African American English

Term Paper, 2004

15 Pages, Grade: 1




1. Introduction

2. Terminology

3. The Oakland Schoolboard Proposal

4. History

5. Features
5.1 Phonological features
5.2 Grammatical features
5.2.1 Time reference
5.2.2 Negation
5.2.3 Complex sentence formation
5.2.4 Other grammatical features
5.3 Semantic features
5.4 Pragmatic features

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited


Being about to write a term paper about African American English, I first want to explain the order of contents I have chosen for it. Since there are different terms for the English of African Americans and in order to not confuse the reader chapter 2 lists and defines the most common terms used by linguists concerned with this topic. In chapter 3 the Oakland School Board proposal is mentioned and its contents are summarised. Before investigating the features of the African American dialect of English, I am going to take a look at its history as well as different theories of how it actually arose. Chapter 5 is concerned with various phonological, grammatical, semantic, and pragmatic features which are characteristic for the English of African Americans and make it an interesting and unique dialect.

2. Terminology

The term African American English (AAE) is used to refer to “a continuum of varieties ranging from the most mainstream or standard speech, to the most vernacular or non-mainstream variety” (Rickford 1999: xxi). AAE is therefore a relatively general term, also including language varieties like Gullah or dialects of the Carribbean, which this paper will not be concerned with. Instead, the focus will be on the informal speech of African Americans, “as the variety most widespread among working-class African Americans in inner-city areas, […] and to avoid the impression that every African American would use the features associated with that variety” (Rickford 1999: xxi).

The term most widely used among linguists which refers to the informal speech of many African Americans is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE is said to be “used by 80 to 90 percent of continental African Americans as a primary means of communication for their day-to-day intragroup communication” (Mufwene 2001: 291).

Another term which has become very popular since 1996, is Ebonics, a blending of ebony (black) and phonics (sound). In December 1996, the Oakland controversy took place and got a lot of public attention across the country, which I will investigate in the following chapter. The terms AAVE and Ebonics are regarded to be very similar, “if not identical” by the majority of linguists (Rickford 1999: xxi). Ebonics puts a little more emphasis on the fact that it derived from the Niger Congo African languages, though (Rickford 1999: xxii).

Within this term paper, however, all of the terms listed above will occur. They are used according to the sources I worked with and what I thought was most likely to fit into the context.

3. The Oakland School Board proposal

Although the term Ebonics apparently originated in the 1970s, only a few people had heard of it before December 18, 1996, when “the Oakland School Board approved a resolution recognizing it as the primary language of African American students” (Rickford 1999: 320). Supporters of the proposal believed themselves to be “wildly misunderstood” by the general public, whose reaction was “overwhelmingly negative” ( “The belief underlying Ebonics-education was that African-American students would perform better in school and more easily learn Standard American English, if textbooks and teachers acknowledged AAVE was not a substandard version of SAE but rather a speech variety with as much although different structure than SAE” ( The idea was not actually to teach AAVE like Standard American English would usually be taught at school, but to show students how to translate expressions from AAVE to SAE. “Teachers were encouraged to accept that the errors in SAE that their students made were not the result of lack of intelligence or lack of effort, but rather because the language that they normally use is grammatically different from that of SAE” (

Since all languages and dialects are systematic and rule-governed, we can tell for sure that Ebonics is not slang or bad English or whatever the opponents of the Oakland School Board proposal said it to be. “Although Ebonics certainly has slang words […] its linguistic identity is described by distinctive patterns of pronunciation and grammar” (Rickford 1999: 321 f.). As Rickford states, “Ebonics is more of a dialect of English than a separate language, because it shares many words and other features with other informal varieties of American English” (1999: 322). “Yet Ebonics is one of the most distinctive varieties of American English, differing from Standard English – the educated standard – in several ways” (Rickford 1999: 322).

4. History

Since this paper is about to summarise the most important phonological, grammatical, semantic and pragmatic features of AAE, it is important and interesting to also take a look at the linguistical background of this dialect and briefly investigate how Ebonics actually arose. Several theories have been developed and none of them has ever been able to completely dominate the other ones.

Almost four centuries ago the first African slaves were brought to the New World and the slave trade did not end officially until 1808 (Rickford 1999: 324). The “waves of African ‘immigrants’ spoke languages other than English […] from the Niger-Congo language family (Rickford 1999: 324). The slaves learned English as a result of the dominance of the English language in America, “but how quickly and completely they did so and with how much influence from their African languages are matters of dispute among linguists” (Rickford 1999: 324).

The Afrocentric view puts emphasis on the African influence on nowadays AAE. According to this view the West African slaves who acquired English, “restructured it according to the patterns of Niger-Congo languages” (Rickford 1999: 325). Since there is no exact proof of the African influence on grammar and pronunciation of AAE, many linguists doubt the beliefs underlying the Afrocentric view. Undoubted though are “continuing African influences in some Ebonics and American English words” (Rickford 1999: 325).

The followers of the Eurocentric view believe that it was the white settlers who taught English to the African slaves (Rickford 1999: 325). “Vernacular, or non-standard features of Ebonics […] are seen as imports from dialects spoken by colonial English, Irish, or Scotch-Irish settlers, many of whom were indentured servants” (Rickford 1999: 325). Opponents of this view disagree with “the assumption that slaves rapidly and successfully acquired the dialects of the whites around them”, since what we know about their relationship from historical records suggests otherwise (Rickford 1999: 326).

The Creolist view “is that many African slaves, in acquiring English, developed a pidgin language – a simplified fusion of English and African languages – from which Ebonics evolved (Rickford 1999: 326). Rickford defines the term pidgin as “a mixed language, incorporating elements of its users’ native languages but with less complex grammar and fewer words that either parent language” (1999: 326). People who are unable to communicate in the same language may use a pidgin to do so (Rickford 1999: 326). A pidgin may develop to a creole language in case “it takes root and becomes the primary tongue among its users” (Rickford 1999: 326). Rickford himself thinks “that the creolist hypothesis incorporates the strengths of the other hypotheses and avoids their weaknesses” (1999: 327). Furthermore he states that it might be impossible for linguists to ever really know which theory is the correct one (1999: 327). “What we can settle on is the unique identity of Ebonics as an English dialect” (Rickford 1999: 327).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


African American English
University of Hannover
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
415 KB
African, American, English, Dialect, Variety, Language, Linguistics, Pidgin, Creole
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2004, African American English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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