Introduction (10 minutes)

Welcome to Module 2 of Introduction to African-American English for ESL Instructors. During this second module of our course, we will consider and answer the following essential questions:

  • How does the pronunciation of AAE differ from that of SE?
  • What are the most significant differences in the vowel sounds of AAE and SE?
  • What are the most significant differences in the consonant sounds of AAE and SE?
  • What are the most salient phonological processes in AAE that distinguish it from SE?
  • How can knowledge of the phonology of AAE be used to answer students’ questions about the pronunciation of AAE?

Review of the terms phonetics and phonology (10 minutes)

  • The term phonetics refers to the study and classification of speech sounds, as well as to how speech sounds are produced and perceived.
  • The term phonology refers to how speech sounds are organized in a language and in the brains of speakers.
  • Phonetics and phonology are related, but refer to distinct aspects of language.

The vowel sounds of AAE (20 minutes)

  • The vowel sounds of AAE, while somewhat different from those of SE, are less different than the consonant sounds when compared to SE.
  • The AAE vowel system is broadly similar to those of Southern and Appalachian English.
  • Monophthongization of /aɪ/: words like my and time are pronounced as [ma:] and [ta:m]
  • Lowering of /ɪ/ before /ŋ/: unstressed -ing is pronounced [ən], thus running is pronounced as [‘rʌ-nən]
  • Lack of “happy tensing:” final unstressed /i/ is realized as lax [ɪ], thus family is pronounced [‘fæm-lɪ]
  • Merger of /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ before nasal consonants (the so-called pen-pin merger), thus pen is pronounced [pɪn]

The consonant sounds of AAE (20 minutes)

  • The consonant sounds of AAE differ substantially from those of SE.
  • Sound patterns and th
    • Voiceless /θ/ may be realized as /f/ between vowels and at the end of words, this path is pronounced [pæf].
    • Voiceless /θ/ may be realized as stop [t] at the end of words, thus with is pronounced [wɪt].
    • The realization of voiceless /θ/ displays a high degree of regional, age, class, and gender variation.
    • Voiced /ð/ is realized as [d] in word-initial position, thus they is pronounced [dey] and this is pronounced [dɪs].
    • Voiced /ð/ may be realized as [v] in medial and word-final position, thus weather is pronounced [‘wɛ-və].
  • Syllable/word-final /r/ is deleted by many speakers of AAE, with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel, thus store is pronounced [sto:] and there is pronounced [dɛ:]. The phrase over there is therefore pronounced by many speakers of AAE as [‘o-və dɛ:].
  • Syllable/word-final /r/ exhibits significant variability, especially regionally, with different degrees of realization and effects on preceding vowels. For some speakers of AAE, /r/ is not fully deleted but is instead weakened to an approximant or may cause breaking (diphthongization) of the preceding vowel.
  • The realization of syllable/word-final /r/ by speakers of AAE is highly contextually dependent. The same speaker may delete it in some social settings while articulating it strongly in others.
  • Point of contrastive analysis for Spanish-speaking English learners: the variability of syllable/word-final /r/ in AAE is broadly similar to the variability of word-final /s/ in Caribbean and coastal varieties of Spanish in the Americas.
  • Vocalization of /l/: syllable-final and word-final /l/ vocalize to become the semi-vowel [w] or may be completely deleted, with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. Thus, fall is pronounced [faw] or [fa:].
  • Word-initial thr- is pronounced as [θ] (the initial consonant cluster is reduced by deleting the /r/segment) before back vowels, thus through is pronounced [θu:] and throat is pronounced [θowt].
  • Some speakers of AAE, particularly younger working-class males, may pronounced word-initial str- as [skr] or [śkr] (with some degree of palatalization of /s/ before /t/ in word-initial position), thus street is pronounced [skrit] or [śkrit]. This phonological characteristic is stigmatized among many members of the AAE speech community and may be understood as phonological variable sensitive to class and gender.

Activity 2.1: Overview of African-American English (20 minutes)

  • In Activity 2.1, participants will work with an assigned partner while watching a short video that provides an overview of AAE and its sound system.
  • Participants will select one phoneme or phonological process in AAE discussed in the video to summarize for the full group.

Phonological processes in AAE (20 minutes)

Three major phonological processes in AAE result in significant surface variation between words in AAE and words in SE.

