AAL Linguistic Patterns

African American Language (AAL) exhibits variation and differences from other varieties of American English in the sound (phonological) system, the grammatical (morphosyntactic) system, as well as the lexicon. These differences are systematic and are a result of the origin and continued development of AAL. All language varieties throughout the world exhibit a range of features, some related to sound, while others being related to the structure of a variety. AAL has many features that are shared with other American English varieties, while also containing features that are unique to AAL.

Over the past fifty years, several feature lists have been published including Wolfram and Fasold (1974), Rickford (1999), Thomas and Bailey (1998), Pollock et al. (1998), Wolfram (2004), and Spears (2019). This AAL Linguistic Patterns web page brings together these sources with audio recordings collected primarily from CORAAL. For each feature, we present an audio clip, a description of the pattern, along with social information when available and additional comments.

Coming soon! For more AAL linguistic patterns and audio examples, AAL Examples, a web source on LingTools at the University of Oregon is being developed by Charlie Farrington, Tyler Kendall, and Chloe Tacata.

Grammar (Syntactic) System

What is Grammar?

A grammar is the way words are used, classified, and structured together to form coherent written or spoken sentences, such as the internal structure of noun, adjective, and prepositional phrases, and their presence in the order/structure of sentences. Something thought to be grammatical by a native speaker of White Mainstream English (WME) could be ‘He goes to the store’. Something ungrammatical does not adhere to the overall structure of a language. An example in WME could be *‘He the store go to’. (Linguists use * to note ungrammatical examples.) Descriptive grammar is built up by analyzing how speakers use a language, and deducing the rules that follow. Prescriptive grammar is a set of explicit rules for using language that are taught, or enforced, so that people will use the language in some particular way, often taught in schools and typically is a result of teaching writing, rather than being about spoken language. When linguists discuss grammar, they are adhering to a descriptive grammar paradigm, with a focus on how speakers use the rules of any given language variety, underscoring the fact that all languages and language varieties are systematic and rule governed. Languages and language varieties demonstrate variation in probabilistic ways, and no one language or language variety is more “correct” than another. 

What is the Grammar of African American Language?

The grammatical system or grammar of AAL is comprised of morphosyntactic features and patterns. The grammar of AAL has been the focus of many researchers since the sociolinguistic study of AAL began in the 1960s. The study of the grammatical system of AAL is growing as ongoing research is identifying more regional differences across the United States. These grammatical features put into perspective the variation of language use and give us a better idea of the constant change in AAL and language in general.

Tense, Aspect, and Mood

One distinctive difference between WME and AAL is the complexity of the tense, aspect, and mood system. It is the richness of the tense and aspect system that really sets AAL apart from other varieties of English that mark aspect differently in their systems. Several linguists have focused extensively on the tense and aspect systems of AAL in particular, and how it is different from WME. Aspect and tense are often treated side by side. Tense situates an event in time, such as happening in the past, happening in the present, or in some languages, in the future. Aspect refers to the kind of event that took place, referring to things like how long an event took (duration), whether an event is completed or not, or whether an event happened over and over. Mood, also referred to as modality, expresses the meaning of a sentence. This might refer to using modals, like can, should, or might, but can also refer to the ways that speakers express surprise or indignation. Several features discussed below are pre-verbal markers in AAL, but to denote the same kind of meaning, WME requires some sort of adverbial marker, such as all the time or always to indicate habituality, or a long time ago to indicate remote past.

Invariant be

Type: Morphosyntax
(Tense, Aspect, Mood)
Example from DCA_se1_ag1_m_04 (543.17-551.27): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
See sometime, the children, th- they be bothering you while you try and do your work. | Start talking and then she'll think it's you. Then she'll go around | start hollering at you.
Description: Invariant be may show an event or activity is distributed intermittently over time or space.
See: Labov et al. 1968; Fasold 1972; Dayton 1996; Green 1998
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread. Occurs in both rural and urban speech. Invariant be + VERB-ing increased over the 20th century.

Remote time (stressed) BIN

Type: Morphosyntax
(Tense, Aspect, Mood)
Example from DCB_se1_ag2_f_02 (1901-1903.6): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
I been met /RD-NAME-2/ | like, long time ago.
Description: Indicates that an event took place in the distant past and that the event is still relevant today.
See: Spears 1982:852; Wolfram 2004
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread. Occurs in both rural and urban speech. Often called "Stressed BIN" because of the PIN/PEN merger.

