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African American Vernacular English (AAVE)

Outline Grammar

For LG449, 2001-02

Peter L Patrick, U of Essex

This outline is adapted from materials © Jack Sidnell 1997, with thanks

This page is under construction

1.0 General

This guide describes some of the main features of AAVE grammar but is not exhaustive. The features discussed here are variable in their occurrence: no AAVE speaker uses all these features on all occasions. The main purpose is to contrast vernacular AAVE use with vernacular and/or standard varieties of US English (called "Mainstream US English" or MUSE below), not to imply anything about exclusive use or knowledge on the part of speakers Black, White or anyone else. (See class lecture & notes on membership in VAAC and ASD; varieties of AAE; and characteristic types of features.)

This outline grammar was originally written by Jack Sidnell for teaching purposes, and made available to me for the same purpose, which is why it is here. I've minimally edited it. The analyses and examples are drawn from a wide range of pre-1997 sources on AAE (all references can be found in my general AAE Bibliography).

1.1 Aspect

AAVE, like Caribbean Creoles, has an elaborate system for indicating verbal aspect. Aspect refers to the way in which the internal organization of an event or action is described by a verb and other elements in a sentence. (See Comrie 1976 for an introduction to aspect.)

In MUSE and other English dialects, a distinction is made between actions that are past (simple past: e.g. he walked), actions that are past and completed (the perfect: e.g. he has walked), actions which are not marked for aspect (generic or habitual: e.g. present he walks, past he used to walk*), and actions which are continuous in some way (the progressive: e.g. he is walking). [*These are not marked for aspect, which is not obligatory in MUSE, but may be marked for tense, which is.]

AAVE makes these distinctions, too, but also introduces other distinctions of aspect not present, or not marked, in MUSE.

1.2.0 Perfect

In MUSE a distinction is made between present and past perfect (i.e., within the perfect aspect, tense is marked). Perfect means that the action is completed. AAVE has two additional markers for aspect which extend the perfect:

 

MUSE

AAVE

present perfect

I have walked

I have walked

past perfect

I had walked

I had walked

completive

n/a

I done walked

remote time

n/a

I been walked

(For examples and discussion, see 1.2.3 and 1.2.4 below.)

1.2.1 Deletion of auxiliary have

In MUSE the present and past tense forms of auxiliary have (=have and had), as used in the perfect, can be contracted, becoming /v/ and /s/ respectively. In AAVE, the contracted forms can also be deleted:

Full forms: MUSE & AAVE

Contracted: MUSE & AAVE

Deleted: AAVE only

I have walked

Iíve walked

I __ walked **

He has walked

Heís walked

He __ walked **

I have been here for hours

Iíve been here for hours

I __ been here for hours

Present tense forms of the perfect with have can thus be quite rare in some varieties of AAVE. However, past tense forms are quite common. [** Note that because these forms are now identical to simple past -- and in MUSE simple past forms can often be used in the same environments as perfect forms, with no contrast in meaning -- these forms do not sound non-standard, unlike the third example.]

1.2.2 Past Participle

In MUSE, the past participle is usually formed by the addition of the suffix /-ed/. Past participles are thus often identical with past forms (e.g. "I had walked" and "I walked"). In the case of some irregular verbs, however, the participle and simple past forms are distinguished. For example, the simple past for the verb to take is took as in "They took it," but the participle is taken as in "They have taken it." In AAVE, as well as many other dialects of English, one form is often used for both functions. Thus, AAVE allows both "They taken it" and "They have taken it." In this example, the participle form is used for the simple past.

In other cases, it is the simple past form which is generalized to serve both functions. E.g., the past participle form of come is also come, as in "It has come to pass"; but the simple past is came as in "It came to pass." AAVE speakers sometimes use the simple past form for both, thus "They came" and "They have came." There is some variation here. For example, some AAVE speakers use done (the participle) and some use did (the simple past) for both functions. So all of the following are possible AAVE sentences: "They done it," "They have done it," "They did it," "They have did it."

1.2.3 Completive aspect with done

In addition to the perfect constructions that AAVE shares with MUSE, it also has two additional forms. One of these is the completive construction formed with done plus a past form of the verb. Completive constructions occur in sentences like "He done put away all those things," "She done married the boy." Done is used in some other non-MUSE dialects in much the same way, notably dialects of SWVE (Southern White Vernacular English).

