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African American Vernacular English and Standards Report


Introduction

Communication is a very important aspect of humanity. Without communication, several processes would be broken down completely. According to Poplack (56), communication ensures that people stay in harmony as one individual is able to express himself properly to others. Through this expression, two individuals are able to share their mind and work as a unit. Communication among humankind dates back to the early Stone Age period. During this stage of development of humankind, there was need to cooperate during such occasions as hunting and gathering, and when with their families. They had to warn their young ones over the dangers that lurked in the forest. Man had not developed language then; hence, they had to use drawings, signs and gestures to pass desired communication (Paul 65).

The evolution of man saw him evolve in various other aspects. One such aspect was language use. Man started making sounds to pass specific information to one another. Communications evolved until that time language was developed during the late Stone Age. Further development of the language would occur during the developmental stage of humankind. As man developed, language became clearly defined. Humans could use language effectively to express the ideas he had.

One intriguing fact about language that man is yet to comprehend is the existence of numerous languages across the world. It has been difficult to explain how the current numerous languages came into existence. Marzec (70) points out the fact that within such a small geographical location as the United States of America (as a nation), there are several languages that are in use. This is very evident in developing countries. As Pollmanns (22) notes, it is common phenomena to find that within one country, there are over sixty different languages in use. However, in some countries like Britain, English has been accepted as the main language. Almost all Britons know this language as their first language. However, even within the entire United Kingdom, there exists some difference in the languages’ dialect for example Welsh. One language that has managed to dominate the world is English. This is the most common language in the world, in terms of the number of countries speaking it, and the second most spoken language, in terms of the number of people. Spread during the reign of the Great Britain as the world power, this language is spoken in several countries across the world.

The Emergence of African American Vernacular English

African American Vernacular English is one of the widely spoken languages in the United States of America. The origin of this language can be traced back to the times when slave trade was practiced. During this time, it was realized that the blacks in Africa had special characteristics that made them better laborers than other captives from other parts of the world. They were strong and could withstand long hours of working in the large plantations in America. Besides, they were immune to some of the common diseases like malaria which was one of the leading causes of death by then. Given the fact that they did not have strong armies to protect them at home making their capture easy, there were huge numbers of blacks who were captured and moved to America. The trans-Atlantic slave trade saw Africans from various regions around West Africa taken as slaves in various parts of America. Once in America, there was need to communicate. The whites in America spoke English. The blacks did not have a common language they could identify with. They spoke in varying languages, depending on the locations where they were captured.

Communications was highly necessary among the captives. The captives needed to communicate amongst themselves. They could see that they had some resembles amongst themselves as slaves in terms of skin color. They needed to share their experience. On the other hand, there was also need to develop some communication with the captors. They needed to communicate with their masters so that they could receive instructions or give explanations to their actions. Many theorists have tried to explain how this language emerged among these slaves. These slaves developed what many scholars have referred to as pidgins. This was a mixture of various languages. The languages included the African vernacular languages, and English. The whites had to adapt to this language because it was clear that the slaves could not learn Standard English. By 1720, it was clear that pidgin had become one of the languages spoken in the United States. Daniel Dafoe brought this language to literature when he wrote a book, The Life of Colonel Jacque in 1915. This language was gaining root at very fast rate. This language is common in the modern American state. It is common in songs, poems and many other forms of literature in this country.

Comparison of African American Vernacular English and the Standard English

African American Vernacular English and Standard English have a lot of stylistic difference some of which make the two languages completely different. Although Standard English and African American Vernacular English share a number of common characteristics given that African American Vernacular English borrowed heavily from Standard English, they exhibit striking difference in structure and form. African American Vernacular English language is less rigid as compared to Standard English. It is simple in structure and rules guiding its sentence formation are less restrictive as Standard English is. Skordos (85) says that Standard English is one of the most popular languages in the world, and has a rich vocabulary. She however laments that when compared to African American Vernacular English, Standard English has less vocabulary. This is specifically so, because besides using the vocabulary from the Standard English, African American Vernacular English uses vocabulary from their indigenous languages. Take for example the word finale which is very common in African American Vernacular English. In Standard English, this world would be final. This points out that the two languages share a lot in common, especially in some specific words. In fact the word finale would be an acceptable Standard English word used as final.

