Varieties of American English

Lenguaje. Peculiaridades lingüísticas. Fonética. Características fonológicas, gramaticales y semánticas # Features of African-Americans. Phonological and grammatical characteristics. Complex sentences formation

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AFRICAN-AMERICAN ENGLISH

FEATURES OF AAE

A feature is any phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic or pragmatic characteristic that distinguishes one language variety from another. A question often asked about the genesis of AAVE is whether the structural features associated with it are peculiarities of African-American only. But we have to take into account that different language varieties may share features. It would be surprising if varieties that share part of their ancestries and developed in related sociohistorical conditions, such as AAVE and white Southern English, did not share several of their structures.

The distinguishing features of AAE often persist for social, educational, and economic reasons. The historical discrimination against African Americans has created ghetto living and segregated schools. Where social isolation exists, dialect differences are intensified. In addition, particularly in recent years, many blacks no longer consider their dialect to be inferior, and it has become a means of positive identification. There are critics who attempt to equate the use of African American English with inferior genetic intelligence and cultural deprivation, justifying these incorrect notions by stating that AAE is a “deficient illogical and incomplete” language. That cannot be applied to any language, and they are as unscientific in reference to AAE as to any other language, including Standard American English.

Virtually all the structural features of AAE are “variable”. Non-standard features occur most frequently in casual and familiar settings. Switches towards acrolectal options are made in other settings, often resulting in hypercorrection.

PHONOLOGICAL FEATURES

  • ABSENCE OF INTERDENTAL FRICATIVES

A regular feature is the change of a // to /f/ and /"/ to /v/ in intervocalic position and word-final position so that Ruth is pronounced [ruf] and brother [br"ver]. In word-initial position /"/ is pronounced [d], as for example in words such as this, that, these and those.

Some words, however, follow no consistent pattern: three as free, through as troo, and throw as trow.

This []-[f] correspondence is also true of some dialects of British English , where // is not even a phoneme in the language. Think is regularly [fink] in Cockney English.

  • R DELETION

AAE is often characterised as nonrhotic: /r/ is omitted most often in word-final and preconsonantal position, next in word-final position followed by a vowel, and least often word-medially. Pairs of words like guard and god, court and caught are pronounced identically in AAE because of the presence of this phonological rule in the grammar.

  • L DELETION

The lateral /l/ is often omitted in preconsonantal and word-final positions, as in help and toll, although is it less common than the omission of post-vocalic /r/. the omission in help is related to a more general simplification of consonant clusters in word-final position.

  • CONSONANT CLUSTER SIMPLIFICATION

A consonantal cluster simplification rule simplifies consonant clusters, particularly at the ends of words and when one of the two consonants is al alveolar (/t/, /d/ /s/ /z/). Final consonant cluster simplification may be connected with the tense marking, as the application of this rule may delete the past-tense morpheme. Verbs like pass may have no such phonological simplification in past-tense forms because at least part of AAVE operates on a Creole-like system, in which the forms referring to the past is generally the same as the stem.

  • NEUTRALISATION OF [I] AND [ ] BEFORE NASALS

AAE shares with many regional dialects the merger of the vowels of words such as pen/pin and ten/tin pronounced indistinguishably as pin. This merger is restricted to the prenasal environment, and does not affect pairs like bet/bit or tell/till.

  • MONOPHTHONGALISATION OF /AY, OY, AW/

In words such as cry, toy, loud and road the diphthongs /ay, oy, aw/ and /ow/ are frequently monophthongised or at least have very weak glides. Although the same tendency is observable among white southerners, it is stronger among African-American.

Some phonological peculiarities distinguishing Gullah from AAVE and other varieties of English in North America:

  • Sporadic pronunciation of /v/ and /w/ as [] in words like very, well.

  • The vowel in words like bear, hair is typically pronounced [y ]

  • The diphthong /ay/ in knife, wife is commonly pronounced as [aey].

Of all English varieties spoken in North America, AAVE is prosodically most similar to white southern English. This is connected to two hypotheses on the genetic status of AAE:

      • that African-American have influenced the speech of southern whites

      • that features of AAE are retentions from Colonial white English.

GRAMMATICAL FEATURES

AAE differs from other varieties of American English in predication. Most predicates are verb phrases, but some are verbless, consisting of an adjective, a prepositional phrase, or a noun phrase. The copula is most often absent before the future marker gon, as in Diane gon home and before the progressive, as in John talking.

This variable has been explained in two opposite ways:

-that the copula is deleted by a phonological rule operating on the contractions of the verb

-that the copula is added by an insertion rule.

Most discussions have focused on the form is. Past tense forms are not absent as often as present tense ones (we have to remember that due to the fact that, at least part of AAVE operates on a Creole-like system, in which the forms referring to the past is generally the same as the stem). Are is more likely to be omitted than is .

Generally, the copula may not be missing in environments characterised by what is called “exposed positions”, such as for example, infinitival clauses introduced by to Jane wan to be with her mother, after a modal, Diane may be sick, imperative constructions, such as Be smart, and sentence-final position, as in I don care who he is. To sum up, we can say that in most cases, if in Standard English the verb can be contracted, in AAE sentences it is deleted; where it can't be contracted in SAE, it can't be deleted in AAE.

