The Africans who were brought forcibly to America over a period
of three centuries developed a characteristic speech that combined
the English of their white masters with grammatical and phonetic
features common to West African languages. This speech, known
as “Ebonics” or African American Vernacular English,
is characterized by the simplification or transformation of certain
phonemes and by copula omission (un-conjugated “to be”).
A decision by the Oakland, California school district to recognize “Ebonics” as
a distinct African-American language has fueled debate as to
whether it is a dialect of English, a language distinct from
English, or simply bad English. In any event, this “black” English
has fascinated white society and occupies an important place
in Anglophonic literature, folklore and music. As manifested
in the musical genre known as blues, it has influenced all of
today’s popular music, prompting even Britons to imitate
certain aspects of African-American speech.
Key words: Ebonics, African-Americans, Blues, Popular Culture
African-american dialect and popular culture
The Africans who were brought as slaves to North America between
the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries developed a
characteristic style of English speech that remains identifiable
today. In its mildest form, this style may involve nothing more
than the simplification of certain phonemes or unconjugated “to be”. In its
most extreme form, it may be unintelligible to speakers of Standard
English. Many African-Americans celebrate it as an emblem of
racial pride while other Americans, black as well as white, dismiss
it simply as bad English. “Black” English, known
to linguists as AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and
popularly called “Ebonics”, is of interest not only
as a linguistic facet of the U.S.’s black minority
but also as an important element of the general culture that
the United States presents to the rest of the world. It has
(as will be shown) influenced even the speech produced in
This paper will explain something of the
origin, development, and present state of African American
Vernacular English. Its impact on popular Anglophonic culture will
then be discussed, especially as it relates to popular music. A typical
blues song and a representative 1960’s rock song will
be compared in order to highlight the curious phenomenon
of white Englishmen imitating the speech of black Americans.
Finally, some pedagogical considerations implicit in the
existence of African American Vernacular English as a socio-linguistic
phenomenon and as a facet of world English will be discussed.
What is Ebonics?
The word “Ebonics”, coined in 1973
by George Washington University Professor Robert Williams, combines
the words “ebony” and ”phonics” in
an attempt to describe African American speech as “black
sound”. In 1996 the Oakland California school district approved
a resolution that recognized Ebonics as the “primary language” of
some of its black students, thereby entitling Ebonics speakers
to federally funded second language instruction in Standard English.
The Oakland resolution brought to a head a long-standing and
acrimonious debate concerning the nature of the speech patterns
commonly heard from African-Americans. Is Ebonics a dialect of
English? Is it a language distinct from English? Is it simply
bad English? Noma Lemoine, Director of the Language Development
Program for African-American students at the Los Angeles Unified
School District, justified the resolution in an interview with
CNN in December of 1996:
We understand that the basis for positing a genetic kinship of
languages is continuity in morphology and not in vocabulary. We
understand that African-American language, or what is referred
to as Ebonics, has a genetic kinship to African languages. Its
root system is governed by African or Niger-Congo language rules,
even though it borrows extensively English lexicon or vocabulary.(1)
Proponents of Ebonics point out that the
terms “language” and “dialect” are
imprecise and politically biased. The term “dialect”,
they argue, is applied pejoratively to language varieties whose
speakers enjoy low social status, whereas the name and status of “language” is
often given to regional speech varieties (for example, Swedish
and Danish) that happen to correspond to political boundaries. “A
language”, the distinguished linguist Max Weinreich once
said, “is a dialect with an army and a navy”(2).
One naively expects to find bespectacled,
old-guard English teachers defending the sanctity of a monolithic,
Standard English and, on the opposite side of the controversy,
militant African-American leaders countering with cries of “racism!” and urging
recognition of Ebonics as the legitimate language of the Black
community. But in fact, the issue is much more complex. Many black
leaders have criticized the Oakland decision as a serious error,
if not an insult, to African-Americans, as it seems to imply that
black children do not really speak English. Maya Angelou (the black
poet who recited one of her poems at President Clinton’s
inauguration) said, “I am incensed. The very idea that African-American
language is a language separate and apart can be very threatening,
because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard
The Rev. Jesse Jackson complained that the
Oakland school board had become “the laughing stock of the nation” (4) and
he described the policy of legitimatising Ebonics as “teaching
down to our children” (5) .
