Talking the Talk:  Ebonics and "Standard" English


by David Cope


Language . . .  is not an abstract construction of the learn'd, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and  has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.  Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea. 

—Walt Whitman


Author’s Note:  This article and the accompanying research developed as a result of the 1997 flap over the Oakland School Board’s use of Ebonics (Black English Vernacular or African American English Vernacular) as a bridging tool for students who speak variant dialects of the language.  The central issue—recognizing the linguistic realities of some language communities within our society and giving respect to the “language of the fathers and mothers” while teaching students ways to bridge the gap to market English—is still a problem for many in our society.  The essay and the research continue to be relevant, and indeed may spark some understanding of (and even delight in) the many inventive uses to which English may be adapted.


            The Oakland School Board's recent decision to recognize Ebonics—in linguistic parlance Black or African American English Vernacular—as the language spoken by most of its African American students has raised an enormous flap from the moment the resolution passed.  Media headlines shrieked that this was a ploy to get federal dollars, a caving-in to lowered educational standards, an insult to African Americans, and commentators eagerly queued up to be the next to make pronouncements on the foolishness of the Oakland educators.  The debate became a charade:  today’s pronouncements were retractions, clarifications, or qualifications of yesterday’s.

            Long aware that the public press and media more often than not jump to conclusions and distort issues dealing with racial matters, I leaned back and awaited the delayed but inevitable clarification of these issues.  I was also delighted that this should become a public debate:  I’d planned to teach Zora Neale Hurston’s dialect masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in my winter multicultural literature class, and would introduce the issue of language and its communities as a major critical question raised by the text.  Now these concerns would be even more sharply highlighted by the current debate—and once the barrage subsided a bit, the questions came into focus: what are the core concerns of Ebonics and its relationship to so-called standard English?  Further, what constitutes a “language,” and how does that differ from a dialect—and is the distinction important in the long run?  Finally, when one speaks of a “standard” language, what does one mean?

            The Oakland School Board caused, I think, some of its own problems by the poor choice of language for their resolution.  Describing Ebonics as a “genetic” characteristic among African Americans, for example, was immediately taken to mean that blacks couldn’t master the English of the marketplace because as a group they were predisposed to think and speak this different language. When this word choice became the center of controversy, Oakland spokespeople quickly pointed out that “genetically based” referred to “linguistic genesis,” not the supposed stereotype or genetic fallacy.  A similar problem confronted them in the choice of the word language:  how could a variation on a standardized pattern be seen as an entirely different language?

            That argument continues to rage, but I suggest that when one recognizes the point of Oakland’s decision to reform its educational policies, the entire argument over language or dialect becomes a red herring.  Toni Cook, spokesperson for the school board, has recently explained the program to clarify the board’s decision and the reasoning behind it.  First, the recognition of Ebonics as the language many African Americans speak at home and within their community structures is a simple recognition of a cultural reality.  Connected to this is the necessity of removing the stigma associated with this kind of usage:  in teaching, one does not correct non-standard usage so much as one teaches the student how to translate one’s own speech into the language required for success in the marketplace and on the job.  The goal of this reorientation is to require that students attain mastery of “standard” English—the language of the market—by twelfth grade.  Achieving this goal requires a dual methodology:  teachers and school workers should be trained to be sensitive to the kinds of emotional messages they send regarding language usage and to understand how an Ebonic phrase may be translated into English as a means to help the student.  

Certainly some may dismiss this as coddling the student, but one need only recall the teacher who marked up a student’s face with a message to her parents to understand how a negative message does not teach the student the proper way to learn, but rather reinforces a suspicious attitude about teachers and the schools themselves.  Subtler changes—from correction to translation—allow the student to see the dignity of his or her home language while understanding the need to focus on marketplace English for an eventual career. 

            Thus it seems that the Oakland board is trying to provide a pragmatic bridge for students who’d been unable to grasp the importance of marketplace mastery.  In this context, the difference between a “language” and a “dialect” is an academic red herring.  The point is to recognize that particular kinds of language usage are reinforced within an identifiable group, and that to be successful in a marketplace which values another kind of language use, students need to translate their ideas into that language, to learn how to “talk the talk.” 

