“It’s Not Like That Now” – The English Story of African American English
After students at a California high school were recently asked to ‘translate’ Black English sentences into Standard English, a community member at a school board hearing said: ‘The last thing they need – our children – is to be forced into class and to be teased and bullied by the students because of a lesson plan used to highlight African American vernacular English.”
Few dialects of English have received so much negative attention. From the classroom at the courtroom, the place of African-American vernacular English is hotly debated. Indeed, people associate it with linguistic features now denounced as grammatically incorrect, such as “double negatives” or verbs that do not agree with their subjects. For example:
You might as well not tell them, because you won’t be thanked for it. You might as well not tell them about it, but just leave it in the hands of the Lord.
Because I know it and I see it now.
Teachers and language experts attribute these characteristics to “bad” English. Some linguists argue that they are not English, but rather the heritage of an English-based creole once widespread throughout British North America.
As a sociolinguist specializing in the structure of spoken language, my team at the University of Ottawa Sociolinguistics Laboratory has been struggling with this problem for years.
Our research shows that many of these non-standard stereotypical features are direct offshoots of an older stage of English – that of the Britons who colonized the United States.
Tapping into early Black English
To understand how African American Vernacular English became what it is today, you need to know what it was like before. But historical evidence of an earlier stage is scarce: recording technology is too new, and written depictions are both scarce and unreliable. To access Old Black English, it first had to be reconstructed from the discourse of the African American Diaspora.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, thousands of formerly enslaved African Americans settled in small enclaves in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Canada, where their descendants still reside. . Geographically and socially isolated, the main characteristic of linguistic enclaves is that they retain older characteristics.
Three such communities, never before studied in this context, have helped us shed light on the history of African-American vernacular English: samanaa small peninsula northeast of the Dominican Republic, and North Preston and Guysborough in Nova Scotia. Thanks to local residents, we were able to locate and register the oldest members of these communities.
Samana, Dominican Republic
North Preston, Nova Scotia
Guysborough, Nova Scotia
We compared our recordings with others made almost a century earlier with elderly African Americans born into slavery in the American South. Those “Ex-slave records” allowed us to validate the materials of the diaspora upstream.
My team and I carefully analyzed these documents to detect statistically significant speech patterns and compared them in different dialects of English. We have also collected almost 100 grammars of English dating as far back as 1577. Such comparisons allow linguists to reconstruct linguistic ancestry; like evolutionary biologists, we look for shared retentions—characteristics that have remained the same despite changes elsewhere.
This revealed that many stereotypical features associated with contemporary African-American vernacular English have strong precedent in the history of the English language.
The “Norse Subject Rule”
Take into account here. In Standard English, only third person singular verbs are inflected with -s, as in “he/she/it understands”. In vernacular African-American English, on the other hand, not only does the verb sometimes remain bare in the third person (e.g. “He understands what I say”), but it can also feature -s in other people, such as in “They always try to be obedient.
Our research into ancient grammars has taught us that the standard English requirement that subject and verb agree in the third person singular is actually relatively recent. As early as 1788, grammarian James Beattie noted that a singular verb sometimes followed a plural noun—exactly as we find it today in vernacular African-American English.
To our surprise, a quantitative analysis of how speakers used the present tense in our Old Black English Database showed that they followed a pattern described by grammarian James Murray in 1873:
This pattern, known as the “northern subject rule”, involves leaving the verb bare when the subject is an adjacent pronoun (“They come to take them”) and inflecting it with -s otherwise (“The birds come and peck them”).
The problem of ignoring the past
A language model as detailed as the Norse subject rule could not have been innovated by members of these remote communities independently. On the contrary, our comparisons confirmed that it was inherited from a common source: the English language first learned by enslaved individuals in the American colonies.
In fact, the same pattern is heard in other varieties of English with no known African-American input or connections, as in this example from Devon, UK:
You leave for the day and you give them fish and chips on the way home.
This is far from an isolated example. When we repeated this exercise, we found historical precedent for many other language features which are now considered grammatically incorrect.
Focusing on the current differences between African American Vernacular English and Standard English leads us to conclude that it is “bad” English. But when we factor in history and science, we learn that it retained structures that Standard English has now removed. Our results show that many salient features of African American vernacular English were not innovated, but rather are the legacy of an older stage of English. African-American vernacular English should rightly be legitimized as a conservative, non-incorrect variety of English, whose main grammatical difference is its resistance to prevailing change.
Hear the Norse Subject Rule in action
They speak the same English. English people speak with grammar.
That’s why, you know, they celebrate that day. People of color celebrate on this day.
Oh, I live my life. Me and Emma, and Aunt Bridgie all – we’re all living our lives.
He knows the first snowfall, he knows the first guys shooting deer and everything.
All examples are reproduced verbatim, with permission, from original audio recordings held at the University of Ottawa’s Sociolinguistics Laboratory.