The American linguistic community has taken
a somewhat ambiguous position. Few professional linguists will
concede that what is called “Ebonics” differs sufficiently from Standard
English as to justify calling it a separate language. Speakers
of Ebonics and Standard English generally understand one another
and it is this standard of mutual intelligibility that, by common
definition, distinguishes dialects from languages. In using the
term African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to refer to Ebonics,
the linguistic community implicitly pronounces it to be a variety – that
is to say a dialect – of English. Yet linguists recognize
that languages do not always conform to neat distinctions. They
tend to be open-minded about classifications, like those implied
by the Oakland Resolution, that are made for political and sociological
reasons. At this point, it would be worthwhile to clarify some
of the terminology involved in this issue, and also to review
something of African-American history.
Historical Background – Languages,
During a period spanning two centuries, captives
speaking hundreds of West African languages were transported to
North America. It is supposed that these captives, in order to
communicate with one another and with their masters, developed
a pidgin combining elements of diverse West African languages.
Pidgins are improvised linguistic systems that develop when speakers
of diverse tongues find themselves in circumstances that require
them to communicate with one another. Pidgins, which typically
combine and simplify elements drawn from their several component
languages, are by definition transient languages. However, speakers
of a pidgin many transmit it to their children, for whom the pidgin
then becomes a native language. When this occurs, we say that the
pidgin has become a creole. Creoles may eventually acquire the
socio-political status of languages, and in this way complete
a sort of linguistic cycle.
The black slave population of the United States is thought to
have created an African-based creole, which the conditions of slavery
and racial segregation tended to perpetuate. This creole, conserving
certain grammatical and phonological features common to West African
languages, while at the same time adopting English lexicon, is
said to represent the origin of African American Vernacular English.
Yet the claim that American blacks conserved
a distinct language system in isolation from white society
is problematical. It would seem that the institution of slavery
facilitated rather than hindered contact between whites and
blacks. Whereas a small minority of planters owned hundreds of slaves,
the vast majority of slaveholders had only one or two, and
often treated them as family. Many slave owners habitually accompanied
their men in the fields. Of course, in large estates significant
numbers of slaves would be domestic servants. Charles Dickens,
writing to his wife during a visit to America in 1842, expressed
a belief widely held at that time: All the women who have been
bred in slave States speak more or less like Negroes” from having been constantly in their childhood
with black nurses”.(6)
Dr. W. Cabell Greet, in his book, “Southern Speech”,
published in 1934, argued the contrary, claiming that all aspects
of black pronunciation could be traced to “vulgar or old-fashioned
American speech”. (7)
The idea that the emancipated Negro was
strictly excluded from white society following the Civil War
is conclusively refuted in Comer Vann Woodward’s classic 1955 book, “The Strange
Career of Jim Crow”. As Woodward points out, racial segregation
was a concept alien to the old slaveholding class, whatever it
may have believed about the inferiority of blacks. The notorious “Jim
Crow” laws mandating separate public facilities for blacks
and whites and outlawing misogyny did not appear until the closing
years of the nineteenth century, and they were frequently ignored
But day-to-day contact with whites during
and after the era of slavery, such as it was, did not change
the fact of the black man’s
social inferiority. He associated with white society but did not
form part of it. The speech of African-Americans assumed many forms
representing diverse combinations of Standard English and black
Creole. The Negro typically assumed one set of speech habits when
dealing with whites and another when among his own people. James
Clyde Seliman in his essay, “Black Vernacular English or
One of the constant and determinative qualities of Black Vernacular
English, from the days of slavery to the present, is its oppositional
nature. From the first, African Americans confronted the reality
of white power and the need to avoid or subvert white domination.
Slaveholders and other whites, constantly fearful of slave rebellions,
maintained ongoing surveillance of the African American population,
attempting to prevent unauthorized gatherings of blacks and listening
in on slave conversations.
Anthropologist James Scott has noted that slaves circumvented
this scrutiny by using “linguistic codes, dialects, and gestures” that
were “opaque to the masters and mistresses.” Black
Vernacular English “continues to reflect these power realities
and sharply delineates those who are within and those who lie without
the group boundaries”.(8)
American society, both during
and after the slavery era, clung to stereo-typed notions
about the character, speech, habits and abilities of the black man.
