Jennifer M. Cunningham
What linguist Geneva Smitherman calls African American Language (also called Ebonics, African American Vernacular English, black English, broken English, bad English, or slang) has been discounted as a lesser form of communication than other forms of spoken and written English. Our society perpetuates this stigma, remaining uninformed or misinformed about its linguistic complexity. Understood from a linguistics perspective, African American Language combines an English vocabulary (the words used) with an African grammar (the way the words are ordered and conjugated) and phonology (the way the words are pronounced). In that way, African American Language is not good or bad English because it is not, linguistically speaking, English. Further, African American Language, like other languages and dialects, follows rules and conventions and is correct and good in specific contexts.
Scholars like Lisa Delpit find that teachers in particular are more likely to correct errors related to African American Language, which is why teachers, professionals, and society at large need to understand that African American Language is different from and not a deficient form of Standard American English. The use of “standard” is problematic, suggesting that the United States does, in fact, have an accepted standard language. (Here, “standard” is used to differentiate the type of English preferred in academic and professional settings from other varieties of spoken and written American English; most writing courses aim to teach this type of language use.) Within the classroom or in a professional setting, these so-called errors need to be addressed in terms of language difference, code-switching, and expected conventions rather than a person’s misuse of English. These errors are not mistakes but,
instead, occur when a communicator does not understand or is not aware of differences between one language and another or when, how, or why to switch from one language to another. Understood that way, African American Language follows specific grammatical, phonological, and morphological rules—the ways words and sentences are ordered, conjugated, spelled, and pronounced is logical and rule-governed, not arbitrary, or wrong. Instead of following the rules of Standard American English, African American Language obeys specific linguistic patterns that tend to adhere to both American English and African language rules.
There are two primary hypotheses about the origin of African American Language. One theory suggests that African American Language is a dialect with English origins. The other theory maintains that African American Language is a language that developed from a mixture of languages used by people of different linguistic backgrounds in order to communicate and is a separate language made up of mostly English-language vocabulary words and West African grammatical and phonological rules. I am persuaded by the second hypothesis and maintain that Southern American English was influenced by African American Language, but the subject is controversial.
Linguists define languages according to their grammatical origins, not their vocabulary. For example, English is considered a Germanic language because its grammar follows Germanic rules, even though its vocabulary is largely French and Latin. Likewise, African American Language is more grammatically African than English, even though its vocabulary is English. Therefore, it follows logically that African American Language ought to be considered linguistically (according to scholars like Ernie Smith) an African language, separate from English, based on its grammatical origins in the Niger-Congo or western and southern parts of Africa. Defining African American Language as a separate language from Standard American English, situating African American Language as a valid, independent form of spoken and written communication.
Linguist Lisa Green has written an introduction to African American Language where she discusses its grammatical and phonological rules. For example, within African American Language, as with other Niger-Congo languages, there is a grammatical construction called zero copula, which means that sentences do not require the verb be (i.e., be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being) to be grammatically correct. Therefore, while some African American Language speakers could say She reading, Standard American English speakers
would say She is reading. Both are correct linguistically. There is also a construction that includes the word be known as habitual be, meaning that if the word be is used in a sentence, an action is consistent or regular. Therefore, She be reading means, in Standard American English, She reads all of the time.
Another grammatical feature common among African American Language is the negative concord; in other words, a double negative. Contrary to what some believe, language does not work like math, so including two negatives in a sentence does not make the sentence positive. In fact, many languages (e.g., French, Spanish, and Portuguese) include multiple negatives within a sentence for emphasis. That means that the African American Language sentence I ain’t got no time is grammatically correct and more emphatic than the Standard American English sentenceI don’t have any time. The use of ain’tis also grammatical in African American Language and can also be translated to the Standard American English word didn’t. For example, the African American Language sentence I ain’t take the money translates to I didn’t take the money in Standard American English. A phonological construction or sound found among African American Language is replacement of the th sound. The th sound (e.g., with and think) is actually an uncommon and difficult sound to produce if it is not part of a person’s first language. English is one of the few languages (as are Hindi, Greek, and Scottish) that include this sound, and people for whom English is not their first language make linguistic accommodations to approximate or recreate the sound by using replacement sounds. A person whose first language is French typically replaces the voiced th with another voiced sound, which, in French, is often a /z/. This specific replacement produces zis, zat, zese, zose for Standard American English this, that, these, and those. In African American Language, this same linguistic principle applies, and people for whom African American Language is their first language replace a voiced th sound with a /d/, producing dis, dat, dese, and dose. Likewise, African American Language speakers tend to replace a voiceless th sound (such as with) with another voiceless sound, usually a /d/ or /t/, which produces wif or wit. These few linguistic explanations serve as examples to rein-force the point that African American Language, whether spoken or written, is not bad English. In fact, African American Language follows many grammatical, phonological, and morphological patterns that do not exist in Standard American English. When
instructors, professionals, or society expect Standard Academic English among oral or written communication, but instead find instances of African American Language, it is not simply a problem of syntactical or grammatical errors within a single language. When we focus on the ways that African American Language and Standard American English are different, communicators are able to better understand, acquire, and switch between both, and society is more capable of recognizing the validity of the language and its users. Conflating the two into one linguistic variety is confusing at best and damaging at worst. We need to understand and explain African American Language and Standard American English as different languages, each with its own set of grammati-cal, phonological, and morphological rules (even though they share a lexicon or vocabulary). In the writing classroom, teachers can help students navigate Standard American English expectations while not suggesting a linguistic hierarchy. By speaking about language choices in terms of difference rather than deficiency and in relation to academic and nonacademic conventions, we can value both (or any) languages. Delpit suggests validating students by welcoming their home languages—and, therefore, their cultures and identities—into the classroom so they feel respected and might be more willing to add Standard American English to their linguistic repertoires. If students understand that different audiences and contexts expect different language choices and that African American Language is different from Standard American English but that neither is better or worse than the other, then they are better able to accept and use both proficiently.
For more about the origins, structure, and grammar of African American English, see Lisa J. Green’s book, African American English: An Introduction; Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin’ and Testifyin: The Language of Black America; and Mike Vuolo’s “Is Black English a Dialect or a Language?,” online at Slate.com. To learn more about how to support speakers of African American Language in the classroom, see N. LeMoine’s “Teachers’ Guide to Supporting African American Standard English Users: Understanding the Characteristic Linguistic features of African American Language as Contrasted with Standard English Structure”; H. Fogel and L. C. Ehri’s “Teaching African American
English forms to Standard American English-Speaking Teachers: Effects on Acquisition, Attitudes, and Responses to Student Use”; as well as Lisa Delpit’s “What Should Teachers Do About Ebonics?” and Delpit and J. K. Dowdy’s The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom.
Finally, PBS.org’s “Do You Speak American?” documentary is available online and has information about African American Language that might be useful in classroom discussions.
African American Language, African American Vernacular English, black English, Ebonics, grammar, linguistics, Standard American English, Standard English, Standard Written EnglishAuthor
Jennifer M. Cunningham is an associate professor of English at Kent State University at Stark. Her teaching and research center on the themes and connections among digital literacies, African American Language, and online pedagogies. Jennifer has a back-ground in composition, linguistics, and education, earning her B.A. in integrated language arts, her M.A. in composition and linguistics, and her Ph.D. in literacy, rhetoric, and social practice. Among other scholarly activities, she has developed and taught online versions of research writing and first-year composition and is currently researching social presence in online writing classes as well as digital African American Language and Nigerian Pidgin English within digital messages. Her Twitter handle is @jenmcun-ningham, and her website is http://jencunningham.weebly.com/.