African American Language (AAL) is a language variety spoken by millions of Americans. AAL has a long and rich history and while many open questions remain about its origins in the early days of America, it is clear that AAL has been an important, and controversial, language variety in the United States since the earliest days of the country. Over the past half century, AAL has been the subject of a great deal of research by linguists and other scholars. From this research we have learned about the systematicity of AAL as well as its levels of variation (regional, social and gender-based). We have also gained more insight into its origins and its ongoing development.
African American Language (AAL) has been called African American English (AAE), African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Ebonics and Black English in the past. Scholars define AAL in various ways:
Smitherman (2015) describes AAL as “the language and discourse patterns of African slave descendants in the United States, which reflect the survival of African languages in the English used by these descendants” (p. 547).
Van Hofwegen (2015) says AAL “refers to a variety of English spoken by many African Americans in the United States” (p. 454).
Winford (2015) states that AAL refers “to all forms of English employed by African Americans” (p. 85).
Thomas and Bailey (2015) define AAL as “any kind of speech that can be audibly distinguished as African American, including both middle-class and working-class varieties” (p. 403).
AAL contains features that show a great deal of overlap with other varieties of American English, while also containing features that are unique to AAL. These features and the way in which they have developed are related to the origin, early development and continued evolution of AAL and are often linked to and discussed in light of AAL’s relationship to other varieties of American English (Wolfram and Schilling 2015). However one chooses to define AAL, the main point here is that African American Language is systematic and has rules, just like any other language or language variety:
“So, when speakers know AAL, they know a system of sounds, word and sentence structure, meaning and structural organization of vocabulary items, and other linguistic and metalinguistic information about their language, such as pragmatic rules and the social function of AAL” (Lanehart and Malik 2015: 4).
Although AAL has been controversial in American discourse about race and language and is sometimes denigrated in comparison to so-called “Standard English”, from a linguistic perspective AAL is a perfectly normal, rich and beautiful language variety.
In the video below, produced by the North Carolina Language and Life Project at North Carolina State University, Hip-hop producer 9th Wonder, rapper Phonte and other members of the North Carolina African American community discuss what their language means to them, and how they navigate the way they use language in American Society:
Style-shifting is defined by Sociolinguists Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling as variation within the speech of a single speaker, included in the linguistic repertoire of an individual speaker (Wolfram and Schilling 2015). For example, speakers of African American Language (AAL) might speak their native variety at home with family and friends, but in school depending on the degree of formality and other contexts can shift to Mainstream American English (MAE) or other styles to address their audience.
There has been a longstanding academic tradition of linguists attempting to better understanding style-shifting as it relates to social and linguistic factors. The reality is that the topic of style-shifting is a complex subject and there is no one best answer to the question of why people style-shift.
Many researchers have attempted to answer the question of why people style-shift, though 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 to their speech in more informal conversations with friends.
Recent work has continued to build on this idea of variation in context for style-shifting with sociolinguist Susan Ervin-Tripp (2001) indicating 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; p. 3).
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. One contradiction to this by Alim and Smitherman (2012) is that while many youth can style-shift and learn Mainstream English grammar, “they resist the constant and unrelenting imposition of White linguistic norms by their teachers.” (p. 175), which highlights that reasons for style-shifting vary in terms of age, linguistic environment, and other sociocultural factors.
Style-shifting is a skill that all children develop as they navigate the linguistic demands of home, school, and peer groups. This is especially true for speakers who come to school speaking a stigmatized variety of English or a less “prestigious” language. Despite an enormous amount of research displaying the grammatical complexity of AAL, the language of African American youth has consistently been viewed as problematic. (For more information, see the AAL in Society page).
One common grammatical feature of AAL is regularized was (‘we was’ for ‘we were’ in MAE). This feature has also been adopted by some speakers of Southern American English (SAE). In Alim and Smitherman (2012), the authors note that some teachers who are “unaware of the stylistic sensitivity in the use of was and were and other morphosyntatic [that is, grammatical] features” comment that their African American students cannot style-shift. One teacher said she felt this way as she was constantly “correcting” her students on the “acceptable” way to use was and were. The authors assert that sociolinguistic research in the same school demonstrates that African American youth do possess a wide range of linguistic styles and the ability to shift between them.