Completive (unstressed) done

Type: Morphosyntax
(Tense, Aspect, Mood)
Example from PRV_se0_ag2_m_01 (2655.1-2657.5): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
I got- done got a spanking for something he done did.
Description: Use of done to emphasize the completed nature of an action. Can co-occur with been (e.g. been done or done been). Similar to the completive done in Southern White English, where done is stressed, but in AAL, the done is often unstressed.
See: Edwards 1991; Terry 2004
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread. Occurs in both rural and urban speech.

Indignant come

Type: Morphosyntax
(Tense, Aspect, Mood)
Example from PRV_se0_ag3_f_02 (2648.61-2654.3): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
And uh, some of 'em even had nerve enough to dr- if you stop at the stop thing, come walking up to your car.
Description: Come has grammaticalized as an auxiliary and expresses a speaker's indignation about an action or event.
See: Spears 1982, 1990; Wolfram 2004
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread. Wolfram categorizes as new and intensifying.

Double Modals

Type: Morphosyntax
(Tense, Aspect, Mood)
Example from DCA_se1_ag3_f_02 (2648.61-2654.3): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
I might would associate with one or two girls, you know
Description: Double modals are found in constructions that where two modal verbs (can, may, will, could, might, would, ought to, used to, should) occur alongside one another and indicate mood(s), such as obligation, possibility, certainty, or permission.
See: Labov et al. 1968; Wolfram 2004; Scott 2016; Reed & Montgomery 2016
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread. Also found in varieties of Southern White English.

Copula Absence

Type: Morphosyntax
(Tense, Aspect, Mood)
Example from DCA_se1_ag1_m_04 (591.5-593.8): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
He don't yell at you or nothing. He nice.
Description: One of the most well studied and commented on features of AAL. The omission of the verb be, the English copulaCopula absence is a great example to highlight the systematicity of AAL. In English, copulas are the inflected forms of to be. AAL does not omit or delete the am form of be, therefore this feature does not occur in the first person. An AAL speaker could not say "I coming over" for "I am coming over." Where this feature does occur is in cases were the copula would be conjugated as is or are, e.g., "You’re going to want to get your coat" could be realized in AAL as "You going to want to get your coat." Another interesting point about AAL and copula absence is that though other varieties of American English, especially Southern English, exhibit copula absence in cases where are would be used, AAL is unique in its use copula absence in cases of is (Wolfram 1974; Feagin 1979)
See: Labov 1969; Cukor-Avila 1999; Bender 2000; Green 2002, 2011; Wolfram 1969; 2004
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread, common among both rural and urban areas.

Possession in AAL

The possessive system in AAL differs from other varieties of American English in a few ways. A common patterns in AAL is the absence of the possessive -s suffix the noun/pronoun doing the possessing. Additionally, there are some pronominal differences. The possessive pronoun their can be replaced with they. Another pattern is that of regularization by analogy, where forms are changed to match the more common patterns. In AAL, the possessive pronoun mine becomes mines, such as that's mines rather than that's mine, which matches the pattern of possessives his, hers, and yours.

Possessive they

Type: Morphosyntax
(Nouns and Pronouns)
Example from DCA_se1_ag1_m_07 (484.88-487.5): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
You know, get they money or something. So he checked up on him.
Description: The use of they as a third person plural possessive pronoun.
See: Labov et al. 1968; Green 2002; Wolfram 2004:125; Farrington et al. 2015
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread and common in rural and urban locales. Some argue about the source of possessive they, could be an older feature that arose independently (Green 2002), or it came from r-less their and was reanalyzed as they (Labov et al. 1968). Variable with their.

Possessive -s absence

Type: Morphosyntax
(Nouns and Pronouns)
Example from PRV_se0_ag1_f_01 (1757.9-1759.3): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
We coming to my grandmother house.
Description: The genitive marker -s is not required to mark a possessive relationship. The context (e.g. word order) is argued to mark these relationships. Variable with marked genitive.
See: Rickford 1999; Wolfram 2004
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread, common among both rural and urban areas.

Negation

In many respects, negation in AAL is not particularly different from other varieties of American English. We highlight three examples of negation in AAL, negative concord, negative inversion, and ain't for didn't. Negative concord, also called multiple negation, is a common feature in many varieties of vernacular American English. Many varieties exhibit negative concord over a single clause, but AAL can highlight negation over multiple clauses, I wasn't sure that nothing wasn't going to come up. The transparency principle, which is the tendency for languages to mark meaning distinctions as clearly as possible and to avoid obscurity in meaning (Wolfram & Schilling 2016:412), is at play here. When a speaker negates a clause or across clauses, they are making the negation clear for the listener.

