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African American English:

A Webpage for Linguists
and other Folks

by Prof. Peter L Patrick, PhD

University of Essex

Why are we here?

Why have a webpage about African American English? And why me as creator? Glad you asked... click here»

Terminology: What’s in a name?

This page is an introduction to African American English from a sociolinguist’s point of view. First, what should it be called, and why does that matter?

"African American English" (="AAE") is one name for a collection of varieties (ways of speaking) characteristically used by African Slave Descendants in North America. Over the years a number of names have been used, and a number of different varieties or dialects have been the focus of both linguistic and general public attention. Some of the more common terms include "Black English", "Ebonics", "Black Vernacular English" (="BEV"), and "African American Vernacular English" (="AAVE").  In an earlier period (mid/late 1960s), the name “Negro Non-standard English” was often used. It’s obvious that the terms for this language variety change more or less in step with terms of self-identification for the people who speak it. Thus, the term “Negro” gave way in popular (and eventually out-group) usage to the term “Black”, which was followed by “African American” (though as Geneva Smitherman points out, this term is actually much older).

The use of these names, and their changes over time, has sometimes been cited as an example of “political correctness”. One valid response to this might be to point out that the term “PC” is typically used as a way to attack or show contempt for a set of values, ideas, practices, or a group of people by ridiculing the language they are expressed in. It is a basic axiom of sociolinguistics that bias against a language or dialect stands in for bias against its speakers. From this point of view, an attack by outsiders on the validity of changing names for an ethnic group of people or their language could be seen as quite simply racist. It’s also worth considering the question of names and ethnic self-identification in a global context, as a case study of Linguistic Human Rights.

·             See the Wikipedia entry on political correctness, which gives some useful history and criticism, and discusses derogatory stereotyping and terminology change from a linguistic point of view.

·             See Articles 31 and 33 of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, according to which all language communities have the right to use their own system of proper names and refer to themselves using the names of their own language.


People: Who are the speakers?

The speakers of African American English have often been assumed to be black Americans, or African Americans, and indeed most of them are. But there are obvious problems with defining a language (or anything else) racially, including:

  • Not all black Americans speak these varieties
  • some non-black Americans speak them (sometimes natively)

Prof John Baugh, a prominent African American linguist at Washington University, has referred to the core group of speakers not in a racial, but in a historical way, as American Slave Descendants (ASD), particularly those who participate in Vernacular African American Culture (VAAC; from Baugh 1991; for these and other citations, see Selected Readings). Baugh doesn’t propose that people should start using “ASD” as a popular term – rather, as a technical term, it’s a way of avoiding loaded and potentially offensive words, and pointing neutrally to what those terms refer to.

As Prof Geneva Smitherman (one of the best and best-known African American linguists who teaches at Michigan State University) points out, such a process of social change – and there is no doubt that names have power – means that at any one moment, there are likely to be generational, regional and social differences of preference for a name within the community that Baugh calls African Slave Descendants (ASD). It would certainly be presumptuous for people who are not well acquainted with the community to take a prescriptive stance about which terms are better, best, ridiculous, etc. One clear thing – and Smitherman’s and Baugh’s research shows substantial consensus within the community on this – is that certain terms are known to be offensive to all community members when used by outsiders, while others are neutral or positive to some group members (e.g. older people) but offensive to others (e.g. younger people). The process of changing terms of self-reference, and language names, is socially complex, has political and ethnic goals, and draws on a sophisticated knowledge of both intra-group and inter-group relations. In short, it’s worth taking seriously – failure to do so can itself be offensive – and even in-group members can learn something from the work of the scholars mentioned above.


Answers to some Questions about "Ebonics"

"Ebonics" is a popular name for African American English, but is used most often for the vernacular (=colloquial, working-class, street, disrespected) forms of it. Periodically debate erupts in the USA -- most recently in 1996/7 -- over whether "Ebonics" exists; ought to be spoken; ought to be recognized in schools; etc. etc. Click here for the Ebonics FAQ.


Bibliography of Works on African American English

This is a bibliography of classic and current works on AAE, mostly by linguists. It's not complete, of course, but contained around 700 items at last count. A few are not linguistic works, but sources for African American folk speech; a few are comparative (e.g. to Caribbean Creoles, British Afro-Caribbean English, or other US urban dialects). Please check the bibliography and, if you don't find something, email me and tell me (as fully as possible) what's missing.


Course materials on African American Vernacular English

·             Coursepage: Here you’ll find my current courses on African American English, British Afro-Caribbean English, and Pidgins and Creoles

·             An old syllabus from the first course I taught on AAE, in Fall 1997 at Georgetown University

·             Selected Readings from that 1997 course: this was a good introduction to what linguists knew then about AAE

o       Here is the current 2007 reading list

·             You can also read brief Summaries for many articles on AAE

·             A smaller bibliography of mine on Attitudes to African American English – over 50 articles, with abstracts for about half

·             Courses by other linguists: John Baugh (2004), Lisa Green (2005), John Rickford, Elaine Richardson (“Dr. E!”), Tracey Weldon (2002) and one by the original champ and teacher of us all, Bill Labov (2007)

·             A page on AAE phonology from the Language Samples Project at U. Arizona (2001)


Texts of various kinds of AAE speech

·             Remembering Slavery – oral history from the WPA/Library of Congress recordings

·             Fred McDowell was a turn-of-the-century rural speaker from near Memphis, and also a renowned bluesman

·             Child speech from mid-1960s – an excerpt from “Mike and Greg”

·             Brief annotated transcript of speech from “Kansas City” by Seldom Seen, Harry Belafonte’s character in the Robert Altman film (1995)

·             Some lyrics excerpted from poet-activist-musician Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Ghetto Code” (1978)

·             Some Ways of Speaking in AAE – genres of African American discourse 

·              Here are four good text collections of African American folk speech, some under-used as resources for linguistic analysis, with my comments.


Links to good websites with AAE info

 Go to my general links page, section on AAVE

 AAE Bibliography

Linguistic Human Rights

Ten sociolinguistic axioms

Resources for beginning linguists

Peter L. Patrick's homepage

 (last updated 20 November 2007)