The Influences of Africanisms on American English: The Variety of Afro-American English

Term Paper 2009 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



A. 1. – Language change and changes in meaning: the African – American variety of English - a dialect, vernacular, or slang?

B – African- American Vernacular English (AAVE) in America – relevant patterns of black speech
B. 1. – Ain’t, Yo, wonna, c’mon – a different type of grammar
B. 1. 1. – Copula Absence
B. 1. 2. – 3rd person singular –s, possessive –s, and plural –s absence
B. 1. 3. – The –izzy- words
B. 2. – Chill out homey – a different type of vocabulary and meaning

C – African American Semantics
C. 1. – The N –Words. Different meanings and types – nigguh, nigger, nigga, negro
C. 2. – From “What’s up” to “Was geht” – How African American English influences the media and even other languages

D – Conclusion

E – Bibliography


A. 1. – Language change and changes in meaning: the African – American variety of English - a dialect, vernacular, or slang?

There are many different types of the English language. Primarily there are distinctions between regional varieties, like British English (British Standard English resp. RP) and American English (AE). Those two differ in their linguistic characteristics, for example the pronunciation, namely the orthography and its phonetic realization. This term paper deals with the African-American variety of English, its special features, and shows how meaning can differ from Standard American English to the African American variety of English. African American Vernacular English (AAVE); also variously called African American English (AAE), African American Language (AAL), Afro-American English and less precisely Black English (BE), Black Language (BL), Black English Vernacular (BEV), Black Vernacular English (BVE) or Ebonics, which is used especially by those peoples who maintain that this variety has African origins, is an African American variety of American English (Tootie 2002: 218). Or how Smitherman would call it, a style of speaking English words with Black flava (2006: 3). Even without being to the United States, most people have heard samples of AAVE through movies or rap lyrics. “African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is the term most current among linguistics today” (Tootie 2002: 218) and so will I use this expression in the following. AAVE is considered as an ethnic or social dialect because this variety of English is spoken by the majority of the Black population, mainly the Black youth, although it is spoken by some White urban youth (McDonald 1997). A dialect not only depends on regional variations, it also depends on social and ethnic factors (Mc Donald 1997). Therefore the term variety equals the term dialect (Smitherman 2006: 15). Additionally to this, the African-American variety of English is also a vernacular, like the term AAVE, for this variety, even labels. “Black English Vernacular (BEV) is the everyday language commonly spoken by African Americans in social settings” (Anderson 1994: 7). “The term vernacular refers to the everyday language spoken by a people or speech community, often a non-standard variety” (Tootie 2002: 218). But AAVE is not used by all African American speakers. “Well-educated members of the black middle class use fewer of the features of AAVE and speak in a way that is similar to that of white middle-class speakers”, and even “young speakers of AAVE tend to have more of its features than older speakers” (Tootie 2002: 226). Consequently AAVE is widely spread among young and less educated black people. This may introduce the question whether AAVE is slang. Slang words are considered to be informal. Wolfram mentions that slang is “associated with minority ethnic groups” (2006: 72) that it has “a potential for indicating a special familiarity with a group outside of the mainstream adult population” (2006: 72) because the special in-group meaning used by African Americans with terms like brother, bro, sister or girl refers to other African Americans (2006: 72), and that slang words also function as synonyms for neutral and conventional words. The usage of synonyms is considered to be an intentional replacement of the conventional, and a deliberate defiance of proper behaviour (Wolfram 2002: 73). In a way dialect and slang seems to overlap. Slang is colloquial, and not limited to regions like dialects. Whereas AAVE is a social dialect and is mainly used by Black Americans, it may be stigmatized as bad or informal (Luomala 1997) especially from those outside this social speech community, namely speakers of Standard English (SE). That is why AAVE may be considered as slang, but eventually it is not. Starting with slavery between the late 16th century and mid 19th century (McArthur 1998), and the resulting usage of “English-based pidgins (a pidgin is a variety of a language which developed for some practical purpose, such as trading, among groups of people who did not know each other’s languages) and creoles (a pidgin which has become the first language of a social community)” (Luomala 1997) led on to the origin of AAVE. Therefore AAVE is still important for Black Americans, because it is used for “communicative events which may be described as “in-group associations” (Luomala 1997). Using AAVE Black Americans identify their selves as Black Americans. This illustrates the social aspects of this variety of American English, and falsifies that AAVE is slang. Speaking “Black English” is an aspect of “black identity” as well as a “standard American” (regardless of race or ethnic group) speaks “Standard English” (Luomala 1997). Whereas slang is avoided by people with a high socio-economic status, a social dialect, such as AAVE, unifies a group of people, namely Black American. It is rather the case, that “there are thousands upon thousands of slang words, metaphors and terms banding together to form this incomparable dialect” (Kearse 2006: xi), so that slang may be a part AAVE because slang is not restricted to the Black speech community, and is also used by White Americans. Slang is used by people every day to talk and communicate (Eble 2003: 154). So AAVE would be a part of slang concerning the black population, if wrongly labelled as slang, and that wouldn’t be a sufficient term for this variety. A “bad” English is often referred to as slang (Winford 2003: 27), whereas AAVE is not a “bad” style of speaking English. It is a variety of American English and has an ethnic and cultural background and identity (Winford 2003: 27 and Wolfram 2006: 18). AAVE “implies a language variety that combines surface features of Anglo English with deep-structural influences of West African languages” (Alim 2007: 35). In the next two chapters relevant patterns of AAVE and different meanings of expressions used in AAVE are described.

B – African- American Vernacular English (AAVE) in America – relevant patterns of black speech

B. 1. – Ain’t, Yo, wonna, c’mon – a different type of grammar

In every language there are special ways of using grammar. And even in African American English, though it is a variation, there is a different way of using grammar in comparison to Standard English (SE). “It has features unique to its subsystem as well as features of the general system of English grammar. It has its own rules of grammar and phonology” (Luomala 1997). Although AAVE is perceived as “bad English” in the view of most Americans it has a grammatical structure (Alim 2007: 33). Negation in AAVE differs from negation in SE. Ain’t is standing for forms of be, have, and do plus not (Tootie 2002: 233).



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Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel – Englisches Seminar
Influences Africanisms American English Variety Afro-American




Title: The Influences of Africanisms on American English: The Variety of Afro-American English