Differences between African American Vernacular English and Standard English

Despite the above striking similarities between African American Vernacular English and Standard English, these two languages have a number of differences in various fronts. In African American Vernacular English, there may be several words that can be used in expressing the same feeling, some of which Africans retained from their indigenous languages. Mona gives the example of the word love. In Standard English, although adore or like may be used to express love, the other two express different magnitudes and therefore may not be universally used. In African American Vernacular English however, this word can be expressed in many words to mean exactly the same thing. According to Rickford (90), most of the vocabularies used by African American Vernacular English may be considered as vulgar when taken in its Standard English form. For instance the word love talked about above may be replaced by the word fuck (Ray 21). In Standard English, this word is extremely offensive and may not be used to express any positive emotions. However, this scholar says that, although this has changed a great deal, most of the African Americans did not know how to express romance. That would explain why such a romantic word would be expressed in such an offensive manner. This can be demonstrated in a sentence as shown below.

  1. Am gonna whack this fucking bitch (African American Vernacular English)
  2. I love this girl because she is beautiful (Standard English)

These two sentences vary a lot. In the first sentence, the word love is used to express deep emotions that the speaker if the word has towards the girl in question. In the second sentence, the word whack is used instead, to express the same emotion. The two words vary a lot when taken in their literal meaning. Whack cannot be used in place of love because they mean two different things and will always be used in two different contexts. To whack means to hit or strike with the intent of causing some pain to the individual. It is not logical to harm someone you have strong emotional love towards. In the first sentence, the word girl has been used. In this context, the word girl may not necessarily mean that the lady is young. The speaker uses it to demonstrate how the beauty of the lady makes her so pure and charming. In the second sentence, the word girl is replaced by bitch. The two words do not carry the same connotation. The word bitch is always used as an abusive word to express anger against someone. The word beautiful used in the first sentence justifies the reason why the speaker lovers this lady. In the second sentence however, fuck-ing in place of beautiful.

The morphological structure of the two sentences, which are meant to pass the same communication, also differs. In the first sentence, the speaker uses simple present tense, which is the appropriate sentence for the message being passed across. The second sentence however, uses the participle tense. Finally, the message being passed by the two sentences are very different if they are to be taken in their literal meaning. Given to a person who did not know the context under which they were spoken, one would state that the two sentences have two different meanings. In the first sentence, the meaning will come out clearly, that an individual is in love with a beautiful lady. In the second sentence, one would interpret that the speaker is annoyed with the lady (bitch) and is planning to hit (whack) her very hard whenever they will meet. Taken in this form, the message will be completely distorted.

Phonology

There are some phonological features that make African American Vernacular English different from the Standard English. According to Cukor (73), these features are best expressed in speech. There are some sounds that are common in Standard English, but common in African American Vernacular English. Some of the sounds are given below.

  1. Cab
  2. Cap

The Standard English will clearly bring out the meaning of the two words. However, African American Vernacular English will pronounce the two words as same. One listening to the two may not find a clear difference between a cap and a cab. The p and b sounds come out as same. The sentence below also shows difference in pronunciation of the consonant sound.

  1. Month (mʌmf) (African American Vernacular English)
  2. Month (mʌnt) (Standard English)

The two words have the same meaning and same spelling, but with different pronunciation. It would require the listener to know the context under which the speaker is talking. This will enhance confusion in the meaning that will finally come out.

According to Poplack (89), there are a number of other consonant sounds that African American Vernacular English pronounces differently. This scholar also notes that the difference is not only limited to consonant sounds. The difference also comes in the vowel sounds. The following is a demonstration of how the two languages differ in their vowel sounds.

  1. Coach (koɪtʃ) (African American Vernacular English)
  2. Coach (koʊtʃ) (Standard English)

The word below has similar spelling. They also have the same meaning. However, the pronunciation of this word is different in the two cases. The first sentence is a typical pronunciation of the word in Africa American Vernacular English. The second pronunciation is of the Standard English. Although the variation in the two sentences may not create serious confusion in getting the meaning of the word, it has some degree of difference that may be a recipe for confusion if not taken seriously.