1.2.4 Stressed bin

This item is unique to AAVE. Stressed bin does not occur with these functions in other dialects of English in the United States, or in Caribbean English Creoles, and it is probably often misinterpreted by non-AAVE speakers.

The meaning of bin (<been) depends on whether the verb it accompanies is dynamic or stative. Dynamic, or non-stative, verbs describe actions or events which have beginnings and endings (for example, run, eat, sleep). Stative verbs describe states such as know, believe. MUSE grammar does not systematically distinguish stative and non-stative verbs in marking tense, mood or aspect (TMA); Caribbean English Creoles do.

With dynamic verbs, bin indicates a remote time in which the event or action took place. For example, in "She bin tell me that" the speaker indicates that he was told "that" a long time ago.

With statives, bin indicates that a state initiated long ago is still in force or is still relevant. (Indicating present relevance is also a common function of the perfect constructions in MUSE.) So AAVE "I bin know you, you know" is roughly translated as "I have known you for a long time and still do" in MUSE.

Rickford (1975) researched the way in which white and black Americans interpreted the sentence "She bin married" and found a striking difference. While black Americans understood the sentence to mean "She got married a long time ago, and still is married," white speakers interpreted it as "She has been married but now she's not." Thus, when Rickford asked, "Do you get the idea that she's married now?"

Blacks: 23 of 25 said yes

Whites: 8 of 25 said yes

This is a diagnostic feature for AAVE origins. The dynamic-stative distinction does not control the grammar of MUSE, but it is of central importance to Caribbean Creoles. However, there is no comparable usage of bin in Caribbean creoles. Thus, consider the following from Guyanese Creole:

mi bin gat wan dog, "I had a dog" (but may not still have it)

mi don gat wan dog , "I already have a dog" (still has dog but not remote)

compare the possible AAVE sentence

I bin have a dog, "I have a dog and have had it for a long time."

1.3 Third singular present tense marker

In MUSE, third singular present tense verbs take a suffix /-s/. This suffix marks person (third person), number (singular), and tense (present), although all this information is available from other parts of the sentence. It is thus a somewhat odd and redundant grammatical form. The paradigm for MUSE is as follows:

 Singular

Plural

I walk

We walk

You walk

You walk

He walks

They walk

The man walks

The men walk

MUSE paradigm for present tense verbs (person/number inflection)

AAVE does not have this grammatical irregularity: the third singular form is usually "He walk." It is important to note that this is a grammatical difference between two varieties, and is not the result of merely leaving something off; in fact AAVE is more regular and systematic than MUSE on this point. (Variation with /-s/ is a feature of many other English dialects; many Caribbean English Creoles also show the same regularity as AAVE.)

1.3.1 auxiliary donít

The absence of the /-s/ suffix in third person singular present forms (see above) affects the realization of the negative form do + not. In MUSE, this is realized as doesnít in third singular present tense contexts (e.g. "He doesnít go to church"). In AAVE, because there is no /-s/ suffix for third person singular forms, this sentence is realized as "He donít go to church". While in AAVE the absence of doesnít is part of a more general pattern (the absence of third person present tense suffix /-s/ generally), in other non-MUSE varieties donít occurs without the more general patterns (e.g. one find sentences like "He walks" but also "He donít walk").

1.3.2 main verb have and do

Similarly, the absence of the /-s/ suffix affects have and do. Because there is no /-s/ suffix in AAVE, MUSE forms like has and does do not often occur. Thus, in AAVE, sentences like "He have a new car" and "He always do the right thing" are acceptable.

1.4 Future

1.4.1 Future with gonna

AAVE and MUSE both often indicate a future tense with the form gonna. In MUSE, it is usual for is or are to precede gonna. However, in AAVE, there is a rule which deletes this is or are (called a copula - see 1.6 below), and this rule operates very often when these elements precede gonna. The result is sentences such as "He __ gonna go."

The fact that is and are are almost always absent before gonna might lead one to believe that the AAVE form gonna is fundamentally different from the MUSE form is/are going to and is, in fact, a single auxiliary like can in MUSE or AAVE. But AAVE gonna does not behave like auxiliaries in general. In this area, AAVE is more like MUSE than it is like the Caribbean Creoles in which the future marker go or gon is an auxiliary that operates independently of is and are.

