The Phonology of African American Vernacular English

Topics: Phonology, Vowel, International Phonetic Alphabet Pages: 8 (2449 words) Published: July 14, 2013
The Phonology of
African American Vernacular English

Table of contents

1. Introduction…………………………………………………………….………...…….1 2. African American Vernacular English (AAVE)……………………….………...….…2 3.1. Vowel phonemes of AAVE……………………………………………………...……2 3.2. Consonant phonemes of AAVE…………………………………………………...…..3 3.3. Syllable structure…………………………………………………….…………….......6 3.4. Prosodic features……………………………………………………….…………...…7 3. Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………..…7 4. Bibliography…………………………………………………………….…………..….8

1. Introduction

The speech of the African American population in North America has been the subject of many studies and researches. Especially the provenance of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has been up for discussion ever since research on this variety began. Currently, there are two opposing positions regarding its origin: The first is called the “African substratum position” and the other one the “English-origins position” (Edwards 2008, 181-182). While the former one basically suggests that AAVE evolved from a creole-based speech spoken by the African slaves on southern plantations, the latter proposes a crucial influence of the “preexisting nonstandard English variants” on the speech of the slaves (ibid). Although the scholars have not yet been able to come to a conclusion regarding the origination of AAVE, it is undoubted that this variety shares many features with the Southern White Vernacular (SWV). Nowadays, AAVE is spoken by a vast majority of African Americans throughout the United States and Canada. Although it enjoys little social prestige on the part of the white American population, it is held in high esteem by its own speakers because of the high degree of cultural identification and unity (Zeigler 2001, 169). Of course, AAVE is not spoken to the same extent by every African American. While working-class speakers of said variety use it very consistently in the form of a basilect, African Americans of higher social classes speak an AAVE variant that is more influenced by StAmE and white vernacular American English, the so-called mesolect (Edwards 2008, 181). It is true that the phoneme inventory of AAVE does not significantly differ from the one of StAmE or other English varieties, but, nevertheless, these phonemes are subject to distinctive phonological restrictions. This paper shall give an overview of the different phonological features and characteristics that distinguish AAVE from other English varieties. First, the differences in terms of vowel phonemes will be discussed; after this, the consonantal peculiarities will be examined.

2. African American Vernacular English (AAVE)

3.1. Vowel phonemes of AAVE:

front central back
close

close mid

open mid

open

Fig. 1: Vowel chart of AAVE (Edwards 2008, 183)

One peculiar feature of AAVE vowel realization is the monophthongization of the diphthong // in certain environments, e.g before nasals, pauses and voiced obstruents (Edwards 2008, 184). For example, words such as StAmE tied  or mine  are pronounced  or  respectively in AAVE. This phenomenon is more and more occurring in words where  precedes voiceless obstruents, too, e.g. white . Another noticeable difference to StAmE in terms of diphthongs is the vowel quality of the diphthongs in words such as choice. While in StAmE the first vowel of this closing diphthong is an mid-open rounded back vowel , in AAVE this vowel is a more close , which results in the word choice being pronounced as  (Edwards 2008, 185). The near-close near-front unrounded vowel  undergoes a raising and diphthongization to  in some words, for example kids, since or kit. Thus, the phonetic realization of these words goes ,  and  respectively. However,  is lowered to  or ...
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