
indicating a shared identity between the two social groups (Anderson 2002: 89). It comes,
therefore, as no surprise that language contact would result in phonological assimilation. It is
not clear though, whether or not the monophtongization of /ai/ before voiceless obstruents is a
result of socially neutral simplification or of levelling, which eliminates stigmatized variants
(Anderson 2002: 95). What is clear, though, is that although this development converges to
SWV, it diverges from NWV, and consequently, from the standard. "The overall effect is that
Detroit AAE [African American English] aligns with a Southern vowel system for the /ai/
vowel variable, including that of the Detroit Southern White community, while indexing an
opposition with Northern Whites" (Anderson 2002: 95). This shows two important factors
when considering the relationship between AAVE and white vernaculars in contact situations.
First, African Americans are more prone to incorporate features from whites than vice versa.
Secondly, the level of intimacy and social equality between the two groups is essential to the
Ash and Myhill (1986) conducted a study, which exemplified the direction of linguistic
change in contact situations and how this contributes to overall divergence. They compared
the occurrence of ten AAVE-marked variants to the speaker's level of inter-ethnic contact.
Phonological (e.g. monophtongization of /ai/), grammatical (e.g. zero copula) as well as
lexical (e.g. dude/guy) features of AAVE were used. The findings of the study are
summarized in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Average Percent of AAVE variants used
Source: adapted from Ash and Myhill (1986: 39)
Looking at the data visualized in Figure 1, there are a number of observations to be made.
First of all, it is shown that both African Americans as well as whites incorporate features of
the opposite vernacular. However, this assimilation process is highly asymmetrical and
typological. African Americans are far more likely to assimilate to whites than vice versa.
This holds especially true for grammatical features, as the two examples show in Figure 1, the
absence of the copula and possessive s. While whites who share close contact with African
Americans do show a tendency to incorporate lexical items and some phonological features in
their speech, they generally do not assimilate to AAVE grammar. Due to this discrepancy and
the overall shift towards the standard, another striking observation can be made, which is
visualized in Figure 1. Not only is there a wide gap between the speech of whites and blacks
with limited inter-ethnic contact, but also between blacks with limited contact and the rest,
including African Americans who have a lot of contact with whites (Ash & Myhill 1986: 40).
Blacks with limited inter-ethnic contact are therefore the most excluded group.
Consequently, Ash and Myhill (1986) showed that linguistic divergence is closely connected
to peer contact. Racial segregation not only entails linguistic divergence between the two
opposing ends, of those with the least contact to each other, but also within the group. They
/a:/ for /ai/ a for an zero copula deletion of
Blacks with limited inter
Blacks with considerable
Whites with considerable
Whites with limited inter
We have found that blacks who move in white circles show a major
shift in their grammar in the direction of the white norm and a lesser
shift in their phonology and lexicon. This suggests that the factors of
central importance to this problem involve prestige and the need or
desire of speakers to maintain solidarity with the black community at
the same time that they command the political power to deal
effectively with the white community.
(Ash & Myhill 1986: 41)
Nevertheless, these studies showed the important role and impact of social networks when
analyzing the relationship between black and white speech. Similarly, Edwards' (1992) study
of AAVE spoken in a 95% black inner-city neighborhood of Detroit showed how much social
affiliation and isolation play a role in linguistic development and vernacular use, as well.
Social isolation turned out to be the most decisive factor in the speaker's use of the vernacular
compared to all other sociolinguistic factors, as for example gender.
As a general linguistic principle Labov (2001: 266) states: "For stable sociolinguistic
variables, women show a lower rate of stigmatized variants and a higher rate of prestige
variants than men." Generally, this holds true for AAVE as a stigmatized variety as well.
Rickford et al. (2015: 11819), for example, recorded that even amongst children boys used
more vernacular variants compared to their female peers.
Edwards (1992: 104), however, found that, contrary to his expectations, women were overall
more prone to use AAVE variants than men. Yet, this was only true for a certain age group.