It was convenient, not to say obligatory, for blacks to behave
according to such expectations. Negroes would, in their dealings
with whites, consciously or unconsciously assume a “darky” mode of speech rather than risk being considered “uppity” by
presuming to talk like white people.
Who Speaks AAEV?
Who speaks African American Vernacular English
today? Why, of course, African- Americans! One imagines British
Prime Minister Tony Blair practicing his Ebonics in preparation
for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (“Sho
nuf he bin a’jive
us. Ah know he got dem nucl’a weapa’s.”)
In fact, aave speech is not typical of black Americans. On
the one hand, the issue of AAEV concerns lower class black
children whose natural speech habits lead to difficulties in
reading and writing at school and to discrimination in the
job market. On the other, it is about African-Americans who
freely make use of AAVE or Standard English as the occasion
requires. This cultivation of AAVE in order to reinforce feelings
of social identity while communicating pride or defiance toward
the larger society is an example of what linguists call hypercreolization.
The lyrics of rap songs, which purport to represent black English
but which, in fact, contain much more of street argot than
of anything that could really be called AAVE, exemplify one
aspect of hypercreolization.
Linguistic Features of AAEV
Like any other linguistic system, AAEV embraces
regional and ethnological variations. Though it is rule-bound,
its rules represent tendencies rather than absolute formulas. The
following are the speech tendencies most typical of AAVE:
of consonant clusters. When two or more consonants occur
together in a cluster, an AAVE speaker simplifies it by pronouncing
only the first one. Thus, “children” becomes
chil’un, “first” becomes firs or fir. The likelihood
that reduction will occur depends somewhat on context. For example,
a speaker might pronounce “last man” as “las’ man
while retaining the consonant cluster in “last one”.
Consonant clusters, and even individual consonants occurring
at the ends of words may be omitted. Thus walk becomes wal or
wa. Present continuous verb endings of “ing” are
- The unvoiced sound of “th” occurring
within a word is simplified to “f” so that “nothing” becomes
nofin and “both” becomes boff. The voiced “th”,
on the other hand, changes to to “v”, “brother” becoming
- Voiced “th” occurring at the beginning of
a word is pronounced “d”, “that” becoming
dat, “this” becoming dis and “they” becoming dey.
Unvoiced “th” as
in “thing” may (but rarely does) become “t” as in
ting. However, if this phoneme is followed by an “r” the speaker
may pronounce it as “f” so that “three” becomes
- “L” and “r”, when they do not occur
at the beginning of a word, are vocalized, that is to say, they
take on a sound like uh. This is most easily observed when the “l” or “r” occurs
after a vowel sound. For example, “sister”, and “nickel” become
sist’uh and nick’uh.
- Nasals (e.g. m, n) following a vowel
are often omitted and the nasal sound is then attached
to the vowel. For example, “man” becomes
- The vowel sound “e” as in “pen” is
often given a higher pitch when it occurs before a nasal, “pen” and “ friend” becoming
pin and frind (or more likely, frin).
- Diphthongs are typically simplified.
Thus “my” is “ma” and “night” becomes “nat”.
- Words, that in Standard English are stressed on final syllables,
may be stressed on the first syllable. Thus police, and hotel,
in Standard English but po-lice, and ho-tel in AAVE.
- The conjugated “be” (called a copula)
is often omitted, particularly in compound verbal constructions;
for example: I __ gonna’ fin’ it. He __ sleep’n.
They __ all right.
- Unconjugated “be” is used to express
permanence or continuance of a situation, as in: She be family.
They be com’in
every day. The past participle, “been” (bin) may
be used in a similar way when the situation expressed has its
origin in the past. For example: I been know’in him.
third person singular verb marker “-s” is
typically omitted. For example: He live here.
- Double negatives are
common, the negative auxiliary typically occurring before
the subject. For example: Can’t nobody beat
him. Ain’t nof’in here.