In AAVE, gonna is pronounced in a number of different ways (showing that phonological reduction processes, and perhaps grammaticalization, have gone further here than in MUSE). When gonna appears with the first person singular subject I, there are three ways in which it can be pronounced:

1. mana "Iímana see you."

2. mo(n) "Iímon see you."

3. ma "Iíma see you."

When the subject is something other than I, the usual form is gon, as in "he gon see you."

1.4.2 Future with will

Will is also used in both AAVE and MUSE to indicate future tense. As in other varieties, will can be contracted in AAVE to Ďll. In AAVE, however, it can also be deleted. This happens most often if the following word starts with a labial consonant (one produced with the lips, such as /m, b, p/). Since the verb be starts with a /b/, forms such as "He __ be here pretty soon", where the will has been contracted and then deleted, are quite possible.

Such cases where be occurs in future contexts need to be distinguished from the use of be to indicate a habitual meaning. Usually the context (e.g. the adverbial "pretty soon") is sufficient to distinguish the two.

1.5 Other markers of tense and aspect

1.5.1 Invariant be

A very different explanation is required for sentences like "He be there everyday." Here, be does not indicate a future event and nothing (like will etc.) has been deleted. Rather, be in such sentences is used to indicate a habitual event or action, or an "object or event distributed intermittently in time."

This kind of be used to be called "distributive be," but it is now more usual to call it "invariant or habitual be." It is a very important and diagnostic part of AAVE. For one thing, this be does not occur in MUSE, although it does seem to parallel, to some extent, similar constructions in Hiberno-English (varieties of English spoken in Ireland). The use of be in AAVE thus provides evidence of contact between speakers of these two dialects.

Furthermore, there is evidence that the specific use of be has changed over time. It appears that be is gradually acquiring a more and more specialized meaning over time. Also, use of habitual be seems to be increasing, and it has therefore been used as evidence to support claims of divergence. (In particular, habitual uses of be have come over time to form a larger proportion of all uses of invariant be; and uses of habitual be before progressive verbs ending in -ing have come to form a much larger proportion of all uses of habitual be -- both over the course of the 20th century.)

Finally, be is an item of AAVE grammar that people are very much aware of, and therefore it tends to get discussed a lot. It is one of things that non-native speakers of AAVE pick up on and use when they are consciously trying to use or mock AAVE Ė a stereotype.

Invariant be is not a deviant form of am or are (that is, conjugated forms of to be). In fact, it contrasts with these forms and has a quite distinct meaning. Note that many West African languages also have a similar grammaticalized habitual marker and, more directly, Gullah has constructions such as (Rickford 1975):

She doz be sick. "She is usually sick."

in which the doz often reduces or deletes, so that what is pronounced is

She z be sick.

or often, She __ be sick.

The arguments for divergence which use invariant be as evidence are based on research done in Texas in both rural and urban contexts (Bailey 1993, Cukor-Avila 2001). The researchers found that when they divided the AAVE-speaking population into four groups, they could detect changes in the distribution and function of invariant be. In their analysis they divided the population into four groups:

1. a group of former slaves, born between 1844-1864

2. elderly rural and urban informants (over 60)

3. rural teens and preteens

4. urban teens and preteens (11-15)

Members of all 4 groups used the same set of forms which included am, are, be, is, 0, but researchers found a striking difference in the way forms were used. The context that was most important was the one before V+ing (such as go+ing, eat+ing, work+ing etc. as in "She be working"). In the Texas study, children (groups 3 and 4) tended to use be for durative and habitual actions:

She be working. "She works all the time/regularly."

but used 0 for actions of limited duration:

She __ working "She is at work right now."

However, members of the groups classified as adults (group 1 & 2) made no systematic semantic distinction between be and 0. Either form could be used in either context. This is one of the most important findings for the "divergence hypothesis".

