One of the most interesting characteristics of AAE [African American English] is the use of the zero copula. As Labov (1969) has explained, the rule for its use is really quite simple. If you can contract be in SE [Standard English], you can delete it in AAE. That is, since “He is nice” can be contracted to “He’s nice” in SE, it can become “He nice” in AAE. Likewise, “But everybody’s not black” can become “But everybody not black.” However, “I don’t know where he is” cannot be contracted to “*I don’t know where he’s” in SE and, consequently, it cannot become “*I don’t know where he” in AAE, nor can “That’s the way it is here” become “*That’s the way it here.” The latter can become “That the way it is here” (or even “that the way it be here,” depending on whether the observation is being made only about the present moment - it is - or about a habitual condition - it be).
How old you think his baby is? *How old you think his baby’s? How old you think his baby?
But it’s still worth pointing out that use of zero copula in AAE is systematic and not random omission.
Wyatt (1991) found that AAE preschoolers were more likely to use zero copula: after pronoun subjects (56%) rather than noun subjects (21%); before locative predicates (35%) and adjective predicates (27%) rather than noun predicates (18%); and in second person singular and plural predicates (45%) rather than third person singular predicates (19%). In addition, the zero copula occurred less than 1% of the time in past tense, first person singular, and final clause contexts. This suggests that as early as three years of age, AAE child speakers not only acquire the basic grammatical features of AAE but also the language-specific variable rules that govern their use.
University of Michigan education professor Holly Craig wants to take the idea of code switching and formalize it for the classroom. She calls it Toggle Talk, and it’s a new curriculum for kindergartners and first-grade students. It comes with its own set of picture books and lesson plans, and it treats Black English as a legitimate dialect with its own set of grammar rules. The idea is to help kids understand how code switching works on a grammatical level, which will then allow students to compare and contrast Black English grammar with Standard English. Studies show students who can master that do much better academically and beyond.
Craig says up until now teachers – the vast majority of whom are white – haven’t been given the tools to help kids successfully code switch.
“What we’ve done as teachers is to either hope that students would learn on their own and pick up the language of the classroom,” explains Craig, “or we’ve adopted methods that have not been positive and constructive; they’ve instead been very correctional in nature.”
Instead of using “right” and “wrong” to describe Standard American English versus African-American English, Craig’s model uses “formal” and “informal” designations, so there’s no judgment attached to either language. One isn’t “better” than the other per se, it’s all about when it’s appropriate to use one form or the other. It’s “this is how you talk in school,” rather than “don’t talk like that.” Craig calls it “a slight change” that makes a big difference in kids’ attitudes about their own language.
Of course, it shouldn’t be necessary to change one’s speech in the first place in order to have access to higher education or better-paying jobs. But given that we still live in a world where linguistic discrimination is very real, it’s better to have explicit conversations valuing codeswitching rather than simply saying certain varieties are “wrong”.
An interesting analysis on the extent to which Iggy Azalea uses accurate African American English in her rap songs, which also doubles as a decent introduction to the grammar of AAE:
But if she’s an appropriator, Azalea is at least not a sloppy one.
The “blaccent” controversy, as the rapper Eve called it, recently attracted the attention of linguists Maeve Eberhardt and Kara Freeman, who listened to and analyzed Azalea’s entire discography. […]
As with the dialects of any other group, such as the Pennsylvania Amish or the Cajun in Louisiana, AAE possesses its own subtle patterns of grammar and phonology, distinct from the kind of English heard on the evening news but no less difficult to get right. This is not something that outsiders can replicate easily. […]
According to this new study, Azalea’s songs reflect a far deeper, more sophisticated understanding of how black rappers speak. “We find her using this nuanced representation of African American English,” says Eberhardt, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Vermont. “She does it very well. She uses the features in the right places and in the right contexts.”
Even if her mimicry is offensive, the research appears to confirm something Azalea has been saying all along. Call her culturally naive or overzealous, but she has been an earnest student of at least some aspects of rap. […]
The research finds that her lyrics also demonstrate styles of grammar that are common in AAE, but hard for outsiders to pick up on. Here are three examples.
— Tricky usage of “ain’t”: This word is well-known as a substitute for “are not” or “is not”:“I ain’t going there,” for instance, or“He ain’t your friend.” But the linguists find that Azalea deploys “ain’t” in a rarer way, to indicate past events that never happened. She says things like “He ain’t even graduate.”
— Remote past “BEEN”: Azalea also correctly uses a grammatical construction that linguists call “remote past BEEN,” which indicates that a situation has been continuing for a long time.This is a feature that speakers of standard English often misinterpret. In 1975, Stanford’s Rickford, then at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a survey to black and white English speakers. Among the questions was this one:
Someone asked, “Is she married?” and someone else answered, “She BIN married.” Do you get the idea that she is married now?
To most of the white people in the study, that sentence meant that the woman was once married but not anymore. To nearly all of the black people, it meant that the woman had been married for a while and continued to be married.
Azalea correctly uses this expression in her song “Lady Patra.“ The meaning here, with stress on the word been, is that Azalea has long been rich, not that she lost a fortune and regained it:
Paper planes, roger that, 10-4 Got money, been had it, still gettin’ more
There are so many interesting bits I wish I could just excerpt the whole thing, so definitely just go read it.
Sandra Bland’s traffic stop, as caught by the dash cam video, occurred in a world where African American English is identifiably different, and often leads to more negative perceptions of its speakers, regardless of what is actually said. In her interaction with officer Encinia, we can hear Bland using distinctly African American intonational features, even though her grammar is not necessarily typical of African American English. In the beginning of their second interaction, after Encinia has returned to her vehicle, Encinia says “You ok?”. Bland responds,
“I’M WAITin’ on YOU, YOU. THIS is YOUR JOB. I’M WAITin’ ON YOU.”
Bland not only uses more stresses than a typical white speaker might use in this context; these stresses are louder and higher. Then, after Encinia says “you seem very irritated”, Bland responds,
“I REALLY am, ‘cause I feel like it’s CRAP what i’m getting a TICKET for. I was GETTING OUT of your WAY, you was SPEEDING up, TAILING me, so I MOVE OVER, and you STOP me.”
Bland continues to use more stresses than linguists might expect from a comparable white speaker in a similar situation. We think this may have contributed to Encinia hearing Bland as more emotional or combative than she really was. To compare, in Encinia’s speech, he only uses a similar stress patterns to Bland’s later in the interaction, when he begins to shout at her:
“GET OUT of the CAR NOW”
In Encinia’s own speech, and likely in his perception of Bland’s, more stressed syllables means a tone that is angry and combative. While Bland is obviously upset about a potential ticket, she is likely not as angry as Encinia perceives her to be. The differences between Bland’s and Encinia’s dialects and speech styles contributed to his misperception of her. And at the moment when Bland declines to put out her cigarette, the groundwork of misunderstanding has already been laid, leading Encinia to treat Bland as if she were being hostile.