- Subject pronouns are repeated
in appositive constructions. For example, “Tom, my brother...” might
be Tom, he ma’ brover
Many words and expressions have passed from AAVE
into Standard English slang: “jazz”, “swing”, “jam”, “cool”, “hip”, “rock
and roll”, “right on”, “up
etc. Black jazz artists of an earlier generation, like
their rap-singing counterparts today, delighted in
coining slang words that expressed the black experience
while subtly implying criticism of white society. This
sharing of an “in” vocabulary
reinforced feelings of community among blacks. Eventually,
these slang words would be “raided” by
whites and the process of linguistic invention would
begin again. However, this continual reinvention
of lexemes does not really constitute an AAVE vocabulary.
That AAVE takes its lexis from Standard English is acknowledged
by its most ardent champions. They maintain, as mentioned earlier,
that a language is identified by its phonology and grammar rather
than by its vocabulary.
African Americans as Perceived by White Society
North Americans have always been fascinated by
the presence of “primitive” peoples
in their midst. Indians, Negroes and other nonwhite peoples
figure prominently in U.S. literature of the nineteenth century,
Chingachgook (“The Last of the Mohicans”), Jim (“Huckleberry
Finn”) and Queequeg (“Moby Dick”) being
well-known examples. America’s great popular composer
Stephen Foster (1826-1864) showed a predilection for
sentimental “Ethiopian” songs
whose lyrics purported to represent Negro dialect.
However much these popular characterizations in literature
and song reflect white attitudes of romantic admiration
or condescending humor, they also give evidence of
a genuine sympathy for the peoples represented, and
of a real interest in their human qualities.
The arrival of the first slaves in North
America marked the beginning of an American fascination
with the culture and speech of these black men who had exchanged
a barbarous existence in Africa for a life of servitude among
civilized, English-speaking Christians. But however much novelists
like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain, or songwriters like
Stephen Foster attempted to represent black speech, one finds
in their work little indication of their having carefully studied
it. Touches of “nigger” dialect
lend pathos to the speeches of Stowe’s Uncle Tom, humor
to the philosophizing of Twain’s runaway slave Jim,
and sentimentality to Stephen Foster’s Uncle Ned (“He’s
gone war de good niggers(9) go…”) precisely
due to its being “bad” English.
An example of such pseudo African-American dialect is “Oh!
Susanna”. This Stephen Foster composition, sung by
generations of American schoolchildren in Standard English,
is given here in the original version:
I come from Alabama
with my Banjo on my knee—
I’s g’wine to Lou’siana,
My true lub10 for to see,
It rain’d all night de day I left,
De wedder it was dry;
The sun so hot I froze to def—
Susanna, don’t you cry.
How else should nineteenth century white
Americans have regarded black dialect other than as English
badly spoken? Blacks, like the many immigrants who had come and were
still coming to America, spoke a variety of English strongly
flavored by the diverse languages they had spoken in their
native lands. Being now Americans, they could only be said to speak
English well or to speak it badly, the specific nature
of their speech errors being of scant interest. One might at least
comprehend the venerable linguistic tradition behind a Scottish immigrant’s peculiar vocabulary and pronunciation,
but America had not yet produced the school of structural linguistics
that would trouble to study such “primitive” languages
as those of West Africa. If blacks really were hindered in their
imitation of correct English speech because of interference from
their former “barbarian” tongues, this could
only be regarded as yet more proof of their ignorance.
During the nineteenth century a popular
device of satire, and often of simple vulgar entertainment,
was the mimicking of black music and dance accompanied by caricatures
of black vernacular speech. Around 1830 a white man known
as Thomas “Daddy” Rice,
concocted a musical show called “Jim Crow”, a farcical
representation of black song and dance that became sensationally
popular both in the U.S. and England. Thus began of the era of
the blackface minstrel shows, which initially featured white men,
their faces blackened with burnt cork and their lips enlarged with
makeup, singing and dancing in what was supposed to be the authentic
manner of “Ethiopians”. Later, black men themselves
performed in these minstrel shows, which could then claim to present “the
darky as he really is”. This absurd phenomenon of blacks
deliberately acting out stereotypes defined for them by whites
sometimes went to the extreme of light-skinned Negro performers
smearing themselves with blackface. But for all their crass racism,
the minstrel shows represented America’s first mass entertainment,
an entertainment inspired, in however distorted a form, by the
African-American experience. They also provided the first scenarios
in which black Americans could perform in public. By the 1920’s
and 30’s these had finally given way to more serious entertainment
like Roger and Hart’s Broadway musical, “Showboat” (11)
and George Gershwin’s opera, “Porgy and Bess”,
in which blacks were portrayed with somewhat more understanding
and sympathy. Before writing the libretto to “Porgy and Bess”,
Gershwin spent a great deal of time living among the blacks of
Charleston, North Carolina and studying their culture and speech.