These perceptions teachers have about their students’ linguistic abilities can have a profoundly negative effect on students who are constantly being told their linguistic capabilities are inferior to others who speak MAE or another mainstream dialect. Furthermore, teachers are more likely to assume or agree that students who speak MAE are capable of style-shifting while students speaking a marginalized variety are not.
Rickford and Price (2013) interviewed two women from East Palo Alto California and investigated the style-shifting patterns present in their speech. This study was compared to previous interviews with the same participants in 1986 as adolescents in the same East Palo Alto community. In their 1986 interviews, the participants showed great linguistic capability to shift their style of speech depending on who they were talking to and in what context. The most recent interviews with them as adults showed that both speakers have become less vernacular over time, though they are not considered to be invariantly standard. Both speakers now work with the public and are in situations where a knowledge of MAE is expected. Although style-shifting patterns of adolescents and adults differ in context, many of the same factors contribute to a speaker's choice of style.
Sociolinguist Natalie Schilling-Estes (2002) discussed some of the problems with previous approaches attempting to analyze style-shifting abilities. Schilling-Estes’s Speaker Design Model of style-shifting considered the ways in which speakers are found to use linguistic variation proactively, rather than reactively or automatically.
Much of the current research on sociolinguistic style has taken the Speaker Design Model perspective and relates to a fundamental principle of language use, and examples of the phenomenon can be found in relation to virtually any identifiable linguistic variety. Style-shifting abilities vary from speaker to speaker and most of the research on when and why style-shifting occurs is on individual speakers rather than as a group. This approach is preferred as style-shifting is comprised of individuals making complex (and often on the fly) judgements about social-situations, peer affiliations, and individual motives, so studying style-shifting on a larger scale can be quite difficult.
Research that does look at larger populations (Eckert 2000; Van Hofwegen 2015; Renn 2010) helps us understand about style-shifting patterns of groups of people, while case studies give us some more detailed analyses of the nature of style-shifting and the reasons why speakers engage in it on an individual level. Many of these assessments of speakers’ rate/use of style-shifting address the multitude of factors facing speakers of any language/variety.
It is important to note that all languages and language varieties throughout the world, including English, exhibit language variation. This is a fact about language in general and is a language universal. 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 2015: 409). 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 (pragmatic), as well as in different regions (the English varieties spoken in the Southern U.S. versus the Northeast U.S. are quite different from one another). Since the mid 1960s, scholars have noted that all language variation is rule-governed, systematic and probabilistic (Weinreich, Herzog and Labov 1968). Weinreich and colleagues (1968) also note that if scholars take style, socioeconomic class, gender, etc. into account then language variation falls into patterns. The point is that all languages and language varieties show variation, which is rule-governed and predictable, and African American Language is no different. Further, it can be the case that an AAL speaker shows a good bit of variation on one dimension, but not others; on the other hand, we can also see an AAL speaker show variation across all dimensions. This is often discussed by linguists as a continuum. For example, a speaker of AAL may show considerable variation with respect to the sound system while exhibiting very little morphological or syntactic variation; again, the opposite can be true where we see an AAL speaker showing considerable variation across all levels of language.
An area of study in AAL research that sociolinguists have increasingly become interested in examining is that of regional diversity. Much of the early work on AAL (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 defacto segregation that persists in US society, and considerations of cultural and individual identity” (Wolfram and Schilling 2015: 231). There has also been increasing research showing differentiation of AAL across regions. For example, AAL in the south exhibits features, such as the devoicing of word final consonants, that differ from AAL in northern cities and vice versa. 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. Meaning, 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 (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 1995). 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. She studied the effects of social class on a few variables in AAL, and found interesting and nuanced patterns. First, for r-lessness, Nguyen (2006) found that what once was a stark social class differences, as found in Wolfram (1969), had all but disappeared; meaning, that while r-lessness in Detroit is decreasing over time, so are the social class differences, such that it is used “with equal frequency by speakers across the social class spectrum” (Nguyen 2006: 155). Another variable of interest in this work, the devoicing of word final consonants, shows almost the opposite pattern. While this feature seems to be increasing over time in these data, it is also becoming more stratified in terms of way it’s realized with speakers of higher social status realizing the variable differently than speakers of lower social status. Lastly, Nguyen (2006) found that for /ai/ glide weakening, the expected patterns based on Wolfram (1969) still hold, such that lower-class speakers use /ai/ glide weakening more than higher-class speakers. This discussion is meant to illustrate how nuanced the effect of social class can be over time, even within one U.S. urban center.
