African American English and White Southern English - segregational factors in the development of a dialect

Seminar Paper, 2005
11 Pages, Grade: 1,7



I Preface

II The common history of African American English and White Southern American English

III African American English as a distinct minority feature

IV Conclusion

V Bibliography

I Preface

In 1619 the first Black People were violently taken to Virginia, United States. Many more Blacks were to follow and hence had to work as slaves on the plantations in the south, fueling the trade of an emerging economic power. Families and friends were separated and people from different regions who spoke different African dialects were grouped together. This was to make sure that no communication in their respective native languages would take place in order to prevent mutinies. Thus the Africans had to learn the language of their new surroundings, namely English. Today the English of the Blacks in America is distinguishable as African American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE and American White Southern English (AWSE) were very similar in colonial times, and according to Feagin[1] AWSE still has features of AAVE, such as the non-rhoticism and falsetto pitch[2], which is supposed to add to the apparent musicality of both AAVE and AWSE today. Many commonalities can be attributed to the coexistence of the two cultures for almost 200 years, while many differences are claimed to be due to segregation. Crystal claims that first forms of Pidgin English spoken by Africans already emerged during the journey on the slave ships, where communication was also made difficult due to the grouping of different dialects in order to prevent mutiny. The slave traders who often spoken English had already shaped the new pidgin languages on the ships and helped shape a creole that was to be established in the Carribean colonies as well southern US colonies in the 17th century.[3]

It is still often believed that Black English or African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a faulty and deviant form of Standard English. African American English was even attributed to inferior intelligence and cultural deprivation of African Americans.[4] The American scholar Krapp and many of his followers believed that the African dialects had no influence on American English and were totally lost as “Krapp’s law” states that “[…] whenever two languages come into contact where one was representative of a high level of culture and sophistication and the other of a low level, the latter yielded and adapted to the speech patterns of the former. Little or nothing happened in the reverse direction.”[5] According to this myth AAVE could just be called a faulty and deviant form of English due to bad imitation. Some linguists even argued that the language of the black community was deviant due to isolation and that the Blacks sticked to their archaic form of English due to social backwardness.[6]

Of course these ideas can be abandoned as nonsense. All differences between AAE and Standard English are rule based and thus AAE can be referred to as a dialect of English. It seems surprising though that AAE is not clearly outlined by Isoglosses[7], like other regional dialects of the USA. I will show how AWSE and AAVE have influenced each other and how they drifted apart due to segregation and why AAVE has stayed quite homogeneous across the United States. I am going to argue that AAVE thus serves as a minority language that holds up and distincts the minority status of Blacks in America.

II AAVE and AWSE develop in parallel

Today AAVE is a homogeneous dialect that is spoken across the United States, still having many qualities of the English spoken in the rural south – AWSE.

This can be corresponded to the relative closeness of the two languages between 1875 and the beginning of the 1900s, when most distinct features of AWSE and AAVE were similar[8], which was a period when 90 % of the African Americans still lived in the south[9]. The close contact explanation is often used as an explanation to the similarity of Black English to Southern English and is also put forth by Crystal.[10] Due to a relatively high concentration of white men and a lack of women in the south in the early stages of colonization the mulatto phenomenon can be explained. It is very well possible that the shaping of AAVE is also largely due to these inter racial relationships. Even though the segregation laws (1877) of Jim Crow were established, Whites and Blacks would still, especially on the small farms in the hinterland, live in close contact to each other. Before large scale segregation was applied white Americans of European descent and Blacks had been living together in close contact for over 200 years and thus AWSE has shaped AAVE and vice versa. African American slaves often worked side by side with European settlers from non English speaking countries, resulting in influences on their language. Due to relationships with proletarian people, who often spoke non-standard dialects of English, the difference of AAVE from prestige dialects can be explained[11]. But still language in the different widespread colonies of the south could not have been as homogeneous as we might suppose, looking at the history of Black English and its relative homogeneity today. The different plantations and colonies were, at least as a far as the workers are concerned, quite isolated “macro-economies”[12] So we can assume that different dialects must also have evolved on the plantations, depending on the structure of workers, as language contact of the plantation workers, at least ob bigger plantations, must largely have been limited to people of lower social classes that did not have much outside contact either. In part the development of Black English might have paralleled the development of English among the Black populations on plantation islands like Barbados, where the slaves were first outnumbered by Whites, and the children born into slavery would speak English, shaped by the language of their parents as well as that of the fellow white servants.[13] Not only black slaves had to work in the colonies, but also a large number of people from Ireland, that had taken their mother tongue, namely Irish, with them. It is argued that the habitual “be” in AAVE might have been shaped in the 17th / 18th century by language contact with the Irish from Ulster, whose dialect of English featured the habitual “be” as well.[14] But as the Irish that came from the North were often better situated and more respected in the USA than the Irish from the rest of Ireland, it is not very likely that so much close contact could have taken place. An in depth view into the habitual “be” discussion would lead too far though; thus I will leave it at the explanation given above.

