African American English Dialect: What It Does to the English Language

In partnership with CORE, Dr. Julie A. Washington, Professor of Psychology Georgia State University, leads a fascinating webinar full of information about the characteristics of African American English dialect, the impact of poverty on language, implications for the classroom, and more.

In this webinar, you will learn:

  • Key features of African American English dialect including pronoun changes, morpheme deletion and more
  • Implications for reading, comprehension and student achievement in the classroom
  • The relationship of dialect to reading achievement
  • And much more!

Below is an overview (not a comprehensive list!) of the most recognizable differences in African American English vs. Standard English. Dive deeper into these interesting characteristics by watching Dr. Washington’s webinar.

Features of African American English Dialect: Adding and Deleting Morphemes

Listen for the African American English vernacular examples where morphemes are added or subtracted. For instance, it is common to delete the following morphemes in African American English dialect:

  • The possessive “s” (“I ride in my brother_ car”)
  • The past tense “s” (“And then he fix_ the food”)
  • The plural form “s” (“A girl puttin’ some glass_ on the table”)
  • And the third person singular “s” (“Sometimes she wear_ a baseball cap”)

Features of African American English Dialect: Transforming the Main Verb in the Verb Phrase

Another common feature of the African American English dialect is the transformation of the main verb in a verb phrase. The first two transformations are common for any African American English dialect speaker, regardless of their socioeconomic status:

  • Deletion of the copula/auxiliary (“He _ runnin’ fast,” “He _ hungry”)
  • Subject-verb agreement (“They was lookin’ for the big dog”)

And the following three verb transformations are quite common as well:

  • Habitual be (“He be gettin’ some ice cream”); note that the habitual “be” can’t be thrown in to just any context, an action must be happening repeatedly — in other words, if the sentence would end with “all the time” (he be gettin’ some ice cream all the time), the habitual be is appropriate
  • Remote past been (“I been knowin’ how to swim”); this transformation is especially recognizable as a Southern-based African American English vernacular example

Features of African American English Dialect: Changing Pronouns

Pronouns can undergo a transformation of their own when comparing African American English  vs Standard English. Three examples that you might recognize are:

  • Undifferentiated pronoun case (“Them pullin’ them up the hill”)
  • Regularized reflexive (“He hurt hisself when he fell off his bike”); this example is especially prevalent in children
  • Appositive pronoun (“My mama she took me to the movies”); Dr. Washington calls the appositive pronoun “one of her favorite” African American English vernacular examples

Features of African American English Dialect: Impacting Phonology

The ways that African American English dialect impacts phonology can become a concern in regards to reading and comprehension. Common examples of phonology changes include:

  • f/θ, v/ð and t/θ in intervocalic and postvocalic positions (wif/with; bave/bathe; wit/with)
  • d/ð in prevocalic positions (dis/this; dem/them)
  • Consonant cluster reduction (col-/cold); this occurs when you find two consonants or more at the end of a word, resulting in one of those clustered letters, usually the last, being deleted. Consonant cluster reduction can have implications in comprehension (as in the col-/cold example above, when “coal” is already a separate word) and a student’s reaction time may be impacted.

You can see that African American English dialect is rich and varied. Explore Dr. Washington’s full webinar to examine additional African American English vernacular examples and understand more of AAE’s implications in reading, writing, comprehension, and ultimately achievement in the classroom.

Video Transcript

So, what does it do to English? Many of you will recognize it when we talk about what the features are. This is an overview of the features. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s some of the major things that you’ll see in African American English. It adds and deletes morphemes, so the possessive S is often deleted, as is zero past tense, the pleural forms, and third person singular S, so, “I ride in my brother car,” instead of, “I ride in my brother’s car,” “A girl putting some glass on the table,” instead of, “Some glasses,” and we know it’s glasses because she used the word some before she said glass, so deletion of these grammatical morphemes actually is very common in African American English.

It also transforms the main verb and the verb phrase. These top two features, deletion of copula and auxiliary, which are forms of the verb to be, and subject-verb agreement are the two most common features in African American English, and if a child is an African American English speaker, regardless of their socioeconomic status, they will be using these top two, “He running fast,” “He hungry,” “This a red car,” “She going home.” Those are all very common.

Then there’s habitual be, which many people seem to know and recognize as a feature of dialect, and that is use of the infinitive form be, regardless of the subject. You can say, “He be,” “She be,” “They be,” “The dog be,” but you’d never conjugate be. The thing that’s important about this is the habitual nature of it, though. You can’t just throw be in anywhere. It’s something where it happens repeatedly. So anytime you see be, you should be able to put at the end of the sentence, “All the time.” So, “He be getting some ice cream,” means, “He be getting some all the time,” not just he is getting some, so it has a particular meaning and a particular use, and remember, it’s oral language.

Remote past been. “I been knowing how to swim.” I include this one, because there are always Southerners in the group, and you know that this is a Southern feature, and African American English, historically, has its roots in the South. Most African American people in this country have their roots in the South, and when they left the South, they took this dialect with them. So when you find African American people in Maine, or Florida, I grew up in Seattle, or in the middle of the country, in Texas, you’ll find that this dialect is spoken wherever African American people are as a community, and that’s how it came to be known as a cultural dialect. But it has its roots in the South, as African American people have our roots in the South. I grew up in Seattle, but my parents are from Texas and Arkansas.

It also changes pronouns, so the regularized reflexive is one you’ll see a lot in kids, hisself, sheself, theyself, and then the appositive pronoun, which is one of my favorite ones actually, is the case where the noun and the pronoun both appear together, so, “My mama, she,” “My daddy, he,” “My cousins, they,” and in mainstream American English, you would use one or the other.

It also impacts phonology, which becomes a concern, certainly also with reading. The top one people typically tend to recognize, and I’ve already used it as an example, F for voiceless T-H, wif and with, V for voiced T-H, so bave and baving, and T for voiceless T-H, wit instead of with. Then the second one, the D for voiced T-H in the initial position, dis, dat, dem, dose, is really common.

Then the last one, consonant cluster reduction, is very, very common. This is where when there is a consonant cluster at the end of a word, that’s two consonants or more, one of them, typically the last one, is deleted. In that case, what you hear is words that sound kind of like a continuous speech stream, because the ends of words have no boundaries. The other thing that’s interesting about consonant cluster reduction is you’ll see, like in the case of the one that’s on the screen, when you reduce the D and it goes from col to cold, coal actually is a word in American English, so you have reduced one word and created something that actually is another word in English. So one of the things we’re interested in is, when there are a number of these going on in the speech stream, how does it impact comprehension? We don’t think that the kids don’t comprehend, but that their reaction time might be impacted while they try to discriminate what word it is that’s being used in the context in which it’s being used.

That’s African American English, and that’s what it does to English.