  • Final consonant sounds and consonant cluster reduction
    • “Consonant cluster reduction is a process in which the final consonant group or cluster, composed of two consonant sounds, is reduced to a single consonant sound” (Green, 2002, p. 107).
    • In most consonant clusters at the end of words, the final consonant is deleted in AAE:
      • st ➡ s (post is pronounced [pos])
      • sp ➡ s (wasp is pronoucned [was])
      • sk ➡ s (mask is pronounced [mæs])
      • ft ➡ f (gift is pronounced [gɪf])
      • pt ➡ p (adopt is pronounced [ə-‘dap])
      • kt ➡ k (conduct is pronounced [‘kan-dʌk])
      • nd ➡ n (band is pronounced [bæn])
      • ld ➡ l (bold is pronounced [bol])
    • Consonant cluster reduction can lead to differences in plural forms in AAE:
      • posts is pronounced [po-səs]
      • wasps is pronounced [wa-səs]
      • masks is pronounced [mæ-səs]
      • This pattern follows the same plural formation rules of SE, since words that end in /s/ require the plural ending [əs].
  • Weakening/loss of word-final fricatives and affricates
    • Some speakers of AAE, especially younger speakers, delete some word-final fricatives and affricates, which leads to compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel.
      • love is pronounced [lʌ:]
      • pass is pronounced [pæ:]
      • watch is pronounced [wa:] or [wat]
  • Homophony in AAE due to consonant cluster reduction and weakening/loss of word-final fricatives and affricates
    • Consonant cluster reduction, and to a lesser extent weakening/loss of word-final fricatives and affricates, leads to a significantly greater degree of homophony among single-syllable words in AAE than in SE.
    • This can lead to major comprehension problems for English learners:
    • Example: tore and toe are both pronounced [to:]
    • Example: pond and pawn are both pronounced [pɔn]
    • Example: band and ban are both pronounced [bæn]
  • Loss of word-initial schwa (a phonological process known as aphaeresis)
    • Example: appreciate preciate
    • Example: asleep sleep
    • Example: about bout

Activity 2.2: Final Consonant Sounds and Homophony in AAE (20 minutes)

  • Activity 2.2 gives participants an opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned about final consonant sounds in AAE, including how phonological processes such as final consonant cluster reduction increase homophony (i.e., the number of distinct words that sound the same) in AAE.
  • During the activity, participants will complete short exercises that check their ability to recognize words that sound the same and words that rhyme in AAE.
  • The activity also checks participants’ ability to recognize plural noun forms in AAE, which can be different from corresponding plural forms in SE.
  • Thus, this activity tests participants’ ability to operationalize the information they have learned during the module about final consonant sounds and homophony in AAE.

Activity 2.3: Stunt 101 (Part 1) (30 minutes)

  • During Activity 2.3, participants will analyze the sounds of AAE by listening to a popular Hip-Hop song that illustrates many of the phonological traits presented during the module.
  • Participants will answer questions about how certain consonant sounds are produced by the three members of the musical group G-Unit.
  • Participants will also provide examples of misheard lyrics and be asked to reflect on the factors that may have lead to their initial miscomprehensions.
  • In Module 4, participants will listen to the same song with a focus on the vocabulary of AAE.

Applying knowledge of the vowel and consonant sounds of AAE when answering students’ questions (20 minutes)

  • Due to the significant differences in the consonant sounds of AAE compared to those of SE, English learners are likely to experience greater comprehension difficulties involving consonant sounds than vowel sounds when interacting with speakers of AAE.
  • The loss of word-final consonants and final consonant cluster reduction result in many homophones in AAE that are not homophonous in SE. Students should be made aware of this since the unexpected homophony can increase comprehension difficulties.
  • If English learners become aware of the phonological patterns of AAE, their ability to comprehend speakers of AAE will increase.
  • Contrastive analysis may be used with more advanced English learners to illustrate differences in the sounds and sound systems of AAE and SE.
  • Concrete examples (such as those presented above) should be used to illustrate phonological differences in AAE and SE to students.

Wrap-up, independent research project and study group assignments, and exit ticket (10 minutes)

After this presentation and discussion session has wrapped up, you will complete an independent research project and engage in reflective work in study groups. Also, before you leave today, you will be asked to complete a brief exit ticket.