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.
For additional AAL patterns and audio examples, AAL Examples, a web source being developed on LingTools at the University of Oregon. AAL Examples is developed by Charlie Farrington, with assistance by Tyler Kendall and Chloe Tacata.
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.
Remote time (stressed) BIN
Completive (unstressed) done
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 -s absence
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.
Ain't for Didn't
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.
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
Consonant cluster reduction
Velar nasal fronting
Final fricative deletion
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
Prosody and Phrase Final Lengthening