The question of whether African American English (AAE, which is also sometimes called African-American Vernacular English or Ebonics) is a language caused considerable disputes among scholars. Some of them adhere to the opinion that it is a distinct dialect that was developed “…due to a set of special historical circumstances” (Jones 53). For example, Stockman (12) states that AAE is a dialect that was formed from Pidgin-Creole, so called mixture of English and African immigrants’ languages.
On the contrary, many other influential linguists, such as Robert Williams and Asa Hilliard, assert that AAE is just a substandard dialect reflecting deficient language skills, or in other words plain bad English. However, the works of several scholars support and confirm the hypothesis that it is a separate language (Dilliard 73; Smitherman 19; Sutcliffe 96).
And while linguists are arguing their views of the issue, AAE is constantly developing. Thus, the present science is in need of proper understanding of what exactly AAE is and what African characteristics it has on phonological, grammatical and lexical levels.
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Brief History of the AAE
There have been 3 major hypotheses regarding the origin of African American English. The first one states that AAE arose from a pidgin that was spoken by enslaved West African people with different linguistic and educational backgrounds. Over the time, it developed into creole and later on, after being decreolized, easily resembled to American English (Jones 91). Other scholars say that AAE is a dialect of the Southern English, as they share a lot of features, such as vowel lowering and double modals. The supporters of the third theory state that African American Language is a mix of languages that appeared from West African and Southern English.
The US society, both during and long after the oppression epoch, stuck to the stereotyped views about the individual character, verbal communication, lifestyle and behaviors of black people. These false understandings of the culture left their marks on the AAE as well…
It is a pure linguistic fact that phonology of AAE and Standard English are quite different in their characteristics. This is easily explained – West African languages that are widely thought to be a source of the AAE often lack ‘th’ sound and final consonant clusters. As the result, the differences that are explained below can occur.
Main alterations are found in the way the consonant clusters are pronounced. If, for example, the word ends with –st, -sk, -sp, -pt, -ct, -nd, -ld clusters, the last letter is usually omitted. Thus AAE speakers will probably pronounce fast as fas, desk as des, wasp as was, accept as accep, contact as contac, spend as spen and build as buil. Moreover, final –t and –d is not pronounced in the majority of cases as well. The exception is represented by past tense only. However, the ending –ed will be pronounced like –t, –d or even –ld, depending on the preceding sounds.
One more peculiar characteristics of the AAE is the pronunciation of the sound ‘th’. At the beginning of the word it is usually pronounced as ‘d’, while in the middle or in the end it is always pronounced as ‘f’: they as dey, the as de and nothing as nufn.
Sounds ‘l’ and ‘r’ in AAE undergo vocalization. That is why they are always pronounced as ‘uh’. This becomes obvious in the post-vocalic position: steal and sister as steauh and sistuh. In addition, sometimes ‘r’ is not pronounced at all after ‘o’ and ‘u’ vowels: door as doe and four as foe.
The next factor that differentiates AAE from Standard English is a stress pattern. Very often AAE speakers have it placed on the first syllable instead of the last one. For example, ´police instead of po´lice and ´July instead of Ju´ly.
The grammar of AAE has many remarkable differences from Standard English including:
- Deletion of certain suffixes.
- Copula absence. In the majority of cases, AAE speakers omit all forms of the verb to be in the sentences: They hungry, She speaking and He all right. However, am, was/were are never omitted.
- -S deletion in 3rd person singular. One more common feature of the African American Language is the omission of the –s ending in a third person singular: she jump (not jumps). Moreover, the distinction between has/have, was/were and is/are are not always made by the Ebonics speakers.
- Loss of case marking. While Standard English still preserves genitive and nominative cases, Ebonics omits the genitive ending –s: Catherine house, Mary book. It also uses nominative forms of the pronouns instead of the genitive: she book, they car.
- Negative Concord. Critics always talk about the illogical double negation that is often used by AAE speakers. In reality, they logically negate, just the same way as other people do. To compare: you are not ugly [Standard English] and you ain’t no ugly [AAE], or he did not see anything [Standard English] and he di’n’t see nothin’ [AAE]. The most important thing to understand here is the fact that the grammar of negation is not the same in all languages. Rules of negation in German or Turkish are completely different from those of Spanish or Chinese. It does not necessarily mean that these languages are plain or not correct. Neither does it mean that they are not languages at all. It simply means they are different.
- Non-inverted form of the questions. Here it should be mentioned that such type of the difference occurs with wh- questions only: Why I can’t go? but How was he?
- The word “it” denotes the existence of something. It is an equivalent to Standard English “there” in “there is”, or “there are”. It's a book on the table means There's a book on the table and It is no God means There is no God.
- Stressed BIN. It marks the remote past and shows that the action happened or the state came into being very long ago: She bin married (She’s been married a long time ago and is still married).
AAE’s vocabulary is not separate or totally different from Standard English or other English varieties. However, it does comprise some lexemes that are not found in any English language dialect. To illustrate the point the following examples should be mentioned: bamboula (drum), mubambi (something hidden), daadi (dad), kickerapoo (killed), kickatavoo (dead), fuzz (police) and other (Jones 163).
Moreover, a number of words that are considered to be a part of Standard English Vocabulary have their origin or have been derived from AAE or, at least, from African languages that considerably contributed to the development of AAE. For example: banana (Mandingo), banjo (Kimbundu), yam (Mandingo), okra (Akan), gumbo (Western Bantu), booboo (Bantu), bogus (West African dialect), bozo (Kimbundu), cooter (Mandingo), goober (West African dialect), hullabaloo, hully-gully, juke (Mandingo), moola (Kimbundu), pamper, wow, uh-huh, unh-unh, buddy, tote, kola (Kimbundu), elephant, gorilla, gumbo, tater, and turnip (West African dialect).
In addition, Ebonics gave Standard English a lot of slang words. As an example may serve the terms used by Americans to refer to females and males (Labov). Terms for males: balla, cat, cuz, dawg (dog), fool, homes, hot boy, kinfolk, mark, money, player, scrub, slick. Terms for females: bopper, dime, honey, hot girl, ma, shorty, wifey.
That African American Language takes its lexical layer from Standard English and West African languages is acknowledged by its most enthusiastic advocates. They assert that every language is identified by its phonology and grammar rather than by its vocabulary.
In the light of the facts mentioned above, it becomes clear that African American English is a well-organized logical language variety, with its own appropriate patterns of pronunciation, grammar characteristics and vocabulary items that extend far beyond the dialect, slang or bad English. It has its own set of rules that are distinct from Standard English. However, it does not mean that AAE is bad English.
The speakers of AAE and Standard English share some common history related to the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism, but are diverse in other cultural aspects; similarly, they share some features on phonetical, lexical and grammatical level but are diverse in others.
Undoubtedly, AAE comprises a lot of African dialects’ elements as well as American language characteristics due to the rich history both continents are sharing. However, the question What is African about the African-American Language? remains to be open. At least, till it exists…