The following lines from the song, “Got a Lot a’ Nuttin” gives
some idea of a sympathetic, non-linguistically trained white man’s
perception of African-American English:
Oh, I got plenty o’nuttin’,
An’ nuttin’s plenty for me,
I got my gal, got my song, got Hebben the whole day long
No use complainin’!
Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song!
Implicit in all of such attempts to represent
the black man was an acknowledgement of his special musical gifts.
The musical bent of African-Americans, first manifesting itself
in religiously inspired “slave
songs” or “Negro spirituals”, attracted
the notice of whites almost from the first days of slavery.
An article, published in 1856 in Dwight’s Journal
of Music, observes, The only musical population of this
country are the Negroes of the South…Compared
with our taciturn race, the African nature is full
of poetry and song.(12)
Similar appreciations were voiced by European
visitors to the United States, most notably Antonin Dvorak
who, in a 1893 interview by the NEW YORK HERALD said, “...the future music of this
country must be founded upon what we call Negro melodies”.(13)
The Czech composer’s own Symphony No. 9 (“From the
New World”) and String Quartet No. 12 (“American”)
written during his sojourn in the United States, are thought to
have been inspired by Negro spirituals. Before and after the Civil
War, blacks were often called upon to provide music for public
events, such as carnivals in New Orleans, or work songs for labor
gangs. Toward the close of the nineteenth century a popular African-American
music began to emerge as a hybrid of European and African musical
styles. First coming to attention as firs coming to attention as
a piano style piano style called “boogie-woogie”, and
evolving later into “jazz”, it became fashionable not
only in the United States, but also in Europe. Another African-American
genre that developed about the same time was the vocal style known
as “blues”. In musical terms, the blues is distinguished
by its twelve bar musical structure, fixed harmonic progression
and the inclusion of a flattened seventh note (known as a “blue” note”).
Blues songs typically consist of three stanzas, the first being
repeated (in order to give the singer time to improvise a rhyming
consluding stanza). As the word “blues”(14) suggests,
these songs typically express feelings of sadness, complaint, or
frustration (often tempered by humor) and have come to be identified
with the sufferings of the African-American. Initially, record
companies marketed blues records as “race records”,
their appeal presumably being limited to black audiences.
Nevertheless, blues, like jazz, rapidly became popular with
white listeners. It has exercised an incalculable influence
on all styles of American and British popular music.
During the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, Bessie Smith,
John Lee Hooker, Blind Lemon Jefferson and a host of other important
blues artists made thousands of popular records sung in a black
vernacular style that became a sort of trademark of the blues genre.
In spite of the crude, biting style of this music, its sexually
explicit lyrics, and its stigmatization by black churches as “the
devil’s music”, an ever-larger and more diverse market
developed for blues records. The 1950’s, witnessed the birth
of “rhythm n’ blues”, a more fast-paced, rhythmical
version of the blues, and of “rock‘n roll”, a
combination of blues and country-and-western styles. Many of the
early rock ‘n roll songs were performed by black artists
(Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc.) or by whites who, like Elvis
Presley, deliberately adopted a “black” style. During
the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the phenomenon
of white singers incorporating features of blues vocal style
into their music and into their music and, consciously or
not, imitating mannerisms of black speech, became common
and remains so today. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Animals,
the Rolling Stones, John Mayal, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin,
the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Van Morrison, and Creedence
Clearwater Revival are but some of the more famous examples.
That rock-and-roll music owes its much of
its origin to the blues is common knowledge. Less well-known
is the significant influence of the blues on country-and-western
music. During the 1930’s
and 40’s such legendary artists as Jimmie Rodgers (“The
Father of Country Music”) and Sam McGee popularized songs
like “The Railroad Blues” and “The Knoxville
Blues” whose debt to African-American music was unmistakable.
