African American English and Cross Dialect Comprehension

A while back, I wrote a handful of tweets in response to someone describing a linguist giving students a test on their comprehension of African American English. I explained that I am a linguist and part of what I study is cross-dialect comprehension between AAE and mainstream, “classroom” (white) English. Or really, the lack of comprehension on the part of the mainstream speakers. The tweet was seen by over 50,000 people (!) and a lot of people asked for DMs with more information about AAE. I figured it was easier to put some information all in one place here.

I’ve written elsewhere about what AAE is, and about borrowing and appropriation, especially those based on not quite understanding what is being borrowed, but here I want to dig a little more into whether and to what extent people who don’t speak AAE actually understand it.

I have a co-authored paper under review right now that I won’t discuss further here, that investigates to what extent court reporters understand and accurately transcribe AAE, which I will blog about once it’s published (spoilers: it’s bad out there). Below is a primer on AAE, a handful of things that are not understood by non-AAE-speakers, and some recommended readings.

A quick primer on AAE:

AAE is a dialect spoken primarily but not exclusively by black Americans, and is the language associated primarily with the descendants of slaves in the American South. It is a systematic, rule-governed, logical, fully-formed language variety, and it differs significantly from other varieties of English, across all levels of the language (that is, the phonology, or sound system, is different, it has different grammatical rules, etc.). It is important to note that AAE has different grammatical rules than standard English, and not that it has no grammatical rules. Therefore, it is absolutely possible to speak it wrong — something white people who are ignorant of the rules do often when imitating black people who speak AAE.

The accent of AAE is different from white accents, and because of segregation, people in the same city often have very different accents depending on race. Take Chicago for instance. The stereotypical white Chicago accent exhibits what’s called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which SNL made fun of with their sketch about “da bears.” But that’s not the only Chicago accent. Think about it: does Kanye West sound like that?

It’s actually not fair to say the accent of AAE, since there’s regional differences (Michael B. Jordan (Philly) sounds nothing like Ryan Coogler (Bay area)). In fact, my dissertation research is on regional variation in AAE accents (if you identify as black and grew up in the US, please think about participating in my anonymous survey — it takes 3-4 minutes and can be found here:

The grammar:

When I talk about cross-dialect comprehension, different accents definitely play a part, but so does very different grammar. There’s not much research on how well non-AAE speakers understand or don’t understand AAE, but what there is does not look good.

Labov 1972 found that white teachers in Harlem did not understand habitual be or stressed been. When given the secnario “you ask a child if he did his homework, and he replies ‘I been did my homework’” most incorrectly interpreted that to mean the child had not completed their homework. (see #2 below) Similarly, Rickford 1975 mentions an informal survey in which white participants took “they been got married” to mean a number of different, all wrong things.

Arthur Spears coined the term “camouflage construction” for constructions in AAE that look like they mean something in standard English, but really mean something else. He did this initially when describing “indignant come”, which is a marker of indignation, not a verb of motion. John Rickford and a few of his students did work on the use of had in preterite, not perfective, constructions. Christopher Hall and I have written on first person use of a nigga, and have a paper under review right now dealing with more than 10 different uses of “the n-word” in AAE that are distinct from those available to speakers of other dialects. I’ve written about “talkin’ ‘bout'“ as a verb of quotation.

But beyond a handful of papers on individual morphosyntactic features of AAE, there’s not really any research on how well other people actually understand it. We know they don’t always understand habitual be, but not at what rate they do or don’t. Same for a ton of other features. The court reporter paper I mentioned above is, to my knowledge, the first quantitative test of cross-dialect comprehension for almost all of the features mentioned in it.

What is unique to AAE? What is not understood by others?

Keeping in mind that there’s not much quantitative research on this, I can at least point to a handful of differences between AAE and other language varieties that lead to confusion or miscomprehension. Here’s a partial list:

  1. Habitual be: he be workin’ does not mean “he is at work” or “he is working.” It means he works, usually or often. In fact, a sentence like this can imply he’s not currently at work. I wrote a short post about it here, comparing hiring ads for fast food restaurants. This is one of the earliest features that sociolinguists focused on. Bill Labov, Walt Wolfram, and John Rickford, as well as many, many others have written about this.

  2. stressed been: This refers to actions completed in the distant past. So I been did my homework means I finished it a long time ago. I been told you that means I told you a long time ago. They been got married means they got married a long time ago, and still are. It does not mean the same thing as standard English “have been” as in I have been doing my homework — which implies I didn’t finish yet. John Rickford has written extensively about this.

