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Absorption of African American English Language into Standard English

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Dec 22, 2015 | #1
African-American English, also sometimes referred to as "Ebonics", is a rich and vibrant form of the English language. Particularly in a school or educational context, there has been controversy regarding whether the presence of African American English -- both alongside and within Standard English as it is presently used - represents an enrichment or contamination of the standard English language. Cross-pollination between African American English and Standard English is clearly evident in the realm of popular culture. However, the African American English words and forms that are most commonly used in Standard English generally occur in verbal forms, and forms of language derived from the oral tradition. As Standard English is transmitted often through written forms, the effect of African-American English upon Standard English remains mostly confined to the spoken word rather than the written word. Therefore, the place of African American English within Standard English is inherently mostly temporary, as it is mostly spoken in real-time and not preserved for posterity. Obviously, there are exceptions to this situation - for example, when a famous person is videotaped speaking a hybrid of African-American and Standard English forms. However, the majority of cross-pollination between the two forms of English occurs in the inherently temporary, spoken/oral realm.


African-American English UsageBailey et al. define African-American American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a distinctive variety of American English. Some common features of African American English include: consonant cluster reduction; time reference markers; invariant or habitual "be"; and the absence of the copula. Consonant cluster reduction involves removing one of the consonant sounds in a cluster. This commonly occurs when a word ends with two consonants produced the same way by the voice - often, the final consonant will be removed from the word as pronounced. For example, the final "t" may be dropped from the word "pest", leaving it pronounced pes'. Clearly, consonant cluster reduction could be a problem when young students, particularly, attempt to write down their thoughts and words. The habitual reduction of consonant clusters in speech could well lead to the absence of the reduced consonants when the word is written. Therefore, a student's written work may appear to be at a lower level than his or her actual comprehension of the words and the language, because consonant cluster reduction can lead to mis-spellings in Standard English. The words "been", "done", "did" and "do" can be used to indicate how recently in the past an action occurred - "been" indicates the most distant past action, while "do" is the closest to the present time. So "I been eating that" indicates an action (eating) further in the past than "I do eat that". "Been" and "done" can be used together, with different tense meanings based on order. "She been done eating" means that she stopped eating a long time in the past; "She done been eating" means that she was eating for a long period of time until recently (Bailey et al.). "Habitual be" refers to the use of the word "be" to indicate an action taking place over an extended period of time. Linguistically, the word "be" can be understood as a substitute for "is" - for example, in the phrase: "She is eating oranges". However, the African American English use of be - "She be eating oranges" - often means that she is habitually eating oranges. Therefore, habitual be allows the language to convey understanding of an action outside of the present tense.


In education, the "Ebonics debate" has been active for several years, without any clear conclusions as to how educators might reconcile the use of African American English by their students, with the reality that a lack of ability to access and use Standard English would probably have a significant negative effect on these students' chances of succeeding both in education and in more general life and employment:

'While having access to the politically mandated language form will not, by any means, guarantee economic success (witness the growing numbers of unemployed African Americans holding doctorates), not having access will almost certainly guarantee failure' life.

If educators insist on use of Standard English in school, they may be effectively silencing those students whose first learned language is African American English. Constant correction of "Ebonics" with reminders to use Standard English in school may reduce an individual's confidence when they are learning to speak or write English in school. Attempting to eliminate African American English from the language used in the school environment is also problematic in terms of privileging one cultural and linguistic heritage over another. Further, an educational practice of continual correction of African American English can lead to an adversarial relationship between the educator and the individual student (or group of students). When a student is continually corrected for his or her use of African American English, he or she may feel that they are being singled out for negative attention by the teacher. This can reinforce patterns of defiance, or other behavioral dynamics that are counter-productive to educational efforts in the classroom.


Many musical genres - including, but not limited to jazz, R&B, blues, gospel and hip-hop - are based in African-American traditions and therefore commonly employ African American English idioms and linguistic features. For example, Nina Simone's song It Be's That Way Sometime uses the "habitual be" of African American English. Hip-hop artist Kanye West makes extensive use of African American English, and the AAVE vernacular is arguably the dialect in which much to the entire hip-hop genre is grounded. Hip-hop is, at the time of writing, a dominant force in the mainstream American musical and cultural landscape, and African American English is used by artists who are not themselves of African-American heritage. The white rapper Eminem is a prime example of the use of African American language in mainstream hip-hop. Eminem's use of the language is not an attempt to "be" black himself, but rather an attempt to align himself with the musical culture of hip-hop. In a hip-hop context, African American English can convey ideas of being cool, being tough and being at the cutting edge of language and culture itself - words, brands and ideas are constantly being changed and developed in AAVE's hip-hop context. According to Hill, "speakers use appropriated words and ways of speaking to make claims on a wide range of desirable qualities: learned, cosmopolitan, regionally grounded, cool, hip, funny, street-smart, tough, masculine, laid-back, rebellious, etc". Eminem's use of African American English carries class-related connotations also - growing up poor in Detroit, Eminem aligns his socio-economic beginnings more closely to the urban black poor than the suburban white middle class. Now that hip-hop is a dominant global musical and cultural phenomenon, members of the American suburban middle class - and other groups with diverse socioeconomic and geographical statuses - are exposed to, and familiar with, African American English. In this way, although African American English is a potent and powerful group signifier, it cannot be contained within the racial or ethnic group where it originated. In Eminem's words:

'Though I'm not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley. To do black music so selfishly, And use it to get myself wealthy.' (quoted in Page).


Clearly, the significant presence and influence of African American English in popular culture demonstrates that there is "contamination" of Standard English with African American English already. Language is dynamic and fluid, and different languages commonly absorb individual words and stylistic elements from other languages and dialects. The Standard English of 2013 is rather different to the Standard English of 1913, or even the language of 1983. However, the continuity in Standard English is the reason that historical texts remain accessible to the modern reader. When the majority of education, work and public life function on the basis of using Standard English, a degree of conformity is necessary if speakers of other dialects or languages are to fully access employment opportunities, education and cultural activity. In effect, speakers of African American English are required to become somewhat "bilingual", maintaining an ability to switch to Standard English as and when the situation requires them to do so. In an educational context, especially, this can disadvantage students by comparison to their peers who speak Standard English as their first or only language. Overall, African American English is being absorbed into Standard English just as all forms of English, and dialects, cross-pollinate one another.


Bailey, Guy, et al., eds. African-American English: structure, history and use. Routledge.

Bratcher, Melanie E. Words and Songs of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone: Sound Motion, Blues Spirit, and African Memory. Routledge.

Delpit, Lisa. "What should teachers do? Ebonics and culturally responsive instruction." Dialects, Englishes, Creoles, and Education: 93-101.

Hill, Jane H. The everyday language of white racism.

Page, Clarence. "Crossing Over: Elvis Presley and Eminem." PBS Newshour Essay.

Wolfram, Walt, and Erik Thomas. Development of African American English.

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