Differences in the use of verb

Both languages vary in the use of the verb. As Vinay and Darbelnet (74) state, the two languages vary a great deal in their usage of verb. According to these scholars, Standard English is far more rigid in its usage of verb as compared to African American Vernacular English. It is grammatically correct, and a very common phenomenon for an African American Vernacular English sentence to be complete without the use of verb. However, in Standard English, a verb is an important aspect of a sentence, without which a sentence would be considered incomplete.

Consider the sentence below:

  1. Hay Men, That girl big hipped.
  2. Hallo, I think that girl has big hips

Given the context of the two sentences, they have the same meaning. However, the difference comes in the fact that the first sentence lacks a clear verb usage. This makes it very difficult to tell the real meaning of the sentence for a person who does not know the context of the speech. The table below presents this difference

Comparison of how African American Vernacular English and Standard English Uses Tenses

Aspect African American Vernacular English Standard English
Continuous Aspect Jane be working Fridays Jane always work or frequently work on Tuesdays
Habitual Martin stay working Martin works always
Perfect progressive Alex been reading Alex has been reading
Intensified Continuative Moses steady running Moses keeps on running
Possibility Joan finna do the homework Joan is about to do the homework

The table above shows some striking differences between the two types of languages in their written context. As shown above, the difference is not only in the spoken form. The difference comes very clearly in the written form. As such, it becomes very difficult for one to understand what one is saying. According to Paul (121), while a speaker of African America Vernacular English may understand what a speaker of Standard English may find it difficult to understand African America Vernacular English. This scholar notes that this can be more complex when African America Vernacular English is spoken to another individual who has limited understanding of English. It is easier to understand Standard English for an individual who, English is a second language, than it would be to understand African America Vernacular English.

Verb Agreements

In Standard English, a sentence will be considered grammatically correct if there is verb agreement with subject that is used. The subject in Standard English can always be considered as first person (I, we), second person (you) or third person (him, her, it and them). The Standard English has a clear structure of how the sentences should use the verb in order to reflect the verb being used. The following sentences demonstrate this.

  1. Mary walks to school every morning (Standard English).
  2. Mary walk to school every morning (African American Vernacular English).

The two sentences vary a little (in the use of the letter s to show the continuous form). The first sentence is grammatically correct. The subject Mary is a third person. Because Mary is an individual and therefore will be considered in its singular form, the verb must use an s in its structure in order to demonstrate two facts. The first fact is that Mary is an individual. The second fact is that Mary does the action of walking to school every morning.

The second sentence is correct when it is considered as African American Vernacular English. In this language, the most important fact is that one understands the message that the speaker is passing across. The verb walk may only be used in its present form to show habitual action only if the subject is in the form of the first person, second person or the third person. The following sentences with therefore be considered grammatically correct in Standard English

  1. I walk to school every morning.
  2. We walk to school every morning.
  3. You walk to school every morning.
  4. They walk to school every morning.

Sentence b above therefore, may not make any sense in Standard English, but makes a lot of sense in African American Vernacular English.

Another striking difference comes in the use of plurals in a sentence. African American Vernacular English does not have any restrictions when it comes to ensuring that the verb clearly agrees with the subject in terms of singularity or pluralism. The following sentences demonstrate this.

The Use of Has and Have

In Standard English, there is a clear distinction on how has and have are to be used in a sentence. If this standard rule is not followed, then the sentence would be considered grammatically wrong. The following sentences demonstrate this.

  1. He have gone to the hospital (African American Vernacular English).
  2. He has gone to the hospital (Standard English).

As shown in the two sentences above, the first sentence is not grammatically correct. As was explained above, when dealing with singular subjects, then the word have may not be used because it is only used when dealing with subjects in plurals, the first and second persons. This means that this sentence is grammatically wrong when taken in the context of Standard English. Below is another demonstration that African American Vernacular English does not have a clear rule governing its structure in the usage of the two words.

  1. You has completed the assignment given by the teacher. (African American Vernacular English)
  2. You have completed the assignment given by the teacher. (Standard English)

As explained above, you is subject in its second person form. This means that it cannot be used as the third person, as the second sentence tries to purport. This is grammatically wrong.

