Why you probably didn't understand that one guy from Atlanta

When the first few episodes of Donald Glover's show Atlanta on FX aired, a lot of people were blown away by the writing and acting on the show and praised the authenticity of the characters. Others, however, were blown away by the fact that they simply did not understand what some of the characters were saying.




In particular, there's a short scene in which Donald Glover's character is in a detention center and is subjected to a short monologue by a man he met there, about how the man came to be in jail. I have included it here (under educational "fair use" --- FX still retains all rights. The scene is from Season 1, Episode 2. Season 1 can be purchased on YouTube, iTunes, etc.).

Much of my research is on regional variation, and on to what extent people understand different accents and dialects. I should say first, and most importantly, there is nothing wrong with this man. The character is not in any way intended as impaired (yes, I'm addressing this because it has been expressed to me). The way he speaks is a regional dialect, not any sort of personal idiosyncrasy. Plenty of other people from Atlanta, including some very famous people from Atlanta have the same accent. Some of them make a living as wordsmiths (Rich Homie Quan, Plies).

I have taken the liberty of transcribing the clip, and analyzing what the main triggers for misunderstanding are. I've been led to believe that his speech is typical of a certain subset of the population in Atlanta, and while there are more and more characterizations of regional varieties of African American English, to my knowledge Atlanta AAE is still under studied and under described.

The Transcript, for the curious:

I don’t believe this shit.

Ridiculous, man.

What'd you, uh, what'd you do to get in here?


Damn, man!

I should've just went home, boy.

Instead I’m in here locked up 'cuz of this fool I ain’t seen in about eleven years, man.

Boy I was at Five Points, bout to catch the bus, you feel me?

and this nigga I ain’t seen in eleven years come here talkin' 'bout “man, hey, listen here, hey boy I ain’t seen you in about eleven years boy, let’s hang out. go get a beer.”

So I follow him to the god damn gas station.

We get two beers.

We aint get but two of them, but they was the big ones, though.

They were the big ones.

Mmm, anyway, so, nigga like “man, come on let’s go-- go-- go to the house and drink ‘em.”

So we get to the house he’s like “man. My old lady.”

And so we just gonna drink ‘em on the porch. Feel me?

I’m like “boy, APD be rollin through here boy.”

And he, and he done talked me into it.

So sure enough, APD done rolled up and seen the god damn two cans out there, locked me up for public intoxication.

You know what I’m talking about?

Man, I’m in here man cuz this nigga, man, I ain’t seen (in) eleven years. Man, I’m gonna be in here till tuesday cuz I ain’t cashed my check.`

[That’s messed up]

Oh man, I should’ve went home, boy. Shit!

[Damn, man, I said I was sorry. I just ain’t seent you in like twelve years—]

Man! Fuck you Grady! Shut up!   

While some of the things people may misunderstand are questions of morphology (what word forms he uses) and syntax (how they fit together), I think far, far more important is his accent. Not only is the US still quite segregated, but --- some rappers notwithstanding --- much of the mainstream has almost no exposure to African American English from Atlanta. The triggers for misunderstanding are:

  1. AAE vowels: He has a number of features that are common across many regions, including the PIN-PEN merger (both words sound like "pin", and this extends to all words with en or em), monophthongization of ay so five might be more like fahv, etc.
  2. A shift in AAE vowels unique to the south: Just as white people from Chicago have vowels that have "rotated" from where many other Americans pronounce them ("I ride the boss to my jab!"), this guy's vowels are different than what you might expect if you're not familiar with his accent. For instance, his catch sounds like kitsch to most people, and his just sounds like jest to most people (the vowel is [ɛ], not [ʌ]).
  3. A strong preference for "open syllables." If we represent consonants with C, vowels with V, and syllable breaks with "." then there's a strong preference to reduce syllables to CV.CV.CV This generally means deleting anything after the vowel, unless it's an n or m, in which case that ends up just making the vowel nasalized, as in French. This means that believe (CV.CVC) is pronounced belee (in IPA: [bəli:]), fiveis pronounced fa, let's is pronunced leh,  and just (CVCC) is pronounced as jeh (CV) (in IPA: [d͡ʒɛ]). For many people this kills their ability to understand what they're hearing, although interestingly, it shouldn't necessarily.
  4. Deletion of unstressed syllables: public intoxication is pub toxication, eleven is lebm.
  5. AAE specific syntax: talmbout to introduce quotes (this nigga I ain’t seen in eleven years come here talmbout “man, hey, listen here, hey boy I ain’t seen you in about eleven years boy, let’s hang out. go get a beer.” to mean "this guy I hadn't seen in 11 years was like..."); nigga to refer to specific people; habitual be to mark usual or habitual behavior (APD be rollin' through here meaning "APD often comes this way"); perfective done to mark completed actions (And he, and he done talked me into it meaning "he (successfully) talked me into it"); and so on.
  6. Word final devoicing: sounds like b,d,g,v,z, are realized as p,t,k,f,s respectively, if they are at the end of a word. Moreover, b,d,g and p,t,k can be come a glottal stop (the sound in the middle of 'uh-oh') at the ends of words.
  7. Atlanta specific knowledge: APD is the Atlanta Police Department, Five Points is a place. If you understand the rest, you can figure this out from context. If not, you're cooked.
  8. The use of bwa ("boy") as a term of address, along with other (reduced) filler, like his very fast, very reduced "you know what I'm talking about."