            Yet there’s a further question:  what is meant when we refer to a language as “standard”?  When we speak of standard English, are we referring to contemporary usage, to the languages of the various authors of the curriculum, to language that “follows the rules?”  Is Shakespeare, for example, writing in standard English?  Are his latinate grammatical phrases, his enormous and often arcane vocabulary standard?  If not, why do generations of students struggle with his language and master it—beyond the questions of plot, character, and dramatic construction?  Why do poets and scholars who know the English language most intimately prefer the bard’s own usage instead of a modern adaptation?  Even more problematic, what do we do with Chaucer?  Henry V may explain to his Katherine that he would have her learn “how perfectly I love her, and that is good English,” but what does one do with an English whose “shoures” are “soote” and bathe “every veyne in swich licour of which vertu engendred is the flour”?  The answer is obvious:  few are initially comfortable with the strange, alien English of Elizabethan England, and even fewer find instantaneous pleasure in the lilting speech of six hundred years ago—yet these are two of the greatest authors in the canon, masters of complex and subtle communication, and as any Chaucerian or Shakespearean knows, familiarity breeds delight.

I suggest, then, that when we refer to what has been called “standard English,” what we are really referring to is market English—the kind of usage expected for success in a career.  Such a changed perspective removes the implied superiority of standard and more realistically names the role that particular encoding of English serves in our culture.  The language itself is a far more complicated thing that the kinds of coding English teachers or cultural commentators call standard:  it is a growing, changing thing whose customary usages change as surely as the passing of years. One may witness this phe-nomenon by observing the vocabulary and sentence structures of different eras in the writings of the prose masters.  Try reading, for example, Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620), Locke’s “Second Essay on Civil Government(1688), John Stuart Mill’s “On the Subjection of Women” (1861), and Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) in sequence.  Except in the celebrated periodic sentence of King’s fourteenth paragraph, one will note a gradual but certain progression toward shorter sentences with less dependent clauses, more and more efficient (and shorter) paragraphs, a greater attentiveness to defining abstractions in terms of specific concrete examples as a means to improve clarity, and changing customs regarding punctuation.  More importantly, the samples show that the “standard” English of one period becomes a prose style difficult of access to later readers:  not only does the concept of standardization ring false in the face of language’s distinct propensity to change and redefinition, but it quite simply privileges a conceptual stasis that misunderstands that growing, changing code.  Even more important to this discussion is the fact that language grows most effectively in dialect, slang, and such linguistic usage as Ebonics.  Speaking of slang, Walt Whitman noted that non-standard English is a major source of the revitalization of the language:


Slang . . . is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly             to pass away; tho occasionally to settle and permanently to crystallize.  To make it plainer, it is certain that many of the oldest and solidest words we use, were originally generated from the daring and license of slang.


            So it is with Ebonics:  consider the Ebonic words that have become part of common parlance in the past thirty years—rock and roll, jazz, hip, cool, gig, jive, dig, mojo, kick, slip, lay it on me, rip-off, cool out, chill, uptight, wannabe, the Man, rap and rapping, dissing, signifying and testifying, among others.  Beyond vocabulary, there’s a truly lyric give and take in Ebonic dialogue, a sense that language should jump and pause with dramatic subtlety, that tone is as important as pronunciation and that real clarity grows through that multifaceted emphasis. 

           Thus, as I approach teaching Zora Neal Hurston’s masterpiece, I will ask my students to learn how to translate, just as I asked them to translate Hamlet when they first met Shakespeare, and I’ll expect that the essays they write for my class be constructed in the market English that will give them greater access to real careers.  Despite this recognition that the English of the marketplace is important for one’s material success and marketplace communication, however, I also know that “standard” English is a misnomer when applied to the greatest masterpieces of our literature, that language itself is a much larger thing than the set of rules so often cited as evidence that there’s a “right way” and a “wrong way.”  And the Oakland school board, whatever its failings in writing a clearly phrased policy, seems to have it right:  when Ebonics speakers need a job, they need to learn to talk the talk—to translate into the language of the marketplace.  That fact should not obscure from them the great treasure found in what Toni Morrison has called “the speech of our mothers and fathers.”