Black men over 60 used the AAVE variants, in particular the vocalization of postvocalic r
and the monophtongization of /ai/, in words like crime [cra:m] (105). This shows that in
particular the last two variables are sex-graded and connected to masculinity. However, the
reason why young, single mothers used so many vernacular variants is due to their restricted
social mobility. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to find work outside of their
neighborhood and therefore come into contact with Standard English speakers (105). It can
therefore be said that the less social mobility a person enjoys, the more vernacular is used.
This observation goes hand in hand not only for Edwards' (1992) finding with respect to
gender, but also to age. Speakers over 60 were far more likely to use AAVE variables than
younger speakers were, leading to the assumption that this is either an age grading
phenomenon or that AAVE is in fact converging to Standard English. However, neither is the
case. Neither older speakers who showed a tendency towards Standard English nor younger
speakers who used more AAVE were criticized for their speech (Edwards 1992: 104).
Furthermore, while older generations were most likely to make use of the vernacular, the 26
to 39 year-olds consistently used more Standard English variants than the 18 to 25 year-olds
did (104). This antilinear development clearly speaks against an age-grading phenomenon.
Edwards (1992) therefore links this observation once again to the group's social mobility and
its contact to other speakers. While the youngest group were more likely to be at home and
therefore stand in closer contact with their parents and grandparents, the 26 to 39 year-olds
were most likely to have found jobs outside of the neighborhood and therefore expanded their
social network. Therefore, his findings do not stand in opposition to Labov's (1986)
assumption that AAVE is diverging from white vernaculars due to racial segregation,
however, they do show a broader, more complex picture.
In view of the strong association of [ay] monophtongization, [r]
deletion, and zero copula with the typical speech of blacks in lower
socioeconomic groups in northern cities, it is not surprising that these
speech behaviors are significantly correlated with local affiliations,
racial isolation, and sociocultural orientation. [...] [R]espondents in
this sample who rated themselves as being firmly rooted in the
neighborhood in terms of their regular social transactions and as
being comfortable with the neighborhood ethos are more likely to
choose vernacular variants of linguistic variables than those
respondents who lack these characteristics.
(Edwards 1992: 110)
On the one hand, he shows the racial connotation that certain linguistic features have, in
particular in the North, where white speakers do not share these features. As a result, he also
showed that people who are firmly rooted and strongly identify with this part of their identity
express this linguistically. However, he also showed that AAVE in itself is more
heterogeneous as the use differs both with regard to sex as with regard to age. Yet, this
divergent tendency lessens with stronger exposure to other vernaculars and Standard English.
Edwards' (1992) observation is a crucial one to understanding the relationships between
AAVE and white vernaculars. Not only do they differ regarding time and location, but also
with respect to age and gender. Nevertheless, the single most crucial factor in influencing how
these vernaculars behave towards each other remains to be peer contact across ethnic lines.
Rickford et al. (2015) analyzed the neighborhood effects on the use of AAVE in the speech of
low-income non-Hispanic African American children and teens. A large-scale mobility
project called MTO (Moving to Opportunity) gave a random group of minority families who
lived in project housing the possibility to move to a low-poverty census tract. The team of
linguists conducted interviews with non-Hispanic African American children and youth at the
onset of the program between 1994 and 1998. They then conducted another interview with the
same people 15 years later and analyzed how their use of AAVE changed. In comparison with
a control group, who did not move and did not change their use of AAVE, the MTO group
had dropped their use of AAVE variables by 3 percentage points (Rickford et al. 2015:
11820). Children whose parents stated that one of their main reasons to enroll in the program
is to flee "street culture" showed the highest rate of decline, namely 5.2 percentage points
This study first of all shows that neighborhood effects do change the use of AAVE and that
extended contact with Standard English would diminish the use of the vernacular. However,
the effect is linked to the family's and peers' identity. It is first of all interesting to note, that
nearly half of the families eligible to move to a low-income neighborhood in the MTO
project, chose not to do so. Second of all, even though the children did assimilate to Standard
English, the effect is surprisingly small. Considering that the parent's ideology and
educational background played a large role in the MTO effect, as well, it goes on to show that
AAVE continues to have low overt but high covert prestige. Since there is a need for strong
racial solidarity amongst African Americans, due to sociohistorical and socioeconomic
factors, convergence to Standard English seems to take on slowly. Instead of giving up one's
vernacular, code-switching and a proficient demand of both vernaculars seems to be the
preferred option of many African Americans (Rickford et al. 2015). "It's very clear that adults
in the black community have a wider range of styles in which they can present themselves to
the outside world than do children aged six, seven, eight, nine, or ten" (Rickford 1987: 56).
