Why have a webpage on

African American English?

Peter L. Patrick, Ph.D.

 

The field of sociolinguistics in the US is closely connected to African American English (AAE, sometimes called 'Ebonics'):

  • Many prominent sociolinguists, white and black, did some of their earliest and best research on AAE in the 1960s and 1970s, and continue to research it today.
  • Many tools and techniques of variationist sociolinguistics were first developed to study AAE.
  • In the history of American English dialects, AAE has played a fundamental role (though one that sociolinguists don't all agree on).
  • Just as African Americans are indispensable to American life and culture, so are their various ways of speaking an integral part of our linguistic profile.
  • AAE is widely viewed by linguists as being historically linked to creole languages in the Caribbean and, more distantly, to African languages and ways of speaking in West and Central Africa.
  • People who study language attitudes and language planning the world over are aware of and interested in the situation of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers in the USA.
    [For 'AAVE' vs. 'AAE' vs. 'Ebonics', click
    here; for a summary of issues about what to call AAE, click here.]
  • One way or another, AAVE has been -- and seems certain to remain -- a crucial element in debates about educational reform in US public schools.
  • Tens of millions of Americans either speak a form of distinctively African American English--
    • and/or are expected by other people to speak AAE--
    • and/or encounter speakers of AAE regularly in their everyday life--
    • and/or have strong views and prejudices about AAE and its speakers that affect the way they deal with people.

 

Why Me?

            I'm a white American linguist who grew up overseas and had almost no contact with African Americans until my teens, so my interest is not born out of lifelong personal experience with AAE and its speakers. (However, I grew up speaking Jamaican Creole and American English as a member of a tiny elite minority in a black-majority society! See my bio-sketch.) I've learned about the subject as an academic linguist, as well as a resident of Georgia, North Carolina, Philadelphia and Washington DC who has kept his ears open. I certainly don't have the kind of intimate knowledge that native African Americans may bring to it, and I respect that limitation.

            On the other hand, as a sociolinguist I bring a comparative perspective to bear - AAE, though it is unique, has many features in common with discriminated dialects and minority languages the world over, including creoles (the area I specialize in). I consider AAE in the broad context of African and New World language and cultural history. I've listened to hundreds of conference papers on AAE by scores of linguists, educators, and speech therapists - black and white, American and foreign. And I've closely followed mass media treatment of black language issues during the last ten years, a time period in which I've taught the topic to hundreds of students, and learned from their views and reactions.

            This site comes out of my experiences, my training, and my affection and admiration for the diverse, powerful, vital ways of speaking typical of the people of the African diaspora. More specifically, a graduate seminar I taught in fall 1997 at Georgetown University motivated me to develop this page, and provided me with some of the materials (the people who contributed to it are identified here) and links I've gathered in this space. The current version of that coursepage is here.

 

The Goal & the Audience

is to help people who are seriously interested in studying and learning about AAE -- even if they're not academics. But I'm targeting this to people who have, or are willing to gain, a sociolinguistic perspective. There isn't much material on the Web by and for linguists interested in AAE, and that's the gap I'd like to help fill. If you're new to the ideas of sociolinguistics and the study of dialects, I hope you'll check out some of the sources here on your own. (A good place to start is basic sociolinguistics axioms.)

Whoever you are, I hope you find it stimulating, helpful, exciting, and open-minded. These matters are controversial, like anything involving race in America, and they're worth thinking about. Please email me with your contributions and suggestions - depending on the traffic, and my life at the moment, I may even be able to respond! Thanks for visiting this space.

 

Frequently Asked Questions about 'Ebonics'

African American English homepage

Bibliography of 700+ works on AAE

Back to Peter L. Patrick's homepage

Last revised 20 November 2007