Bare Subject Relatives and the Sophisticated Complexity of AAE

[Trigger warning: My focus here is on a syntactic phenomenon, but a video example I'll be focusing on includes the threat of police violence and a man hypothesizing about his death at the hands of the police. The man in question is alive and unharmed.]

I've been thinking a lot lately about the complexity and sophistication of AAE syntax. Much of the work and outreach around AAE in the last 50 years has been trying to demonstrate that AAE is neither deficient nor wrong. There's a big jump, however, between not wrong, which is the end goal for many linguists, and marvelously rich, which seemingly hasn't percolated through the field much beyond AAE specialists. Christopher Hall, a colleague and friend, often implores lay people to flip the script and think about language with the starting point that AAE is the default against which other dialects should be judged.

My focus here is a syntactic feature of some varieties of African American English that doesn't get as much attention, but that is surprisingly common (especially in the South) is referred to as null subject relatives, or bare subject relative (clauses).

A recent, salient example can be found in this video a motorist took of himself chastising a cop for approaching his car with his (the officer's) service weapon drawn, about 15 seconds from the end. It probably goes without saying, but the video may be triggering for some.

[Link to video here]


The subtitles say "Dad shot dead by a cop who made a mistake," however this is yet another case of reporters "translating" AAE. The gentleman actually said:

"Dad shot dead by a cop made a mistake".

What's going on here?

Well, first, a relative clause is like a little mini sentence or sentence fragment that adds more information about a part of the main sentence. For instance:

  • That is the man [who I saw yesterday]
  • That is the man [who saw me yesterday]
  • The book [that I recommended to you] is on sale now.

In most varieties of English, you can delete -- that is, not say -- the relative marker (who, which, that), if it refers to the object of the relative clause.

To take the first example, the man who I saw yesterday, we can rework the relative clause as meaning something like "I saw him yesterday." In fact, many varieties of English make use of such resumptive pronouns, so it would be perfectly natural to say "That's the man who I saw him yesterday." And unsurprisingly, this kind of things is cross-linguistically common, and in some languages it's obligatory.

So if it's:

  • I (subject) saw him (object)

Most varieties of English allow you to do away with the relative marker:

  • That's the man who I saw yesterday
  • That's the man ___ I saw yesterday

AAE is interesting in that it also allows deletion of the relativizer if it marks the subject.

  • That's the man who saw me yesterday.
  • That's the man ___ saw me yesterday.

This is pretty well described in the literature, so for instance, Stefan Martin and Walt Wolfram have a chapter in Salikoko Mufwene's book African American English: Structure, History, and Use that gives a ton of excellent examples:

  • He the ___ man got all the old records
  • Wally the teacher ___ wanna retire next year
  • Jill like the man ___ met her brother last week

The above example in the video was particularly interesting because syntactic structure of the full utterance is extremely complex.

There's a pernicious and widespread view that AAE, or "ebonics" is somehow inferior or defective. It's widely regarded as both "simpler" than "standard" English, and simpler in ways that are "broken" or "wrong." However, not only does it have more complex grammar in some respects, but AAE speakers deploy sophisticated combinations of syntactic structures even under extreme stress. The sentence the motorist in the above video uttered makes use of:

  1. An "imposter" construction in which the speaker is understood to mean himself when using a name/title ("Daddy") instead of a first person pronoun ("I").
  2. Copula deletion ("Daddy shot" instead of "Daddy was shot"). This is very common cross linguistically, and is standard in Arabic, Chinese, Russian, etc.
  3. A resultative compliment to the verb ("shot dead")
  4. Passive voice --- with copula deletion --- which we understand because of the resultative. Compare "Daddy shot a gun" vs. "Daddy shot dead."
  5. A bare subject relative ("a cop ___ made a mistake").

This is a sophisticated interlocking clockwork of syntactic structures, produced under extreme stress. A tree diagram of this sentence would show all kinds of movement and deletion. And there's some evidence that people who speak other dialects do not have the complex grammatical knowledge to correctly parse this kind of utterance. And yet, people like this motorist are routinely treated as though their language is deficient.

It's a starting point for us linguists to point out that AAE is rule-governed and syntactically well-formed. However, I don't think this goes nearly far enough. "Technically not inferior" is a far cry from the truth: AAE is a varied, complex, sophisticated language variety that makes use of many complex grammatical rules that "standard" English lacks. AAE speakers are doing things other people don't understand, and not because the AAE speakers are wrong, but because they have a fuller syntactic toolbox.




©Taylor Jones 2017

Have a question or comment? Share your thoughts below!