Associated Links


Overview of the Controversy:


The Oakland School Board Resolution:


The Revised Oakland School Board Resolution:


* * * *


Black English Vernacular (BEV) / Ebonics 

and The English of the Marketplace



BENEATHA  You didn't tell us what Alaiyo means . . . for all I know, you might be calling me Little Idiot or something . . .

ASAGAI   Well . . . let me see . . . I do not know how just to explain it . . . The sense of a thing can be so different when it changes languages.

                                    —Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in The Sun


In the discussion of African American language, some writers have obfuscated the tone and style of Ebonics.  Good-natured endeavors to explain the persistence of Ebonics in African American culture have become crippled.  In attempting to refute the negative views of black language, some neo-radical linguists of the 1960s adopted the idea of black language as nonstandard and inflicted a confusion about our culture that has proved difficult to eliminate.  They not only accepted the dialectical structure of American racist ideology, which sees white as standard and others as non-standard, even substandard, but borrowed from the twisted formulations of a supremacist logic. . . The genius of the Africans who created this unique linguistic response to their environment cannot be gainsaid.  Yoruba, Asante, Ibo, Hausa, Mandingo, Serere, and Wolof had to combine elements of their language in order to communicate with each other and the English.  Ebonics was a creative enterprise, out of the materials of interrelationships and the energies of the African ancestral past.

                                    Molefi Kete Asante, The Afrocentric Idea (57)



i cant count the number of times i have viscerally wanted to attack deform n maim the language that i waz taught to hate myself in/ the language that perpetuates the notions that cause pain to every black child as he/she learns to speak of the world & the "self." yes/ being an afro-american writer is something to be self-conscious abt/ & yes/ in order to think n communicate the thoughts n feelings i want to think n communicate/ i haveta fix my tool to my needs/ i have to take it apart to the bone/ so that the malignancies/ fall away/ leaving us space to literally create our own image. 

                                    Ntozake Shange, foreword from Three Pieces



African American English:  A Select Bibliography



Sociolinguistic Background


Hall, Jr., Robert A.  Pidgin and Creole Languages.  Ithaca:  Cornell U P, 1966.  [Hall's book is a basic introduction to the terminology and areas of language study involved in recognizing and understanding pidgins and creoles (phonology, ortho-graphy, morphology, syntax, vocabulary and idiom).  He goes on to discuss the linguistic, social, and political significance of such language use, yet is thoroughly aware that his book is an early formulation in a burgeoning field:  "the actual work of exploration has only begun," and the "importance [of studying these languages] for linguistic theory is great," especially in "further investigation of their relation to social structure" (147).]  


Hill, Kenneth C., ed.  The Genesis of Language.  Ann Arbor:  Karoma, 1979.  [This anthology contains rigorous discussions of the process of pidginization and creolization among Africans of the Carribbean.   I have commented on three of the essays contained herein, below:


            Gillian Sankoff's "The Genesis of a Language" points out that, unlike ordinary language formation (such as when a child learns how to construct language by learning from adults), pid- ginization and creolization are necessary phases in the construction of a new language "both in the personal and institutional sense"—involving the creation of a shared language among disparate populations thrown together through the institutions of slavery or indentured labor (as in Atlantic and Pacific plantation cultures).  Sankoff ex-plains the process of pidginization and creolization by pointing out that the conditions of plantation culture created "a catastrophic break in linguistic tradition" in which people were "cut off from their native language groups" with no shared second language and in a situation where "the size of no one language group was sufficient to ensure its survival."  In this cauldron, people had to invent a shared language through these processes. 

            Sankoff also points out that once there are wantoks––in Tok Pisin, a sizable group of speakers sharing a language—"pressure . . . to participate in new languge learning" is "probably . . . somewhat reduced" (25).  These points are well taken, though one must be careful of stating the last claim without a caveat:  those noting a reduced pressure to create new language should be wary of neglecting the continuousness of the process, whether at the initially frenetic pace or in the general and continuous invention of words & reinvention of meanings for established words.  Even when cultures are relatively stable, new words, meanings, and word combinations result as generational markers and through introduction of new technology or any influx of people with even minutely different speech habits.   