Even though the language used by the slaves influenced AWSE and vice versa not many words from the slaves’ African languages were adopted into English.. According to the findings of John Benett[15] who carried out an early linguistic study of African American English in the Charleston, not much more than a dozen Africanisms could be found in the language of Blacks. Even though some of Benett’s findings proved that many more Africanisms were adopted into English than believed by linguists at this time.

After a period where most people in the south, no matter whether they were black or white spoke the same English[16], which can be attributed to the reception of English by the slaves from their owners, as well as due to the fact that many white children were raised by black mothers that had been kept as slaves[17], the two dialects drifted apart. Due to new production methods and the collapsing of the cotton industry, which led to an impoverishment of the South, many Whites resettled, resulting in new language contacts that helped shaping the southern English of today. AAVE though is relatively homogeneous across the United States. This reflects the massive migrations and northward movements of slaves from the south who took their language with them.[18]

III African American Vernacular language as a distinct minority feature

As I have mentioned above the English of the South and the English spoken by the black population have developed in parallel since the first black slaves arrived. Both languages must have been indistinguishable at times. As documents of that time show in the middle and late 19th century white southerners and Blacks would sound the same[19]. The indistinguishability of the two dialects posed a threat on the Whites who felt that their superiority was questioned. Upper class people soon tried to keep the “africanisms” out of their children’s speech and average people as well as some linguists tried to point out some differences between the two dialects in order to make sure that the Whites` superiority was saved.


[1] Feagin, Crawford 1998. „The African contribution to southern States English : pitfall and solutions” in Bronstein (ed.) pp. 78-95

[2] “[…] The frequency of vibrations in falsetto phonation is noticeably higher than in modal voice. The vocal folds are stretched longitudinally, thus becoming relatively thin. Consequently, the vibrating mass is smaller and the generated tone higher.The adduction of the folds is high and the medial compression is also strong[…] (, visited 20-05-2004

[3] Crystal 2003, “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language”, 2nd Edition, p. 96

[4] Fromkin / Rodman / Hyams 2003, „An Introduction to Language“ pp. 459 - 460

[5] Krapp, G.P. 1924 ,“The English of the negro” as quoted in Harrison / Trabasso 1976, “Black English – A seminar” p. 106

[6] Dunn “The Black-Southern White Dialect Controversy – Who Did What to Whom ?” in Harrison / Trabasso 1976, “Black English – A seminar” p.107

[7] „A geographic boundary that separates areas with dialectal differences, e.g. a line on a map on one side of which most people say faucet and on the other side of which most people say spigot.” (Fromkin / Rodman / Hyams 2003 “An introduction to Language” p. 585

[8] Mufwene / Rickford / Bailey / Baugh – „African-American English – Structure, history and use” p. 105

[9] ibid. p. 100

[10] Crystal 2003, „The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language“, 2nd Edition, p. 97

[11] Nagle / Sanders 2003, „English in the southern United States“ p. 71

[12] ibid. p. 76

[13] Rickford, 1999 „ African American Vernacular English“ pp. 178-181

[14] ibid. pp. 187-190

[15] Montgomery. “Africanisms in the American South” in Mufwene “Africanisms in Afro-American Language Varieties” p. 442

[16] Nagle / Sanders 2003, “English in the southern United States” pp. 64-65

[17] Fromkin / Rodman / Hyams 2003, „An Introduction to Language“ pp. 463 - 464

[18] Nagle / Sanders 2003, „English in the southern United States“ p. 65

[19] Dunn “The Black-Southern White Dialect Controversy – Who Did What to Whom ?” in Harrison / Trabasso 1976, “Black English – A seminar” p. 116-117

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African American English and White Southern English - segregational factors in the development of a dialect
University of Wuppertal
African American Culture as Resistance
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African, American, English, White, Southern, Culture, Resistance
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Timm Gehrmann (Author), 2005, African American English and White Southern English - segregational factors in the development of a dialect , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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