Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development

pp 56-58

African American English

  • Stacy A. S. WilliamsAffiliated withSchool Psychology, State University of New York at Albany Email author 


African American Vernacular English; Black dialect; Black English; Black English Vernacular; Black language; Ebonics


African-American English (AAE) is the term often used by linguists to define a variety of English spoken by most African-Americans.


AAE has been identified by several idioms in the research literature that are indicative of the socio-political and cultural climate of the time. For example, during the Black power movement in the 1970s, the term Black English or Dialect was often used to describe Black speech. In the nineties, the term Ebonics was used to define the language of some in the African-American community [4]. The thrust of the Ebonics debate in the mainstream media was a by-product of the Oakland School District in California’s decision to validate the home language of many of its African American students. The Oakland School District’s goals were to increase achievement and to address the media’s lack of understanding of the language. The backlash that followed Oakland’s decision highlighted the great theoretical divide between bidialectic and bilingualism programs [5].

Geneva Smitherman, in her groundbreaking work in the seventies, defined AAE from a socio-linguistic perspective: “an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America’s linguistic-cultural African heritage and the condition of servitude, oppression and life in America” [7, p. 2]. Smitherman further stated that Black speech has two dimensions: language and style. Language refers to the sound and grammatical structure; style refers to the ways in which speakers combine words to communicate meaning in a larger context. AAE may also be defined as “a variety that is used by some African Americans and that has lexical, phonological, and syntactic and semantic patterns that are intertwined with structures in general English” [5, p. 676]. This definition suggests that language production operates on a continuum. At any given time, you may have speakers of AAE at different points on the language continuum. In other words, some may be pure speakers of AAE, others may be bidialectical with proficiency in both, while others may be proficient in Standard American English (SAE) with limited proficiency in AAE [5].

Due to AAE’s shared history with SAE, some argue that AAE users engage in a poor version of SAE. However, speakers of AAE do follow a rule-governed pattern. The pronunciation sounds of AAE are very similar to the sounds used in SAE; however, the rules governing the production of sounds have different patterns of distribution [5, 7]. For example, words ending in clusters in SAE do not also end in clusters in AAE; as a result, the final clusters of “st, sk, sp, pt, kt, nd, ld” are often reduced to a single consonant. For instance, the following SAE words “list, desk, wasp and accept” are pronounced in AAE as “lis, des, was, and accep.” The omission of the last consonant is not an indication of poor grammar but a rule-governed production. In addition, speakers of AAE tend to do some of the following: pronounce the initial /th/ sound as /d/ (e.g., them = dem; then = den); pronounce the final /th/ sound as /f/ (e.g., south = souf; mouth = mouf); delete the middle and final /r/ (e.g., during = doing; more = mow; star = stah); delete the middle and final /l/ (e.g., help = hep; will = wii); and place primary stress on first syllable and front shifting (e.g., police = PO-lice) [7].

One of the most distinctive and critical features in the structure of AAE is use of the “be” pattern in communicating. This pattern is used to denote a recurring or habitual condition. “Be” is omitted from conversation to describe an action that has happened once. For example, the sentence “The coffee bees cold” means the coffee is cold everyday, versus “the coffee cold” which means that the coffee is cold today. In addition, “be” is often used in conjunction with “do” to convey a recurring behavior expressed in the format of a question (e.g., “do they be playing all day?” which translates as “do they play all day?”). In applying the non-be rule, the AAE speaker communicates with the absence of be before nouns (e.g., he a doctor now), adjectives (e.g., he too tall for me), adverbs (e.g., they shoes right here), prepositional phrases (e.g., my momma in the hospital), and in auxiliary constructions (e.g., they talking about school now) [7].

Speakers of AAE often use “been” to communicate a past action that has recently been completed. The context of the sentence symbols the time past versus the actual amount of time. For example, an AAE speaker may say “she been tardy twice this semester” to suggest that she has been late twice during the semester. In addition, “done” is also used to represent past action that is recently completed (e.g., I done my homework today). The context of the immediate sentence or the entire conversation is used as a time marker. Therefore, AAE speakers do not use the “ed” in past tense or past participle conjunction. Consequently, the same verb format serves for both past tense and past participle (e.g., “the bus pass me up last week” or “the bus pass me up everyday”). Moreover, AAE verbs are not marked for person. Hence, the same verb format serves for both singular and plural nouns. Additionally, AAE speakers tend to use triple and quadruple negatives in their sentence structure (e.g., don’t nobody never help me do my homework) and place stresses on the subjects of sentences (e.g., my son, he have a new car). For additional information on AAE structure, the reader is referred to Smitherman’s extensive work [7].

AAE and Literacy Development

The association between AAE and early literacy skills is of paramount importance due to the low reading performance of African American students. It was the desire to raise the achievement scores of students in the Oakland School District that prompted the school board to recognize the home language of its students. Based on the examples provided above, it becomes clear how educators may mistake AAE as poor grammar. Recent studies have documented the phonological structure of AAE production in preschool and elementary age students, suggesting that many children enter school speaking some variation of the language [1]. The linear relationship between AAE production and early literacy skills is far more complex than earlier established. In fact, a U-shaped association between preschoolers’ use of AAE and their literacy skills was found. The authors found that children who use AAE features more or less frequently in an implicit SAE task (i.e., oral narrative elicitation) demonstrated stronger overall emergent literacy skills than students who produced AAE features moderately. Additionally, in a literacy task which required explicit SAE usage, preschooler used less AAE features in traditional SAE activities. In fact, they appeared to decrease their use of AAE features as the expectations for SAE increased. Hence, even in preschool, students are able to dialect shift between contexts. Moreover, students who produce less AAE features in their speaking demonstrated stronger literacy skills than those students who produced AAE features moderately. Likewise, students who were most prolific and proficient at both languages demonstrated emergent literacy skills [1]. Similar findings were noted in AAE features of middle class elementary age students who were able to code-switch depending on the demands of the activity [6].

In conclusion, students of AAE tend to produce more phonological features at the elementary school level [2]. Phonemic awareness skills are closely aligned with students’ ability to read well. As such, programs aimed at increasing the awareness of phonological skills in speakers of AAE need to be attuned to the features of the home language and teach the explicit structure of SAE [3]. Although AAE has been identified as a rule-governed language spoken by many African American children and adults living in low and middle socio-economical environments, educational practitioners continue to struggle with designing language programs to meet these students’ needs.

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