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. In their work, Kendall and Wolfram (2009) 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 repsect 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 communties, 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 Mainstream American English (MAE) norms, than adults. The reason for this is explained through the explicit rejection of norms by adults. 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 2015).
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 coicided 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 2009; Lanehart 2015; McLarty forthcoming). For example, Wolfram (1969) found that women, when compared to men, approximate more Mainstream American English (MAE) 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 Mainstream American English (MAE) feature over the vernacular feature 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 MAE; whereas for men, much of the employment opportunities in this area revolved around the construction/carpentry industries and thus they had limited interactions with speakers of MAE. Another study, Mallinson and Childs (2004), in a different approach than most other studies, examined the language use of two different social groups of African Americans in Appalachia and found that how women orient themselves to the outside world drives a lot of their language use. Meaning, that in this study, women who oriented themselves to a more urban identity (in this case the city of Atlanta, GA), also tended to exhibit features of AAL use that are associated with urban environments; on the other hand, the women who oriented themselves towards a more local (and thus Appalachian) identity, exhibit features that are more local and Appalachian.
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.
African American Language (AAL) shows variation and differences from other varieties of American English along two main dimensions, the sound (phonological) system and the grammar (morphosyntactic) system. 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.
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 Mainstream American English (MAE) could be ‘He goes to the store’. Something ungrammatical does not adhere to the overall structure of a language. An example in MAE 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 morphosyntactic features, of AAL has been the focus of many researchers since the widespread study of AAL began in the 20th century. 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. One distinctive difference between MAE and AAL is the complexity of the tense and aspect system. That being said, it is the richness of the tense and aspect system that really sets AAL apart from other varieties of English which have less aspectual and modal markers and a more simplistic system. Sociolinguist Charles Debose (2015) presents a systematic account of tense and aspect markers in AAL as well as many other grammatical features that are similar to and different from MAE. Using many of the features described in DeBose (2015), Rickford (1999), Wolfram (1969), Fasold (1972), Craig and Washington (2006), and many others in the field of sociolinguistics, the list of features to follow is made up of some of the most analyzed grammatical features of AAL across the 20th and 21st centuries. Note that not all of these features are unique to AAL, in fact many overlap with other varieties of English such as MAE, Southern American English (SAE), and Chicano English (ChE) so that it appears they are not unique to one particular dialect/variety; much of the differences between AAL and other varieties arise from the combination of features and the way in which those features are used by speakers.
Arguably the most unique component of AAL is the tense and aspect system. Tense refers to time (past, present and future) with respect to an event, whereas aspect typically refers to the duration or type of activity through time, both of which are expressed through verbal forms. While across the languages of the world these categories can be rather complex, especially aspect, Mainstream American English (MAE) expresses aspect in a few fairly straightforward ways. Maybe the most recognizable aspectual category is the progressive, e.g. He is writing, which indicates that an event is in progress. Another MAE aspectual category is the perfective, which indicates an event is a complete whole that will unfold (or has unfolded); basically, the focus of the construction is the totality of the event denoted by the verb, e.g. He will help him or He helped him. Another MAE aspectual category is the imperfective, which marks continuous or repetitive activity, such as I used to help him. AAL contains all the aspectual categories that MAE does, but also has aspectual categories that are not a part of the MAE inventory.
The two most prominent and well commented upon aspectual markers in AAL, are invariant be and remote time been. AAL can mark habitualilty, or an action that occurs continuously or intermittently over time, with the verbal marker of be, e.g. He be writing, which in other varieties of American English would generally require some sort of adverbial marker, such as always, to indicate habituality or intermittent action in the present tense, i.e. He is always writing. Remote time been is an aspectual category that indicates that an event “took place in the distant past”, but that event is still relevant today, with the been being stressed acoustically, e.g. She been married (Wolfram and Schilling 2015: 379). Though there isn’t really a direct translation, MAE may say something like, She’s been married for a long time, or possibly even She’s been married for a long time and still is today. The point is that for both of these aspectual categories, MAE requires an adverbial marker or phrase to denote the same type or duration of activity, where AAL can denote these types of activities through a singular word or marker, which happens in many other languages throughout the world, but differentiates AAL from many other English varieties.
