African American English: Recalcitrant Myths and Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics

Course time: 
Monday/Thursday 9:00-10:50 AM

African American English (AAE) is still the most widely studied variety of American English. Over the years, different phenomena, ranging from linguistic to sociopolitical, have played major roles in ensuring that the linguistic variety maintains its position in the forefront in discussions of varieties of American English. Important phenomena related to the linguistic system remain understudied or not studied at all despite the focus on the variety. In this course, we consider the study of AAE over the past sixty years and raise questions about the extent to which views about it and approaches to the study of the variety have developed and changed. Starting from the 1960s, we consider major issues that guided research on AAE in each decade, and we explain how some of these issues have resurfaced over the years, propelling AAE into a category of hot topics in the media, such as AAE in classrooms and courtrooms. Consider AAE and mathematics in Orr’s 1987 Twice as Less: Black English and the Performance of Black Students in Mathematics and Science and subsequent reports of similar issues in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. In this age of big data and large corpora, AAE is becoming more visible in child language databases, for instance, and the massive Twitter data help to bring AAE into discussions about technology and natural language processing.

Significant strides have been made in research on the linguistic structure of the variety; however, even in some linguistics arenas, AAE is still discussed from the perspective of two or three features that distinguish it from general American English. Such an approach to the study of the variety leads observers to conclude that, as it turns out, there is virtually nothing in AAE that does not occur in other varieties of English and continue to perpetuate the recalcitrant myth that it is essential for all “features” of AAE to differ from features in “standard” English to be AAE. In this course, we address empirical and theoretical data in reevaluating these myths, claims, and characterizations of AAE that force us to answer the question: What precisely is AAE, and how do we avoid the many pitfalls in the literature on characterizations of it? It is from this angle that we consider topics in the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of AAE in discourse structures and complex clauses, such as negation, questions, and complements.