African-American English

Term Paper, 2004

8 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction: What is African-American English?

2. Development

3. Features of African-American English
3.1 Phonological features
3.2 Grammatical features
3.3 Semantic features

4. Current cultural and linguistic issues
4.1 Black pride
4.2 Divergence
4.3 The Ebonics controversy

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction: What is African-American English?

This essay shall introduce the reader to African-American English (AAE). This term is used in this text for a wide range of language varieties used by Black people in the United States of America (Mufwene 2001: 291). That means that AAE is to be regarded as a dialect of this ethnic group and not as an independent language. While most speakers of this variety (80 to 90 percent) use some form of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), there are some areas where parts of the Black population speak a semi-creole, like Gullah, which is spoken in rural areas of South Carolina and Georgia (ibd.: 291f.). This text, however, will only deal with AAE in general, starting with the development of this variety. After that, the main and most wide-spread linguistic features will discussed. The essay will end with the description of recent issues concerning AAE and Afro-American culture in U.S. society as a conclusion.

2. Development

AAE must have begun its development some time after the first importation of African slaves into Virginia in 1619. Slavery spread mainly within what later became the Southeast of the USA (ibd.: 313f.). When slavery was abolished after the Civil War (1861-1865) Blacks began to emigrate to all parts of the United States. Of the approximately 30 million Afro-Americans living in the U.S. today, most speak some form of AAE (ibd.: 291).

It cannot be said completely sure how AAE first developed due to the fact that many of its features point to different directions. Some linguists believe, for example, that the development of AAE is closely connected to that of Southern White English, while others think that AAE originated from a creole (ibd.: 311-315). Another problem is, that there have been different time periods in which slaves were brought to the American continent and therefore there could not have been one single development of the language. Further, there have been different systems of dealing with slaves (e.g. the overseer system: in larger plantations slaves received their orders from overseers that were slaves themselves), so that the extent of contact with the Whites has differed, too (Wolfram & Thomas 2002: 21f).

Nevertheless, there have been three main theories in the 20th century that gained some acceptance: the Anglicist hypothesis of the 1950s, being succeeded by the Creole hypothesis in the 1960s and 1970s, and the neo-Anglicist hypothesis, which replaced the Creole hypothesis from the 1980s on (ibd.: 12-14).

1. Followers of the Anglicist hypothesis believed “that the speech of African Americans essentially was derived directly from British-based dialects” (ibd.: 12). Their conclusion was, “that present-day African American speech [is] identical to that of comparable rural Southern white speech” (ibd.: 12). According to this theory, AAE would have the same origin as the European American dialects.
2. On the other hand, the Creole hypothesis states “that the roots of [AAE] were embedded in and expansive creole found in the African diaspora” (ibd.: 13) which would mean that the grammatical structure of the language – being a mixture of African and English dialects – differed very much from the English spoken in the colonies by Whites (ibd.: 13).
3. The neo-Anglicist hypothesis that succeeded the Creole hypothesis is some kind of revision of the Anglicist thesis (therefore its name). It says “that earlier, postcolonial African American speech was quite similar to the early British dialects brought to North America. However, the neo-Anglicist position acknowledges that [AAE] has since diverged so that it is now quite distinct from contemporary white vernacular speech” (ibd.: 14). So, what distinguished this theory from its predecessor is, that it does not believe in a hand in glove development with Southern White English.

3. Features of African-American English

“A feature is any phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, or pragmatic characteristic that distinguishes one language variety from another” (Mufwene 2001: 294). Due to the introductory character of this essay, there shall only be described some main and very wide-spread phonological, grammatical and semantic features of AAE. All of them differ from standard American English and alternate with others in the same context, so they are variable (ibd.: 295). It has to be mentioned that “[o]f all English varieties spoken in North America, [AAE] is […] most similar to white Southern English” (ibd.: 297), most likely because of the initial location and contact with the English language of the African slaves. AAE may also have influenced Southern White English (ibd.: 297).


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African-American English
University of Heidelberg
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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367 KB
African-American, English
Quote paper
Ole Wagner (Author), 2004, African-American English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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