Aside from the uniqueness of the tense and aspect system of AAL, there are a number of other features that contribute to the vitality of AAL. Again though this list isn't exhaustive, the following features are meant to help illustrate features of AAL, that when combined, lend to its distinctiveness from other language varieties in the United States.
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 and permission to name a few. When modal verbs are combined, i.e. I might could go to the party or I might oughta take the dinner out of the oven, the force of the mood being conveyed is lessened or slightly altered. For example, I might could go to the party is less forceful than I might go to the party or I could go to the party. The same could be said for I might oughta take the dinner out of the oven. Double Modals are a feature of AAL that is shared alongside other Southern varieties of American English.
Third Person Singular –s Absence
This feature of AAL omits the –s on third person singular verbs, i.e. He walk to school. This feature is common throughout Caribbean languages and highlights the shared history between AAL and these languages, and the linguistic features that they also share (see How did AAL Develop? for more in-depth discussion on the origins of AAL and the relationship between these two language varieties). Additionally, this realization for AAL is fairly complex, as we don’t see the unmarking of verbs in first or second person contexts, which is evidence of the rule-governed nature of AAL as well as its complexity.
A feature of AAL that differs from other varieties of American English is that of possession. Though other American English varieties exhibit variation with respect to possessive nouns and pronouns, AAL demonstrates variation patterns in ways that these varieties do not. The first main difference is the absence of the possessive suffix on nouns and pronouns, e.g. That boy__ dog is outside, where AAL can exhibit absence of the –s marker on the noun/pronoun that is doing the possessing. An important point to note is that context matters with this feature, such that the way word order functions in English, a listener can easily understand what the speaker expresses as possessed; in fact, this is a common feature in many languages throughout the world, especially in the Caribbean. The second main difference involves a process of regularization by analogy, where forms or patterns are changed to match up to the more common pattern. In this case, we can see regularization of possessive pronouns in AAL, such as That’s mines, rather than That’s mine, which comes about based on other forms such as yours, his, hers.
Another common feature of AAL is the use of it for there in constructions that show the existence of something. For example, most varieties of MAE mark existential constructions with there, e.g. There’s a lot of snow outside, whereas AAL can mark this construction with it, i.e. It’s a lot of snow outside. This construction is also found in other varieties of American English as well as in creole languages throughout the Caribbean.
Copula and Auxiliary Absence
Copula Absence in AAL may be one the most commented on features of this language, but also has a fairly complex set of rules. Copula in English refers to forms of to be (so, is, am and are), while auxiliary refers to forms of have, can, must, will, could, should, be, etc. that can convey tense, aspect, mood or voice. First, AAL (or any other variety for that matter) does not omit or delete the am form of be, such that no speaker of AAL would ever say I coming over for I am coming over, therefore this feature doesn’t occur in the first person. Where this feature does occur is in cases were the copula would be conjugated as is or are. A good rule of thumb for understanding this process, is that it occurs in places where other varieties contract the copula, i.e. You’re going to want to get your coat could be realized in AAL as You going to want to get your coat. So, in cases where you find is or are in other varieties that cannot be contracted, i.e. That’s where they are cannot be That’s where they’re, therefore you wouldn’t find AAL speakers saying That’s where they for That’s where they are. 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 and Schilling 2015). Though many linguists think that this feature is a result of a substrate influence from West African and West Caribbean languages, another interesting point about this feature is that it has influenced Southern American English, as copula absence in this variety has increased over the last half century (Wolfram 1974; Feagin 1979).
Multiple negation is a fairly common feature for many varieties of American English, but AAL uses this feature in some different ways. While most varieties of MAE participate in multiple forms of multiple negation, e.g. The boy didn’t say nothing important; Nothing can’t stop him from breaking the bank; Didn’t nobody want to help clean up, etc., AAL (and Southern English), can highlight multiple negation over the course of multiple clauses. For example, in AAL one may say There wasn’t much I couldn’t do to help, or I wasn’t sure that nothing wasn’t going to come up. One thing to keep in mind about multiple negation is that it adheres to what linguists often call the transparency principle, which is “the tendency for languages to mark meaning distinctions as clearly as possible, to avoid obscurity in meaning.” (Wolfram and Schilling 2015: 412). So in the case of negation, when a language such as AAL uses multiple negation, those languages are ensuring that the topics/concepts being negated are crystal clear for the listener. This happens in many other languages, such as German and French. Moreover, prescriptive norms in American English are often arbitrary, and as such these norms add negative valuation to multiple negation, and thus “prevent” this feature from being more widespread or considered socially acceptable.