            Rodney Moag's "The Systems Perspective:  The Genesis of Language" cites Voorhoeve's claim that creolization soon develops a distinctive culture involving an "oral literature, . . . dance, special religious practices, food, etc"; citing Stewart, he points out that "in situations where the creole does not operate in a relationship to an apparently related standard, it functions as a vernacular rather than a dialect" (65).  Much of the proof that follows these initial claims involves demonstrating that creole languages—defined by some creolists as "unnatural languages"—function much like so-called "natural" languages.  This attempt to link two "kinds" does nothing to demystify language formation, accepting a dichotomy that in its most insidious form privileges "standard" languages as something static and shared by all.  It is most important at this point that proponents of "standard" languages realize that their mode of exchange is fluid as well—and that in fact the distinction is patently false, that all language is continually reforming itself.  The greatest value of studying pidginization and creolization is that in these subjects we may more closely observe the reformulation of vocabulary and grammar as it occurs in any language where two cultures must meet. 


            Mervyn C. Alleyne's "On The Genesis of Language" seems early in the essay to accept creolization not as a typological class of languages or as a necessary stage in the process of all language reformulation involving two or more cultures in contact, but as a class of languages formulated in the 19th century (90-91), yet later on, in discussing the relationship of a pidgin, creole, and post-creole formulation and the extent to which one may see a continuum or progression of one from another—and between the poles of "maximally discrete linguistic systems in coexistence" and "a maximally homogeneous system in monolingualism" (105), he uses the term specifically in the sense of process. 

            Despite this apparent confusion, Alleyne's basic claims are challenging and important.  First, he claims that creolization occurs differently under differing circumstances, involving such variations as the degree of contact the individual has with speakers of the other language and one's place in the social hierarchy, as well as the extent to which speakers of the dominant or standard language withdraw after emanci-pation, etc.  In some cases, the result is diglossia, "preserving one language which is the upper language and another which is the crystallizaztion of the interlanguage phenomena" (105); in others, the interlanguage phenomena serves as the base for development of a new language "when the upper language in the contact situation disappears for whatever reason" (105).  Alleyne notes that the degree of prestige enjoyed by the creole depends on the autonomy of the "language situation in which it exists" (107).  Further, the extent to which they become independent languages depends on "the sense of being codified and used in official domains" (107). 

            Alleyne does not address the more particular situation experienced by African Americans in the United States, in which diglossia results from the continued presence of the upper language in official domains, but in which the creole population's dialect is continuously reinforced through de facto segregation in one's personal life:  family, church, social and entertainment situations, and for many, in terms of demographic location—continued ghettoization.  This seems a situation between the diglossia situation involving the continued / continual presence of the upper language and the situation of autonomy involving post-creole language formation, and as such requires different negotiational strategies for language use and integration.  For these, one must turn to Baugh, Hale-Benson, and others. 


Trudgill, Peter.  Sociolinguistics:  An Introduction.  New York:  Penguin, 1974. 

[Trudgill's book remains a classic early statement of linguistic theory, but the chapter on "language and ethnic group" (57-83) is the specific point of focus here.  As noted in the definition of creole, Trudgill supports the thesis that Black English derives from an English creole rather than from a synthesis of British English dialects; he further claims that BEV "functions today as a separate ethnic-group variety which identifies its speakers as being black rather than white" (76).  He also points out that African American children have a double burden in the school system, having to master bidialectalism and an appreciation of the occasions for code switching as part of their education.  In this context, Trudgill recommends that teachers "have some knowledge of the linguistic correlatives of social stratification, and of the child's dialect" in order to avoid the psychological damage of teaching so-called standard English in a judgmental manner, and to give children greater linguistic (and consequently, greater social) mobility (80-82).



Language and Literary Theory


Asante, Molefi Kete.  The Afrocentric Idea.  Philadelphia:  Temple U P, 1987.

[Asante's book traces tropes and rhetorical modes of discourse in African American culture, showing how these are related to African forms.  The book is particularly useful for its discussions of culturally significant mythoforms involving self-discovery, healing the sufferers, the nurturing genre associated with the motherless child, and the rhetoric of resistance and return.  Such concepts as kuntu (the word employed as a sanctifying force) and nommo (antiphonal call and response as cultural unifier) are also useful as cultural markers.]


Gates, Jr., Henry Louis.  The Signifying Monkey:  A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism.  New York and Oxford:  Oxford U P, 1988.

