Glossary of Terms

A - C, D - G, H - N, O - R, S, T - Z

Adverbial Marker - A word that modifies an adjective, verb, or another adverb, expressing a relation to place, time, circumstance, etc. In AAL, pre-verbal aspectual markers can indicate such information, and can be reinforced with an adverbial.

African American Language (AAL) - We use AAL as a neutral term referring to systematic language use in the African American community. The labels used by linguists to refer to the varieties spoken by African Americans has changed several times, including Nonstandard Negro English, Black English, Ebonics, African American English, and African American Vernacular English. AAL is a cover term so as not to focus on specific groups within the language variety.

Analogy - The application of a pattern to forms that were not previously included in a set, as in the the regularization of ox to oxes (as opposed to oxen) or the formation of the past tense of bring as brang on the basis of sing/sang and ring/rang.

Ann Arbor Decision - The ruling in the case of Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School Children et al. vs. Ann Arbor School District. It was ruled that the Ann Arbor School District was in violation of the federal statutory law as they failed to account for differences between students’ home languages (in this case, dialect) in providing an equal education.

Antebellum South - The period from the late 18th century to the beginning of the American Civil War where there was economic growth in the Southern United States due to slavery.

Aspect - A grammatical function that expresses how an action/event/state extends through time (see, for example, Habitual aspect below).

Black-White Achievement Gap - A term used to capture the persistent differences in standardized testing scores between black and white students.

Bridge Programs - A curriculum written by Gary Simpkins, Charlesetta Simpkins, and Grace Holt, which is based on 'associative bridging' using readings and recordings to transition in three stages from vernacular AAL to standard English. For a summary of the BRIDGE program, see William Labov's summary of its strengths and weaknesses in the 1995 paper 'Can Reading Failure Be Reversed? A Linguistic Approach to the Question'.

Call and Response - An interaction between a speaker's statements (calls) and responses by an audience. The call and response traditions of African cultures serve as the foundation for similar cultural traditions in African American communites often found in music, religion, and other kinds of public gatherings.

Chicano English (ChE) - A variety of English, influenced by contact with Spanish, and spoken as a native dialect by both bilingual speakers of Spanish and English, and monolingual speakers of English.

Code Switching - Switching between two different languages or dialects. In African American speech communities, code switching can refer to the style shifting between home language and school/work language. See also style shifting.

Consonant - A sound produced by momentarily blocking airflow in the mouth or throat.

Convergence/Divergence Debate - A debate in the 1980s concerned with both the origins of AAL and whether AAL and European American English varieties were becoming more similar (converging) or less similar (diverging) over time. Positions from various sociolinguists were presented in Fasold et al. (1987).

Corpus Of Regional African American Language - The first public corpus of spoken AAL. CORAAL features recorded speech from regional varieties of AAL and includes audio recordings along with time-aligned orthographic transcription.

Creole Hypothesis - The contention that modern AAL developed from an earlier contact-based form of the language (see Creole Language below).

Creole Language - A contact-based language in which the primary vocabulary of one language is superimposed on a specially adapted grammatical structure composed primarily of the structures common in language contact situations.

Descriptive Grammar - The described rules and structures of a language variety based on observations of real language use by speakers of the variety, devoid of the social value placed on the variety or structural patterns.

Devoicing - The sound change where a voiced sound (e.g. /g/) is produced as its voiceless counterpart (e.g [k]). For example, pig pronounced more like pick.

Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation and Screening Test (DELV) - DELV is a group of standardized language assessments that were developed to allow all speakers of English, including speakers of AAL varieties, to demonstrate competance of linguistic processes. For more information, see

Dialect Diversity - An ideal of having many dialects in a community, where each dialect's rich cultural, social, and historical background are celebrated in that community.

Dialect Prejudice - The judgment of a speaker based solely on their speech and dialect.

Diverge - see Convergence/Divergence Debate.

Dozens - A game common in African American communities, where opposing sides use speech to insult each other until one side forfeits.

Double Modal - The co-occurrance of two or more modal forms (see Modal Verbs) within a single verb phrase, as in "You might could do it." For more information, see MultiMo, a database of multiple modal construction for researchers.

Ebonics - A term formed from blending "ebony" and "phonics" to represent the speech of African Americans. It has largely fallen out of academic vocabulary in favor of more inclusive and less politically loaded terms, such as African American Language.