Along the same lines as Multiple Negation, ain’t in AAL is a feature that marks negation, but in ways that other varieties of American English do not. Many varieties in the US can replace have not or be not with ain’t in constructions, such as He ain’t home right now, which AAL can also do, but what makes AAL different from other varieties is the fact that it can replace didn’t with ain’t, as in He ain’t go to work on Monday, which has only been found in AAL (Wolfram and Schilling 2015).
A point to be made about ain’t is the common misconception that this marker is an example of “bad” or “incorrect” English. But, in fact, English throughout history used to have a first person negative maker, amt, which over the course of time became ain’t. As is often the case with language and society, that form became disfavored by people in power, and thus received the connotation of “improper” English, not based on the language system, but based on the social evaluation of the speakers of that system. Further, the function ain’t as a marker in constructions is common throughout the world, and is a rather common process in terms of marking negation.
What is phonology?
The phonological system of a language includes an inventory of sounds and their features, and rules which specify how sounds interact with each other. In this section we employ the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is a system linguists use to describe sounds for all languages in a universal way. 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 African American Language (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 phonological features that further illustrate the intricacies of AAL.
What are the most analyzed phonological features of AAL?
The body of work on phonological features of AAL is large, although not as vast as the study of the grammatical system, or syntactic features, of AAL. Thomas and Bailey (2015) examined segmental phonological features of AAL from an interest in the origins of the variety (link to origins) and looked at different consonant and vowel variable features. Many of the same features are also described in Wolfram (1969), Rickford (1999) and other major studies, suggesting that the list to follow is made up of some of the most analyzed phonological features of AAL across adolescent to adult speakers, although this list is by no means exhaustive.
The following are a list of segmental sound changes that occur in African American Language:
Segmental refers to the smallest unit of sound (for example, [b])
Consonant cluster reduction
Simplification of word-final consonant clusters, which typically involves the loss of the final stop consonant (“stop” refers to the airflow that is stopped in production) [d, t] in a cluster of two consonants and the second to last consonant in a cluster of three consonants. All varieties of American English, participate in some form of consonant cluster reduction. And cluster reduction is a result of natural speech processes (e.g. how fast or slow someone speaks, etc.). For example, Mainstream American English (MAE), as well as AAL, generally exhibits consonant cluster reduction when the word following the cluster begins with a consonant as well.
cold coffee --> col’ coffee
first string --> firs’ string
Where AAL differs from MAE is that there is higher rate of consonant cluster reduction in cases where the following word begins with a vowel than in MAE.
cold apple --> col’ apple
first officer --> firs’ officer
Devoicing of final consonants
Realization of [b] as [p], [d] as [t] and [g] as [k]. One of the features that differentiates consonants is voicing. Voicing is when the vocal folds vibrate during speech production, as in [z] but not [s]. Devoicing occurs when a voiced sound [b, d, g] is pronounced as a voiceless sound [p, t, k]. This feature can be found in other varieties of American English, such as Pennsylvania German English, Jewish English, as well as varieties of English in Wisconsin.
pig --> pik
bad --> bat
What separates AAL from these varieties is the fact that AAL can also have word final stops that are glottalized, where [b], [p], [d], [t], [g] and [k] are realized as glottal stops, which linguists represent with the symbol [ʔ]. Glottalization is fairly common in American English varieties and is a result of varying speech processes, but AAL uses this feature at higher rates, while also utilizing it in locations that other varieties do not.
