Black American English

Seminar Paper, 1998

19 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Content List


1. Who speaks Black American English?

2. Grammar
2.1 Tense and verb categories
2.1.1 Point-of-time and phase category
2.1.2 Remote Perfective Aspect and Immediate Perfective Aspect
2.2 The auxiliary have in StE and is in BAE
2.3 Contrast between the zero copula and be
2.4 Pronoun system
2.5 Relative clauses
2.6 Pluralization System
2.7 if-clauses
2.8 Conjunctions
2.9 Prepositions

3. The Vocabulary of Race
3.1 Labels for Whites
3.1.1 Negative labels
3.1.2 Neutral labels
3.1.3 Positive labels
3.1.4 Summary
3.2 Labels for Blacks
3.2.1 Negative labels
3.2.2 Neutral labels
3.2.3 Positive labels
3.2.4 Summary

4. Ethnographic Speech Behaviour

5. The African Element in Black American English
5.1 List of Africanisms in BAE

6. Bibliography


In this essay we are going to deal with Black American English and its specific features and differences to Standard English. The analysis includes an introduction to the grammar of BAE, its specific vocabulary, the African elements in BAE and the ethnographic speech behaviour connected with the use of BAE. At the beginning a short survey will be given on who actually speaks BAE.

1. Who speaks Black American English?

In general, we can say that all those speak BAE (= Black American English) who consider themselves to be Black. Those are 80% of the Black American population. But also some Puerto Ricans and members of the southern plantation owning class do use this language. In former times BAE was also used by some Indian tribes and Seminoles. The dialect patterns depend on social factors rather than racial or geographic. Many people are capable of several dialects, and also some Whites do speak those dialects.
The history of the Afro–American languages correlates with a caste system. The use of BAE indicates a low level of education as well as a low social standard. It indicates that the speaker belongs to a social group that has remained unassimilated to the white culture. Rich black families tend to speak Standard English. In the use of Standard English among Blacks age-grading plays a great role. First the children adopt the language they learn in their peer groups, later on they learn Standard English in school. The age-grading towards Standard English is closely connected with status grading, i.e. children of families with a higher social level tend to the use of Standard English. The higher a Black climbs on the social ladder the more he tends to Standard English.
In general, women find it easier to affiliate with the middle-class and to adopt the white culture standards.
But the use of BAE is also an indicator of racial awareness and identity. And even highly educated Blacks want to express their roots linguistically to show their identification. They do so by the use of ethnic slang which they use, even if they detest the grammar and phonology of BAE [1].

2. Grammar

In general, we can say that BAE does not contain words we do not find in Standard English (in this text the abbreviation StE will be used for it). Neither do we find word forms that white dialects do not have. But BAE has a greatly different syntax.

2.1 Tense and verb categories

The probably most distinctive and striking difference between BAE and StE is that of tense marking and aspect marking. Whereas the marking of tense is compulsory in StE, it is optional in BAE.Past tense in BAE is usually expressed by the base form of the verb which is not identical with the historical present, known from StE as forms like could, carried and called do also appear.


- John run.
- John run yesterday.
- The boy carried the dog dish to the house and put some dog food in it and put some water in and bring it out and called the dog.

Whereas in StE all verbs in a sequence must be marked as either present or past, in BAE only one needs to be marked, although more than one can be marked. Verbs like to bring, begin, break, going and hear are consistent with their occurrence in the past, concerning the grammar of BAE.

In the present tense of BAE there is usually no –s ending. But there is an occasional borrowing of this tense marker from StE which shows in occurrences of hypercorrection:

Exp.: I goes (he goes)

You loves (he loves)

In trying to use the correct StE present tense marker, the marker is used even where it is placed incorrectly. BAE does not have a present tense in the sense of the similar StE form. Nevertheless, the speaker of BAE can mark present tense unmistakably by the use of not.

Exp.: He not workin’.

The speaker has the option as to whether indicate that an action has happened in the past or to leave the verb in the noncommittal form. In 90% of all cases the unmarked forms refer to past actions. So how can one express oneself clearly? BAE has a different way to do so, namely by its verb categories[2].

2.1.1 Point-of-time and phase category

BAE differentiates between the point-of-time category and the phase / aspect category. These verb categories are the only obligatory category in the BAE verb system. They become visible in the different forms of negation.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

When he ain’ run is the negative form of he run, then the verb base marks a point-of-time / aspect category. Most of the events we look at as points-of-time or momentary are in the past, whereas we look at current events as ongoing. There are certain indicators for momentary action that happened in the past. Those are e.g. yesterday, last week or a long time ago. The other category which is negated by don ’ is called phase category. It marks the ongoing, continuous, intermittent quality of an action. In connection with this the auxiliary be / don’ be should be mentioned as well. It indicates that the time of an action happening is stretched out, i.e. that it is reportably long for the kind of action involved[3].

illustration not visible in this excerpt

In the diagram above a short survey is given about the use of the point-of-time and the phase category. It can be seen that be (= an action is reportably long) correlates with every night (= indicator for continuity) (A) in the same way as the ending –ed would correlate with last night. Accordingly be does not correlate with right now (= indicator for momentary action) (B). As ain’ indicates a momentary action it cannot go together with every night which indicates a certain continuity (C). The proper negation going with every night would be don’ / don’ be as it is the proper negation for the phase category (D, E). Ain ’ as a negation of a momentary action goes together with right now, which indicates a point of time, as well (C)[4].

2.1.2 Remote Perfective Aspect and Immediate Perfective Aspect

The remote perfective aspect is expressed by been. It marks an action which decidedly happened in the past. There are two possible forms, as can be seen in the examples given below:

I been know

I been knowin’

The first example marks a momentary action, the second one expresses the progressive aspect of an action. As a contrast to the remote perfective aspect we have the immediate perfective aspect, for which the preverbal form is done:

I done go
I done gone
I done went
I been done gone
I done been gone


[1] Dillard, J.L.; Black English, New York, 1972. (p.229 – 240)

[2] Dillard, J.L.; Black English, New York, 1972. (p. 39-42)

[3] Dillard, J.L.; Black English, New York, 1972. (p. 42-45)

[4] ebenda, p. 45

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Black American English
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (English Seminar)
Seminar: Introduction to african-american Literature
1 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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411 KB
Black, American, English, Seminar, Introduction, Literature
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Maritta Schwartz (Author), 1998, Black American English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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