Since the workplace requires a certain jargon as well as presentation, normally one that leans
toward white norms, it is clear why African Americans would choose to incorporate and learn
linguistic features found in surrounding white vernaculars. However, due to racial solidarity
and personal identity, AAVE is rarely, if ever, abandoned completely, once learned. This
bidialectal approach has also been adopted by schools, when teaching reading and writing to
African American students (Green 2002: 229).
In sum, contact situations between white and black communities give rise to linguistic
assimilation processes, reversing the effects of linguistic divergence. However, if only part of
the community stands in close contact with other ethnicities while the majority of the
community remains socially isolated, the effects of linguistic divergence are increased not
only between communities, but also within, excluding the marginalized even further. This is
because linguistic assimilation disfavors stigmatized variants and shows a general shift
towards white vernaculars with AAVE features being adopted by white speakers only
occasionally. Lexical AAVE items are also far more likely to be incorporated into white
vernaculars compared to grammatical features. When AAVE speakers are intensively exposed
to the standard, as was the case with MTO project, it has been shown that speakers do use
standard variants more than before. However, the effect is not particularly strong and speakers
do not lose their competency of AAVE. Rather, the preferred alternative for AAVE speakers
is to have a command of both varieties and code-switch according to the specific situation. It
is therefore unlikely that AAVE will be lost anytime soon as a variety, although it remains
5 Summary and Conclusion
As a conclusion, it should be evident why this paper uses the plural to refer to the
relationships between AAVE and white vernaculars. Not only do they differ by time, but also
by region, social status and identity, resulting in various dynamics and ways of how two or
more varieties interact across racial lines.
This paper also showed that, although the origins of AAVE are disputed amongst linguists
and there is no consensus due to the lack of reliable data, it is unlikely that modern AAVE
stems from a fully-fledged antecedent creole. While the socioeconomic conditions in the
Caribbean and coastal South Carolina facilitated the formation of creoles, the social setup in
the rest of the US did not. Hence, during the era of slavery, English spoken by whites
dominated the speech of blacks, resulting in a grammatical core that is essentially English.
This becomes evident, for instance, in the negation and the plural marking pattern, which
show structural similarity to neither West African languages nor any English-based creole but
rather point towards older English varieties. However, this does not imply that there are no
traces of substratum influence to be found. The semantic constraints on the zero copula show,
for instance, similarities to Yoruba. However, blacks were largely outnumbered by whites in
most of the US, which did not allow for the formation of a fully developed creole. This is not
to say, however, that blacks did not influence the speech of whites at all during the era of
slavery. Non-rhoticity is an example of how African house servants had an impact on the
speech of white children, which in turn spread throughout the South.
This is one of the examples, of how this paper showed that the main determining factor for
linguistic con- or divergence is the degree of inter-ethnic contact and social mobility. After
the Civil War, slavery was replaced with farm tenancy, typically in the form of sharecropping.
This new arrangement made way for increased contact between blacks and whites on a more
socially equal basis than before. Consequently, the two vernaculars started converging and a
number of features emerged that AAVE and SWV share up to this day. Other features have
only been retained by AAVE, which nowadays only appear in old-fashioned SWV. However,
this shows that the two vernaculars had been previously more similar than they are today.
Linguistic divergence between AAVE and white vernaculars started after World War I and
the Great Migration. Jim Crow Laws, lynching, economic disenfranchisement and other forms
of racist discrimination created a hostile living environment for African Americans in the
South. After the new immigration policy following World War I, northern corporations
started hiring African Americans to replace cheap labor demands that had formerly been met
by southern and eastern Europeans. Consequently, the Great Migration, one of the biggest
demographic changes in the US occurred. Heaps of African Americans emigrated to the
North, where they settled in impoverished inner-cities. The white population, on the other,
hand fled to the suburbs. As a result, this newly formed residential racial segregation created
an environment for linguistic divergence.