The Use of Is and Are

The two words is and are, are always used to show singularity or pluralism respectively. It is a common knowledge that when talking about subjects in their plural forms, it is mandatory that are will be used. This helps in demonstrating that the action was not done by a single individual, but a group. It demonstrates that the sentence is not referring to an individual, but a number of individuals. The following sentences demonstrate this.

  1. The green ball are mine. (African American Vernacular English)
  2. The green ball is mine. (Standard English)

The ball is a subject in its third party form. It is singular and therefore should take the verb is, not are. However, in African American Vernacular English, this is acceptable. The following is a further demonstration of how the two words differ in their usage in the two languages.

  1. John and Jane is sick and could not make it to the tournament. (African American Vernacular English).
  2. John and Jane are sick and could not make it to the tournament. (Standard English).

In the first sentence, are, is used, when the most appropriate word should be is. The subjects in the sentence are two individuals, John and Jane. The verb used should reflect this. Comparing the first set of sentences (about the green ball), and the second set (about John and Jane), one fact that comes out clearly is that African American Vernacular English lacks strict rules to govern its sentence structure. Words can be used interchangeably, as long as they can convey the intended message. This is very different from Standard English where words have their specific meanings, and they must be used in a context that will bring out their meaning without any possibility of confusion. Every word in Standard English has its purpose, for which it must serve within the sentence.

The Use of Was and Were

In a Standard English, there is a clear way in which the verbs was and were must be used in order for them to make sense. Was, is always used as a past tense when the subject is singular. On the other hand, were, is always used when talking about subjects in the plural form, also in the past. African American Vernacular English does not have a clear restrictive rule on how the two words may be used. The following are some of the sentences that can help clarify this.

  1. If I were you, I would be a happy man. (Standard English)
  2. If I was you, I would be a happy man. (African American Vernacular English)

The first sentence is the correct sentence of the two sentences. As illustrated above, the use of the word were, is meant for subjects in their plural forms, the first and second persons (Marzec 45). The use of was will therefore, not be appropriate when dealing with the subject I. The following sets of sentences also demonstrate how African American Vernacular English further confuses the words.

  1. Peter and Pamela was in the hospital this morning. (African American Vernacular English)
  2. Peter and Pamela were in the hospital this morning. (Standard English)

The first sentence, in its current form is grammatically wrong because we are talking about two individuals, Peter and Pamela. The first sentence can only use the verb was, if it is modified to mean that although both went, the emphasis is on one of the two individuals. This can be demonstrated in the two sentences below.

  1. Peter, and Pamela, was in the hospital this morning. (Standard English)
  2. Peter and Pamela were in the hospital this morning. (Standard English)

The two sentences above are grammatically correct. Their meaning is also closely related, only that the emphasis is different. In the first sentence, the emphasis is on the two individuals, Peter and Pamela. In the second case, the emphasis is on one individual, Pater. The second individual in this case, is just a further clarification that when Peter was going to the hospital, he was accompanied by Pamela. This validates the use of the singular verb, was. This clarity lacks in African American Vernacular English. The two sentences could be put haphazardly to give basic meaning without giving emphasis on how to avoid possible confusion. The sentence below shows possibility of how the above sentence could appear in African American Vernacular English.

Peter, and Pamela, were in the hospital this morning. (African American Vernacular English).

The above sentence would not bring out the desired meaning of the emphasis needed in the sentence. The sentence is brings the impression that both the subjects were of the same importance, which is actually not the case.

Use of Negatives

Standard English differs from African America Vernacular English when it comes to the use of negatives. The following sentences demonstrate this.

  1. I ain’t going to school (African America Vernacular English)
  2. I am not going to school (Standard English)

The African America Vernacular English has used the word aint instead of ‘am not’. This is common among the speakers of African America Vernacular English within the United States and other South American nations. The negative word ain’t, is also used in various other incidents in the African America Vernacular English as a negative sentence. The following sentences demonstrate this scenario.