Variation of interdental fricatives
An interdental fricative is a consonant pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the teeth and come in pairs, one voiced [ð] (like the th sound in that), one voiceless [θ] (like the th sound in bath). A stop [t, d] is a sound made by completely blocking the flow of air and then releasing it. Realization of [θ] as [t] or [ð] as [d] is common throughout world languages, and in fact, English is one of the few languages that has the [ð] and [θ] sounds word initially or finally.
with --> wit’
the --> da
[n] substituted for [ŋ]
Realization of [ŋ] as [n] in words ending –ing, is a feature is a common across varieties of American English and is a result of several factors such as speech rate, the kind of word it is, and so forth, and has been around in English varieties around the world for hundreds of years. AAL differs from other varieties with respect to rates of use. Although other varieties also participate in this feature, AAL speakers utilize it at higher rates than other varieties of American English.
walking --> walkin’
rolling --> rollin’
Deletion of the [r] sound usually dropped following a vowel or between two vowels. This is not unique to AAL and can be heard in other varieties of English, e.g. Southern English, though it seems to be falling out of use other than places like New York City and Boston.
four --> fou’
forever --> fo’eva
The following are a list of suprasegmental sound changes that occur in African American Language:
Suprasegmental refers to a level (or quality) "above" individual sound segments (for example, syllables, intonation, and stress). Increasingly researchers are working to better understand variation in this domain, although compared to studies that examine segmental and grammatical features of AAL, studies of suprasegmental features are rarer.
Stress on first syllable rather than second
AAL, much like Southern English, has a tendency to place stress on the first syllable of a word with more than one syllable.
hotél --> hótel
políce --> pólice
Intonation and Rhythm
Prosody (e.g. Intonation and Rhythm) is 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 consonants and vowels, such as syllables, phrases, or utterance-level phenomena, like the kinds of melodies that signal questions, or that mark contrastive information. Using prosody, speakers are conductors of language, orienting 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.
As mentioned above, the study of prosody in AAL has been sporadic in the past, but is increasing more recently. Thomas and Carter (2006) found differences between AAL and other varieties of American English in the past in terms of rhythm, but those differences have lessened over time. Rhythm is often defined by linguists in terms of timing. Certain languages, such as French, Spanish, etc. show syllable timing, where the length of each syllable in terms of time are roughly the same. Other languages, like English and German, exhibit stress timing, where the length of each syllable is different; so, stressed syllables are longer in length than unstressed. In the past AAL showed more syllable timing, much like Caribbean languages, but over time has become more stressed timed. For intonation, or tones, AAL is different from other varieties of American English, both in the past and today. The main difference lies in the fact that AAL has “more intonation”, or uses more tones, as well as favoring the use of complex tones compared to other American English varieties (McLarty forthcoming). Further, Holliday (2016) demonstrated in a nuanced way that the higher rates of use for complex tones may be indicative of a pattern of usage that is unique to AAL speakers and is tied to African American identity.
Summary of the Sound System of AAL
Many of these features above are found in other dialects of English across the United States and beyond. The most important distinction between the uses of these features is the rates with which they occur and/or the constraints (rules) on how they are used systematically. In Southern American English (SAE) for example, realization of /ŋ/ as /n/ (e.g. talking as talkin') occurs frequently and is often a phonological feature associated with rurality. While for AAL speakers this feature is used much more frequently and is dependent on grammatical and phonological environments. On the other hand, devoicing of final consonants is a feature present in AAL and that is not regularly seen in Southern American English in the location that AAL uses this feature (example: He is bad → He is bat).
These pronunciation features appear to be consistent in that listeners tend to accurately identify African American voices from European American voices. This is not so much the grammatical features that a speaker uses, but the vowel differences and other sound features one distinguishes as “sounding African American” that are difficult to describe.Purnell, Idsardi, and Baugh (1999) examined the results from a previous experiment by linguist John Baugh. In this experiment, Baugh called different housing agencies asking about housing availability and setting up meetings to see the apartments. Using three different linguistic guises, AAL, Chicano English (ChE), and MAE, each call began with the phrase, “Hello, I’m calling about the apartment you have advertised in the paper.” The results from this study showed that people can and do discriminate based on sound system or particular phonological features of a group of people (i.e. Chicano Americans, African Americans, and assumed European Americans). A further experiment took the same data but narrowed the sound to just the two syllable word ‘hello.’ This allowed external factors to be held at a minimum to see how accurate the hypothesis was that listeners can accurately identify European American voices (or sound features) from African American voices and Chicano American voices. The results show that, overall, participants are able to successfully identify tokens among the dialects when only hearing a word “hello”.
