Popular Linguistics » Understanding Linguistic Theory

Understanding Linguistic Theory

Simanique MoodyThe diversity of English in America
By Simanique Moody
Postdoctoral Fellow in Linguistics,
University of California, Santa Barbara

Even when two people speak the same language, they may not speak it in the same way.  In linguistics, we use the terms dialect and variety to describe the particularities of the speech of any regional or social group. Although all speech (and all language) belongs to one variety or another,  the speech of the dominant class is popularly  referred to as the standard and the speech of minority groups are labeled as dialects. Knowing the history of the different varieties of a language can tell us a lot about the history of a language, a region, and a people.

For example, American English varieties reflect the cultural landscape of the United States.  While Standard American English is arguably the most visible dialect of American English, many other varieties — such as Boston English, New York City English, Appalachian English, California Surfer Dude & Valley Girl English, and Chicano English — are also spoken in the United States.

One variety of American English that can be heard throughout the country and in a lot of popular music and media is African American English. African American English is spoken by many but not all African Americans and because language and ethnicity are not inherently linked, some native speakers of African American English are not ethnically African American (such as the rapper Paul Wall, for example).  African American English goes by many other names including Black English, African American Vernacular English, African American Language, and Ebonics (although the term “Ebonics” is often avoided by linguists because of its negative connotations).

One difference between African American English and Standard American English can be found in the mental dictionary, or lexicon.  Along with the lexical items shared by speakers of other English varieties, African American English also has many vocabulary items that are culturally specific, things like:

kitchen – noun. the hair at the nape of the neck that tends to be difficult to straighten
As in “Sheila need to comb her kitchen cause it’s looking kinda rough.”
or “Sheila need to perm that kitchen back there.”


saditty – adjective. conceited, snobbish, stuck-up, or uppity
As in “She think she all that with her saditty-acting self.”

Informal, short-lived expressions known as slang are only a very small part of the African American English lexicon.

Likewise, the rules of  phonology, morphology, and grammar that characterize African American English are often different from Standard American English.  For example, the verbs is and are can be omitted in certain places in African American English but not in Standard American English:

He Ø reading the newspaper.
They Ø on the computer.

[Editor's Note: In linguistics, the symbol Ø is used as a place-holder for a word that has been left out]

Because there are many linguistic differences like this between African American English and Standard English, it has been difficult for linguists to reach a consensus regarding the variety’s origins. Although the ultimate ancestry may be lost to history, most linguists acknowledge that African American English developed as a result of enslaved Africans coming into contact with speakers of British English dialects on plantations in the U.S. South during the 17th, 18th, and early19th centuries.  Even today, African American English and Southern White Vernacular English, spoken by many in the U.S. South, share linguistic similarities.  As a result of extensive language contact with other English varieties, many African Americans are bidialectal or multidialectal — that is, they have a command of two or more dialects of English and can switch freely between them depending on the social setting and desired effect.

African American English also shares a connection with Gullah (also known as Geechee; you can hear a sample of ), an English-based creole variety spoken by African Americans in a region along the Atlantic coast from the southeastern corner of North Carolina to the northeastern tip of Florida.  While both Gullah and African American English developed as a result of language contact, major factors giving rise to Gullah were the high ratio of enslaved Africans to whites and the limited interaction with white English varieties on plantations in isolated coastal regions.  This was not the case throughout much of the other slaveholding regions where African American English developed.  Like African American English, the linguistic structure of Gullah is different from that of Standard American English.  And though they share some structural similarities, there are many ways that Gullah differs from African American English.  For example, Gullah speakers can omit the verb am in addition to is and are in certain constructions, whereas speakers of most African American English varieties cannot.  So, for example, a sentence like:

I Ø glad to hear from you.

is grammatically fine in Gullah, but not in Standard American English nor in most African American English varieties.

Gullah, like most creoles, was formed through the interaction of substrate and superstrate languages.  Substrate languages are those that are spoken by the socially subordinate group, and they often influence the phonological and grammatical structure of the creole.  In Gullah, the most likely substrate languages were Mende and Vai (spoken in present-day Sierra Leone) and Twi (spoken in Ghana).  The superstrate is the language spoken by the socially dominant group, and it is generally the source of much of the creole’s vocabulary. For Gullah, the superstrates were mainly the English varieties spoken by Highland Scots and other Scots who settled  in South Carolina and Georgia.  Creoles can develop whenever speakers of different languages are in contact with one another for an extended period of time.  Creoles usually start out as pidgins, a reduced form of language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common.  Pidgins are typically based around trade and commerce and don’t have the strict grammatical rules that full languages have.  As children grow up speaking a pidgin language, it gains native speakers and therefore becomes nativized.  The language then undergoes creolization, becoming more grammatically complex and structurally rigid as a result of native speakers needing more linguistically expressive capabilities.

Our understanding of African American English and Gullah are just two aspects of the variation found in English varieties spoken in America.  As you can see, language contact in America has provided us with a rich linguistic landscape that we can all celebrate.

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Popular Linguistics Magazine, Volume One - 2011