  1. The use of haven’t/hasn’t
    1. He ain’t gone home. (African America Vernacular English)
    2. He hasn’t gone home. (Standard English)
  2. Use of aren’t
    1. We aren’t going to the field. (Standard English)
    2. We ain’t going to the field. (African America Vernacular English)
  3. Use of isn’t
    1. John ain’t sick (African America Vernacular English)
    2. John isn’t sick (Standard English)

As the above sentences demonstrates, the word ain’t can be used in various forms as a negation in African America Vernacular English. However, Standard English is guarded by very strict rules that must be followed in order to pass its message to the audience. Standard English is very strict with its words. Every word has its specific usage. A little twist in the usage, or structure of the word would result in complete change of the meaning of the word. This is not the case with the African America Vernacular English. The word ain’t an archaic Standard English. According to Pollmanns (43), English has evolved for a very long time, and the evolution still continued. There are word that were used some years ago to give certain meanings, but due to the changes that are taking place, this language has changed and some word

  1. Use of double negatives

In Standard English, double negatives are not acceptable. This is because when a double negative is used, the sentence becomes positive. As such, it is always better to use the positive aspect in the sentence otherwise the sentence will be considered wordy. However, African American Vernacular English allows for the usage of double negatives in a sentence. The sentence below demonstrates this.

  1. I really don’t know nothing on the issue at hand (African American Vernacular English).
  2. I really don’t know anything about this issue. (Standard English)

The first sentence will not be acceptable in the Standard English because it is considered repetitive. Given the context, one would assume that at least the speaker is admitting that he or she knows something, by not knowing nothing. The following sentences below also demonstrate the double negatives in a sentence.

  1. Ain’t nobody gonna help me?

Use of personal pronouns

As stated above, African American Vernacular English differs a great deal from Standard English. For example, in the use of noun, one would witness a marked difference because of the difference in semantics in the two languages. In African American Vernacular English, some personal pronouns take different forms from Standard English. The word you will be pronounced as ya. This difference can be expressed in the two sentences below.

  1. I will go with you to school (Standard English)
  2. I will go with ya to school (African American Vernacular English)

This difference may create a lot of trouble when passing information to a group that does not understand the twisted pronunciation. This is because the word ya (used in African American Vernacular English to mean you) is pronounced exactly as yeah (used in Standard English to mean right). This can result in a great confusion when one is trying to grasp the information that is passed across. The second sentence will be interpreted as,

I will go with right to school.

This does not make sense at all. One would be wondering what the speaker is talking about. The communication would be halted completely.

According to Pollmanns (27), this difference in morphological structure of English caused a lot of tension in the early life. The African Americans could not just speak the Standard English that was common among other Americans. They preferred using African American Vernacular English. This language (or dialect as many would refer to it) was gaining popularity among the youths. It was considered as rebellious language and was gaining acceptance among youths across ethnic groups, especially in the informal dwellings. As demonstrated above, the main difference between Standard English and African American Vernacular English was the fact that African American Vernacular English was very offensive even if one was talking about normal interesting things. This was attributed to the culture of the African Americans. This is discussed in details in the section below.

Cultural references

Culture is probably the best explanation why there is a big difference between Standard English and African American Vernacular English. By the time Africans were taken from their cradle land in West Africa as slaves, they were lesser romantic, because their world was controlled by the wish of men. A man would kidnap a girl she considered beautiful, pay the dowry to the parent and proclaim her as a wife, regardless of the wish of the girl. When they were taken to America as slaves, things were not any better. In fact life became very frustrating to them.

They got used to the abusive language. Their lives revolved around abusive languages from masters. Their children grew up learning the abusive languages instead of the standard language. A master would refer to their mothers and sisters as bitches as a way of rebuking them. They internalized that women were generally referred to as bitches. Skordos (49) explains that when masters were not happy with the performance of the slaves, they would use such abusive language as ‘fuck you’, while hitting the slave. Children were internalizing this language. This scholar notes that it was not just the parents who were internalizing this language. The parents were also getting used to the language. It was becoming common to see a father and a son referring to each other as bullshit or just shit. To the father, he does not understand the real meaning of the word because it was not in the vocabulary of his native language. To the child, this is a normal language that the whites use on a daily basis, and therefore it is acceptable. This would bring a scenario where two individuals would innocently be using an abusing word without realizing that it is an offensive word. The mother would be brought on board and this would become the language in the family. Because of the variation of cultures, and language, this new language promised to unite everyone within this society. A new culture was being born in America without the realization of the white Americans. To the whites, these were just slaves who would never get to impact the ‘main stream’ Americans.