                        [Gates, Jr.'s famous study traces the motif of signifying back to its West African roots and examines several African American texts for their use of this motif and technique of re-reading others.]



Lexicon and Grammatical Characteristics


Baugh, John.  Black Street Speech:  Its History, Structure, and Survival.  Austin:  U of Texas, 1983. 

[Baugh first establishes the premises and methodology of his study, then discusses "specialized lexical markings and alternation" (including the argument concerning code switching v. style shifting, topic-related shifting, syllable con-traction and expansion, variable forestressing of bisyllabic words, and hyper-correction);  "Unique Grammatical Usage" with discussion of syntactical constructions and their functions; and "Phonological Variation" (including suffix variations, consonant cluster reduction, and is and are variation).  He then proceeds from these distinctions to draw conclusions regarding educational insights, impediments to employability, etc.  The book also features an extensive bibliography of sources; I found it to be the most up-to-date and useful study of all these presented here.] 


Dillard, J. L.  Lexicon of Black English.  New York:  Seabury, 1977. 

[In the context of establishing a social significance for the lexicon of BEV, Dillard examines terms of sex and lovemaking, religion and the church, music, terms derived from the street hustle (prostitution, gambling, narcotics), terms derived from voodoo and conjure, etc.  His book ends by postulating that literary sources may be useful tools in uncovering the history and linguistic connections of BEV, but that students of the language should be cautious about making generalizations based on these sources.]


Major, Clarence, ed.  Juba to Jive:  A Dictionary of African American Slang.  New York: Penguin, 1970, 1994.

[Just as Black English employs grammatical variations from Standard English, so too the dialect thrives on its vocabulary, and this is a comprehensive attempt to capture the unique and perennially changing vocabulary that is largely responsible for the brilliantly coded and metaphorical quality of spoken usage.  Major draws on over two hundred years of unique terms, covering four areas:  early rural slang, musical terms from the period of 1900-1960, contemporary street slang, and working class language.  Terms are defined with approximate dates of their appearance in usage, and there are cross references to similar terms and examples of usage in context.]   



Black Language in America:  Origins, Characteristics, Education


Hale-Benson, Janice E.  Black Children:  Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles. Revised ed.  Baltimore and London:  John Hopkins U P, 1986. 

                        [Hale-Benson begins by briefly considering the African Background, then discusses the relationship between culture and cognition for three chapters; chapters 5-7 develop a theory of education for African Americans based on differing cognitive styles based on culture and cognition derived from their West African heritage:

At times the expressive styles of Black children . . . may be the cause of tension between teachers and Black children in educational settings. These culturally specific expressive styles may be related to academic failure, increased disciplinary problems, placing black children in low-expectation academic tracks, and the early termination of academic careers. . . . . It is imperative that educators conceptualize these expressive styles . . . so that an educational model can be developed to . . .imbue Black children with the competencies they need to survive and be creative . . . [and to] change the way Black children are perceived and treated in the educational process.  (103-04)]


Bentley, Robert H., and Samuel D. Crawford, eds..  Black Language Reader.  Glenview, Ill., and Brighton, England:  Scott, Foresman, 1973.

[Bentley and Crawford organize their book in five sections:  "What is a Dialect," "The Origins," "Black Language Today,"  "Down Where It's At:  Reports from Five Teachers,"  and "Where do we go from here:  Language and Education." Although this is an older book, the articles by Ossie Davis, Wayne O'Neill, and James Sledd are all useful in clarifying political and political-psychological issues inherent in the relationship of Black English to Standard English.  Many articles bring a humorous recognition of the slang of the late sixties-early seventies, which in turn leaves one pondering how quickly the language changes.]


Dillard, J. L.  Black English:  Its History and Usage in the United States. New York: Random, 1972. 

[Dillard's early study begins by investigating the troubled relationship of Black English to the academic establishment, then considers the structure and history of Black English, ending with a prophetic note:  pointing out that the Black language is "forever being rediscovered and new solutions for the resultant problems are being sought" (265).  Dillard's conclusion (that if the teaching of Standard English fails, school systems may have to teach via Black English) either fails to take into account the fact that the mastery of “standard” English (however alien) is a prerequisite for employability, or implies that a separate Black economy employing Black English as the lingua franca might flourish in years to come.]


