A Malefactive in African American English

This is a quick post about something I've heard all my life in AAE speech communities but haven't seen discussed, well, really anywhere. 

Benefactives and Malefactives in English

A lot of languages can take a verb and mark whether it was done with kind or harmful intent toward someone else. In ('standard') English, the benefactive marker is a separate word that introduces the recipient, and that word is for. For example:

  • She baked a cake for me. (meaning either, she baked a cake with the intention that I eat it, or she baked a cake so I wouldn't have to).
  • He made a phone call for me. (meaning he made a phone call so I wouldn't have to, or on my behalf).

Other languages may mark this differently (for instance, Zulu adds the infix -el- just before the end of the verb). 

English also has a very limited malefactive marker: on. For instance:

  • She hung up on me
  • She walked out on me
  • He told on me

But you can't just use it with anything:

  • ??? She baked a cake on me

That said, some non-standard varieties allow for much more productive use of malefactive on. For instance, my (somewhat Southern) grammar lets me say it so long as the verb is prefaced with up and, as in:

  • She up and baked a cake on me (meaning: She surprised me by baking a cake, contrary to my expectations and possibly with some negative effect on me...but not physically on me in any sense).

An AAE only Malefactive

I've been thinking about this recently, and noticed something that's not grammatical in other varieties of English: to (tell a) lie on someone. Examples:

  • She told a lie on him
  • He would never tell a lie on her

I've asked a few people who use this, and they agree it's equivalent in meaning (but not in mood!) to telling a lie about someone, and doesn't mean to tell a lie to someone. 



©Taylor Jones 2018

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