When slave trade was abolished, it was apparent that this language had become very common among the local African Americans. It was a new culture that was complete with its own language. Because of the rough treatment given by their former masters, these people had become very rough in most of their actions because that was the life they were used to. This explains why the whites came up with discriminatory policies immediately after the abolition of slave trade (Skordos 81). They might not have resented the blacks as it was thought. However, it was clear that they hated the culture that this group had developed. They did not particularly like the language that this group had developed. It was a whole new culture.

In Media and Literature

A number of American scholars have tried to depict African American Vernacular English in their works. Most of these works have been in poems and, songs, and oral narratives among others. There was a rising need to reflect this literature in their literary works. African Americans realized that it was necessary to present literature in their own language. William Wells was the first African American to author the first book which was titled Clotel. Alice Walker later authored a book titled, the color purple, which was purely written in African American Vernacular English. Other others would later come with other literary works such as poems, short stories and novels in this language.

Music as a Means of Presenting the Difference between Standard English and African American Vernacular English

Music is one of the best ways that helps bring out the difference between African American Vernacular English and Standard English. In his book, Paul (39) says that he misses the time when Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers would electrify the crowd with good country music that presented love in its purest form. This scholar articulates that the music then would be presented with respect, and in a way that would make one believe in love. This scholar however, laments that this has changed. He says that the current society if full of music which uses language he describes as offensive.

Blues, R & B, Jazz, and hip-hop are genres of music related to African Americans. They bear the language, and one can easily detect the fact that some of the words they use are not Standard English. Although the interaction between different cultures is making this difference diminish, it is still clear in some of the music. The table below shows this.

Artist Song Lyric Feature Demonstrated
Nina Simone It be that way at times It be that way at times Habitual
Vera Hall Troubles so hard Don’t nobody understand my problems but God Double negative
Texas Alexander Rising Sun It look like bat Omission of the letter sin the verb

Conclusion

Culture has a very strong influence on language. Paul (43) argues that language will heavily be influenced by cultural values and practices. Cultural values would help define structural form of a given language. African American Vernacular English, just as Standard English, is based on cultural values of the societies where they are spoken. It is important to note that Standard English, just as African American Vernacular English, has undergone a lot of transition, since the time of Shakespeare (Cukor 76). It has evolved differently in different regions of the world due to differing cultural values, although the language has maintained its form across all these cultures. Cultural value that determines how African American Vernacular English uses diction is different from that of Standard English (Paul 47).

Cukor (90) says that African American Vernacular English is comparatively rich in its language (especially given the fact that it brought together many cultural groups), a fact they relate to the rich culture of the African American Vernacular English. Skordos does not seem to agree with the fact that this group has a rich culture (78). He points out to the fact that these group tend to act in a manner that may not be considered as culturally rich. However, he agrees that African American Vernacular English has had huge impact on to the American society, especially in music and other related works.

List of References

Cukor, Patricia. The Evolution of Aave in a Rural Texas Community: An Ethnolinguistic Study. New York: Cengage, 1995. Print.

Marzec, Robert. The Mid-Atlantic Region. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.

Paul, Rhea. Language Disorders from Infancy through Adolescence: Assessment & Intervention. St. Louis: Mosby, 2007. Print.

Pollmanns, Milena. The Influences of Africanisms on American English: the Variety of Afro-American English. München: GRIN Verlag, 2010. Print.

Poplack, Shana. The English History of African American English. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. Print.

Ray, George. Language and Interracial Communication in the United States: Speaking in Black and White. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. Print.

Rickford, John. African American Vernacular English: Features, Evolution, Educational Implications. Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1999. Print.

Skordos, Jan. African-American Vernacular English Within American ‘gangsta Rap’. München: GRIN Verlag GmbH, 2011. Print.

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