Sociolinguist Erik Thomas and colleagues (2010) reviewed Purnell, Idsardi, and Baugh's (1999) study, as well as other studies that looked at (1) whether listeners can identify voices as African American or European American, (2) whether demographic differences among speakers and/or listeners affect identification rates, and (3) what features listeners can access for identification. A number of studies affirmatively answered (1) and (2), yet as (3) has previously been investigated in a “piecemeal” fashion, the authors sought to identify a more systematic approach to find an answer. The results from Thomas et al. (2010) indicated that no single cue serves as a “silver bullet” for listeners. Listeners rely on several cues from segmental features, prosody, and voice quality. Another finding stipulated that different groups of listeners have different repertoires of cue that they are capable of accessing.
The study of phonological features of AAL continues to grow. The implications that the above-mentioned studies have on the study of AAL are substantial, and bring about more resources and questions for linguists and the general public alike. While many of these features might overlap in other varieties of English across the United States, it is important to remember these are not random occurrences and their use is part of a complex linguistic system.
While for some varieties of language, there are ample historical documents that help in reconstructing the history of the variety, the origin of African American Language (AAL) is less well known and has been debated for quite some time, at least in part due to a lack of historical records. The origin and development of AAL can be summarized through three main historical arguments or “hypotheses”: the Creole Hypothesis, the English Origins Hypothesis, and the Substrate Hypothesis. These three theories have developed out of the research of scholars over the last 50 years. These three main theories each have their merits, as well as their drawbacks.
The Creole Hypothesis is the view that AAL “developed historically from an ancestral creole language” (Wolfram and Schilling 2015: 396). Creole languages are contact-based languages where the vocabulary of one language is superimposed on adapted grammatical structures, a common process in language contact situations (Wolfram & Schilling 2015). This hypothesis argues that AAL developed from a creole language that arose out of early contact between Africans and Europeans, with this creole variety being widespread in the antebellum South. One supporting fact is that this creole variety wasn’t just specific to the mainland American South, showing similarities to other well-known English-based creoles, such Gullah and creoles found in Jamaica and Barbados. In fact, Gullah remains an important case, as Gullah may have traces of the creole that gave rise to AAL even today. Another interesting piece of supporting evidence is that these creoles also show similarities to Krio, a creole spoken today in Sierra Leone (where it is the de facto national language) and other parts on the west coast of Africa (Wolfram and Schilling 2015). Over time, contacts with neighboring varieties led this creole to become more like other English varieties through a process called decreolization, where the creole-specific structures become lost and replaced by features that are non-creole. In the case of AAL, those features are English specific. It’s important to note that this process is gradual and incremental, as some of the remnants can be seen in modern AAL. Features such as copula absence (He is here --> He here), third person singular and possessive –s absence (Michael runs --> Michael run; The boy’s dog --> The boy dog), and the tense and aspect system, all lend credence to the Creole Hypothesis (Wolfram and Schilling 2015).
The video below, produced by the North Carolina Language and Life Project and is an exceprt from the forthcoming documentary Talking Black in America, Dr. Emory Campbell discusses being a Gullah native and the relationship between Gullah and Sierra Leone.
The English Origins Hypothesis (EOH), which has been also referred to as the Neo-Anglicist Hypothesis, runs in opposition to the Creole Hypothesis. This theoretical viewpoint holds the position that antebellum African American speech was linked to the early British dialects spoken by immigrants to North America. This hypothesis does acknowledge that AAL then went on to diverge, or differentiate itself, from European American varieties due to the solidification of the African American community leading to its own unique rules and internal logic (Poplack 2000; Van Herk 2015; Wolfram and Schilling 2015). Some of the supporting evidence for this viewpoint is that many features of AAL, such as habitual be, stressed bin, and unstressed done, have all seemed to be innovations of the twentieth century. At the very least, these features have seemed to intensify during this time period and are not a result of features from the nineteenth century (Labov 1998; Wolfram and Schilling 2015). Further, researchers have studied ex-slave recordings in the Library of Congress (Bailey et al. 1991) and data from African American expatriate varieties of English spoken in places like Samana in the Dominican Republic. These data appear to suggest that early AAL was more similar to neighboring European American Varieties than the Creolist position allows (Van Herk 2015; Wolfram and Schilling 2015). In conjunction with linguistic analysis, it is imperative to consider the sociohistorical context and demographics of the antebellum South.
