American Dialect: African-American Speech

Our study of American dialect cannot be solely based on regional differences. While regional distinctions are perhaps the most significant influences on the way we speak, other distinctions play a role as well and one of these distinctions is race and ethnicity. For most ethnic groups, patterns of speech are quickly assimilated into the local speech, becoming indistinguishable from the regional dialect, except perhaps for some specific cultural terms.

But African-American speech is different in that it transcends regional differences. African Americans have distinctive patterns of speech that are recognizable regardless of region. That is not to say that there are not regional differences among African Americans, but the similarities in the dialect across the nation are strong.

Many consider African American speech to be lazy or corrupted English. This is not the case. While in some cases the grammar and pronunciation is simple when compared to standard English, in other cases African American speech is much more complex. It is every bit as rule based and grammatical as standard English is. It is just that the rules and grammar are different.

It is often believed that African-American speech is influenced by African speech patterns and grammar, but more recent scholarship has discounted this. All of the characteristics of African American grammar and pronunciation are found in various British dialects. It seems more likely that these patterns were picked up by African Americans in close proximity with poor immigrants from the British Isles, either as neighbors or as overseers of slaves.

African influence on the dialect appears to be restricted to a small number of West African words and perhaps to the cadences of formal African American oratory.

Southern Aspects to African American Speech
African-American speech shares many similarities with Southern speech. For much of American history, most blacks lived in the South and in the 20th century when significant migrations of blacks to the North and West began, blacks continued to live in their own communities, retaining their traditional patterns of speech instead of adopting the speech of Northern and Western whites.

Like Southern speech, African-American speech is a non-rhotic dialect. It drops the R after vowels. So more becomes /mo/ and gangster become /gang-sta/.

African-American speech shares some of the Southern vowel changes as well. The short E is pronounced as a short I, so pen is pronounced as /pin/. In addition, the long I is pronounced as /ah/, rice becomes /rahs/ and nice is /nahs/. Similarly, the short I is often transformed into a diphthong, bell is pronounced as /bale/ and the name Montel is /mon-tail/.

African American Pronunciation
Not all of African American pronunciation is Southern, however. Some is quite distinctive to blacks. Consonant clusters at the end of words, or example, are often clipped. Stand becomes /stan/ and just becomes /jus/, but this is not universally observed. There is a complex set of rules that governs which consonant sounds are dropped and when. One major exception to the general rule is that P, T, and K are retained when they follow either an M or N. Hence junk remains /junk/.

Another pronunciation specific to African American is the substitution of /d/, /t/, /v/, and /f/, for the /th/ sound. /d/ substitutes for the voiced /th/ at the beginning of words and /t/ for the voiceless. So this becomes /dis/ and thin becomes /tin/. At the end of words /v/ and /f/ serve the same respective functions. /v/ replaces the voiced /th/, both becomes /bove/, and /f/ replaces the voiceless /th/, tooth becomes /toof/.

Finally, one word that is quite distinctive in African American pronunciation is the word aunt. Here African Americans follow the practice of traditional New England or eastern Virginia pronunciation and use an /ah/ sound at the beginning of the word.

African American Grammar
African American dialect has some distinctive rules of grammar as well. Perhaps most noticeable is the use of the verb to be to denote a habitual action. Standard English has no habitual tense, but African American English does. The sentence, “he be walking by,” does not necessarily mean that his walking by at this moment. Rather, it means that he walks by here frequently and if we stay long enough we should expect to see him.

Similarly, been is not used in the perfect tense, to denote a completed action. Instead, it refers to something that is continuing. “They been happy” means they have been happy in the past and still are happy at the present.

Another characteristic of African American grammar is the dropping the verb to be. Where other dialects might use a contraction like, he’s or she’s, African American omits the verb altogether. So, what’s up? becomes what up?

African American also has some unique uses of the verb done. For one thing, it is used to denote past tense. “He done come” means “he came.” Another use is to denote the future perfect tense. This is done with the form be done, as in “I be done with this by the time you get back.”

Finally, African American often drops the S in the third person singular and adds it to the first person singular. “He talks to me” becomes “he talk to me” and “I make a lot of money” becomes “I makes a lot of money.”

