African American English - properties and features

Term Paper, 2008

16 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. The roots of African American English

3. Features
3.1 Phonetics
3.1.1. The “th” in AAE
3.1.2 The Consonant Cluster education(CCR)
3.2 AAE as a non-rhotic dialect
3.3 Grammatical Features
3.3.1 Negation
3.3.2 Time Reference
3.4 BIN

4. Conclusion

5. Works cited

6. Appendix

1. Introduction

As I am about to write a paper on African American Vernacular English, I think it is necessary to explain why I chose this topic, why I organized it that way I did and first of all, to define what African American English actually is.

As African American English is what Labov describes as “the whole range of language [varieties] used by black people in the United States […] extending from Creole grammar of Gullah spoken in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia to the most formal and accomplished literary style”[1]

Mufwene assumes that AAE vernacular is in itself divided in many varieties and “may vary from one speaker, setting, or region to another […]”[2]

So it can be said, that AAE as a vernacular is so rich in diversity, that I just can picture the features I’m concentrating on in main features.

As I used to be a lot in the Southern United States, especially Georgia and South Carolina, I have a close connection to the Southern American speech, hence to the speakers of African American Vernaculars in the South of the US.

I organized my paper to that effect, that I will only concentrate on certain aspects of African American Vernacular. That is, on the one Hand, because of the limited amount of space, and on the other Hand I want to stick to the most striking features. And certainly are these the Phonetics. At first I am going to give a short introduction of development of African American English, then I want to go into what a feature at all is, then I will set the focus on the phonetics, and least I’d like to point out some of the non- verbal features; thus grammatical peculiarities.

2. The roots of African American English

Geneva Smitherman answers the question where the “black language and style” came from with the beginning of slavery in Colonial America. In 1619 a Dutch vessel brought with a cargo twenty Africans to Jamestown, Virginia to work there as “indentured servants”.

The blacks where mostly brought from countries of the African West Coast over the so called “West passage” to the Colonies in America. They were forced to work on the cash crop plantations, harvesting tobacco, cotton, Sugar and coffee.

Because there is, of course, no tape recordings of the language the slaves spoke, linguists have “to rely on reconstructions of black talk based on indirect evidence […] written reproductions of the dialect in Journals, letters and diaries by whites […].[3]

African slaves developed a pidgin, what Smitherman calls a “language of transaction” used to communicate between themselves and the whites. This pidgin developed over the years as a widespread Creole among slaves. It consisted of the West-African words which were substituted little by little by English words but with the same basic language structures of West- African Languages. These Languages for example allow sentence constructions without the verb to be. According to that, sentences like “He going” still occur today in African American Vernacular English environments.

Because the American settlers did not speak Standard British English as they came from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany etc. the slaves adopted certain features of the pidgin the settlers spoke to their Creole. Especially in the South, where a lot of Irish settled, a typical feature of Irish phonology is wide spread.

Words like red and hat are pronounced with diphthongs, as “re ɑd” and “h əat”, respectively, which the blacks adopted to their language.

Thus, all African dialects shared basically the general structure, they differed vocabulary. So the new Pidgin Language of the slaves was not only used to communicate between them and their masters, but also to communicate between them, as mentioned above. Because of this reason, the blacks had no opportunity to speak their own language and thus were not able to reinforce it, and with the new generations that where born in the colonies, the native African speech got lost more and more, but therefore the pidgin and Creole language varieties developed in a wide range.

Smitherman distinguishes, linguistically, between three groups of African Slaves in US colonial times.

The slaves who recently arrived did not know any English at all. She illustrates that with an example of the “New York Evening Post” in 1774: “Ran away… a new Neggro Fellow named Prince, he can’t scarce speak a word of English.”[4]

The second group she mentions are the ones, who weren’t born in the States but were learning English. They where considered either to speak “bad” or “tolerable” English.

The third group were those slaves born in the States and already mastered the English language to some extend.

So the contemporary Black English goes back to an African linguistic tradition that was by bringing the ancestors of the today’s black communities to the United States modified to a vernacular of English, whose roots are based on West African Languages.

3. Features

A feature is, according to Mufwene “any phonological, syntactic, semantic, or pragmatic characteristic that distinguishes one language variety from another”.[5] But it has to be mentioned, that not every speaker at anytime in any environment uses all the feature of African American English, especially because there are many kinds of varieties that differ in all kind of features. According to studies that have shown, that those non-standard features mostly occur “in casual and family settings”[6]

Below I am going to show some features of African American English that differ this variety the most from Standard American English.

3.1 Phonetics

3.1.1 The “th”

“One of the most common stereotypes of African American English”, according to Mufwene, is the “variable absence of interdental fricatives”[7].


[1] Quoted from: Mufwene, Salikoko S.: African American English. In: The Cambridge History of the English Language Vol. VI: English in North America. Ed. by Richard M. Hogg. Cambridge University Press, 2001 p. 291

[2] Ibid. p. 292

[3] Smitherman, Geneva. p. 5

[4] Quoted from: Ibid. p. 12

[5]. Ibid. p. 294.

[6] Ibid. p. 295.

[7] Ibid.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


African American English - properties and features
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
780 KB
African, American, English
Quote paper
Florian Paulus (Author), 2008, African American English - properties and features, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: African American English - properties and features

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free