One of the main assumptions of the Creole Hypothesis, is that there was a widespread plantation creole, however Wolfram and Schilling (2015) discuss that “the distribution of slaves in the Southeastern plantation region of the US was not particularly advantageous to the perpetuation of a widespread plantation creole, as postulated by earlier creolists” (Wolfram & Schilling 2015: 222). Because the majority of enslaved African Americans lived on smaller family farms (~80%), rather than on massive plantations with large enslaved populations, the notion of a plantation-wide African American Creole is tenuous at best.
Thus, these two theories both contain some validity, but both also have some issues. The Creole Hypothesis does not account for the similarities between earlier AAL and other European American varieties, as well as some of the sociohistorical facts regarding the antebellum South. On the other hand, the English Origin Hypothesis cannot account for many features of AAL (e.g. copula absence) that are common in language-contact situations and are found in other English-based creoles.
A newer theory that attempts to rectify some of these issues is the Substrate Hypothesis, which “maintains that even though earlier AAL may have incorporated many features from regional varieties of English in America, its durable substrate effects have always distinguished [it] from other varieties of American English” (Wolfram and Schilling 2015; Wolfram 2003; Wolfram and Thomas 2002). This viewpoint is a middle ground between the Creole Hypothesis and the English Origin Hypothesis. The Substrate Hypothesis suggests that a “full-fledged” Creole may never have developed, but instead a persistent substrate effect, or durable and persistent features from West African languages, arose out of contact between African languages, Creoles, and English. Enslaved Africans faced periods of internment along the coast of West Africa and in the Caribbean where we do see creole languages, possibly linguistically influencing AAL, even if there was unlikely a plantation-wide creole spoken in the American South (Wolfram and Schilling 2015). As Wolfram and Schilling (2015: 224) note, “though recent research evidence suggests more regional influence from English speakers than assumed under the creolist hypothesis, and more durable effects from early language contact situations than assumed under the English Origin Hypothesis, we must be careful about assuming that we have the final answer.” Ultimately, due to limitations of data and different sociohistorical conditions for speakers of AAL, we may never know everything about the origins and early development of AAL.
Taken together, these theories and positions, alongside what we do know about early AAL, highlight both the linguistic and social complexities of AAL, both in the past and today.
Related to the origins and development of African American Language, is the Convergence/Divergence debate, which is concerned with whether or not African American and European American varieties are become more similar (converging) or becoming less similar (diverging) over time. This question is quite complex and hasn’t been resolved. A complicating factor in this debate is that though AAL most definitely is rooted in the American South, its continued development and emergence as a distinct ethnic variety is “strongly associated with its use in large metropolitan areas throughout the United States” (Wolfram and Schilling 2015: 231). This fact is a result of large population movements (the Great Migration), de facto segregation as well as cultural identity.
The Great Migration refers to when large groups of African Americans left the rural south in the mid-twentieth century for urban centers. In turn, this population movement, at first through state mandated segregation then to de facto segregation, led to social situations where an ethnolinguistic variety could emerge. Further, these social factors led to a language that isn’t bound by region, unlike most other language varieties in the United States. This led linguists to discuss AAL as a supraregional language variety; meaning, there seems to be traits and features of AAL that are shared throughout the United States. Though this is somewhat of a simplification, as we know that AAL exhibits regional differences, there are features of AAL that cross regional boundaries where European American varieties do not (Wolfram and Schilling 2015). A contributing factor to shared traits across regions, as mentioned above, is structures and features from West African/West Indian languages that still persist in AAL.
A possibly even more important factor in the continued development of AAL is cultural identity and heritage. African Americans have for quite some time had a very strong sense of culture and heritage, with language being a key factor (just like any other cultural/ethnic group), and have fostered this identity with pride. African American culture and cultural practices have had a tremendous impact on youth culture, American popular culture in general, and even global culture, with language being a key factor for this influence (Wolfram and Schilling 2015). All of these points are to say that AAL is more than just a set of pronunciation and grammatical features, with AAL being emblematic of cultural and identity, as “the soul of ethnolinguistic variation does not, in fact, reside in the structural features of the language variety but in how it is used—that is its functional traits” (Wolfram and Schilling 2015: 239). Though there has been a great deal discovered about the language of African Americans, its possible origins and continued development, there is still much left to be understood about this language.
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