In the case of Gullah, the copula duh is used. The fact that the copulas of Gullah and AAVE differ in form must affect the hypotheses about the presence versus absence of the copula in each variety, despite the varieties' similar patterns of verbal and nonverbal predication.

COMPLEX SENTENCE FORMATION

AAE is also distinctive in the way it forms complex sentences. In both Gullah and AAVE, say is used to introduce subordinate clauses that would be either reported as direct quotations or indirect quotations introduced by the conjunction that in acrolectal English. Say and that alternate in some constructions in AAVE but not in Gullah. However, say as a conjunctions cannot be equated with acrolectal English that. It does not introduce relative clauses in AAE. Subordinate constructions introduced by say after a higher predicate of saying are often like quotations.

Gullah has distinctive patterns for complex sentences. It uses fuh to introduce subordinate clauses that acrolectal varieties of American English introduce with for, or in order to. Fuh may be omitted, especially after the verbs wan and try.

AAVE is more like other varieties of American English with respect to constructions with fuh and serial verbs. It shares with Gullah such serial verb constructions, as I ask him say come play with us, in which two verb phrases are sequenced without an intervening conjunction.

On the other hand, AAVE and Gullah are alike in the way they form relative clauses: they allow an invariant relativiser weh in Gullah, and what in both, as in the man what come here with you.

SEMANTIC FEATURES

The semantic features of AAE other than time reference has been little studied. The works are primarily dictionaries though Smitherman's contains an introduction treating cultural and linguistic matters. Smitherman considers these points in her work:

-terms used since the Colonial period to refer to African-Americans and the preferences African-Americans themselves have had among them.

-terms used by African-Americans for addressing each other, for acknowledging messages during speech events (especially in church), for identifying physical characteristics and behaviours, for referring to personalities, and so on.

Smitherman defines what she calls “Black Semantics” as the “Black American's long standing tendency to appropriate English for themselves and their purposes. She discusses words that “have potentially tow levels of meaning: one black and one white”, such as bad which may be interpreted either negatively for “a person of undesirable character” or positively for “a person of highly desirable character”. A concomitant of the peculiar semantics of these words is their morphosyntax in both the vernacular and the slang. The adjective bad in the positive sense forms its comparative as badder and its superlative as baddest, unlike the negative sense, expressed by worse and worst.

The term “counterlanguage” is used for such terms with double entendre, one of whose interpretations is not accessible to outsiders. The practice is traced back to slavery, when the intention was to disguise some intended meaning from white masters. Some terms such as hip in the sense “up-to-date on a trend” and cool, “acceptable” which started from AAE, have become part of general, colloquial American English. Widely known nowadays.

“Counterlanguage” falls into the broader category of “camouflaged” language. Striking examples are from AAE slang: train, front, sneak, double-bank.

Train: group rape, with some metaphorical uses

Front: to pretend (something not yet experienced)

Sneak: to attack

Familiar idioms such as give someone some sugar (kiss) and give me five (slap my hand in greeting) are learnt at a very early age. The terms brother and reputation are commonly used in their abbreviated forms bro and rep.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF AAE

The accounts of the development of AAE have generally been controversial because they reflect general social attitudes towards African-Americans, some of them express them and some of them dispute them. The most important discussion concern it origins, and the question: is it a Creole or not?

The Creole-origin hypothesis for AAVE has received support of one kind or another from several studies. However, it has been strongly disputed by dialectologists, who affirm that many of the morphemes and morphosyntactic patterns associated wit Creoles are well attested in British folk speech. There have been studies that claim that AAVE is a semi-Creole, suggesting that it did not undergo the full restructuring that result in Creole varieties.

Several facts could suggest thee AAVE developed from a Creole. Such facts include the initial setting of south Carolina by colonists and slaves from Barbados and the importation of the first Georgia slaves from south Carolina.

On the other hand, quantitative sociolinguists have focused on accounting for similarities between AAVE and white non-standard varieties of American English. While conceding that AAVE may have started as a Creole, Fasold and Lavob argue that its present grammar is essentially English, the normal outcome of the decreolisation hypothesis.. Labov states the following position as a consensus:

  • the black English vernacular is a subsystem of English with a distinct set of phonological and syntactic rules that are now aligned in many ways with rules of other dialects.

  • It incorporates many features of southern phonology, morphology and syntax; blacks in turn have exerted influence on the dialects of the south where they have lived.

  • It shows evidence of derivation from an earlier Creole that was closer to the present-day Creoles of the Caribbean.

  • It has a highly developed aspect system, quite different from other dialects of English, which shows a continuing development of its semantic structure.

  • Other authors accept this decreolisation hypothesis, and also believe in the influence of AAE on the speech of whites who have interacted regularly with African-American, especially in the rural south, thus making possible both options.

    To sum up, there is no agreement on this field, mainly because of the lack of diachronic evidence of the development of the language. There is no final answer to the question we posed at the beginning of the point, is it AAVE a Creole?