1.5.2 Future perfect be done (see Baugh 1983, pp.77-80)

Be done can be used to express what is called the future perfect. Eg the MUSE sentence "She will have had her baby" can be expressed in AAVE as,

"She be done had her baby"

1.5.3 Immediate future finna

This item, finna, marks an action as imminent or as about to happen. For instance "He finna go" is equivalent to MUSE "Heís just about to go." Finna probably derives from a less phonologically reduced form, fixin' to, which is common in SWVE with the same meaning. (Here the present progressive V+ing construction is preserved, along with its typical association with near-future meanings -- and early stage of grammaticalization which AAVE has carried even further.) However, in SWVE a form of the copula must precede it:

He's fixin' to go.

1.5.4 Intensified continuative marker steady (Baugh 1983: 86)

The item steady can be used to mark actions that occur consistently or persistently, as in

"Ricky Bell be steady steppin in them number nines"

Note that this form resembles MUSE steadily as in "He is steadily running up a big tab." Linguists have proposed that such forms are camouflaged because while there is an obvious resemblence to MUSE steadily and some overlap in meaning, the AAVE form is also distinctive. In AAVE the subject of the sentence which includes steady must be animate and specific. Thus the following sentence is not acceptable in AAVE because the subject (though animate) is nonspecific:

*A boy be steady talkin

Note that, in contrast, MUSE steadily can occur with nonanimate, nonspecific subjects as in "Somewhere a pot is steadily boiling." Furthermore while both steadily and steady imply continuous action, MUSE steadily implies calmness and control which contrasts with the use of steady is often used to express intense, vigorous and often "out-of-control" actions.

1.5.5 Modal semi-auxiliary come

In AAVE, come can be used to express the speaker's indignation about an action or event as in:

He come walkin' in here like he own the damn place.

Again the form is camouflaged in so far as it is "phonologically similar or identical to forms in the base language (the source of most of the lexical items), but [ Ö] (is) used with different semantic values" (Spears 1982).

Even very standard varieties of AAVE may include a substantial number of camouflaged grammatical differences from MUSE. In the case of AAVE come, what is distinctive is that come expresses moral indignation as well as, or instead of, motion. This contrast can be seen in sentences where the modal come (expressing moral indignation) combines with another motion verb:

She come going in my room - didn't knock or nothing.

Come and go imply movement in different directions, yet this is a perfectly acceptable sentence in AAVE with a well defined meaning. (This is a further example of grammaticalization, which frequently sees innovation of new functions for old forms -- such as the purely indignant use of come -- alongside the retention of older functions, as when come expresses both indignation and its familiar sense of motion.)

1.6 Copula deletion

Copula refers to forms of the English verb to be. The present tense copula paradigm in MUSE is as follows:

 

Singular

 

Plural

 

First

I

am

we

are

Second

you

are

you

are

Third

he/she/it

is

they

are

MUSE paradigm for present tense copula

A well known distinctive feature of AAVE is that the copula may be deleted.

1.6.1 Contraction and deletion

In general, deletion it is possible in AAVE in those contexts, and only those contexts, where contraction is possible in MUSE. Thus, where contraction is not possible in MUSE, deletion is not possible in AAVE.

For instance, in response to the question "Where do you want to be in five years?", compare the following responses:

MUSE

Acceptable?

 

AAVE

Acceptable?

Where he is at.

Yes

 

Where he is at.

Yes

Where he is.

Yes

 

Where he is.

Yes

Where heís at.

Yes

 

Where heís at.

Yes

* Where he __ at.

No

 

Where he __ at.

Yes

* Where he ___

No

 

* Where he ___

No

Contraction is not acceptable for either variety when the copula is the final element in the sentence. Deletion in AAVE works in a parallel way. Deletion and contraction operate under similar constraints, in this case.

Notice that I have included the full and contracted forms under the list of acceptable AAVE responses to the question. This is very important. Basically, the point is that deletion, like the other grammatical features I have discussed here, is not categorical - that is to say, it does not happen every time. As we will see, deletion occurs in some environments more than in others and this turns out to be quite revealing.

The fact that deletion in AAVE and contraction in MUSE seem to work in parallel ways was originally discussed by Labov (1969), who took it to mean that AAVE and MUSE were related dialects with different pronounciation rules (at least in the grammar of the copula). Basically, Labov suggested that AAVE speakers had an extra rule which deleted the already contracted form (so heís there became he __ there). This is only part of the story, however.

