2. Features of African American Vernacular English
2.2 Morphology and Syntax
2.2.1 Verbal markers and tenses
2.2.2 Copula Variation
2.2.3 Modus: Passive Constructions
2.2.4 Nouns and pronouns
In this seminar paper I am going to give an overview of some distinctive features of African American Vernacular English.
Since drama in general aims to demonstrate everyday speech, I will also give evidence from the drama “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Vivian Hansberry from 1959. This will underline these features as well as their use and show their practicability in speech.
Generally speaking, the term vernacular describes a variety of speech which is often analyzed in contrast to the Standard of a language and which is used by a certain group of speakers.
The term African American Vernacular English (AAVE) thus describes a dialect used by African Americans.
When the Spanish imported Africans to work for them on sugar and cotton plantations as early as 1517, they avoided bringing those with the same African language or culture together. In doing so, conspiracies and rebellion should be prevented. By and by, their different original African languages and dialects mixed with each other as well as with the English language in order to find a way of communication with fellow slaves and Americans. This way, different language features had the chance to mingle. (Crystal 1997: 96f) Many of them influenced today’s African American English.
In course of time this variety has also been called “Black Vernacular English, Vernacular Black English, Black English Vernacular, Afro-American English, or simply Black English”. (Crystal 2003: 491) The African American Vernacular is a variety of the English language that “has set phonological (system of sounds), morphological (system of structure of words and relationship among words), syntactic (system of sentence structure), semantic (system of meaning) and lexical (structural organization of vocabulary items and other information) patterns”. (Green 2002: 1) In the course of this term paper I will take a closer look at these patterns.
However, it has to be kept in mind that even though these features are characteristics of the African American speech variety, not every African American uses this variety. Additionally, some speakers use certain features more often than others, depending on the speaker’s age, social status, the situation of communication or the person they hold a conversation with. Belonging to the African American speech community does not imply using all features all of the time.
Additionally, just like in every other speech variety, there might be regional discrepancies in the dialect concerning certain aspects and features. For instance, there might be variations in the lexicon from one region to another but for all that they both belong to African American Vernacular English and/or are predominantly spoken by users of AAVE. Nonetheless, those speakers who do use this variety use it consistently. (Cp. Green ibid: 1ff)
2. Features of African American Vernacular English
The mental lexicon of speakers of the African American Vernacular is built just like the mental lexicons of general American English users. It stores words in connection with their semantic role and their meaning, their phonology, the situation as well as the syntactic place they are used in. When necessary, this information is accessed and used in conversation or rather in communication, to put it more general. (Cp. Crystal 2003: 267 f)
The African American lexicon differs from the Standard American English lexicon in so far as it contains words that are also stored in the latter one, sound the same but have variable denotations. These homonyms additionally occur in different situations.
The word “cracker[s]” (Hansberry 1959: 2424) for instance is used by both African Americans and by speakers of mainstream American English to refer to a kind of crisp biscuit. It is moreover applied by speakers of African American Vernacular English to offensively refer to white people, especially when these people are extreme racists. (Cp. Graf 1994: 52)
Another example would be the use of the lexeme sugar in the following phrase:
(1) MAMA: All right, gimme some sugar then […]
(Hansberry 1959: 2424)
Whereas users of general American English utilize the word sugar for describing a natural sweetener, African Americans also use it in a different context.
Here the sentence is to be understood as ‘All right, give me a kiss then.’ (Cp. Graf ibid. 150)
An additional example of the diverging use of words is the application of the term to dig as in
(2) WALTER: […] It’s hard to find a man on this whole Southside who understands my kind of thinking – you dig? […]
(Hansberry ibid: 2420)
Whereas to dig is generally referring to making a hole in the ground or elsewhere, it is here expressing ‘to comprehend and understand’. (Cp. Graf ibid: 57)
Another typical feature of AAVE use is the utilization if the word some as in the following examples:
(3) RUTH: […] Go on away and enjoy yourself some. […]
(Hansberry 1959: 2401)
(4) RUTH: […] Lemme see you do some waking up in there now!
(Hansberry ibid: 2393)
Usually African Americans pronounce the word some with stress. It is meant to say as much as ‘very’ or ‘a lot of’. (Cp. Green 2002: 23) In this context, the examples are not explicit. With a little bit of interpretation they can, nonetheless, be analyzed as standing for this augmentation with very. In (3) Ruth talks to her mother-in-law Mama and tells her to go on a trip to Europe with the money of the widow’s pension she is getting. Mama should ‘have a lot of fun’ and ‘enjoy herself a lot’. Therefrom I find it right and logical to count this example as an expression of the typical African American usage of the word some.
The sentence in (4) in my mind expresses the same issue, as Ruth tells her son to wake up and get ready for school. He should hence be ‘very awake’.
As seen in these examples, the African American lexicon mainly consists of the same kind of information that the general American lexicon consists of. The only difference between them both is that the mental lexicon of African American English includes words and phrases that sound just like entries in the mainstream American English lexicon, yet the signification is different from the equivalent lexeme or term used in mainstream English. Other than that mentioned, the African American lexicon comprehends words and phrases, that are exclusively used by speakers of this vernacular.
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- Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
- Survey African American Vernacular English Raisin Lorraine Vivian Hansberry Variability English Proseminar World Language