Edwards, Walter F., and Donald Winford, ed.  Verb Phrase Patterns in Black English and Creole.  Detroit:  Wayne State U P, 1991.

[This book features the work of a variety of scholars and, regarding Black English, covers much of the same ground as Baugh, cited here, although there is more attention to the relationships of varying dialects:  White Southern speech and Black English, the verbal patterns of black and white speakers of Coastal South Carolina, and copula variation in Liberian settler English and American Black English.  The Creole section continues this comparative pattern of study.  Overall, the book is highly technical in its approach and features extensive bibliographies of related sources.]


Smitherman, Geneva.  Talkin and Testifying.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

[Smitherman's book begins with an introduction and history of Black English structure, moving on to Black semantics and modes of discourse, Black-White language attitudes and "social policy and educational practice." Her discussion of the modes of discourse is a quick take on call and response orality, testifying and signifying, etc.--subjects handled in more detail in Asante and Gates, Jr., noted elsewhere here.  The book ends with three appendices (Well-known Black proverbs, Exercises in BE sounds and structures, and a Glossary of Black terms).  Some of these are a bit dated, but the list remains useful.]



Black English Glossary of Terms and Distinctions


Note:  Definitions are mostly derived from Baugh;

sociolinguistic terms are from Hall, Jr.––both cited above. 



A.  Some Sociolinguistic Terms


lingua franca:  any language used as a medium of communication among people who have no language in common (Hall xii).


pidgin:  a rudimentary language developed between parties who share no common language.  To be a true pidgin, the language's "grammatical structure and its vocabulary must be sharply reduced" and "the resultant language must be native to none of those who use it" (Hall xii).


creole:  a language derived from pidgin usage and which "becomes the native language of a speech-community" (Hall xii).  Hall notes that:

The only language the plantation slaves had in common was a pidginized variety of their masters' tongue: English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese, as the case might be.  As time passed, the slaves married and raised families; the children of such unions perforce learned, as their first language, the pidgin that their parents and the other slaves spoke together in default of any other common tongue.  As successive generations grew up using the new language from earliest childhood, they re-expanded its grammatical and lexical resources to meet all the needs of their way of living. (xiii)

Mervyne Alleyne further notes that in the creolization process, "Atlantic creoles owe much of their structure to the contribution of African languages" (summarized in Hill ix).  Peter Trudgill asserts that "BEV [Black English Verna-cular] is not in general derived from British English dialects, but rather from an English Creole much like that of, say, Jamaica" and that distinctive features of BEV "are the result of continuing creole influence" (67).  Further, "even if many of the features of BEV can be found in various white dialects, BEV itself func-tions today as a separate ethnic-group variety which identifies its speakers as being black rather than white" (76).  


slang (also cant, argot, jargon):  unorthodox usage usually involving a current language fashion, usually involving "exaggeration, violent shifts of meaning, or . . . repetition" (Hall xv) producing new metaphors, idiomatic expressions, and terms which sometimes later become a part of so-called standard usage, as noted by Whitman.



B. Bidialectal and Bilingual Speech Communities


bidialectal speech community:  a community of speakers who speak dialect variations of a "standard" language; speakers in this community may typically "style shift" from the informal dialect to the standard form when the social context changes, but Baugh points out that bidialectalism is "extremely difficult to master because of minor linguistic differences" between the linguistic vernacular and the standard which serves as a second dialect. 


bilingual speech community:  a community of speakers who speak a language different from the dominant language community; these speakers may learn to "code shift" according to circumstances and in order to succeed socially and economically.  In practice, many in this kind of community blend codes, as in the "Texmex" dialects of the American Southwest. 


code blending:  as in pidgin, two or more languages are mixed in a way that allows speakers from different language communities to communicate, albeit usually in a rudimentary way. 


code switching:  in bilingual communities, the pattern of switching from one language to another according to social context.  (contrasted to style shifting in bidialectal communities).


style shifting:  in bidialectal communities, the pattern of shifting from one's informal vernacular to the standard dialect used in formal situations and especially in social contexts that require that dialect for adequate communication.  As noted above, style shifting is difficult to master because of the similarities between the standard dialect and the variant vernacular dialect. 


topic-related shifting:  the habit of shifting from one style (dialect) to another according to the apparent seriousness of topic or emotional attachment.  Baugh notes that "when topics of great personal importance were raised . . . some speakers would shift toward standard English while others would not" (61).  The pattern of shifting is not predictable according to topic, but depends on "the speaker's personal assessment" of it. 