Similarly, ain't is common in many varieties of American English. In addition to ain't replacing have+not and be+not, AAL can also replace did+not with ain't. This past tense use of ain't is thought to be unique to AAL. There is a common misconception that ain't is a marker of "bad" or "incorrect" English, when in fact, the diachronic development of ain't is well studied. As is often the case with language, ain't became disfavored by people in power and it became a dispreferred form, based solely on the social evaluation of speakers and not on the language system itself.

Negative Concord

Type: Morphosyntax
(Negation)
Example from PRV_se0_ag3_m_02 (1069.4-1071.46): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
Cause like I ain't never had no money no way.
Description: Single negative proposition may be marked within verb phrase and on postverbal indefinites.
See: Wolfram 1969:156, 2004
Social Distribution/Comments: No different than other vernacular dialects of English. Geographically widespread; rural and urban; primarily working class

Negative inversion

Type: Morphosyntax
(Negation)
Example from DCA_se1_ag1_m_03 (2084.34-2086.31): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
Cause didn't nobody hardly stay home then.
Description: Negative inversion occurs in AAL when an utterance has the inverted form of questions, but the sentence is a declarative.
See: Labov et al. 1968; Sells, Rickford, & Wasow 1996; Wolfram 2004
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread; rural and urban areas; primarily working class.

Ain't for Didn't

Type: Morphosyntax
(Negation)
Example from ATL_se0_ag2_m_01 (1486.8-1488.5): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
You know, I ain't know what Freaknik was.
Description: Use of ain't to mean didn't (past tense negative marker).
See: DeBose 1994; Weldon 1994; Wolfram 2004; Howe 2005; Fisher 2018
Social Distribution/Comments: Ain't is common throughout American English varieties, but this use for past tense didn't is thought to be specific to AAL, common across urban and rural varieties.

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Sound (Phonological) System

What is phonology?

The phonological system of a language includes an inventory of sounds and their features, and rules specifying how sounds interact with each other. In this section we use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is an alphabetic system of notation that linguists use to describe any sounds for any language. The brackets around symbols represent approximated realizations of sounds rather than ideal notions of the way things should sound. 

To learn more about the IPA please visit the Dialect Blog and Tutorial(s) on the IPA

The phonology, or sound system, of AAL has increasingly become the focus of researchers in recent years because of technological advances in analyses. While in the past, researchers have assumed that the unique grammatical variables of AAL provide the best venue for understanding the systematicity of the variety and its uniqueness, there are in fact many sound patterns that further illustrate the intricacies of AAL. 

What are some AAL sound patterns?

The body of work on sound patterns of AAL is large, although not as vast as the study of the grammatical system of AAL. Several recent overviews Thomas and Bailey (2015) and Thomas (2015) provide overviews of these sound patterns in AAL. Thomas and Bailey focus on some well-studied segmental features of AAL, but also address aspects of AAL that warrant further study. Thomas (2015) focuses on suprasegmental variation in AAL, or variation above the level of the segment, such as variation in syllables, intonation or stress.

Segmental Features

We first highlight some commonly studied segmental patterns, such as consonant cluster reduction and r-lessness, more examples will be available through AAL Examples on LingTools.

r-lessness in unstressed syllables

Type: Phonological
(Consonants)
Example from PRV_se0_ag3_m_01 (2648.61-2654.3): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
He mighta been born in Washington DC, but her- his father
Description: Deletion of the /r/ sound following a vowel or between two vowels. Also called non-rhoticity. r-lessness is not unique to AAL (e.g. Southern English, NYC English, etc.). Because of the historical connections to the South, AAL varieties generally have some degree of r-lessness.
See: Labov et al. 1968; Anshen 1970; Hinton & Pollock 2000; McLarty et al. 2019
Social Distribution/Comments: r-lessness varies greatly by community, and likely relates to both community size and community demographics

Consonant cluster reduction

Type: Phonological
(Consonants)
Example from DCB_se1_ag2_m_01 (1496.8-1499.1): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
It's too much risk. It's too much risk.
Description: In word final consonant clusters, the second consonant is lost. CCR is common among all varieties of American English when the following word begins with a consonant, but AAL CCR can occur pre-vocalically. Some linguists focus specifically on final coronals in clusters, calling it coronal stop deletion. In the example provided, the /sk/ cluster is reduced to /s/.
See: Labov et al. 1968; Wolfram 1969; Baugh 1983; Wolfram & Thomas 2002; Thomas 2007
Social Distribution/Comments: Geographically widespread; higher rates of CCR in working class varieties

