How does AAL vary? On this page we focus on how individuals might vary their language by style shifting, known popularly as code switching, as well as how AAL can vary by region, social class, age, and gender!
Sociolinguists Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling define style shifting as variation within the speech of a single speaker whereby speakers may shift in their use of grammatical, phonological, and lexical variants in response to social conditions. Importantly, style shifting is a skill all speakers of a language possess and is not restricted to speakers of AAL. People commonly refer to style shifting as code switching or code meshing, however linguists often reserve code switching for switching between different languages rather than variable features associated with social factors, such as gender or speech context. In fact, several videos in our Learn More About AAL section allude to code switching in AAL. For example, AAL speakers might speak a style at home with family and friends, a different style at school, and a different style with co-workers in the workplace.
There has been a longstanding academic tradition of linguists attempting to better understand style shifting as it relates to social and linguistic factors. Largely, linguists agree that some features (or variants) provide social meaning to listeners that portray aspects of a speaker's identity, formality, and status in society. Speakers then may shift their use of specific variants to highlight those different meanings. A number of theories have been proposed as to how and why speakers style shift, largely focusing on either a response to the context of speech, or in the active process of constructing one's identity.
The first major account of speakers’ ability to modify their speech styles or style shift was proposed by William Labov (1966) as the Attention to Speech Model. A key finding from this work was that in a more formal situation, such as an interview, speakers use fewer vernacular features. This is presumably because speakers pay closer attention to their speech in this context than in more informal conversations. Recent work has continued to build on this idea of variation in context. Dr. Susan Ervin-Tripp explains that “particular circumstances, such as speech versus writing, planned versus unplanned, and face-to-face conversation versus a speech presented to a group of people, trigger style shifting among all monolinguals” (Ervin-Tripp 2001: 3). This process is common across varieties, and speakers of AAL have also been observed to use fewer more vernacular features of AAL when in interview settings (Renn & Terry 2009).
Another explanation of style shifting was proposed by Bell (1984) which built upon Street and Giles’ (1982) notion that speakers adjust their speech to win the approval of other members of the conversation. This explanation of style shifting is often called the Audience Design model of speech, as speakers primary motivation for shifting speech style is the other members of the conversation. In his model, speakers often orient towards their communication partner(s) rather than away from them. Rickford and McNair-Knox (1994) found that Foxy Boston, an African American teenager used more vernacular AAL features when interviewed by an African American interviewer than a white interviewer.
A third explanation that has been proposed is the Speaker Design approach of style shifting (Schilling-Estes 1998; Eckert 2000; Coupland 2007). Proponents of this explanation argue that speakers are much more proactive and agentive in their use of language than Audience Design and Attention to Speech models allow. Rather than speakers responding to the speech context, the Speaker Design model asserts that identity formation is the primary motivation for speakers to style shift. By using or excluding certain features from ones speech, a speaker is able to indicate their group membership, identity, and/or stance. For example, Alim and Smitherman (2012) note that while many African American youth are able to style shift , "they resist the unrelenting white linguistic norms of their teachers" (p. 175) by using more vernacular AAL features.
All together, these three explanations demonstrate several underlying reasons for why individuals may style shift, and each may exert some degree of influence on speakers of AAL as well.
It is important to note that all languages and language varieties throughout the world, including English, exhibit language variation. Language Variation is described by linguists as “different ways of saying the same thing, whether different ways of pronouncing the same sound, different ways of forming the same construction, or different words for the same item or concept. For example, –in and –ing are variants of the –ing ending on words like swimming or fishing.” (Wolfram and Schilling 2016: 413). Variation can happen at all levels of language from sound segments (phonological/phonetic), to vocabulary (lexical), to structure of a language (morphological and syntactic).
We can see variation in the how, where and when we use certain language features (e.g., possessive -s absence), as well as in different regions (e.g., Southern English versus New England English). Since the mid 1960s, scholars have noted that all language variation is rule-governed, systematic, and probabilistic (Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog 1968). Weinreich and colleagues (1968) also note that if scholars take social factors like style, socioeconomic class, and gender into account, such language variation falls into patterns. The point is that all language varieties exhibit variation, which is rule-governed and predictable, and African American Language is no different. Further, AAL speakers may exhibit considerable variation across all linguistic domains, not just morphological or syntactic domains, for example.