Ebonics Resolution - A resolution by the school district in Oakland, California that recognized AAL as its own language from English. This resolution acknowledged the complex origins of AAL and that it is in part derived from African languages.

English Origins Hypothesis - A contention that the speech of antebellum African Americans was linked to early British dialects spoken by immigrants to North America. Also called the Neo-Anglicist Hypothesis. This is one of the proposed origins of AAL, along with the Creole Hypothesis.

Ethnolinguistics - A branch of linguistics concerned with the relationship between language and different ethnic groups.

Eye-Dialect - The use of variation in spelling to be a appealing to the eye and suggest a dialect variant. However, the spelling does not reflect an actual dialect difference. For example, wuz for was.

Gender - The complex of social, cultural, and psychological factors that are often centered around the social constructions of femininity and masculinity.

Glottalized - A sound change where stop consonants (e.g./b/, /p/, /d/, /t/, /g/, and /k/) can be produced as a glottal stop ([ʔ]; e.g. the sound produced in the middle of the word uh-oh).

Great Migration - The movement of six million African Americans out of the rural South between 1916 and 1970 to urban centers. This led to the spread of AAL and an increased number of social situations where an ethnolinguistic variety could emerge.

Gullah - A creole language spoken primarily by African Americans in the Sea Islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. Also called Geechee.

Habitual aspect - An action that occurs continuously or intermittently over time, as with the pre-verbal invariant be marker in AAL. For example, "He be writing".

Historical linguistics - A branch of linguistics that studies the history and development of language varieties, primarily through the comparative method.

Institutional Racism - A form of racism that is present in social and political institutions, which reflects inequalities of wealth, housing, health, eduation, and many other factors.

Interdental Fricative - A consonant sound produced with the tip of the tongue against the teeth, as in the 'th' ([θ] and [ð]) sound in English.

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) - A universal alphabetic system that linguists use to describe sounds for all spoken languages (used in many of the definitions above to indicate sound).

Intonation - The way pitch may rise or fall over the course of phrases and sentences.

Krio - A creole language spoken in Sierra Leone, where it is the de facto national language, and in other parts on the western coast of Africa.

Leveling - The reduction of dialectal distinctiveness through mixing with other dialects. Also a type of analogy.

Linguistic Profiling - Discrimination based on the identification (whether correct or incorrect) of a person's ethnic or other social identity based on their voice.

Linguistic Repertoire - A set of linguistic resources (e.g. features) that can be used to index linguistic identity of members of a group.

Linguistic StereotypeA linguistic form used by a group that gains recognition beyond the community and results in overt commentary from society.

Mainstream American English (MAE) - A term used to refer to varieties of English that are not characterized by a particular dialect trait under discussion. For example, the use of a-prefixing in some rural and Southern dialects may be contrasted with its non-use in "MAE".

Modal Verb - A part of speech used to express properties such as possibility or obligation (e.g. might, could).

Mood - A grammatical function which pertains to speakers' attitudes toward the truth of their assertions (e.g., possibility, probability) or to speakers' expression of obligation, permission, and suggestion. Mood is usually indicated in English through modal verbs, such as must, should, and may. Several additonal forms, beyond modal verbs, in AAL can also convey mood (see Spears 1980).

Morphology - The level of language concerned with words and their meaningful components, or morphemes.

Morphosyntax - Pertaining to the study of grammatical categories that share both morphological and syntactic functions. For example, third person -s in Tyler works hard indicates a relationship between the subject and the verb.

Multiple Negation - The marking of negation at more than one point in an utterance (e.g. "They didn't do nothing to nobody."). Also called negative concord.

Oakland Ebonics Controversy - A controversy built out of the Oakland School District's resolution acknowledging AAL as a systematic language apart from English (see Ebonics Resolution)

Perception - see Speech Perception.

Phonetics - The level of language concerned with the production of individual sounds.

Phonology - The level of language concerned with patterns and rules of sounds and sound systems.

Possessive - An item indicating possession, such as the suffix -s in John's book or the pronoun his in His book.

Prescriptive Grammar - The variety deemed standard by grammar books and other language authorities to be 'correct'. In this stance, other varieties are considered 'incorrect' or 'improper'.

Prosody - The aspects of pitch, intensity, and timing that accompany the segments of spoken language; variation in prosody can also be called suprasegmental variation, or variation above the level of the individual segment.