Due to the lack of contact with other ethnicities, AAVE speakers show linguistic innovations
unique to African Americans. The verbal s was reinterpreted to mark the historic present,
while the past perfect adopted simple past functions. Most noteworthy though are the changes
in the aspect system of AAVE. Habitual be arose in the 1980's and has firmly established
itself as a feature to emphasize the habitualness or duration of an action in a way that Standard
English cannot. The unique aspect system of AAVE has been further expanded through
quotative be like, stressed stay and a number of other innovations. Not only do these features
not occur in the speech of white Americans, but they are also difficult to translate into
Standard English. Therefore, these developments show linguistic divergence between white
and black vernaculars on a deep seated grammatical level.
White vernaculars have shown to go their own way as well, emphasizing regional variation.
However, African Americans do not participate in these regional shifts, if the linguistic
features in question are racially connotative. This becomes evident both in the vowel shift in
northern cities as well as the movement towards rhoticity in the South. In both cases, the
changing variants are closely linked to racial identity and therefore do not affect AAVE.
However, if a racially neutral variable changes, African Americans of the region do
participate, as, for instance, was the case in the Southern vowel shift. Linguistically speaking,
African Americans prioritize their racial over their local identity.
However, the main cause for linguistic divergence remains to be racial segregation. In inter-
ethnic contact situations, two general observations can be made. First, African Americans are
far more likely to assimilate to whites than vice versa, leaving African Americans with little
inter-ethnic contact excluded. Secondly, as the MTO project showed, the neighborhood
affects the degree to which a speaker uses AAVE. However, most AAVE speakers in similar
situations do not abandon their vernacular but rather use code switching to abide to the
In conclusion, AAVE stands in a complex relationship to Standard English, converging in
some and diverging in other respects. Racial identity and segregation are the two main factors
that decide the course. After the divergence hypothesis sparked so much controversy, most
research concerning this question was done during the eighties/early nineties, a time in which
de facto segregation was very prominent. As new census data shows, residential areas are
becoming more diverse, therefore more research would be needed to assess the linguistic
effects of this development. Furthermore, this paper only analyzed the relationships between
black and white vernaculars. In particular Hispanics live in close contact with African
Americans. It would therefore be interesting to analyze the influence of Latino English on
AAVE and vice versa. Anyhow, AAVE will remain a highly unique variety that stands in
ever-changing relationships to its neighboring varieties and will therefore keep attracting the
interest of linguists.
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7 Deutsche Zusammenfassung
Diese Arbeit zeigt die Verhältnisse und die strukturelle Entwicklung zwischen
Afroamerikanischem Englisch (AE) und den benachbarten weißen Dialekten auf. Es ist von
Verhältnissen im Plural die Rede, da ihr Bezug zueinander sowohl von Ort, Zeit als auch
sozioökonomischen Faktoren abhängt und variiert. Die Fragestellung bezüglich der
gegenseitigen Beeinflussung dieser Mundarten ist insofern von Bedeutung, da Studien gezeigt
haben, dass afroamerikanische Schulkinder schlechter im Lesen und im Schreiben
abschneiden und dies z. T. auf negative Interferenzen aus dem AE zurückzuführen sind
(Patton-Terry & Connor 2010). Daher untersucht diese Arbeit zuerst, ob die grammatische
Basis von AE englischer oder afrikanischer Natur ist und ob es sich im Laufe der Zeit dem
Standard als auch benachbarter Dialekte angenähert oder strukturell entfernt hat.
Um dies genauer zu betrachten, werden zuerst die Ursprünge des AE analysiert, da diese auf
keinen wissenschaftlichen Konsens treffen. Auf der einen Seite befinden sich die
Kreolist*innen, die behaupten, AE entstamme einer vorangehenden Kreolsprache und
unterliege seitdem ständiger Dekreolisierung. Diese Vorgängerkreolsprache sei karibischen
Kreolsprachen und Gullah, die einzige Englisch-basierte Kreolsprache, welche auf US-
amerikanischem Festland gesprochen wird, ähnlich, da sie eine ähnliche Geschichte
aufweisen. Demnach nähere sich AE den benachbarten weißen Mundarten immer mehr an,
der grammatische Kern entstamme jedoch afrikanischer Substratsprachen (Rickford 1998).