Sociolinguists studying AAL have become increasingly interested in examining the regional diversity of the variety. Much of the early work on AAL by William Labov, Walt Wolfram, Ralph Fasold, and others (e.g. Labov et al. 1968; Wolfram 1969; Fasold 1972; Labov 1972) focused on describing the linguistic system of AAL and found that there were many shared features in AAL across communities throughout the United States. The fact that there were so many shared features in AAL across the United States led many researchers to characterize AAL as a "supra-regional" variety, exhibiting little variation across communities. While it is true that there are prototypical dialect traits/features that are shared across regions, this is in large part a result of sociohistorical conditions for AAL speakers, such as “the de facto segregation that persists in US society, and considerations of cultural and individual identity” (Wolfram and Schilling 2016: 233). There has also been increasing research showing differentiation of AAL across regions. For example, AAL on the eastern seaboard exhibits features, such as the labialization of interdental fricatives (e.g., bof for both) that occur at higher rates than in other varieties further inland. Additionally, there are differences within regions, especially in the American South. As in most regional varieties throughout the United States, there is what is often called the rural/urban split, where speakers from rural locations often use linguistic forms that are either wholly different from what researchers find in urban locations, or use similar forms but at different rates, and AAL is no different in this respect. Even within the same region (e.g. the American South), AAL speakers in urban settings use language differently than AAL speakers in urban settings.
A recent study using the Corpus of Regional African American Language, Arnson and Farrington (2017), examined vowel changes in Washington, D.C. in speakers born between 1907 and 2000. This work highlighted how population shifts and sociohistorical factors within a community can affect dialect features. The study demonstrates that there is an interplay between regional patterns and more widespread AAL features over time that are related to the origins of this variety and the waves of migration of African Americans during the 20th century. Further, this interplay between regional patterns and more widespread AAL features, lend to the notion that these more macro-level social factors (i.e. migration and population density) interact with factors related to identity and language use (e.g. solidarity).
Like all other varieties of English throughout the United States and the rest of the world, African American Language (AAL) can show a great deal of variation along social class dimensions. It’s important to preface this discussion with the fact that much of the prior research on AAL has tended to focus on more vernacular varieties of AAL, usually exemplified in working class AAL speakers (but see DeBose 1992; Weldon 2004; Kendall and Wolfram 2009).
When linguists discuss social class, they mean that there are social inequalities that have been captured by social scientists as differences in class structure (Chambers 2009). In one of the earliest systematic studies of AAL, Wolfram (1969) examined AAL across social classes and found that in the city of Detroit “social status is the single most important variable correlating with linguistic differences” (p. 214). In this study, language use was found to correlate with occupation and education, but not on residential scales. In Detroit in the 1960s, Wolfram (1969) discovered that the clearest linguistic boundary is between the middle and working classes. This fact has been found throughout linguistic research on language variation and change. Nguyen (2006) examined AAL in Detroit several decades after Wolfram’s initial study, analyzing the role of social class on several linguistic variables. Some variables exhibited clear social class patterns, while others showed an interaction between gender and social class, highlighting that such patterns can shift over time, even within one city!
These kinds of patterns can also be found within an individual speaker! Kendall and Wolfram (2009) examined community leaders in two North Carolina towns and found that social class as a single explanation of AAL variation is often too simplistic. They found that higher status members of communities may use vernacular features more than they would be expected to, which can be attributed to several different factors. First, though looking at language variation and change in large-scale studies certainly provides researchers with insights, they often do not always consider that speakers are individuals and make choices with respect to language use that may not reflect wider community norms. Secondly, individuals that make up the data for large-scale studies in communities often have different backgrounds and upbringings that contribute to language use and choices. Lastly, those choices are often driven by different social pressures (employment opportunities, demographics of the community, solidarity etc.) which affect the different choices people make with respect to language use.
Increasingly, scholars have begun to investigate AAL in the middle class as well. Nguyen (2006) focused on middle class African Americans for the large part, as a way to better understand the ways in which they use AAL features. Much of the earlier research on AAL focused on working-class speakers, with the view that most middle-class AAL speakers are a sort of “middle-ground” where they tend to either orient “to or away from AAL norms for a specific variable”, which is far too simplistic (Nguyen 2006: 168). Britt and Weldon (2015) review research that examines AAL in middle-class communities, and note how complex socio-economic factors are with respect to language variation and change, which is especially true in many African American communities. For example, linguistic practices of middle-class African Americans are dependent on a number of factors, such as how insulated their communities are, proximity to working-class communities, orientation to and pressures from external factors: "Overall, the middle class provides an exciting site of sociolinguistic research given that middle-class African Americans often fall on the boundary between speech communities and display the nuances and tensions of that experience in their linguistic choices" (Britt and Weldon 2015: 812).