Racial Stereotype - A standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and represents an oversimplified opinion of that group, a prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment on the basis of race.

Regularization - The process in which irregular forms are changed to conform to the predominant or 'regular' pattern; for example oxen becomes oxes and grew becomes growed.

Rhythm - The sense of movement of speech marked by syllable stress, timing differences, and the number of syllables.

r-lessness - The absence or reduction of the r sound in words such as car and beard.

Second Language - A language that is learned in addition to the first language a person learned in acquisition (e.g. during infancy).

Segmental Variation - Variation at the smallest unit of sound, the segment (e.g. consonant or vowel).

Signing Black in America - A 2020 documentary that focuses on the unique dialect of American Sign Language that developed out of historically segregated African American deaf communities across the United States. More information about the documentary can be found at Signing Black in America.

Social Class - Inequalities that have been captured by social scientists as differences in social and economic status.

Sociolinguistics - The study of language in relation to society or the study of language in its social context.

Speaker Design Model - Natalie Schilling's approach to analyzing style shifting abilities in which speakers are found to to use linguistic variation proactively, rather than reactively or automatically (see Schilling-Estes 2004).

Speech Perception - How speech sounds are heard, understood, and interpreted. In sociolinguistics, speech perception studies often include a component of listener attitudes towards the speaker or community's language use.

Stress Timing - Timing of utterances in which stressed syllables in a phrase have greater duration than unstressed syllables. Contrasts with syllable timing, in which each syllable has approximately equal duration. Languages and language varieties may exhibit stress timing versus syllable timing to a great or lesser degree.

Style Shifting - Variation within the use of language within a single speaker. Often style-shifting can be seen as a function of the context the speaker is in such as level of formality, who they're speaking to (e.g. audience design), as well as for identity purposes (see Speaker Design above).

Substrate Hypothesis - The position that AAL has maintained a persistent substrate influence (see below) even though it accommodated to and mixed with regional varieties of American English early in its development. See Wolfram and Thomas (2002).

Substrate Influence - The maintained influence of a language on another language variety even after the former language has ceased to be a source for immediate transfer, or after the original contact situation has long since passed.

Supraregional - Refers to a dialect norm that is generally adopted by speakers across geographic locations.

Suprasegmental - See prosody.

Syllable Timing - Timing of utterances in which each syllable in a phrase has approximately equal duration. Contrasts with stress timing, in which stressed syllables have greater duration. Languages and language varieties may exhibit stress timing versus syllable timing to a great or lesser degree.

Syntax -  The level of language concerned with the formation of words into phrases and sentences.

Syntactic Variation - Something that varies with respect to syntax (see above).

Talking Black in America - A 2017 documentary that focuses on the life and language of people from African American communities across the United States, particularly raising awareness around AAL. More information about the documentary can be found at Talking Black in America.

Tense - A time (e.g., past, present, future) with respect to an event.

Tense and Aspect System - The relation between tense and aspect.

Transparency Principle - The tendency for languages to mark meaning distinctions as clearly as possibly, to avoid obscurity in meaning.

Variation -  The act or process of varying, in particular how aspects of language systematically vary.

Voice - The style and intonation in a given speech that is unique to the speaker.

Voicing - A term in linguistics that characterizes the articulatory process in which the vocal folds vibrate during speech production. Voicing is used in English as a means to distinguish speech sounds, such as consonants (e.g. p is voiceless and b is voiced, but they are otherwise produced the same).

White Mainstream English - A term used to refer to varieties of English that are not characterized by a particular dialect trait under discussion. We use the term White American English, rather than Mainstream American English, following Alim and Smitherman (2012) and Baker-Bell (2020), to highlight For example, the use of a-prefixing in some rural and Southern dialects may be contrasted with its non-use in "MAE".

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Alim, H. Samy and Geneva Smitherman. 2012. Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baker-Bell, April. 2020. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. NCTE-Routledge Research Series. New York/London: Routledge.

Fought, Carmen. 2003. Chicano English in Context. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kendall, Tyler and Charlie Farrington. 2018. The Corpus of Regional African American Language. Version 2018.10.06. Eugene, OR: The Online Resources for African American Language Project.

Schilling-Estes, Natalie. 2004. Constructing Ethnicity in Interaction. Journal of Sociolinguistics 8: 163-195.

Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling. 2016. American English: Dialects and Variation, 3rd Edition. Oxford, UK and Malden, MA: Blackwell.