Such “blue yodel” and “white blues” compositions
occupy an important place in the history of country-and-western
music. This is to say that each of the two direct forbearers of
today’s American pop music (blues and country-and-western)
bears the indelible mark of African-American influence and
has to a greater or lesser degree been influenced by African-American
Blues, Rock ‘n Roll
teaching the British to Speak English
African American Vernacular English is, like any
other language system, a living, ever-changing phenomenon. No
one linguistic sample could serve as a typical example. However,
the blues songs of the 1940’s and 50’s probably represent
good examples of spontaneous, authentic black vernacular. Blues
artists of this period sought neither to ingratiate themselves
to white audiences nor to aggressively affirm their African-American
identity. They simply made music that expressed the the African-American
experience, hoping thereby to sell records to black listeners
(popular music being, after all, a business!). They could hardly
have expected that their instrumental and vocal styles would provide
models that several generations of popular white singers would imitate.
Two samples of musical AAVE will be examined
here. The first is an interpretation by John Lee Hooker
of the blues song, “Women
in My Life”. The second, “Under My Thumb” sung
by The Rolling Stones, will help to illustrate the ever-present
influence of African-American dialect in the music of white
American and British pop artists. In both samples the text
of the song (left column) is accompanied by a transcription
representing the way the words are really pronounced (right
“Women in My Life”
John Lee Hooker was born in 1917 in the delta
region of Mississippi, a fertile breeding ground for great blues
artists. He moved to Detroit shortly after World War II and it
was there that he recorded the song “Women in My Life” sometime
around 1954. Perhaps the single most significant feature of this
AAVE sample is the fact that, for the most part, it is readily
comprehensible to a speaker of Standard English. Only the last
stanza presents any serious difficulty. Yet a great many of the
AAVE features discussed earlier can be seen. The most conspicuous
of these occur in the very first stanza: the simplification of
consonant clusters mah for “mind”, the copula omission
instead of “you are off”, and the substitution
of in for “ing” (“going”).
Lines 4 and 5 again present the tendency
to omit final consonants: ain’(t), love(d), wome(n) whereas the “r” in “never” and “four” are
vocalized. The diphthong “y” in “my” is
reduced to a simple short “a” sound so that we get
|WOMEN IN MY LIFE (John Lee Hooker)
|1 Yes, I´m going away, baby, where you´re
off my mind.
2 Yes, I´m going away, baby, where you´re off my
3 You keep bozzing, buzzing, trouble all the time.
4 I ain´t never loved but, four
women in my life,
5 I ain´r never loved but, four women in my life,
6 That´s my mother and my sister, sweetheart and my
7 Listen, you don´t want me, please don´t
dog me round,
8 Listen, you don´t want me, please don´t dog
9 Just like yoy found me baby, you can put me down.
10 I said, goodbye baby, you can go back home, (?)
11 I saind, goodbye baby, you can go back home, (?)
12 You can leave me now, you´ll be coming back here.
|Yeh, a´go wa´baby, wha´you o´ma´mi´,
Yeah, a´go wa´baby, wha´you o´ma´mi´,
You ke´ buz´, buz´, troub´a a´di
A´ain´neva love bu´, fo´wema´en
A´ ain´neva´love bu´, fo´wema´en
Da´s ma´mo´a en ma´sista´sweeh
Les´n you do´wan´me, plea´don´do´me
Les´n yoyu do´wan´me, plea´don´do´me
Jes´li´yuo fou´me baby´you can pu´me
A´say goo´ba´baby, you ca´go ba´ho´,
A´soy goo´ba´baby, you ca´go ba´ho´,
yo ca´lea´me no´, yoy be co´ba´he´.
Line 6 begins with a typical reduction of
the cluster “th” in “that’s” to “d” giving
us das (the t’s cluster at the end of the word is of course,
reduced as well. The “r” in “mother” and “sister” occurring
as they do after vowels, are noticeably vocalized, giving us mod-ah
and sis-tah. Noticeable also is the vocalization of the “n” in “and”,
so that we get something like ayin.
The copula omission in the first two lines
has already been mentioned. Other typical AAVE grammatical
features occur in the last line of the song where the auxiliary will
and again the “ing” in “coming” are omitted.
These grammatical modifications of Standard English barely catch
the listener’s attention. They certainly do not interfere
with comprehension of the song nearly so much as do the simplifications
of standard pronunciation. Interestingly, the word “yes”,
which we would expect to hear as yeah, gets an unmistakably
clear, Standard English pronunciation (yes) every time it
One searches in vain for specific “black” lexicon.
