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February 7, 1999 - African American Vernacular English, Part 1 - 2002-02-12

INTRO: February is African American History Month in the United States. It's a good opportunity for our Wordmasters, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble, to look at the history -- and structure -- of a style of English used by black Americans.

MUSIC -- "Rappers Delight"/Sugar Hill Gang

AA: I'm Avi Arditti. It was 1979 when the Sugar Hill Gang, a trio from Harlem, New York, changed music history with this song, "Rappers Delight."

RS: I'm Rosanne Skirble. "Rappers Delight" was the first commercially successful rap song in America. Since then, rap music has been helping to bring African American dialect into mainstream culture.

Linguists today call it African American vernacular English.

AA: John Baugh is a professor of education and linguistics at Stanford University in California. His research focuses on the history, politics and race issues related to the speech used in the United States by the descendants of slaves. Professor baugh says that, unlike other immigrant languages, no African language survived the Atlantic crossing to America.


"The reason for that was that slave traders separated slaves by language to restrict their communication, and when you compound that slaves were denied access to schools by law when they first came to the south, that unique linguistic history combined with the lack of access to the model of standard English that was needed in the majority culture, has triggered all the linguistic features which we can now talk about."

RS: John Baugh of Stanford University says that -- contrary to stereotypes -- when African Americans use non-standard English, they follow a structured dialect with a definite set of rules.


"Let me give you an example with the use of the word 'is.' In standard English you would either say 'he is coming' or 'he's coming.' In African American English it's quite common to say 'he coming.' It turns out many of the languages in the world function in this way, Russian being one. But there's a striking difference to the ear of the listener as to whether or not someone says 'he coming' or 'he happy' versus 'he's coming or 'he's happy.' If you conclude that the missing 'is' is substantial, we find that in the African American case the present tense form can be unmarked. So they will say 'he will be happy' or 'I was happy,' but 'I happy' or 'he happy' in the present tense doesn't have to be marked, whereas in standard English it must be marked."

AA: Despite the rules that govern African American Vernacular English, John Baugh says considerable prejudice remains. He says teachers should support linguistic and cultural diversity in the classroom.


"When I attended inner-city schools in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, that was not the case. It was very clear that many of my teachers held our dialect in low regard and would say things like 'people who speak that way can't be intelligent' and so on and so forth. It's very difficult for a young child in that circumstance if people aren't sensitive to the fact that everyone wants to respect their culture, their background, and what their people have contributed to the development of this country."

RS: We'll hear more from John Baugh of Stanford University later in the month, when we continue our look at African American Vernacular English.

AA: Before we go, we remind you that the deadline for the Wordmaster Name the Next Decade Contest is March 2 -- just a few weeks away. We want your ideas for what to call the first ten years of the 21st century. In other words, what follows "the nineties"?

RS: We've had a lot of good entries already. And, remember everyone who enters wins a VOA souvenir. But the better the entry the better the prize.

Next week in the spirit of Saint Valentine -- and that special day for lovers -- we dedicate Wordmaster to the language of love. With Avi Arditti I'm Rosanne Skirble.