Introduction (10 minutes)

Welcome to Module 3 of Introduction to African-American English for ESL Instructors. During this third module of our course, we will consider and answer the following essential questions:

  • In what significant ways do AAE and SE differ morphologically?
  • In what significant ways do AAE and SE differ syntactically?
  • How is the verb system of AAE distinctive?
  • What grammatical categories does the AAE verb system express that the SE verb system does not?
  • How can knowledge of the grammatical structure of AAE be used to answer students’ questions about AAE?

Review of the terms morphology and syntax (10 minutes)

  • The term morphology refers to how words are formed in a language from fundamental units of meaning known as morphemes.
  • The term syntax refers to the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences.
  • The term morphosyntax (and the adjective morphosyntactic) refers to the interplay between morphology and syntax in a language.
  • Together, the morphology and syntax of a language form its grammar.

The morphological structure of AAE: verb paradigms, possessive pronouns, lack of genitive marker ‘s (20 minutes)

  • The morphological structure of AAE varies from that of SE in significant ways.
  • Verb paradigms in AAE demonstrate several salient differences:
    • In the present tense, third person singular verb forms are not marked for number (I go, you go, he/she/it go).
    • The forms is and was are typically used for all persons (first, second, and third) and numbers (singular and plural).
    • Many past tense verb forms are different in AAE (some examples include knowed, hitted, turnt, spunt).
    • The simple future tense may be expressed by the suffix -a, especially in the first person singular (e.g., I’ma leave soon).
    • The suffix -s may be used as an intensifier or narrative marker, especially in the first person singular present (e.g., I be’s, I do’s, I says)
  • In AAE, the third person plural pronoun is y’all.
  • Possessive pronouns in AAE differ from those of SE:
    • myself, yoself/youself, hisself, herself, ourselves, y’allself/y’allselves, theyself/theyselves
  • AAE may omit the genitive marker ‘s and indicate possession by juxtaposition alone (e.g., my brother car, this dude house, my momma friend). This syntactic phenomenon is common among languages of the world, especially creole languages.

The syntactic structure of AAE: negative concord, word order, copula deletion/zero copula) (20 minutes)

  • AAE has a significantly different syntactic structure than SE.
  • Three major areas of difference involve negative concord, word order, and copula deletion.
  • Negative concord allows multiple negators (such as don’t, no, none, and nothing) to be used within a single clause, as in I don’t got none or I ain’t heard nothing ’bout nobody.
  • Word order may also be different in AAE, in both statements and questions.
  • Negative inversion occurs in AAE. In negative inversion, two sentence/clause initial elements, an auxiliary, and an indefinite noun phrase are all marked for negation. Examples of negative inversion include:
    • Don’t no game last all night long. (SE equivalent: “No game lasts all night long.”)
    • Can’t nobody tell you it ain’t happen. (SE equivalent: “Nobody can tell you it didn’t happen.”)
    • Ain’t nothing you can do. (SE equivalent: “There’s nothing you can do.”)
    • Shouldn’t be nothing happenin’ right now. (SE equivalent: “Nothing should be happening right now.”)
  • In AAE, wh-questions do not require the use of an auxiliary verb or invoke subject-verb inversion:
    • What he did? (SE equivalent: “What did he do?”)
    • How you know? (SE equivalent: “How do you know?”)
    • Who they seen? (SE equivalent: “Who did they see?”)
    • Why you ain’t come? (SE equivalent: “Why didn’t you come?”)
  • In AAE, the copula (the verb be when performing its linking function) is generally ommitted in the present tense unless emphasis is intended. This is a phenomenon known as zero copula or copula deletion (both terms are used in linguistics and they mean the same thing).
    • Copula deletion is most common with third person subjects (He good, They goin’ home, She a teacher) but occurs in all persons, except that …
    • Copula deletion is rare when the subject is the first person singular pronoun (thus, I’m good is common whereas I good is quite rare).
    • Copula deletion only takes place in the present tense in AAE.

Activity 3.1: Zero copula in AAE (20 minutes)

  • During this activity, participants will work with a partner to read a short summary of and watch a video about copula deletion in AAE.
  • After watching the video, participants will work with their assigned partner to complete a table in which they produce equivalent sentences in AAE, some of which require copula deletion.
  • After completing their work, pairs will check their answers with the full group.

