African American English in the media

This American LifeThis week’s This American Life took on an interesting topic, having to do with identity and projection.  I recommend it to all.  But this is (mostly) a language blog, not an interesting-subject-npr blog.

I bring up This American Life because I had a personally interesting experience while listening to this episode on my way home from work having to do with language.  The prologue of the episode talks to two sets of twins, and while the story is interesting, what got me going was their use of African American English (AAE).

From the Podcast:

Faith (a high school girl) talking about why she doesn’t like her twin, who she says does bad stuff and plays it off on others:

1)    “Everything she do, they say, ‘Why y’all do that?’ They be thinkin’ it’s me.”

Later, talking about their principals trying to help:

2)    “I appreciate that they tryin’ to help, but I don’t like her.”

Both examples are nothing special, or undocumented phenomenon, of AAE; but it was the first time that I had heard natural use of both of these constructions and in the same moment understood them correctly.

Contrary to popular belief (and popular mis-representation), AAE does not simply drop or delete copula be (as in the second example) nor does it simply disregard conjugations (as in the first).  I should probably spend more time talking about language attitudes and authority, but we will stick to the grammar for now.

The copula doesn’t mean what you think it does.

For example (1), what is being expressed is what is known as a habitual aspect.  Standard English expresses the habitual in a couple of ways.  We may employ the use of an adverb such as:

3)    “I always go walking in the morning.”

Or, surprisingly to some people, English uses the simple present tense to convey habitual.  Note:

4)    A: “How do you keep in shape?”
B: “I walk.”

Notice, speaker B doesn’t mean that they are walking in that moment (i.e. the present), but that they are accustomed to walking regularly, in order to maintain health.  They habitually walk.

The habitual in Standard English is not so simply defined, however.  The simple present tense does a lot of leg-work.  Consider:

5)    “I know what to do.”

This form of the present notes states of being, and it is rightfully called the Stative.  In example (5), we are not saying we habitually know what to do, but that in that moment (in that state), we know what to do.  There are many other uses of the present tense, you can read about them here.

Back to the AAE in (1).  What we have isn’t simply a stubborn refusal to conjugate verbs, what we are seeing is the habitual aspect.  Notice how the phrase translates into (my) standard English:

6)    “Everything she does, they say, ’why did you do that?’ They think it’s me.”

Notice the slight off-ness of trying to translate it to, “they are thinking it’s me.”  It conveys a sense that, at that time, they think it is her.  Or even if we place it in the past, “they were thinking it’s me.”  Notice how this doesn’t fit semantically with the previous phrase, “Everything she do..”.  We are talking about something that is on-going, something that happens habitually.  The cleaner (and indeed, more correct) translation is to the SE use of the simple present habitual.

Now, number (2).  This may be understood as laziness and ungrammatical by some.  Faith seemingly forgets to add tense to her sentence (“are trying”).  But in reality, what we are seeing is a parallel feature to the Standard English contraction system.  Notice how it translates into SE.

7)    “I appreciate what they’re trying to do.”

We could translate it to, “they are”, but this would misrepresent the grammatical feature that is being employed in AAE.  Where SE contracts the verb to “’re”, AAE takes it one step further and omits it.  (A phenomenon that also occurs in Russian)

The systematic nature of be-omission in AAE actually follows the same rules that govern be-contraction in SE.  For example, in the following, ‘be’ cannot be contracted in standard English:

8)    “I don’t know where she is.”
*”I don’t know where she’s.”

Note that ‘be-omission’ and ‘be-contraction’ are not on a continuum.  It isn’t simply a slide from the contraction to the omission, but parallel rules that govern the same thing.  The AAE equivalent in (8) is not “I don’t know where she’s”, but “I don’t know where she is”.  Full inclusion of “be”.

To linguists, this conversation is old-news.  No one challenges the legitimacy of African American English as a legitimate language. (Though, jury is still out as to whether AAE is a dialect of the English language or whether it is a Creole.  An interesting discussion that I think is leaning towards ‘dialect’).  Unfortunately, linguists have frequently been dismayed at the hateful, racist and ignorant comments made by some of the general public concerning AAE. The Ebonics debate of the 1990s comes to mind readily.  It can be difficult, but it is certainly a consciousness-raiser to recognize both the complexity and systematic organization of AAE.

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