Auf der anderen Seite der Ursprungsdebatte befinden sich die Anglist*innen, die meinen die
sozioökonomischen Zustände hätten die Ausbildung einer Kreolsprache nicht zugelassen, da
abgesehen von den Gebieten, in denen Gullah gesprochen wird, die schwarze Bevölkerung
stets in der Minderheit lag. Daher erwarben die versklavten Afrikaner Englisch von Weißen
und versuchten somit sich deren Mundart bestmöglich anzunähern (Mufwene 2000). Die
strukturellen Unterschiede weisen somit nicht auf Kreolisierung sondern auf den Prozess des
Fremdsprachenerwerbs oder auf linguistische Innovationen, die relativ zeitnah eingesetzt
haben, hin. Nachdem beide Seiten näher beleuchtet wurden, belegen sowohl die
soziohistorischen Faktoren als auch die grammatischen Strukturen einen Grammatikkern mit
englischen Wurzeln. Insbesondere die Negations- als auch die Pluralbildung zeigen
Strukturen auf, die zwar in englischen Varietäten jedoch weder in Gullah noch karibischen
Kreolsprachen vorkommen (Howe & Walker 2000; Poplack et al. 2000). Somit unterstützen
die grammatischen Strukturen die Position der Anglist*innen. Auch wenn das Englische als
grammatische Basis dient, soll dies nicht bedeuten, dass der Einfluss von Substratsprachen
ausgeschlossen sei. Insbesondere die Abwesenheit des Kopulaverbs zeigt Einflüsse von
Yoruba und machte einen ähnlichen Dekreolisierungsprozess wie Gullah durch (Rickford
1998). Sogar einige Merkmale von Südstaatenenglisch weisen auf afrikanischen Ursprung
zurück. Ein Beispiel hierfür ist die charakteristische nicht-rhotische Aussprache, die sich mit
der Ausweitung der Plantagenlandschaft im Süden der USA verbreitet hat (Feagin 1997).
Nichtsdestotrotz aufgrund der demographischen und sozioökonomischen Umstände,
dominierten in der Zeit der Sklaverei die Mundarten der Weißen.
Nach Abschaffung der Sklaverei näherten sich beide Mundarten aufgrund vermehrten
Kontakts zwischen Schwarzen und Weißen einander an. Das System der Sklaverei wurde
durch Pachtverhältnisse abgelöst. Zuerst waren die meisten Pächter Afroamerikaner*innen
jedoch pachteten ebenfalls nach und nach mehr Weiße Land. Zudem arbeiteten weiße und
schwarze Leiharbeiter*innen zusammen auf neuen Großplantagen und traten somit vermehrt
in Kontakt zueinander (Bailey 2001). Dies hatte zur Folge, dass sich ihre Dialekte annäherten
und viele Merkmale, die charakteristisch sowohl für Südstaatenenglisch als auch für AE sind,
in dieser Zeit entstanden. Einige zeitgenössische Beispiele hierfür sind die Verschmelzung
von // und // vor Nasallauten oder die Reduzierung des Gleitlauts /ai/ zu /a:/ vor stimmhaften
Obstruenten (Cukor-Avila 2001). Andere Merkmale kommen heutzutage nur in AE und
altmodischem weißen Südstaatenenglisch vor, welches darauf hindeutet, dass diese zwei
Mundarten sich früher mehr ähnelten als sie es heute tun.
Dieser linguistische Assimilationsprozess kehrte sich gegen Ende des 19. und Anfang des 20.
Jahrhunderts um. Linguistische Divergenz war die Konsequenz verstärkter Rassentrennung,
die vor allem Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts mit den Jim Crow Gesetzen in Kraft trat. Rassistische
Diskriminierung auf der einen Seite und neue wirtschaftliche Möglichkeiten auf der anderen
veranlasste viele Afroamerikaner dazu den Süden zu verlassen und sich in nördlichen Städten
niederzulassen (Tolnay 2003). Diese Migrationswelle, die Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts
begann, ihren Höhepunkt nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg erlebte und in den Siebzigern zu Ende
war, hatte einen der stärksten demographischen Wandel in der Geschichte der USA bewirkt.