One final note with respect to social class, though as we have seen social class does play a role in the realization of AAL features, it is not the total sum of language use, but simply one dimension that helps explain the variation we see in language use for AAL speakers. Other factors within communities such as age and gender operate alongside social class and in concert with individual choices that make up the way in which AAL is used in African American communities.
Wolfram (1969) and Wolfram and Thomas (2002) examined AAL as it relates to the use of specific features over the course of one’s life, and change over time. Wolfram (1969), as mentioned above, conducted a large-scale study of AAL in the city of Detroit. In addition to findings related to both social class and gender, this early study also provides important insights with respect to AAL and age. This work highlights the fact that for the use of AAL features, adolescents show more divergence from White Mainstream English (WME) norms, than adults. The reason for this is explained through the explicit rejection of adult norms by adolescents. In fact, this is common in all varieties of English, not just AAL. In his study, Wolfram (1969) notes that middle-class teenagers demonstrate more considerably more variation than their adult counterparts, which highlights the role that age plays in the realization of AAL features that cannot be explained simply along social class dimensions, though as mentioned in the social class section, social class does seem to interact with age. Compared to middle-class speakers, speakers of the working classes show a different pattern. Adult working class speakers show more variation, where some adults approximate more standard English norms, whereas others show more AAL features. On the other hand, we see that working-class teenagers are pretty consistent in their use of AAL features, highlighting the interaction of both age and social class in the use of AAL features.
Wolfram and Thomas (2002) examined AAL use in a small rural community in Hyde County, in eastern North Carolina. This work explicitly examines the development and change of AAL in a small enclave coastal community, which informs some of the debate of the continuing development of AAL. This marshland community was historically isolated to the point that access to the community was only possible by boat until the middle of the twentieth century. Historically, African Americans and European Americans lived in the community alongside one another. Elderly African Americans in the study shared many of the same regional features as the European American members of the community, while also maintaining some features that seem to be a result of a substrate influence of the initial African-English language contact situation (Wolfram and Thomas 2002; Wolfram and Schilling 2016).
More recently though, there seems to be a change in the organization of linguistic features utilized by African Americans in Hyde County, such that younger speakers show an increase in the use of AAL features while also reducing their use of regional dialect features, compared to older speakers who still exhibit many of the local dialect structures (Wolfram and Thomas 2002). Much of this change came about during school integration, and can be viewed as a result of the social upheaval and racial conflict that coincided with integration, which younger African Americans experienced first-hand. Thus, African Americans increased their ethnolinguistic differences from European Americans by moving away from the local norms and using features that are associated with urban AAL varieties. The key point about this study with respect to age and AAL, is that different social factors/events as well sociopolitical pressures affect different generations differently, and these events and pressures ultimately inform language use.
Across sociolinguistic work, a major factor in variation across language varieties is gender, with AAL being no different. The study of AAL and gender differs from many other varieties in the United States, due to the intersection of gender and ethnicity and how they interact in AAL. Linguists have long known that language is emblematic of identity for all speakers, regardless of language or language variety (Eckert 1989; 2000). Linguists are interested in the relationship that gender and ethnicity have to one another, and how this affects varying linguistic structures or the way in which certain features are used by different speaker groups (Nichols 1983; Barrett 1999; Nguyen 2006; Lanehart 2002, 2009). For example, Wolfram (1969) found that women, when compared to men, approximate more WME features than their male counterparts, which is common across varieties of American English. Much like Wolfram (1969) one component of the work of Nguyen (2006) focused on gender differences over time in Detroit, finding that for some variables, women prefer the more standard features over vernacular features compared to men.
Nichols (1983) examined language use for African Americans along the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia, with a focus on the differences in language use for males and females in these communities. Her findings highlight some of the nuanced ways in which gender, alongside other social categories such as social class and age intersect with one another. In this work Nichols (1983) found that for women, the type of work that they do can affect their language choices. For example, in this community, women were usually either school teachers or worked as secretaries or in other “pink collar” jobs which required them to approximate a more standardized variety; whereas for men, much of the employment opportunities in this area revolved around the construction/carpentry industries which meant more limited interactions with speakers of WME. Another study, completed by Christine Mallinson and Becky Childs in 2004, examined the language use of two different social groups of African Americans in a small Appalachian community in North Carolina. They found that how the social groups oriented themselves to the outside world is reflected in their language use. One group was more oriented to Atlanta, Georgia and this group tended to exhibit more features of AAL that are associated with urban environments. The other group oriented more towards local (Appalachian) identity, and exhibited linguistic patterns that reflect that.
Like the two previous sections with respect to social class and age, gender is typically linked with other social factors which interact in concert, thus forming and augmenting language use for AAL speakers.