All of these factors interact, so boy, I was at five points about to catch the bus ends up sounding to many white folks like bwa awa a' fapoi bouda kitschabuh yafih me? So many viewers who have never been exposed to Atlanta AAE could not even begin to figure out where the word boundaries are, let alone what the words themselves were. And even if you do figure out the word boundaries, many people might still be confused: I should a jeh went home bwa is just different enough for some people to think "man, I'm not sure what that was."

Some Notes

Syllable Codas:

Lots of research on AAE discusses deletion or reduction of things that happen at the ends of syllables or the ends of words, but they're all taken (justifiably) as different phenomena. So there's a rich literature on AAE that discusses:

  • possessive -s deletion: this is how you get things like baby mama for baby's mama. Or my best friend apartment door for my best friend's apartment's door. Basically, sometimes word final -s is deleted.
  • consonant cluster reduction: if a word ends in consonants that are pronounced with the tongue in the same location, you can drop the second if both are voiced or both are unvoiced: e.g., hand -> han', just -> juss. Basically, clusters of consonants sometimes lose some of those consonants.
  • deletion or vocalization ( = making a vowel) of r after vowels: The speaker above does this a lot. Vocalization is most clear in how he pronounces beer as biyuh. Basically, r sometimes is deleted.
  • deletion or vocalization of l after vowels: The speaker above does this a lot as well. An example is his pronunciation of fool as foow. Basically, l is sometimes deleted.

HOWEVER, there are ton of phenomena I've noticed but which are practically absent in the literature on AAE. For instance, the deletion of /v/ after vowels, which to my knowledge is only mentioned in one sentence in one article on AAE (Thomas, 2007). Most AAE speakers I know do this all the time, and the guy above is no exception: five points is fa poi (for the linguists: [fa.pɔ͡ɪʔ ]), believe is belee, etc.

Moreover, the discussion of the above syllable "coda phenomena" does not explain a lot of what the above speaker does. Entire syllable codas just disappear. The current literature on AAE states that people may delete the /t/ in just, but there's no real account for people who say things like jeh for just or gluh for gloves (in this case, I'm thinking of a famous-to-sociolinguists speaker from Philadelphia, recorded in 1981), or krima lih for Christmas List (e.g., everyone's favorite rapper, Plies.) Often, it's multiple morphemes (meaningful word 'pieces').

This is a topic I'm currently working on, and hope to have more to say later about the seeming dis-preference for codas in some varieties of AAE. For many, many words, it does not affect your ability to recover exactly what word was uttered. For instance, my fingers are cold because I forgot my gluh should be really easy to parse, because (1) there's no word gluh that would make you have to choose between possible words, and (2) context. We do this kind of thing all the time, since we don't always hear (or say) all the sounds in words. Spoken language does a really good job with a "noisy channel."

(For the linguists: While I'm writing about it, I might as well be the first to claim that: All obstruents higher on the sonority hierarchy than stops can be deleted syllable or word finally, and stops can all be realized as a glottal stop alone, for some varieties of AAE. Today, for instance, I heard [bli:ʔɪn] for bleeding)

The above speaker has pretty extreme reduction of codas, so let's hang out is leheygao:


but many viewers might be listening for something more like:



There seems to be a further vowel shift in progress in Atlanta AAE which has not been discussed much in the literature on AAE. Beyond what you would expect from southern AAE, a lot of Atlanta speakers have a couple of different vowels that what might be expected. A lot of linguists use what are called Lexical Sets to discuss accents. What this means is that we can talk about an entire class of words that all have the same vowel, and then state "the vowel in all of those words is thus-and-such in thus-and-such accent."  For instance, in most varieties of American English, the STRUT vowel (the vowel in words like strut, just, cuss, bus, cub, rub, hum, lunch) is written in IPA as [ʌ]. In the above clip:

  • the STRUT vowel is sometimes [ɛ].  So words like just and shut upsound a little like jest and shet epp. But bus is still [ʌ].
  • the TRAP vowel is sometimes [ɪ], which for most Americans is the vowel in words like ship, rip, dim. This is most pronounced in catch from catch the bus.

Overall difference:

There is a wealth of research on how we parse accents, and a couple of factors are at play here. First, AAE is heavily stigmatized in the US. The more it differs from middle class, 'standard', white speech, the more stigmatized it is. Second, because of the segregation in this country, many white folks simply do not understand AAE, even when we think we do (e.g., Rickford 1998, Rickford & King 2016, Jones & Kalbfeld 2017). Third, regardless the accent, when it's perceived to be difficult to understand, rather than improving with more exposure, experiments show that people basically shut down, and stop trying to parse it. Lastly, given racial/ethnic cues, people perceive accents where there aren't any. Here, there is clearly an accent, but the relevance of the last point is that people may already be predisposed to consider a black man in a jail detention center "hard to understand," or even "impossible to understand," and "not worth the effort."

A handful of my non-black friends assumed that the point of the scene was basically a gag -- that the guy was incomprehensible. I don't think that was the case, and that doesn't seem to be the impression my AAE speaking friends had either. He's just real Atlanta. That's part of why people love the show: there are tons of types of people that know from their daily lives that you just don't see on TV, but Atlanta gives them a spotlight, if only for a minute.

More broadly, though, the above points to a lot of interesting historical and sociological phenomena. Language change occurs when populations are separated. Generally, the way this is taught is by giving examples of European villages separated by mountains, where one town speaks differently than the next town over, because they don't interact often. However, as I'm going to argue in my dissertation, some populations in the US are separated by invisible mountains: residential and educational segregation. For some people, popular music, film, and television (including Atlanta) are now providing limited contact with people from "the other side of the mountain."




©Taylor Jones 2017

Have a question or comment? Share your thoughts below!