Velar nasal fronting

Type: Phonological
(Consonants)
Example from ROC_se0_ag1_m_02 (1303.1-1306.5): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
It's people coming from where they're from | expressing themself through the art the way they do.
Description: Common feature of all varieties of American English, where -ing is replaced by -in. This is the prototypical example in sociolinguistics of a stable variable. Rates of -in are much higher in working class communities.
See: Labov et al. 1968; Shuy et al. 1967; Forrest & Wolfram 2019
Social Distribution/Comments: Found in most English varieties; more frequent in vernacular AAL. Varies greatly by community, and likely relates to both community size and community demographics

Final fricative deletion

Type: Phonological
(Consonants)
Example from ATL_se0_ag2_m_03 (1357.9-1359.1): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
I got forty-five years.
Description: Deletion of /f, v, s, z/ sounds in monomorphemic words, e.g. fi' for five or hou' for house. Not well studied, but higher rates of deletion are found in urban Southern cities like Memphis and Atlanta.
See: Harrison 2007; Thomas 2007; Farrington 2018
Social Distribution/Comments: /v/ deletion is most common among fricatives, but deletion of /f, s, z/ on monomorphemes is more common in the urban South (e.g. Memphis, Atlanta).

 

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Suprasegmental Features

In studying sound patterns of AAL, suprasegmental features have been much more rare than studies of segments. Prosodic Patterns (e.g. Intonation and Rhythm) are very much like the music of language, where speakers use rhythm, pitch melodies, speed, and loudness to direct listeners’ attention to certain elements in what they are saying. Understanding prosody requires us to consider units larger than segments like consonants and vowels, such as syllables, phrases, or utterance-level phenomena. Suprasegmental means above the level of the segment! These differences can signal questions or mark focus or mark contrastive information in language. Speakers are conductors of language and by using prosody, they can orient listeners to attend to important information in the stream of words.

While studies of prosody are not as advanced as studies of consonants and vowels (nor of vocabulary and grammar), we know some of the dimensions of variability (Thomas 2015). Among the things we know is that people interacting with speakers of unfamiliar dialects may interpret prosody incorrectly, and so may misinterpret the information intended by a speaker. The following are a list of suprasegmental sound patterns that occur in African American Language:

Front stressing of initial syllable

Type: Phonological
(Prosodic)
Example from ATL_se0_ag1_f_02 (1214.8-1216.8): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
Police riding by in helicopters.
Description: Tendency to place stress on first syllable of a word with more than one syllable. In the example, the first syllable in police (po) is stressed.
See: Fasold & Wolfram 1970; Sutcliffe 2003; Thomas 2015
Social Distribution/Comments: Stereotypically associated with AAL (Thomas 2015), often observed in words like police and Detroit.

Intonational variation

Type: Phonological
(Prosodic)
Example from DCA_se1_ag1_m_07 (91.9-101.4): [ Explore in CORAAL ]
Not really, you know, like uh, | if one of us say, you know, I heard it's a party up town. Come on, let's go. And somebody say, well, you know, I heard there's one downtown.
Description: Scholars have suggested that AAL has "more intonation", or uses more tones, as well as favoring complex tones compared to other American English varieties (McLarty 2018). Additionally, Holliday (2016) demonstrated that higher rates of these complex tones may be indicative of a pattern of usage that is unique to AAL and tied to African American identity. In the example above, notice how certain syllables and words are highlighted and more prominent.
See: Loman 1967; Tarone 1972, 1973; Thomas 2015; Holliday 2016; McLarty 2018
Social Distribution/Comments: Despite some recent work by Holliday and McLarty, social and regional patterns remain understudied.

Prosody and Phrase Final Lengthening

Type: Phonological
(Prosodic)
Example from mem0400m (1466.8-1470.3): [ Available via SLAAP ]
But then she had started working at Fed with me too when she had quit.
Description: Thomas and Carter (2006) found differences between AAL and other varieties of American English in terms of rhythm, or the timing of speech. Some languages exhibit syllable timing, where the length of each syllable is roughly the same. Other languages, like English and German, exhibit stress timing, where the length of each syllable is different, where stressed syllables are longer than unstressed syllables. In the past, AAL was more syllable timed, but has become more stress timed over the course of the 20th century. In the example, notice the lenght of stressed syllables compared to unstressed syllables. This example also highlights phrase final lengthening in AAL. As far as we know, this feature has not been systematically studied, but could highlight an important prosodic difference unique to some varieties of AAL.
See: Thomas & Carter 2006; Kendall 2011; Thomas 2015
Social Distribution/Comments: Understudied feature of AAL. Regional/social variation is unknown.

 

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