C.  Lexical Marking and Alternation


hypercorrection:  "any linguistic extension which exceeds the standard," as in pickted for picked.  Baugh cites two varieties of hypercorrection:  reinterpretation and regularization.  Reinterpretation usually occurs when the speaker is placed in a formal situation where, unsure of correct usage—or working for stylistic effect, one hypercorrects, as in "I likes going to school."  Regularization also occurs when there is a formal language context and involves the regular addition of -s suffix or an added consonant in -ed constructions, as in "lookted" or "loveded."


syllable contraction / expansion:  in street speech (Black and other dialects), the tendency to contract formal pronunciation of some words in the informal context:  "suppose" becomes "spose" and "supposed to" is pronounced "sposeda";  "because" becomes "cos" or "cuz," and "except" becomes "sept" or "sep."  Or:  "They jes kep on pushin cos they knowed he'd back off."


variable forestressing of bisyllabic words:  in informal situations (and often in more formal situations), a tendency to stress the first syllable of some words whose second syllable receives stress in standard dialect:  PO-lice; PO-lite, DE-fine, or RE-vise.  This pattern is characteristic of Black and other street dialects. 



D.  Grammatical Usage


aspectual Steady:  steady functions as an "intensified continuative" in progressive (verb + ing) structures, as in "we be steady jammin" or "she steady be runnin her mouth."  The word functions as an intensifier which cannot simply be equated to the adverb "steadily."


future perfective Be Done:  use of be done with past tense verbs to anticipate an action that will be completed—i.e. a prediction, as in "we be done washed all the cars by the time JoJo gets back" (78).


invariant Be: substitution of be for is, am, and are, especially in constructions involving habitual action or durative (incomplete) events, as in "the teacher don't be knowing the problems like the parent," or in "them brothers be playin. . . they be blowin they souls out" (71).  Invariant be may also substitute for was, as in "so they be runnin . . . right . . . really bookin . . . and the police had all the streets blocked off" (72).  Baugh notes that invariant be forms occur more often when "all the speakers share the non-standard form" (73).


is and are variation:  absence of these forms of the verb to be in many dialectal constructions:  "who he thinkin he be?" or "they goin to the store"; in some cases, substitution of invariant be for these forms.  


multiple negation:  the tendency to employ multiple negatives when negation is called for in informal situations:  "they didn't never do nothing to nobody" or "they can't do nothing if they don't never try" (83). 


perfective Done:  a colloquial perfective (i.e. an action completed) marker shared with other dialects, as in "he done gone to Georgia." 


stressed Been:  an emphatic way to note that an action or event has long been completed, as in "I been had that job," or "she been told him she needed the money" (80).


suffix -s variation:  variation in the use of this suffix:  "we goes" or "they goes" in some speakers, "he/she go" in others. 



Some General Linguistic Terms


Copula:  a verb such as to be or to seem that acts as a direct link between subject and predicate.  In some formations, BEV is distinguished by the absence of copula:  e.g., "he busy now" or "she nice"; in other formations, invariant be serves as copula in BEV.


Idiom:  1. the specific grammatical, syntactic, and structural character of a language; or 2. a speech form that can't be understood from the individual meanings of its elements.


Lexicon / vocabulary:  the words used in a language.  In BEV, there are also specialized "lexical markers" (see page 12).


Morphology:  study of the patterns of word formation in a language, including inflection, derivation, and the formation of compounds (words containing two or more lexical meanings, e.g. loudspeaker).


Orthography:  the method by which sounds are represented by literal symbols in a language (letters and combinations).


Phonology:  the science of speech sounds, including phonetics (the production, combination, description, and representation of speech sounds via standard phonetic symbols) and phonemics (identification of smallest distinguishing units of speech in a language, per map and cap).


Syntax:  the branch of grammar dealing with the arrangement of phrases and sentences in a language.