Code Switching
Of course, not every black American has all these characteristics in their speech. Like any dialect, there are regional and class differences. And most African Americans are perfectly capable of speaking in the standard American dialect. Many in fact switch back and forth as the need arises, a function called code switching.

Most people, black or white, engage in some degree of code switching. We shift our manner of speaking to match the social circumstances. Code switching in America is perhaps most noticeable in the Hispanic community, where it is not uncommon to hear alternating sentences of Spanish and English in a conversation. The same is true with any dialect, people alternate between the standard and the dialectical forms. This is more noticeable with dialects, like African American, that differ significantly from the standard than ones that do not.

So, while most African Americans will not use all these features all the time, they will use them at least some of the time.

African American Vocabulary
The following is just a sampling of some of the terms used in African American dialect.

All that, adj., excellent, superb. Hip hop in origin, 1991.

Ashy, adj., whitish or grayish skin due to exposure to wind and cold, 1952.

Back, n., the buttocks, especially those of an attractive woman, 1992. Often found in the phrase my baby got back (my girl has a nice butt).

Bad, adj., 1) tough, formidable, 1855; 2) good, excellent, 1897.

Blood, n., an African American, from the sense of shared ancestry, often used to denote a close friend, 1965.

Bomb, da, n., something superb or excellent, 1974.

Booty, n., 1) the buttocks, 1928, 2) the vagina, hence also copulation, sex, 1925. Also booty call, a summons, usually late at night to come home or over to a woman’s apartment.

Bro, n., an African American man, 1970, clipping of brother, 1910.

Chill, v., relax, calm down, 1979, also chill out, take a chill pill, chillin’.

Chump, n., fool, dupe, 1876. Also a verb meaning to trick or hoodwink, 1930, or to belittle, make fun of, 1979. Chump change, meaning a small amount of money, is from 1967.

Dozens, n., a verbal exchange of ritual, highly exaggerated, and often rhymed insults, often making reference to another’s mother, 1915. The object is to display verbal dexterity while not losing one’s emotional control. Often play the dozens.

Gangbanger, n., a member of a street gang, 1969. Also banger.

Gangster, n., 1) one who flouts convention and rejects white norms and societal values, 1960s, 2) a marijuana cigarette, a joint, 1960.

Go down, v., to happen, to take place, 1946.

Hawk, n., a cold, winter wind, 1946. Chiefly used in and around Chicago.

Hip Hop, n. & adj., urban, youth culture, often associated with rap music, 1982. The origin is uncertain; various DJs have claimed to have coined it; it may refer to the use of the nonsense words “hip” and “hop” in rap lyrics, or it may be from hip (cool, fashionable) + hop (dance).

Homey, n., a person from one’s hometown or neighborhood, 1944, a clipping of homeboy (1899) and homegirl (1934).

Jones, n. & v., an intense craving or desire, to desire, 1970, originally the cravings caused by drug withdrawal, 1962. Of unknown origin.

Jump, v., to suddenly change behavior, usually in phrases, to jump salty (become angry), to jump bad (to become aggressive), etc., 1938.

Jump Street, From, c.phr., from the start, 1972, also from jump city.

Kitchen, n., the nape of the neck, hair at the nape of the neck, 1974; unknown origin, possibly from the Scots kinch, a rope or noose around the neck used to control a horse.

Mack, n. & v., a pimp (1903), a flatterer or deceptive talker (1962), a ladies man (1991), to act as a pimp, 1964), to make a sexual advance, to flirt (1968), to use flattery and deceptive talk (1991), to swagger (1963), to kiss (1978). Also mack daddy. Probably from the French maquerelle. There is an older slang term mackerel, meaning pimp, but there is a gap in usage that makes this unlikely.

My bad, interj., a form of apology, “I’m sorry.”

Pad, n., an apartment, abode, 1938. Originally a term for a bed, a place to sleep. 1718.

Salty, adj., angry, ill-tempered, 1936. Often jump salty.

Wolf, v., to make fun of, to criticize, to threaten, 1966. Cf. woof. Also to buy a wolf ticket, to believe the criticism or threats. From barking dogs at night.

Woof, v., to talk aimlessly, 1934. Woofing, aimless talk, 1942. From barking dogs at night.

Word!, interj., a statement of affirmation, “that is true,” 1986. Also word up!

You go, girl!, interj., a statement of encouragement and affirmation to a woman, 1992.

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