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K–12 teaching and learning · from the UNC School of Education

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Learning outcomes

Students will understand that:

  • African American English is not substandard English.
  • African American English, like all dialects, is rule-governed and systematic.
  • African American English has been shaped by historical and social factors, as are all dialects.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

One hour

Materials needed

Background information

Even after decades of research on African American English (AAE), there is still no consensus as to exactly how it originally developed. One theory suggests that when slaves of different language backgrounds were transported from Africa to America, they developed a pidgin — a simplified version of a language used for communication between groups of people who do not have a common language. This language subsequently developed into a full-fledged creole language that children acquired in their homes. (Some creole languages — languages that have developed out of pidgins and have acquired native speakers — have the word creole in their names; Hawaiian Creole is one example. Others do not; Gullah and Geechee, for example.)

It is believed that the Gullah spoken to this day on the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia closely resembles the language used by slaves on large plantations. Because plantation slaves were not taught English and had limited contact with English speakers, some features of this creole were passed from generation to generation. These features have survived post-slavery because as AAE developed, it became more than just a means of communicating between groups: it has now become a token of solidarity among people who use it.

A second theory is that slaves in the South worked alongside indentured servants who spoke non-mainstream varieties of English. African American slaves learned English from these indentured servants (often of Scots-Irish descent). Although they often lived and ate together, indentured servants were generally treated less harshly than the slave populations. For example, indentured servants were allowed to marry and were taught to read and write whereas slaves were not. Indentured servants would also be free after a set period of time (often seven years). People who believe this explanation for the beginning of AAE say that it explains similarities between AAE and other non-mainstream varieties of English (such as Southern inland dialects, which share some linguistic features with AAE).

This second theory may better fit early AAE in North Carolina. For one thing, the vast majority of slaves were brought here from Virginia and not from Charleston, South Carolina, where there is stronger evidence of a creole. Additionally, North Carolina‚Äôs plantations tended to be smaller than those in South Carolina and had more indentured servants. Thus, slaves in North Carolina (and the rest of the mid-South) probably had more exposure to English than slaves in the Deep South. North Carolina also had fewer slave-owning families than many other states: only about one in four families owned slaves in North Carolina and these families tended to be concentrated in the Cape Fear River valley in the Coastal Plain and the Virginia Piedmont. There were very few slaves west of what is now Raleigh. North Carolina was also one of the first Southern states to recognize “free people of color,” such as the well-known furniture maker teacher John Chavis. (This discussion is not meant to diminish in any way the cruelty of slavery in North Carolina or the devastation of the institution on Africans).

It is important to note that these theories are not mutually exclusive. The true history of AAE may lie somewhere in between or in both of these theories. It is possible that language developed differently depending on factors such as the number of slaves and indentured servants on a plantation, the economic focus (e.g., rice), and the role that overseers played. Whatever the origin of AAE, we do know that it has changed considerably over time, as can be seen by comparing modern day Gullah and AAE, which are quite different despite sharing some characteristics.

Although AAE is clearly stigmatized socially in modern American culture, it continues to be spoken by millions of people. There are many reasons for this. Within the context of some communities, AAE can be a valuable marker of group identity. Not speaking some form of AAE can lead to exclusion as an outsider. A person with in-group status will often have access to local resources and networks that outsiders will not have. In this sense, using AAE in the community can be as valuable and important as using Standard English in mainstream professional situations. Because of the covert prestige that AAE carries, it continues to be an important resource and symbol of solidarity for African Americans.

Activities

  1. Share background information with students.
  2. Define dialect and dialect/linguistic patterns for the students. (See “critical vocabulary” below.)
  3. Have students work through the “Uninflected Be” worksheet. Reinforce the point that African American English has rules that determine when you can say “be” and when you cannot say “be.”

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Video courtesy of North Carolina State University / North Carolina Language and Life Project. About the video
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  1. Show the video clip and have students discuss the following questions:
    • Could you hear differences in the speech of individuals in different situations?
    • Could you tell which African Americans lived in cities and which lived in rural areas?
    • Are the people in the video aware of the fact that they change their speech or not?
    • Why do you think the speakers in the video believe that they must change their speech in different situations?

Assessment

Assess by worksheet responses and participation in discussion.

Critical vocabulary

dialect
Form of a language spoken by a group of people from the same regional or cultural background. Everyone speaks a dialect, even though some dialects are more noticeable than others.
dialect or linguistic patterns
When we say that the dialects of a language follow a pattern, or have “rules,” we mean that the various language forms are arranged in regular and predictable ways. Sometimes these patterns can be very complicated and difficult to figure out, but the human mind has the capacity to learn all of these intricate patterns without consciously thinking about them.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • Grade 8

        • 8.C.1 Understand how different cultures influenced North Carolina and the United States. 8.C.1.1 Explain how exploration and colonization influenced Africa, Europe and the Americas (e.g. Columbian exchange, slavery and the decline of the American Indian populations)....

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 8

  • Goal 8: The learner will evaluate the impact of demographic, economic, technological, social, and political developments in North Carolina since the 1970's.
    • Objective 8.04: Assess the importance of regional diversity on the development of economic, social, and political institutions in North Carolina.
  • Goal 9: The learner will explore examples of and opportunities for active citizenship, past and present, at the local and state levels.
    • Objective 9.01: Describe contemporary political, economic, and social issues at the state and local levels and evaluate their impact on the community.