I don’t have time for a lengthy post today, so I’d like to briefly mention a dialect curiosity that has befuddled me for over a decade: the use of the word ‘son’ in African American Vernacular English. The word is used as a sign of familiarity among young men, as evidenced by such phrases as these (all of which I’ve heard within the past few months):
‘I’m going to work, son.’
‘You gotta be careful, son.’
‘That ain’t right, son.’
None of these utterances would be conspicuous but for the fact that such ‘son’ uses are frequent among young African American men speaking to other young African American men. An older friend referring to a much younger man as ‘son’ makes some sense, even if the two are not blood relations. But the ‘youthful familiar’ use of ‘son’ between adolescents is rather puzzling.
My perception is that this is a fairly new phenomena, arising perhaps within the past three decades. I don’t recall hearing many examples of ‘youthful familiar son’ in films before the 1990’s: I know for certain it was alive and kicking as a feature of AAVE by the end of that decade, as I had a roommate who used ‘son’ in this manner my freshman year in college (ca. 1998).
And yet quests to discover when and why young men started calling each other ‘son’ have been futile. The word is so common that searching for the first ‘use’ of it in an engine like Google NGram Viewer is like finding a needle in a haystack. Likewise, searches for scholarly articles yield virtually nothing.
And so I’m left with the vaguest of hypotheses. Any ideas?