Im Jahre 1970 lebten 47% der afroamerikanischen Bevölkerung außerhalb des Südens und
77% in Städten (Bailey 2001). Während die schwarze Bevölkerung in sozialbenachteiligten
Stadtvierteln unterkam, zog die weiße Bevölkerung zur selben Zeit an den Stadtrand und
gründeten Vororte (Tolnay 2003). Diese neue de facto Rassentrennung begrenzte den Kontakt
zwischen schwarz und weiß und folglich begannen die Mundarten sich voneinander
strukturell zu verändern.
Diese Divergenzhypothese, die hauptsächlich von Labov und Harris (1986) entfacht wurde,
löste eine große Kontroverse aus und wurde sowohl von Linguist*innen als auch von den
Medien aufgegriffen und diskutiert, da diese weitreichende linguistische als auch soziale
Konsequenzen implizierte. Diese Hypothese besagt, dass sich sowohl AE als auch weiße
Mundarten in unterschiedliche Richtungen entwickeln aufgrund begrenzten interethnischen
Kontakts, die aus rassengetrennter Urbanisierung hervorgeht. Dieser Standpunkt impliziert
hiermit, dass sich AE und benachbarte weiße Dialekte einst ähnlicher waren als sie heute sind,
allerdings bedeutet dies weder, dass heute mehr Afroamerikaner*innen AE sprechen, noch
dass früher die soziopolitische Lage für die afroamerikanische Bevölkerung besser gewesen
sei (Bailey und Maynor 1989).
Weiße Mundarten sowohl im Norden als auch im Süden der USA machten hauptsächlich
phonologische Veränderungen durch. Gerade die Studie von Labov und Harris (1986) hat
gezeigt, dass als Reaktion auf den Zuwachs der schwarzen Bevölkerung, die privilegierte,
weiße Schicht in Philadelphia die Aussprache einiger Vokale veränderte. Diese Vokale
wurden klar mit einer ethnischen Konnotation belegt und somit konstituiert diese
Veränderung linguistische Divergenz zwischen AE und der weißen Mundart. In Memphis
passierte ebenfalls eine Lautverschiebung der Vokale jedoch beeinflusste diese AE ebenfalls.
Die betroffenen Vokale im Süden waren jedoch im Gegensatz zu denen in Philadelphia
ethnisch gesehen neutral. Diese Beobachtung, dass sobald ein linguistisches Merkmal mit der
ethnischen Identität verknüpft ist sich die Mehrheit der Afroamerikaner*innen nicht an deren
Veränderung beteiligt, hat sich anhand mehrerer Beispiele bestätigt (Wolfram & Thomas
2002; Labov & Harris 1986; Bailey & Thomas 1998). Ist jedoch ein ethnisch-neutrales
Merkmal betroffen, nehmen sowohl Weiße als auch Schwarze an der regionalen Veränderung
teil und bewirken somit Konvergenz (Anderson 2002).
Während im 20. Jahrhundert weiße Mundarten hauptsächlich Lautverschiebungen
unternahmen, die regionale Unterschiede hervorhoben, bewegten sich Sprecher*innen des AE
in die entgegengesetzte Richtung. Regionale Unterschiede wurden aufgehoben, in dem
insbesondere jüngere Generationen ihre Sprache immer mehr den städtischen Vorbildern
anpassten, da dort die Mehrheit der afroamerikanischen Bevölkerung lebte, abgeschottet von
äußerem Einfluss (Cukor-Avila 2002; Wolfram & Thomas 2002). Somit konnten einige
linguistische Innovationen insbesondere mit Hinblick auf morphosyntaktische Veränderung
während der Achtziger verzeichnet werden, die in vorwiegend schwarzen Stadtvierteln
Ein Beispiel hierfür ist die grammatische Neuinterpretation des postverbalen s. Da AE
grundlegend keine Subjekt-Verb Kongruenz aufweist, wurde das inflektierte s grammatisch
neu interpretiert um die historische Gegenwart auszudrücken. AE ist bekannt für sein
einzigartiges Aspektsystem, welches nur schwer in englischer Standardsprache
wiedergegeben werden kann. Dieses wurde weiter ausgebaut und umstrukturiert. So verhielt
es sich mit der nicht-konjugierten Form des Verbs be, die die Funktion erhielt Gewohnheiten
und die Dauer einer Handlung zu bekräftigen. Dieser neuartige Gebrauch, der in den
Achtzigern entstand und sich verbreitete, wurde von Bailey und Maynor (1989) beobachtet
und war zusammen mit der Studie von Labov und Harris (1986) der Hauptanstoß der
Divergenzdebatte. Eine weitere Veränderung im Aspektsystem ist die Verwendung von be
like, um direkte Rede auszudrücken (Cukor-Avila 2002). Beide dieser Formen werden auch
häufig kombiniert und haben sich, entgegen mancher Vermutung, bis heute durchgesetzt.