1.6.2 Environmental constraints on the deletion of the copula in AAVE

Research on the copula has illustrated that AAVE grammar has an extremely complex history. At this point, we have to review a few principles of sociolinguistics in order to understand this complexity. Linguistic features occur in a range of different environments in speech. Consider the full form copula is in the sentence:

He is a good friend

We could describe the environment within which it occurs in a number of ways. The following would be accurate observations about is:

1. occurs after a pronoun (preceding pro. form)

2. occurs after a vowel (preceding V)

3. occurs after a high front vowel (the /i/ in "he")

4. occurs before a noun phrase (following NP)

5. occurs before a determiner (the "a" in "a good friend")

All of these factors might be significant when we move to consider the frequency of copula deletion. When considering the copula in AAVE, the environmental factors are important primarily for two reasons:

1. They can be weighted against each other so that we can ask which are more important. When we add up a large number of instances we find that deletion and contraction tend to happen more often in some contexts than in others (for instance, in AAVE, "He __ going out" is much more common than "He __ John").

When a process such as contraction or deletion occurs frequently in a given context/environment, we say that that context favors the application of the rule (e.g. the grammatical environment of V+ing favors application of the rule deleting and contracting the copula). We can also ask, Is copula deletion a grammatical or phonological phenomenon in AAVE? That is, is the deletion of the copula in AAVE strictly conditioned by phonology, or is it also part of AAVE grammar? If both, then which is more important?

2. Is deletion of the copula in AAVE related to similar phonological processes of contraction in MUSE? Or is it related to grammatical patterns of underlying copula absence in Caribbean Creoles?

As it turns out, the answers here are as complicated as the questions. Both phonological and grammatical aspects of the environment affect the frequency of copula deletion in AAVE. Similarly, there are parallels to both MUSE and Caribbean Creoles in the AAVE copula.

1.6.3 Phonological conditioning of copula deletion and contraction

The frequency with which contraction and deletion occur is conditioned by the sound which precedes the copula. In very basic terms, the phonological constraints for contraction and deletion of the copula are as follows (adapted from Labov 1972: 105-106):

 

contraction

deletion

example

C_

no

yes

Stan is here > Stan __ here

V_

yes

?

Joe is here > Joe's here

Phonological environments that favour deletion and contraction

(note: "C_"means after consonants, "_V" means before vowels, etc.)

Generally, contraction and deletion pattern in opposite ways here. A preceding consonant favours deletion but not contraction. A preceding vowel favors contraction but not deletion. This is, however, probably not evidence that the two processes (contraction and deletion) are distinct in terms of their phonological conditioning. The difference here probably results from the fact that contraction and deletion affect a sentence differently. Consider, for example, the following sentences (from Labov 1972:106):

Joe is here

contraction>

Joeís here

deletion>

Joe __ here

CV VC CVC

 

CVC CVC

 

CV CVC

Stan is here

contraction>

Stanís here

deletion>

Stan __ here

CVC VC CVC

 

CVCC CVC

 

CVC CVC

When the noun ends in a vowel (Joe), contraction acts to reduce the CVVC pattern to CVC (from Joe is to Joeís). When contraction operates on a noun that ends with a consonant the result is a consonant cluster (from Stan is to Stanís). In AAVE (as in many other language varieties, including standard and vernacular Englishes), there are rules which reduce consonant clusters. The differences between contraction and deletion in terms of phonological conditioning then seem to be based on a general preference in language to avoid consonant clusters and to keep a CVC phonological pattern. Generally most languages (especially Pidgins and Creoles!) tend to preserve the CVC pattern where possible; this seems to be why contraction is favoured here but deletion is not.

1.6.4 Grammatical conditioning of copula deletion and contraction

Here weíll only consider the following grammatical environment. (Preceding grammatical environment has also been shown to have an effect on copula deletion/contraction frequency, but it is less regular and not well understood.)

The sociolinguistic story goes like this: William Labov and his students studied the speech of two Harlem gangs in the 1960ís, the Cobras and the Jets. They found that copula deletion was favored by some following grammatical environments and strongly disfavored by others. Basically, the pattern was as follows, with the most favored environments for deletion (the ones where deletion happened most often) at the top. All examples here are from Claudia Mitchell-Kernanís (1970) UC-Berkeley dissertation (Language behavior in a Black urban community - highly recommended reading by the way - P41 M696l). I include examples of both the deleted and contracted or full forms.