  3. Preterite had: This is use of “had” for past events, but not to situate them before others. I had went to the store means the same thing as “I went to the store”, although it may have a different function in terms of emotion in a narrative. John Rickford has written extensively about this.

  4. Quotative “talkin’ ‘bout”: This is “talkin’ ‘bout” used the same way white people use “like” as in “he was all like ‘oh my god’”. It’s often used with indignant come, and often used in a mocking context. I wrote a paper about it available here. It’s also touched on in Arthur Spears’ work on indignant come, and in Patricia Cukor-Avila’s work on verbs of quotation.

  5. First person a nigga: this is where a nigga means the same thing as “me” or “I”. I have blogged about it here, I have a paper in conference proceedings about it here, and Christopher S. Hall and I have a paper about it (and other n-words) under review right now.

  6. Negative Auxiliary Inversion: This is don’t nobody never instead of “nobody (n)ever does”. Interestingly, there’s some evidence that without context, people who don’t speak AAE interpret these as commands. Lisa Green has written about the grammar of this construction.

  7. Question Inversion in subordinate clauses: instead of “I was wondering whether you did it,” you may hear I was wondering did you do it. Lisa Green has written about this. There’s some evidence that it’s below the level of consciousness even for middle class speakers of what Arthur Spears calls AASE (African American Standard English).

  8. The associative plural nem (an’ them"): to my knowledge, there’s only one sentence on this in the sociolinguistics literature, in a book chapter written by Salikoko Mufwene (in African American English: Structure, History, and Use). This functions the same as associative plurals in other languages (like Zulu). Saying Malik nem (or “Malik an’ ‘em") means “Malik and the people associated with him” and from context it’s clear who that means. Could be family, could be friends, could be the people he’s sitting with right now. I have an aunt (it the African American family-by-choice-not-blood kind of way) named M., and stay asking about M nem.

  9. Stay for regular or repeated action: He stay acting stupid does not mean “he’s still acting stupid” or “he remains acting stupid” but rather, he consistently, repeatedly acts stupid.

  10. It instead of there: it’s a lot of people means “There are a lot of people”…

  11. Deletion of the subject relative pronoun: Standard English can delete “who” when referring to a person in a subordinate clause only if the person is the direct object (“That’s the man who I saw yesterday” or “Thats the man I saw yesterday”). AAE can delete the subject version (That’s the man saw me yesterday). I recently heard 10 and 11 combined, on the radio: It’s a lot of people don’t go there (meaning, there are a lot of people who don’t go there).

  12. finna and tryna as immediate future markers: There’s one conference paper written by an undergrad (who I think didn’t continue to grad school in linguistics) about tryna as marking intent or immediate future action. There’s an entire court case where the appeal decision hinged on whether finna was a word and what it means. Both can be used to mean you’re about to do something.

  13. be done: White folks often know done as in “he done hit him!” but don’t know be done as in “I be done gone to bed when he be getting off work” meaning “I’ve usually already gone to bed when he is getting off work”. There’s also the be done familiar from the crows in Dumbo: I’ll be done seen most everything when I seen an elephant fly, which is a slightly different construction.

  14. Set expressions, idioms, clichés: Things like it be that way sometimes, or what had happened was are not always understood, or even recognized as set expressions.

There plenty of others, but these are the main ones (in my opinion). And of course, these can all combine with each other in longer sentences (“it be a lot of people talkin’ ‘bout ‘why she always be hanging out with Malik nem?’”). Combine that with a completely different accent, even (especially?) in the same city, and you have a recipe for total miscomprehension.

The interesting thing for me, though, is that from both personal anecdotal experience and some limited research, it appears that people who don’t speak AAE, especially white folks, generally assume (1) black folks are speaking “broken” English, and (2) that they understand it even when they don’t. So people will hear I been told you that and assume it means “I have been telling you that” and that the speaker just…said that wrong. Both sentence structures exist in AAE, and they mean different things. But only one exists in “classroom” English.

Some good readings:

There’s not a lot of material aimed at regular people instead of linguists, however, I highly recommend a few books:

  • Spoken Soul (Rickford and Rickford)

  • African American English: A Linguistic Introduction (Lisa Green)

  • Language and the Inner City (William Labov — this one is from 1972, at the beginning of AAE being taken seriously as an object of study).

  • African American English: Structure, History, and Use (ed. Salikoko Mufwene)

  • The Oxford Handbook of African American Language (ed. Sonja Lanehart. This one is massive and new, but a lot of it is very technical).



©Taylor Jones 2018