‘Son’ in African American English

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?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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12 Responses to ‘Son’ in African American English

  1. Profound says:

    It’s ‘SUN’,not ‘son’. A saying that my dad would use is,”I dont call you son because you’re mine,I call you SUN because you shine!” I’m African American and my Dad would tell me this often. And let’s not forget the Black English Vernacular plays on words so as to be double entendre’s. They are saying sun to uplift and not to be confused with son meaning I’m your father.

  2. Rhys says:

    This is still common in many areas of the UK. I’ve always thought of it as an abbreviated form of ‘sunshine’.

    “Alright sunshine?” became “Alright sun?” and then developed into “Alright my son?”.

  3. boynamedsue says:

    I’d never heard the “sunshine” explanation before, makes sense but I’m not sure if it’s right. In modern British usage it is always written “son” and not connected to “sunshine” which is also used.

    “My old son” is used by trad. cockney speakers and around Essex and probably other places in the home counties.

  4. AL says:

    Sometimes I hear “son” being used in a somewhat derogatory way, where the speaker is implying that the “son” is inferior or has been subjugated.

  5. Amy Stoller says:

    Ben, I wonder whether the answer you seek might be covered in books, rather than articles.

    I suspect the “sun” gloss is a play on the word “son,” not the other way around, but it’s only a gut feeling. I have no backup for it and could easily be mistaken.

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    M

  7. Charles Sullivan says:

    Sorry about that above.
    Maybe son is an alternative to ‘boy’?

  8. A Mary says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Charles Sullivan. It may a recent usage for young AA men, but “son” used to be pretty common for older, white, Southern men. I’ve heard “son” used a lot by that group of people and I also think of the old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, “I say, I say, I say, son!”

  9. Charles Sullivan says:

    My point is that the word ‘boy’ has negative connotations historically within AAVE, so maybe ‘son’ fills its place without the negativity.

  10. NemaVeze says:

    This reminds me of what Geneva Smitherman wrote about baby:

    Among whites (and also on one level among blacks) this expression is used by men to refer tenderly, usually romantically, to women. In the Black Semantic sense, however, it can be used between men. Since black men have historically been emasculated by White America, black folk place a very high premium on masculinity — I mean to a far greater extent than do whites: like a black cat can get himself offed (killed) by just challenging another cat’s manhood — “I’m a man, what you mean, steppin on my toe,” and so on like that. What, then, would be the most manly thing a black man could do? Use a term of female address with a male … In so doing, he is also acknowledging the supermasculinity of the recipient of the term, since in a sense the speaker is saying: you are so much man too that I can say this to you. (Smitherman 1977: 62–63)

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  12. Does this help? says:

    The term ‘son’ is a testy one in AA vernacular, especially when the speakers have an age difference. Because the possibility of one being another’s ‘son’ is nonexistent among similarly aged men, then it’s not considered insulting.
    However, from an older male to a younger male, it is explicitly reserved for a positive and strong paternal relationship where the older male is (or fills the role) of the younger male’s father. (even then, it’s somewhat restrictive)

    ‘Boy’, however, is almost never used amongst AA males, save for use as an ‘interjection’ of sorts (“Bo-o-ih, I done *told* you not to go over there”) from a guardian. In those cases it is somewhat endearing, (“Come on ovah he-yuh bo-ih and give ya-uh grandmamah a hug”) but still is only ‘tolerated’, as it is somewhat belittling even in that benign usage.

    In short –
    ‘Son’ – peer-familiarity, positive paternal — Can be used in a derogative method akin to ‘boy’.
    ‘Boy’ – generally belittling, very rarely endearing (particularly from a elder matriarchal/maternal figure)