Anschließend wurden zudem noch weitere Entwicklungen sowohl im Aspekt- als auch in der
Tempusbildung vermerkt (Cukor-Avila 2001; Spears 1999). Im Gegensatz zu den
phonologischen Veränderungen der weißen Dialekte, nimmt AE eine Ausweitung und
Umstrukturierung des grammatischen Kerns vor, wodurch die Konsequenzen, die sich aus
dieser Divergenz ergeben, tiefer greifen.
Diese strukturellen Veränderungen traten alle erst nach Mitte des 20. Jahrhunderts auf und
zeigen somit eine klare Verbindung zu der großen Migrationswelle und der daraus
resultierenden Wohnsegregation. Allerdings erlebt die Wohnsituation amerikanischer
Stadtgebiete einen positiven Wandel, da sowohl die innerstädtischen Gebiete als auch die
Vororte gemischter werden. Somit machten ethnische Minderheiten 2010 etwa 35% der
Bevölkerung in mittelständischen Vororten aus, welches ungefähr deren Anteil an der
Gesamtbevölkerung entspricht (Frey 2011: 1). In Anbetracht dieser Entwicklung werden
zuletzt die linguistischen Dynamiken in Kontaktsituationen untersucht.
Grundlegend sind zwei Tendenzen in interethnischen Kontaktverhältnissen zu vermerken.
Erstens passen sich Afroamerikaner*innen viel bereitwilliger an weiße Mundarten an als
umgekehrt. Dies hat zur Folge, dass nicht nur ein großer Unterschied zwischen Weißen und
Schwarzen, die jeweils wenig Kontakt zu anderen Ethnien haben, sondern auch innerhalb der
schwarzen Gemeinschaft entsteht. Die generelle Richtung, die eingeschlagen wird, ist zum
weißen Standard hin, welches schlussendlich AE Sprecher*innen außen vor lässt. Zweitens
hat die Umgebung eindeutige Auswirkungen auf den Gebrauch von AE, jedoch tendieren die
meisten Afroamerikaner*innen zum code switching. Wie das MTO Projekt zeigte, in dem
eine große Anzahl Afro- und Hispanoamerikaner*innen aus benachteiligten Stadtvierteln in
mittelständische Nachbarschaften umgesiedelt worden sind, hat der Wohnortwechsel sich im
Gebrauch des AE ausgewirkt (Rickford et al. 2015). Kinder und Jugendliche benutzten
weniger AE Merkmale, jedoch hielt sich der Effekt in Grenzen. Dieses Projekt zeigte auch,
dass das Ausmaß dieses Effekts stark von der persönlichen und familiären Einstellung zur
afroamerikanischen Kultur abhängt. Somit, da das AE eng mit der eigenen ethnischen
Identität verknüpft ist, jedoch offizielle und formelle Situationen den Gebrauch des
Standardenglisches verlangen, entscheidet sich die Mehrheit der AE-Sprecher*innen dafür
ihre Sprache der konkreten Situation anzupassen. Somit wird AE weiterhin neben
Standardenglisch bestehen bleiben, da es andere soziolinguistische Funktionen erfüllt, und
somit werden sich beide Varietäten auch in Zukunft einander beeinflussen.