Language Retention and Theories of AAL (Ebonics)

One major unifying aspect of culture is Language. AAL or Ebonics is the language of African American culture. Many scholars point out that African American Language (AAL) contains many retentions from African languages but is the result of many years of creolization and acculturation. An aspect of AAL and the relationship between it and mainstream English and African languages that is not commonly discussed outside of academic circles is the influence of AAL and it’s African retentions on mainstream English. There are relationships between AAL, mainstream English, African languages and what role they play in cultural community and structural discrimination.

Molefi Kete Asante’s theory of Black English is that African retentions are in the basic components and structure of the language and not based off of “artifacts” or specific words which had been a popular method of studying retentions by earlier scholars such as Turner, Herskovits, and Garrett. He says that to find retentions in artifacts is interesting and provocative but that,

It is cast in too narrow a mold and often depends on the continuity of specific words from several ethnic regions of Africa.

Language is always changing, so focusing on the use of specific words can become problematic to a theory of retention if the lexicon of a language changes and evolves yet the language still remains distinct. To have retention be a cause of language distinction it must be based on something other than these artifacts. Therefore Asante focuses on communication styles, sounds, syntax, and units of meaning. Though this somewhat holistic approach seems to be a better way to build a theory I find the high rejection of artifacts and contributions to the AAL and mainstream English lexicons to be a weak point in Asante’s theory. Many of these words are still in common use and even if they do disappear that doesn’t mean they were not an aspect of the language nor part of a larger system of retention.

Some of the specific examples of structural and communication style retentions of language that Asante notes are the Niger-Congo verb system’s conjugations and serial verbs (“he go, he gone, etc.; I hear tell you went home), tense-aspect usage of AAL and African languages (use of “done” in AAL likened to use of télèri in the Yoruba language), and tonal and call-and-response communication styles present in both AAL and African languages (strong accented words and interjected responses). Though I find Asante’s theory to be fairly solid and the evidence to be fairly convincing I am led to have the same criticism that he had of other scholars, that of the fact that there are many languages of Africa and that it is a bit hard to pinpoint the source of these retentions without using somewhat pan-West African or pan-Central African approach. Asante criticizes other scholars of not having enough familiarity with specific African languages but speaks many times of “African languages” and trends within them which is hard for a reader to understand without evidence of the trends.

Some videos I watched recently brought up many aspects of the usage of Ebonics or AAL. In African American English the intro states the long held belief that AAL is “bad english” and how it ties in with structural discrimination. This coincides with Asante’s statement of how AAL was viewed by many scholars as a “corruption” of English; something “childish” and substandard. The woman in the orange shirt in the video made a strong point when she said

It’s not about ‘This is bad and this is good’. We gotta get out that dichotomous thinking. It’s not bad and good. It’s about teaching our kids what will enable them to be more successful in life but not sacrificing what they already know.

Another strong point was in the African-American Language video where Howard Dobson states that the question shouldn’t be if people should use AAL or Standard English but that since language is used to negotiate the world that both languages should be inspected for merits. Some weak points I found in the videos was in the Inkspot video where Gavin Johnson states that the internal issue of Black people being criticized for “talking white” (using mainstream English) has nothing to do with external factors. I cannot speak from experience of this criticism but I cannot agree that that issue did not come about from external influence and I do not believe, at least from a simple outside viewed comparison, that an issue of criticism for not speaking AAL within a community has nearly as severe effects as the bias, vilification, and structural roadblocks speakers of AAL encounter if they do not code-switch. I also find that Perri Small’s comment in the video that presenting AAL and Ebonics as a language is “trying to justify bad English” is a weak point since she does not explain how it is “bad” other than the fact that it is not mainstream English.

Throughout history AAL has been labelled “bad” and “wrong” so I am not surprised that people both within and outside of the Black community label it as such. I personally consider it a legitimate language and since language is a major part of culture I consider it to be an important unifying aspect of African American culture and community. Though there are variations and dialects within AAL as Johnson pointed out in the Inkspot video I do not see that as proof against it being a language but as proof that it is a language since languages can have dialects which are distinct yet still follow the basic form of the language. The interaction between Standard English speakers and AAL speakers has also been a two-way relationship of sharing, which has made American Standard English different from other English dialects in it’s lexicon and from, what I’ve experienced, tonal inflections. The high amount of people rejecting it as a language I believe comes from the long history and trend of anti-blackness in America. Every aspect of Black culture is put under a microscope and criticized so why would language be any different? There are studies and personal experiences that prove that Black individuals are passed over for jobs due because of their name and many accounts of Black applicants being asked to change “unprofessional” natural hairstyles to get a position. The usage of AAL and association with it being “bad English” and a mark of being “uneducated” cause a related bias and discriminatory practices.

Another African retention was that of African naming conventions. Many naming conventions had to do with when the child was born or by descriptors of the environment at the time they were born, such as the weather. An example of an acculturation of naming a child after the day they were born would be the ex-slave quoted in the book, Thursday Jones. In this example Thursday’s name is an English word, but the naming convention is of African origin. Another example would be “Jack” or “Jacky” which was derived from the African name “Quaco” meaning a male born on Wednesday. This example is deriving a name from an African name that also resembles and English name. Another example like this is the female name Phibba (born on Friday) which later became Phoebe. Though African names were given in the earlier days of colonial America and the slave trade, they eventually were given in English or as derived versions which resembled European names. In the Gullah Story of Black English videos the narrator speaks of the influence of pidgin and creole languages on British literature and mentions the character Man Friday from the Gulliver’s Travels books as speaking pidgin as well as having a name from acculturated African naming conventions. The video also focuses on many words, phrases, and syntax that has been adopted into mainstream English such as “OK” and verb usage in the South.

Three terms of African origin that I found very intriguing are bad, guy, and zombie. Bad, used to mean very good, is very interesting in that the practice of using opposites to as intensifiers is used very commonly in AAL and mainstream English. Some other related examples would be using “wicked” for very good or “sick” for something great. Guy is an extremely commonly used word in mainstream English. It is definitely used in everyday speech. Zombie I found to be very interesting because a zombie is a “classic” monster used in mainstream media and storytelling. The origin of the word being African does not surprise me but it wouldn’t have been my first thought since it is such a popular figure in mainstream horror, stories, and folklore. These three words are excellent examples of the influence African words and language have had on mainstream English and culture.


One thought on “Language Retention and Theories of AAL (Ebonics)

  1. your blog is excellent. very detailed and evidence to support every concept or idea you bring up. When I am struggling with where to start I always go to your blog to get some ideas! Great job!


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