__gonna

1.

I donít care what he say, you __ gon laugh.

 

2.

She __ gon have a natural fit.

 

3.

...as long as iís kids around heís gon play rough or however theyíre playing.

 

 

 

__verb+ing

4.

I tell him to be quiet because he donít know what he __ talking about.

 

5.

I mean, he may say some things out of place but he __ cleaning up behind it and you canít get mad at him.

 

6.

They love to be up in grown people face when theyíre talking.

 

 

 

__adjective

7.

He __ all right

 

8.

And Alvin, he __ kind of big, you know?

 

9.

She is stubborn.

 

(Adjective and locative were treated as a single category by Labov.)

__ locative

10.

She __ at home.

 

11.

The club ___on one corner, the Bock is on the other.

 

12.

Everything you do an say, sheís right there.

 

 

 

__noun phrase

13.

He __ the one who had to go try to pick up the peacock.

 

14.

I say, you __ the one jumping up to leave, not me.

 

15.

I think those __ the two typical ones.

 

16.

Heís one of those type of persons.

According to Labovís (and othersí) analysis, deletion was favored in all those environments where contraction was favored. The hierarchy of favored environments was the same for both processes.

However, this same data was reanalyzed by John Baugh and the results were written up in a very influential paper called "A reexamination of the Black English copula" (1980). Baugh took some of the same data but broke up the categories of locative and adjective. In Labovís study these two environments were calculated as a single group. Baugh found that while adjectives strongly favored deletion, locatives did not. He was able to make two important points on the basis of this reanalysis. First, the pattern was now strikingly different for AAVE and MUSE. Contraction is favored for locatives in AAVE, but not for adjectives. This is illustrated in the following chart:

 

Contraction

Deletion

___locative

favored

disfavored

___adjective

disfavored

favored

Grammatical environments favoring contraction and deletion of the copula in AAVE

So, the first point that Baugh made was that contraction and deletion look like quite different processes when the two categories are broken up. The second important point was revealed through a comparison with Caribbean English Creoles, like Jamaican Creole (Patwa) and Guyanese Creole (Creolese), where location is indicated with a separate verb, de:

ii de a bak "He is out back."

di bai fada de hoom "The boyís father is at home."

A locative verb is almost always present in most varieties of English-based creole. For the basilect (the most-creole variety), location is generally indicated with de. For the mesolect and acrolect (the more English-like varieties), it is indicated with 0, is or are. At the same time, in these same creoles, it is very rare for a copula to be present preceding an adjective. The usual form is as follows:

ii __ hat "Itís hot"

shi __ nais "Sheís nice (looking)"

Deletion in AAVE seems to parallel the situation in the English-lexified Creole languages of the Caribbean, and perhaps more importantly, in Gullah. (Baugh illustrated this with the figure in chapter 8 from Baugh 1983.)

1.7 Negation

When people think of AAVE they often think of so called "double negatives" (and vice versa: when they hear "double negatives", or indeed nearly any stigmatized feature, they readily associate it with the speech of African Americans!). This is what sociolinguists call a stereotype, and it is highly stigmatized. In fact, various forms of multiple negation are very common in non-mainstream varieties of English. AAVE is not alone in allowing multiple negation in a single sentence. It should also be noted that mainstream varieties of French (and many other languages) allow multiple negation. Far from being stigamtized, in French and other languages, multiple negation (or negative concord) it the Ďcorrectí form! For instance in the sentence:

Je níai fait rien

"ne" is a negative marker, and "rien" means "nothing". If we were to translate it word for word we would get:

I didnít do nothing

which is a classic example of "negative concord", and is perfectly acceptable in AAVE. Multiple negation was in fact quite acceptable in earlier varieties of English:

I cannot goe no further (Early Modern English)

The arguments of school teachers to the effect that double negation is wrong/incorrect because it is illogical, are thus based on knowledge of only one variety of English, and a historically late one at that.

There is nothing illogical about multiple negation. Grammar has its own logic. In fact, although negation in AAVE is similar to some other varieties of non-mainstream English, in some ways it is quite distinctive and again seems to show parallels to the Caribbean English Creoles. Negation is also quite complicated in AAVE (like the copula, but for different reasons), so hold on to your hat one more time.