The expressions with double meaning that one occasionally finds
in Hooker songs as, for example, “My daddy was a jockey he
taught me how to ride… once in the middle and then from
side to side”, merely exemplify the kind of sly, suggestive
language used in folksongs the world over when referring to the
sex act. A famous example of this – an expression occurring
in many blues songs – is of course, “rock ‘n
“Under My Thumb”: The Rolling Stones “Paint
In 1962 a young Englishman named Mick Jagger,
carrying with him a collection of records by such blues artists
Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Lightn’n Hopkins, met with an
old school friend, Keith Richards in order to form a band that
would play cover versions of the blues songs that both loved
so much. When finally they had to choose a name for themselves,
someone casually suggested the title of a Muddy Waters song – “Rolling
Stone Blues” – and so they became the “Rolling
Stones”. A desire to distinguishing themselves from the
clean-cut, well-spoken, wholesomeness of the Beatles encouraged
the Rolling Stones to develop a working class, bad kid, bad-mouthed
image which fit in well with their artistic inclination toward
the blues – still
regarded by many as lower class, vulgar black music.
Thus we find these four young Englishman singing in what
must have been to them the completely alien accents of African-Americans.
If Elvis Presley was criticized for singing “nigger music” one
can imagine the horror felt by Englishman at hearing these young
sons of Britain consciously imitating Americans “of the worst
|UNDER MY THUMB (The Rolling Stones)
|Written as... Sung as...
|1 Under my thumb Under
2 The girl who once had me down The
girl who once had meh down
3 Under my thumb Under
4 The girl who once pushed me around The
girl who once push me aroun
5 It’s down to me It’s
down to me
6 The difference in the clothes she wears The
difference in the close she wears
7 Down to me, the change has come, Down
to me, the change has com
8 She’s under my thumb (Ain’t it the truth babe?)
She’s under ma’ thum’
9 Under my thumb Under
10 The squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day The
squirmin’ dog who’s jus had her day
11 Under my thumb Under ma’ thum
12 A girl who has just changed her ways. A gir who has jus
changed her way
13 It’s down to me, yes it is It’s down to me,
yes it is.
14 The way she does just what she’s told The way she
does jus what she’s tol
15 Down to me, the change has come Down to me, the change has
16 She’s under my thumb. (Ah, ah, say it’s alright.)
She’s under mah thum. (Ah, as say it’s alright.
17 Under my thumb Under ma’ thum’
18 A siamese cat of a girl A Siamese ca of a girl,
19 Under my thumb Under ma’ thum’
20 She’s the sweetest, hmmm, pet in the world She’s
the sweetes, hmmm, pet in the worl.
21 It’s down to me It’s down to me
22 The way she talks when she’s spoken to The way she
talk when she’s spoken to
23 Down to me, the change has come, Down to me, the change
24 She’s under my thumb. (Ah, take it easy babe, Yeah.)
She’s under ma’ thum’
25 It’s down to me, oh yeah It’s down to me, oh
26 The way she talks when she’s spoken to The way she
talks when she’s spoken to
27 Down to me, the change has come, Down to me, the change
28 She’s under my thumb. (Yeah, it feels alright.) She’s
under ma’ thum’
29 Under my thumb Under ma’ thum
30 Her eyes are just kept to herself Her ahs are jus kep to
31 Under my thumb, well I Under ma’ thum’, well
32 I can still look at someone else. Ah’ can steel look
at somewa’ else
33 It’s down to me, oh that’s what I said It’s
down to me, oh tha’s wha’ ah sa’
34 The way she talks when she’s spoken to The way she
talks when she’s spoken to,
35 Down to me, the change has come, Down to meh, the change
36 She’s under my thumb. (Say, it’s alright. Say
it’s all...) She’s under ma’ thum.