The distinctive verb system of AAE: grammatical categories, auxiliary verbs, aspectual markers been and done, habitual be, and preterite had (30 minutes)

  • The AAE verb system is significantly different from that of SE.
  • AAE expresses grammatical categories such as habituality and the remote past that are not grammaticalized in SE.
  • Habituality is expressed with the habitual be, which is used to indicate that the verbal action occurs repeatedly, frequently, or all the time.
    • Examples include We be at school (SE equivalent: “We’re always at school.”) and It don’t be happening (SE equivalent: “It doesn’t ever happen.”)
  • In AAE, double modals (or modal + auxiliary verb) are grammatical, particularly with must, can and might.
    • Examples include It might could happen and He must don’t know.
    • Double modals also occur in Southern English but are never grammatical in SE. SE does not have exact equivalents of the double modal constructions that are grammatical in AAE.
  • AAE uses the preverbal aspectual marker been to express the remote past and done to mark perfective aspect. Examples:
    • I been told you that (SE equivalent: “I told you that a long time ago.”)
    • They done left (Approximate SE equivalent: “They already left.” However, the fact that the verbal action has already ended receives greater emphasis in the AAE sentence.)
  • The preverbal aspectual markers been and done can be combined to form been done and done been. The two don’t mean the same thing. Examples:
    • We been done went there (Approximate SE equivalent: “We already went there, and it happened a long time ago.”)
    • We done been went there (Approximate SE equivalent: “We went there a long time ago, and it’s over with.”)
  • In AAE, the simple past tense can be formed with had + a verb in the simple past. This structure is know as the preterite had.
    • This is not equivalent to the SE pluperfect tense. Examples:
    • I had told you I wun gone come (SE equivalent: “I told you I wasn’t going to come.”)
    • When I called you I had needed a ride to work (SE equivalent: “When I called you, I needed a ride to work.”)

Activity 3.2: How the habitual be works in AAE (20 minutes)

  • During this small group activity, participants will watch a short video about the habitual be in AAE.
  • After watching the video, participants will answer a series of true/false questions about the habitual be and then compare their answers to those of the rest of the group.
  • Participants will examine two authentic examples of written AAE (one illustrating copula deletion and the other illustrating the habitual be) and explain the difference in meaning between the two short sentences.

Preverbal markers finna, boutta, tryna (10 minutes)

  • AAE uses the preverbal markers finna, boutta, and tryna:
  • Finna is used to indicate that the verbal action is being planned or will occur soon. Examples:
    • We finna leave. (SE equivalent: “We’re planning/about to leave.”)
    • When you finna go? (SE equivalent: “When do you plan on going?”)
  • Boutta is used to indicate that the verbal action is imminent. Examples:
    • I’m boutta come through. (SE equivalent: “I’m about to come over”)
    • Monique boutta hit y’all up. (SE: “Monique will call you guys in just a moment.”)
  • Tryna is used to indicate volition or lack of volition. Examples:
    • What you tryna do? (SE equivalent: “What is it that you want to do?” – More emphatic than “What do you want to do?”)
    • I ain’t tryna go right now. (SE equivalent: “I really don’t want to go right now.”)

Activity 3.3: The many forms of finna (10 minutes)

  • During this activity, participants will watch a short video on finna and its variants in AAE.
  • The goal of this activity is to increase participants’ awareness of the importance of both form and meaning in AAE.
  • Participants will work with their assigned partner to conduct internet research in order to find authentic examples of the variants of finna discussed in the video (fixna, fitna, and fidna)

Applying knowledge of the grammar of AAE when answering students’ questions (20 minutes)

  • The distinctive morphological and syntactic structure of AAE is likely to lead to confusion on the part of English learners who interact with speakers of AAE.
  • When answering students’ questions about the grammar of AAE, instructors should avoid using technical linguistic terminology, which will likely further confuse students.
  • Answers should focus on the relationship between form and meaning in AAE, as well as the equivalent meaning in SE.
  • Students should understand that AAE expresses meaning in different ways than SE and in some cases, uses grammatical structures to express concepts (such as that the action happened a long time ago or happens all the time) that can only be expressed through the use of additional words in SE.
  • Answers should not judge AAE against SE but should instead be premised on the grammatical structure of AAE.
  • Grammatical structures in AAE that do not exist in (or vary from) SE are not “incorrect” or “bad grammar.” They represent the unique way speakers of AAE deploy morphology and syntax to express meaning with the same degree of precision and nuance as speakers of SE or any other language or language variety.

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