The most famous linguistic example of multiple negation in AAVE is the one that Labov used to start off his 1972 paper "Negative attraction and negative concord in English grammar":

It ainít no cat canít get in no coop

If you know what the speaker meant when he said this you already understand how negation works in AAVE. All we have to do here is spell it out and note its similarities or dissimilarities with other varieties of English.

1.7.1 Three negation rules in English

Basically in MUSE, AAVE and other non-mainstream varieties of English, there are three rules for making a sentence negative. All varieties of American English have these rules, but they apply differently. Take a sentence like:

Nobody can see anything.

This is already negative because of the subject nobody. Linguists have suggested that all sentences start off as positive statements. Rules of syntax that make these positive sentences into negative ones. Thus the sentence Nobody can see anything, starts off as

Anybody can see anything (if they try).

This is the way it is first formulated. The rule that converts this to a negative adds a negative marker not to the anybody:

Not+anybody can see anything

Another pronunciation rule converts this not+anybody to nobody:

Nobody can see anything

Letís call this the first negation rule in English. We can describe it as follows:

first negation rule

1. Add not to the anybody which is the subject of the sentence.

In MUSE, if this rule is applied, no other negative rules can apply. However, there are two other ways to make a sentence negative. Take another, similar, sentence:

He can see anything

In MUSE we make this sentence negative by adding not to the auxiliary verb (can). So we end up with:

He can + not see anything

He canít see anything

Now again if this negative rule applies, no other negative rule can be applied in MUSE. Letís call this the second negation rule in English. We can describe it as follows:

second negation rule

2. Add not to the auxiliary verb (can, could, will, would, did, is etc.)

There is one more negation rule in English. Take the same sentence:

He can see anything

We can make this negative by adding not to the final indefinite noun phrase which is the object of the sentence (anything). Thus we end up with:

He can see not+anything

He can see nothing

Letís call this the third negation rule in English. It can be described as follows:

third negation rule

3. Add not to the indefinite noun phrase which is the object of the sentence

 

1.7.2 Negative concord

Now we know the three rules for negation in English, and we have seen how they apply in MUSE. They are exclusive: if one of them applies the other two cannot. In AAVE and many other non-mainstream varieties of English the rules are exactly the same. However, they apply differently. Basically, in AAVE more than one rule can be applied, and for this reason negation can be expressed at several points in the same sentence. The not can be copied from one place to another withour being deleted in its original position. Itís a bit like comparing the cut-and-paste function on your word-processor (for MUSE) with the copy-and-paste function (AAVE). So in AAVE, taking our invented sentence, it is possible to express negation in the following way:

Nobody canít see nothing

The final sentence is formed by copying the not to all the possible negative points in the sentence:

Not +anybody can +not see not+ anything

ĎDoubleí and Ďmultiple negationí are thus not very accurate terms, since it is really the same negative meaning that is expressed at several points in a sentence. The process is similar to what is termed 'agreement' or 'concord' in discussions of grammar. In some languages, a verb or adjective has to agree with the gender, person or number of the subject noun phrase. MUSE has an agreement rule for person and number (discussed above). Thus in MUSE one says "He walks", where the /-s/ suffix agrees with the subject. In AAVE, negation works the same way. We can say that an indefinite object noun phrase has to agree, in terms of negation, with the subject noun phrase and/or the auxiliary verb. This is called negative concord.

Labov and others who have researched negation in AAVE have claimed that negative concord to indefinite objects is obligatory in AAVE. According to Labov, then, the following is not an acceptable AAVE sentence:

He canít see anything

In AAVE the indefinite object noun phrase anything has to agree with the other negatives in the sentence (canít, in this case). Thus the sentence would have to be:

He canít see nothing.

This is an important claim for two reasons. First, negative concord is not obligatory in any other variety of American English. Although other varieties have forms of multiple negation they do not require agreement or concord all the time. So in this way AAVE is distinct. However, in the Caribbean Creoles negative concord with indefinites (anything, anybody etc.) is obligatory, as in AAVE. Consider the following examples

Bahamian English Creole

He ainí answer nothiní

"He didnít answer anything"

Haitian French Creole

Li pa repon naye

"He didnít answer anything"

Jamaican English Creole

ii kyaan sii notin

"He canít see nothing"

Guyanese English Creole

Nonbadi (na) gu nowee

"Nobody (didnít) go nowhere"

Here then we see a striking parallel between AAVE and the Caribbean Creoles.

