The term African American Language (AAL) is used in this article to refer to all variations of language use in African American communities. AAL is the more current term, but African American English (AAE) is still used. A few Black language, linguistics, and culture scholars are making a case for the term Black Language as a contrast to White Mainstream English to point to the realities of race, racism, and White supremacy on language and linguistics. Broadly defined, AAL or AAE is language by or among African Americans. As with any variety, such as Japanese or Arabic, AAL can be acquired and used by non-African Americans who engage and identify with African American communities and peoples. However, the focus is on African Americans as well as other Black people who acquire or learn the language variety among African American communities and peoples. AAL serves as an umbrella term that includes, for example, African American Vernacular Language (AAVL), Gullah (Geechee), African American Women’s Language (AAWL), African American Child Language, Hip Hop National Language (HHNL), African American Standard Language (AASL), Black American Sign Language, African American Church Language, a host of regional varieties, and many, many more—just as is the case with any language or variety. AAVL refers to the everyday variety of AAL that is on a continuum from the most nonstandard (AAVL) to the most standard (AASL) variety. AAVL is associated with working-class, less educated, mostly disenfranchised African American speech. For some, it is the most authentic variety of AAL and the Holy Grail of AAL. While this is an exoticism of AAL, it fueled much of the research on AAL in its early years. Many scholars focus on AAVL to the detriment of other varieties of AAL and sometimes in ways that perpetuate the lie that AAL is homogeneous. This is contrary to sociolinguistic research literature: all languages vary. Fortunately, with more diversity and inclusion of AAL researchers and the differing questions being asked and frameworks being used, the focus on AAL is broader and more complex now than ever before. Sociolinguists have proven that AAL, regardless of variety, is systematic in phonology (sounds), morphology (structure of words and relationships among words), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (meaning), pragmatics (context), and discourse patterns as well as nonverbal communication and embodiment (e.g., paralinguistics). Again, to be clear, despite its systematicity, AAL is not homogenous as evidenced by the many variations enveloped under this larger umbrella term and those varieties reflect differences in age/generation, sex, gender, gender identity, sexuality, social and socioeconomic class, region, education, religion, and other affiliations and identities that intersect with one’s ethnicity, race, and nationality. AAL is a language variety with a rich oral tradition as referenced in music, literature, arts, games, and other verbal arts. The reach of AAL is expansive and the need exists for research to catch up.
Research on language use in African American communities began in earnest in the 1920s, known then as “Negro Dialect” or “Negro Nonstandard English” and escalated in the 1960s and 1970s. Research prior to the 1960s, with few exceptions, focused on a negative view of AAL just as African American people were viewed negatively in a history imbued with White supremacy. Even though more favorable views of AAL emerged in the 1970s, they were still seen through a White gaze as that of deficit, benevolence (i.e., White savior complex), or indifference. Smitherman 2000 provides a vast view of AAL in multiple contexts and, as such, is a good way to enter multiple conversations about AAL across a variety of contexts and time periods. A compilation of the author’s work, it is a treasure trove worth exploring that can lead to richer explorations of AAL. Labov 1972 and Mufwene, et al. 1998 provide technical linguistic descriptions of AAVL features, whereas Smitherman 1986, Smitherman 2006, and Rickford and Rickford 2000 are accessible to the layperson and provide a view of AAL from a Black-centered perspective. Lanehart 2001 provides myriad analyses and research in the field, with chapters for both the linguist and the nonlinguist.
Labov, William. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.
One of the first technical descriptions of AAL grammar, pronunciation, and communicative processes and functions. A seminal work in AAL research that expertly substantiates the systematic grammar of AAL that is evident in all languages.
Lanehart, Sonja L., ed. The Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001.
A collection of scholarship addressing several questions about research in AAL at that time, with sections on AAL’s relationship to mainstream varieties of American English, AAL use in African American communities, and AAL and education.
Mufwene, Salikoko S., John R. Rickford, Guy Bailey, and John Baugh, eds. African-American English: Structure, History, and Use. London: Routledge, 1998.
A collection of scholarship addressing three key areas of AAL research—structure, history, and use—by a variety of scholars whose scholarship is devoted to AAL and language variation. Some chapters are more technical than others, but all are informative in moving along scholarship on AAL.
Rickford, John R., and Russell J. Rickford. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
A generally nontechnical account of the artistic and cultural history of AAL; its lexicon, phonology, and grammar; political controversy regarding AAL, namely, the Ebonics controversy; and the importance of the language to the cultural identities of African Americans.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifying: The Language of Black America. Rev. ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986.
Originally published in 1977. A major contribution to the understanding of AAL that defines the language variety by its distinctive structure, lexicon, and oral tradition, as well as discussing attitudes surround AAL and the implication of such in educational practices and policy.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin that talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America. New York: Routledge, 2000.
A compilation of the author’s long career of publications on AAL that range in scope and location from language theory and culture to education and politics.
Smitherman, Geneva. Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans. New York: Routledge, 2006.
An overview of what AAL is, where it is, and how it functions in society by one of the African American founders of modern scholarship on AAL. Essentially serves as an update of her earlier seminal book on AAL by providing a modern-day view of AAL that goes deeper into community life as well as around the world.
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