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African Americans and the English Language - Term Paper Example

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Sewanee University of the South
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Term paper
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For years I have always felt as though African Americansin America spoke a different language than Caucasians. Growing up, speaking the way the English Language should be spoken was considered talking like white people. Ive always questioned where this theory originated from. Over the years, linguist have found distinctive differences in the speech of African American and the Standard English Language. A broad observation has been made among linguist that indeed the African American English differs-significantly form other dialects due the high frequency of non-standard features that have been observed in the language.

The origin of the English Language dates to 550 CE with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes where they lived in modern day Demark and spoke a language the was similar to Old English. The three tribes set sail and migrated to Brittan. Old English was introduced and later replaced the Brittan language that was previously spoken amongst the British. Old English is the earliest form of the English Language which consisted of 24 letters. The letter q was not used as part of the alphabet. For example, the word queen would be written as cween. After the invasion of the French to England, what is now known as Middle English began to evolve. During the 1100-1500s Middle English was the most spoken language and the language that Chaucer wrote in. Throughout this time the printing press was introduced, the evolution of dictionaries were created and The Great Vowel Shift went under way. The Early Modern English period is considered as difficult to take back to, regarding the exact period of its origin. The year 1700 has been chosen because the spelling is more or less standardized, the Great Vowel Shift is nearly complete, and English speakers start to spread the language around the world (Gelderen 12). Modern English is drastically different from Old English, over the years the English language have became less sophisticated.

In the standard English African Americans tend to have a different approach when it comes to the use of the standard English language. Many African Americans in America struggle with the usage of the to be verb. The history of African American English is disputed. There are varying theories describing its origins. For instance, one argues that the African American English occurred from a pidgin which resulted from the situation at the time of the slave trade (Escalas 306). During this time, the individuals who spoke different African languages were all held in one area, forcing them to communicate with each other through the pidgin language. The slave traders and owners also used this language to communicate with blacks as they could not understand English properly (Laing 273). This is how the African American English Creole was developed.

It was first spoken by the first generation slaves who were born in the Northern part of America. It can still be heard today as the Gullah and Geechee inhabitants still use it. Yet another view on the history of African American English is that it is as a result of the retention of some features of British English that have not been adopted by the American English. Therefore, the difference in pronunciation is because this English has followed the British approach which has a rather heavy accent compared to the American English.

All in all, it is evident that the African American English was influenced greatly by the white man, both the British and the Americans. For example, in London, England, there are Blacks who speak cockney English, which is not viewed as a proper form of the English language. However, even in America, when on official business such as a job interview, the blacks will not speak their usual African American English; instead they rely on the use of Standard English.

Presently, one factor that is also causing a lot of controversy is whether Black English and Standard English are heading towards convergence or divergence. The African American English has characteristic pronunciations (phonology), syntactic patterns (grammar), and morphological features that are also noted in the varieties of the English language (Baugh 335). There are tendencies toward speech patterns which seem to occur in the African American speakers, but should not be considered as universally occurring features. For example, they tend to delete r from words. When pronouncing door, they tend to say it as doah and sister as sistah. Also, they tend to delete l from words as noted in help that is pronounced as hep and steal pronounced as steah.

Another evidence to show the African American English is noted by how they tend to fail to inflect for the past and future tense (Baugh 336). An example here is noted by how passed is still pronounced as pass, even though they mean it in the past tense and theyll as dey. A morphological gap is, therefore, presented in grammar as there is no past tense market. There is the loss of the final dental stop as noted when trying to pronounce good man but the end result sounds like goo man.

Yet another difference in English language is noted by monophthongization. For example, like is pronounced as lak and time as tam. Also, another important consideration in how the Blacks speak English is noted by how interdental fricatives end up being used as alveolar stops (Baugh 338). For example, they is pronounced as dey. Finally, it is noted that what the Standard English ends up contracting in a sentence, the Black English will delete. For example, if the sentence reads Hes going in Standard English, the African American English will read He going.

The African American Venacular English is a form of language which is unique and has a structure that shows a lot of common factors with other varieties of English spoken both in the U. S. and the Caribbean. This is the most controversial language form as it is impossible to determine how many people speak it and its genetic affiliation too. Some scholars argue that it was developed when the West African language speakers came to contact with the Venacular English variety speakers. For example, it is suggested that West Africans came to learn English from the Southern Coastal regions of the States which consisted of only a minimal number of native speakers who were also indentured laborers. As such, a rudimentary pidgin was developed and expanded through creolization.

Yet another argument is that it developed through a process of second language acquisition. This argument suggests that when the West Africans arrived into the U.S. they came across a small number of native English speakers. Therefore, they had limited access to the English grammatical models. This therefore, led to the second language learners to graft the little English vocabulary they could learn from various encounters on to the grammatical patterns which are common to the West African languages.

Many African Americans get the verb to be completely wrong. This is mainly because it is argued that the vernacular language only uses English words but not the grammar (Rodriguez et al. 409). Therefore, there are different ways in which the to be verb is used. For example, they can state; he be walkin, he been walking, he done walked, he finna walk and so on (Baugh 340). Therefore, it is evident that the African American vernacular English is closely linked to how the Black Americans talk. Here, the to be verb is simply meant to indicate the nature of doing a particular verb. Therefore, this struggle in African American vernacular English has been as a result of the fact that the Blacks are simply using the English words, but employing their own grammatical rules, from their African languages. This is why there is really no big difference in this vernacular language form. It just seems to be presented in various approaches depending on the African language being employed.


It is evident that the African American language has been developed from various situations. The Africans started adopting the English language when they came into America as slaves. Since communication was a must, there was a need to adopt a language whereby everyone could atleast understand what the other was trying to say. Since the most dominant language was English, the Africans had to borrow words from it. Unfortunately, as a result of lack of sufficient education, they could not employ the various grammatical requirements effectively. This is the reason why their to be verb use always seems distorted. They instead employed what their African languages permitted. It is quite difficult to properly understand the African American English since it has various factors impacting its origin. It is the reason why most Americans seem to not understand what an African is saying despite having used English words. Therefore, the African America English is considered a secret language whereby only the African American Venacular English speakers can communicate through. The Americans do not understand how to use it, and the difference in grammar makes it difficult for them to comprehend the meaning of sentences.


Works Cited

Baugh, John. "A Survey of Afro-American English." Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 12, Oct. 1983, pp. 335-354. EBSCOhost,

Escalas, Jennifer Edson. "African American Vernacular English in Advertising: A Sociolinguistic Study." Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 21, no. 1, Jan. 1994, pp. 304-309. EBSCOhost,

Gelderen, Elly van. A History of the English Language. vol. Revised edition, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2014. EBSCOhost.

Laing, Sandra P. "Assessment of Phonology in Preschool African American Vernacular English Speakers Using an Alternate Response Mode." American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, vol. 12, no. 3, Aug. 2003, p. 273. EBSCOhost,

Rodriguez, Jose I., et al. "Reactions to African-American Vernacular English: Do More Phonological Features Matter?." Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, Fall2004, pp. 407-414. EBSCOhost,


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