1.7.3 Negation with ainít

Many non-mainstream varieties of English use ainít to negate a sentence. The following examples are from a number of non-MUSE white dialects:

British non-standard English

What do you expect, you ainít been round here, have you?

Alabama White English

I sent her a wedding present twice and I ainít never heard from it.

Appalachian English

I ainít been Ďere. And it ain't your business.

In these varieties ainít is used in those places where MUSE uses be+not or have+not. In these varieties ainít is restricted to present tense contexts. In these non-standard White varieties of English, ainít never appears where MUSE has past tense forms of be+not or have+not or do + not (=was+not, were+not, had+not, did+not). However in AAVE, ainít can appear in past tense contexts, e.g.:

I said, "I ainít run the stop sign,í and he said, ĎYou ran it!"

I ainít believe you that day, man.

Well, he didnít do nothiní much, and I ainít neither.

In these example, ainít occurs in clearly past contexts and seems to replace MUSE didnít. This has led some sociolinguists to claim that, in AAVE, ainít is tense-neutral. In this way AAVE is clearly different from non-mainstream varieties of White English. At the same time there are strong parallels to the Caribbean English Creoles. The following sentences show that in the Caribbean Creoles, the item that marks negation (na or en or eh, even spelled ain in Bahamian*) is like ainít in AAVE, tense-neutral:

Jamaican English Creole

Mi no sii di man

"I didnít see the man."

Jamaican English Creole

Mi naa (no + a) sii di man

"I donít see the man."

Guyanese English Creole

Mi en sii di man

"I didnít see the man."

Guyanese English Creole

Aiyu na bin noo di man

"All-of-you didnít know the man."

Trinidadian English Creole

The girl eh lie

"The girl didnít lie."

Bahamian English Creole

He ainí answer notiní

"He didnít answer anything."

Here again then there are striking parallels between AAVE and Caribbean Creoles, and important differences between AAVE and non-mainstream varieties of White American English. (*Bahamian historically has significant influence from AAVE via African American ex-slave immigrants.)

1.7.3 Negative Inversion

One final feature of AAVE negation needs to discussed here. An example from Toni Morrisonís Song of Solomon follows:

Pilate they remembered as a pretty woods-wild girl "that couldnít nobody put shoes on."

In this example a negative auxiliary (couldnít) is moved in front of the subject (nobody). This is called negative inversion. Some other examples illustrate this:

Ainít [no white cop] gonna put his hands on me.

  Canít nobody beat Ďem

Canít nobody say nothiní to dem peoples!

Doní nobody say nothing after that (Bob Ledbetter, born 1861)

Wasnít nobody in there but me aní him (Isom Moseley, born 1856)

As the last two examples indicate, this is a relatively long standing feature of AAVE. In this case there is no parallel in Caribbean English Creole. Rather, the feature is shared with non-mainstream varieties of White English. The following examples illustrate:

Wouldnít nobody be out there but jusí what would go with us (Southern White Vernacular English)

Didnít nobody get hurt or nothiní (Ozark English)

AAVE negation thus illustrates the complex history of this variety. While some aspects of negation show clear parallels to the Caribbean English Creoles, others seem more closely related to non-mainstream varieties of White English.

1.8 Some other features of AAVE grammar not included in this grammatical overview

1.8.1 Possessives

Possession is often indicated through word order in AAVE, whereas MUSE uses the suffix /-s/. Thus AAVE sentences like "The boy hat" are acceptable although most speakers alternate between this form and "The boyís hat." The AAVE order in such cases of juxtaposition is [Possessor - Possessed].

1.8.2 Plurals

Plural /-s/ is sometimes absent, e.g. "the two boy__." Rickford (1995) notes that this is infrequent.

1.8.3 Inversion

In embedded questions, auxiliaries and subject nouns are sometimes not inverted. Thus AAVE allows "I asked him could he go with me", where MUSE would typically have "I asked him if he could go with me".

1.8.4 Pleonastic pronouns

In AAVE a noun phrase subject is sometimes followed by an agreeing pronoun as in, "That teacher, she yell at the kids."

 

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Last updated on 27 November 2001