Whereas Mick Jagger seems to have adopted
a cockney speech style for purposes of ordinary discourse,
the songs in which he generally sings the lead role consistently
mimic black singing. This is not to dismiss the music of
the Rolling Stones as mere mimicry. Like all artists, Jagger imitates,
making what he imitates his own. In “Under My Thumb”, (Figure 2) the Stones give a raw,
blues-flavored performance without mechanically following all the
mannerisms of black speech. The song, true to the most venerable
blues tradition, is blatantly and deliciously sexist.Clearly, we
are not dealing here with a real blues song. Yet, the influence
of blues style is everywhere present: the vocalization of “r” in “under” (undah),
simplification of diphthongs in “my” (mah), the simplification
of consonant clusters in “pushed” (push) where the
context makes the clear enunciation of the past tense morpheme
superfluous) and again in “just” (jes).
Deliberately or not, the Stones avoid the
sort of caricature of black singing that might have resulted
from simplifying the consonant cluster “th” in “thumb” to “t”.
The effect is to make the listener feel the rawness of the music
without being aware that this effect is achieved by linking it
to the tradition of American blues. A popular axiom holds that
only black men can sing the blues – although the spectacular
commercial success achieved by Eric Clapton and other white performers
who have specialized in the genre seems to contradict this notion.
In fact, most white artists who sing blues scrupulously avoid any
pretence of being authentic bluesman, adopting instead a “white” style
in which the influence of black vocal devices and speech patterns
is acknowledged but not slavishly imitated. Yet as the 60’s
and 70’s recede into history, the use of black vocal styles
by white pop singers tends to become more stereotyped, as exemplified
by artists like Bon Jovi. Among today’s white female
pop artists, few can resist the temptation to adopt the intnationand
vocal ornamentation characteristic of black singers.
Some Pedagogical Implications
Life would certainly be easier for English teachers
and learners if everyone spoke like cultivated Londoners. However,
native English speakers differ enormously in their pronunciation,
vocabulary, and even grammar. Among native English speakers,
a profusion of dialects exists that are all but unintelligible
to the non-native, AAVE and Scottish being only two of the
best-known. Yet the English teaching profession continues to make
believe that only two English’s
exist: British and American, a concept all the more
attractive considering the high quality of BBC pedagogical materials.
One may hope that students traveling abroad will go to the upper
class neighborhoods of London or New York. But what
if they go instead to inner city neighborhoods of Miami, Los
Angeles, or Atlanta? Residents of these neighborhoods, if they
are not Hispanics, are often African-Americans. Perhaps this
is why veterans of English language institutes complain of not
being able to cope with the real English language they encounter
when travelling abroad. Wouldn’t a moderate amount of preparation
in AAVE (students would not have to speak, read or write it,
just understand it as spoken) be worth the efforts of English
teachers and students? Even if students never hear Black English
on the street, they may hear a considerable amount of it in the
context of popular songs and movies. Or if one may let the imagination
run free, they may even hear arias from George Gershwin’s
and Bess”15, which, besides being one of the
most admired American contributions to the classical
music literature, is sung in Black Vernacular English.
Conclusion – Whose
Ebonics is It?
African American culture and language have, from
the very beginning, exerted their influence on white American
culture. AAVE was not suddenly discovered in the 1970’s (even if
the term “Ebonics” was).
The language spoken by Africans when they arrived in
the United States, and later as they adapted to their condition
of subjection to white society, has exercised a continuing fascination
for Americans and has left an extensive literature representing
white men’s attempts to understand and imitate it.
Jazz and blues, two of the most dynamic facets of
African-American culture, have held an enormous attraction
for white Americas, and in so doing, have brought about the
curious phenomenon of British pop artists imitating the speech
of black Americans.
AAVE or “Ebonics” is a language system with its own
rules of pronunciation and grammar. One may be correct in calling
it a dialect of English or even as a creole, but not in stigmatizing
it as a speech deficiency or a collection of street slang. Yet
it is undeniable that it has undergone a process – known
as hypercreolization – by which many of its speakers
have adopted it as a badge of cultural identity and have
developed its vocabulary in such a way as to exclude and
rebel against the dominant white culture.
To the extent that its speakers see it as
a barrier with which to protect the “in” group
and exclude white society, efforts to understand AAEV are
bound to be counterproductive. But insofar as AAVE can
be seen as a valid cultural and linguistic expression of
African-Americans, its study represents an important reaffirmation
of the dignity of this important minority group. More than
that, its study reveals a great deal about the American
people as a whole and about the manner in which its distinctive
culture represents a wide diversity of racial and ethnic
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