Regional African-American Accents

Painting: Jacob Lawrence (National Archives)

Painting: Jacob Lawrence (National Archives)

Annie Minoff has written a fascinating, in-depth piece on African American English over at WBEZ in Chicago. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but the main thrust of the article is that within African-American English one can find numerous regional accents that are recognizably distinctive.

This is something that anyone who has lived in a Northern or Western American city probably understands intuitively. New York City African-Americans, after all, often raise the THOUGHT/CLOTH vowel just as other New Yorkers do (i.e. the legendary “aw” in “cawfee”); Philadelphia African-Americans, meanwhile, often front the vowels in GOAT and GOOSE much like their Irish-American, Jewish-American and Italian-American counterparts. It would be fairly improbable for a single ethnolect to remain monolithic across hundreds of American cities.

That latter feature (u-fronting), by the way, seems true of Baltimore AAE as well, as linguist Cara Shousterman discussed in this excellent article on the Black English of that city (also worth a read):

Probably one of the most noticeable features of Baltimore African American English is what linguists call u-fronting, where the sound in a word like “do” gets pronounced as “dew”.

So why, you might ask, do people still think of AAE as being “uniform.” Minoff quotes the great American linguist Walt Wolfram, who suggests that some of the limitations and biases of early AAE studies may have played a role on this perception:

“In a sense,” [Wolfram] explains, “it was sort of an exotic other. Most early researchers who did research on AAE, like Labov and myself, were white. And so we came into these communities as people who had grown up in segregated situations. I would say that that was reflected in some of the things [we noticed] … I think we overlooked our own biases in terms of seeing regionality”

This is probably true to some degree. But I wonder if Wolfram is being a bit too hard on himself here. It is logical to think AAE may have actually been somewhat more uniform forty years ago than it is now.

Some of the anecdotes from Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant The Warmth of Other Suns imply that the Southern-inflected dialect we think of as “African-American English” was part and parcel of the “great migration” of African-Americans from the South between World War I and the 1970s. After all, African-Americans who had lived in the North for generations before this tended to be just as distrustful of this new dialect as Northern whites were:

It turned out that the old-timers were harder on the new people than most anyone else. “Well, their English was pretty bad,” a colored businessman said of the migrants who flooded Oakland and San Francisco in the forties, as if from a foreign country. To his way of looking at it, they needed eight or nine years “before they seemed to get Americanized.”

Point being, speakers of AAE in the early 1970s would have usually been at most a generation away from the South. It’s unsurprising that several decades down the road the surrounding linguistic environment has encroached somewhat more upon this ethnolect (while older forms of Northern/Western African-American English have perhaps merged with it).

So it’s worth wondering how much further this unique dialect will be eroded. Will AAE survive another hundred years in the Northern Cities? Or will it be subsumed by older local dialects? Conversely, will some older local dialects lose out to AAE?

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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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27 Responses to Regional African-American Accents

  1. Sam Huddy says:

    AAVE is probably merging with other local accents. I can think of quite a few places out west like Seattle and Portland where it has.

    • It does strike me as a somewhat less salient dialect in those cities, probably due to demographics. AAVE seems to thrive better in cities or neighborhoods where African-Americans are a majority-minority or at least a much larger proportion of the population.

  2. Julie J. says:

    The only really distinctive variation within AAVE that’s come to my notice is in the Charleston, SC area. The black people there definitely sound different from black people elsewhere. I didn’t even think some of them were American upon hearing them speak.

    In my experience, the raised “CLOTH/THOUGHT vowel” thing isn’t unique to black people from New York City. I heard this lady do that and I asked her if she was from New York City. She was from the Carolinas, which is where I lived at the time. Eminem seems to have that feature too, to some extent, and he’s from Detroit as everyone knows now. I just listened to his song “Stan” to make sure.

    • Julie J. says:

      P.S. Eminem isn’t black and I didn’t mean to suggest that he was. He is, however, a well-known speaker of AAVE.

    • Sam Huddy says:

      Nor is Eminem originally from Detroit. Until his teenage years he lived in various places in Missouri, where the local speech is in fact consistent with his own.

      • Julie says:

        That’s fine, but Missouri is still very far from New York. I also hear a raised, New York-ish /oh/ (Labovian notation) in some of the speakers on the WBEZ page Ben linked above. This video is a good example. Listen to how she says “on” at 0:06. New Yorkers don’t have /oh/ in that word (nor do white Chicagoans), but phonetically that /oh/ sounds kind of New Yorkish to me. So maybe it’s more like Philly or Baltimore. That’s what I was talking about.

      • Julie says:

        Well…there may be a few white guys like Eminem from Chicago who talk like that, but I’m sure you knew what I meant.

      • David says:

        Julie J.:
        “Eminem seems to have that feature (, ) too, to some extent, and he’s from Detroit as everyone knows now.” (“That feature” meaning the raised vowel in “cloth” and “thought,” that is.) Everyone also knows now that Eminem is white.

  3. Danny Ryan says:

    Concerning Eminem, I’d be very interested in what black speakers of AAVE think of his ideolect. Is it unusual for a white guy to speak that way? Does it sound put on, or is it authentic? As a white speaker of Northern English English Regional Standard I find it difficult to evaluate…

    • Rodger C says:

      I can’t speak diurectly to your questions, but it’s well known about Eminem that he grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood.

  4. Aussprache says:

    Tyra Banks is cot/caught merged.
    Jordin Sparks is cot/caught merged.
    CeCe Peniston is cot/caught merged.
    Deborah Cox and Tamia are cot/caught merged (as expected from Canadians).
    Beyoncé Knowles has cot/caught merger in transition.
    Lutricia McNeal is cot/caught merged: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tklSJr_kbU

    AfroAmerican girls/women in merged and transitional areas
    embrace the merger easily, for some reason they prefer the most conservative variant of the merger (with the unrounded vowel [ɑ] even before L and NG: caller/collar, Hong Kong/long song).
    C/C merger may be on the rise in Mid-Atlantic states and in the South because young AfroAmerican women are starting to merge cot and caught.

    In th South, cot and caught are merging, because words like [kɑwt](caught) are losing [w] (furthermore, in the South, many people have pronounced words like ALL [ ɑ:ɫ] for centuries, even the cot/caught unmerged people).

    (Oprah…she has a strange accent, she switches between old-fashioned non-merged and semi-merged, depending on her mood and who she talks to, she is NorthernCitiesVowelShift-free, that’s for sure…)

    Afroamerican women from the Rustbelt are more likely to end up being sucked into c/c merger than into NCVS..

    But for the time being, in cities like Chicago, one can find the most marked differences between pronunciation used by young white girls, and by young black girls, respectively,
    Jennifer Hudson’s accent sounds extremely different than the stereotypical ”white girl from Chicago” accent….In California, you may find many young black girls who talk with a ”general Californian” accent.)

    • m.m. says:

      AfroAmerican girls/women in merged and transitional areas
      embrace the merger easily, for some reason they prefer the most conservative variant of the merger (with the unrounded vowel [ɑ] even before L and NG: caller/collar, Hong Kong/long song).

      here i thought i was the only one who was noticing this. the use of [ɑ] before /l/ is particularly apparant to me, having [ɔ] there.

      In California, you may find many young black girls who talk with a ”general Californian” accent.

      this definitely happens to an extent, even to boys, particularly in the opposite of trawicks statement, where blacks are not a large part of the population.

    • dw says:

      @Aussprache:
      for some reason they prefer the most conservative variant of the merger (with the unrounded vowel [ɑ] even before L and NG: caller/collar, Hong Kong/long song)

      Why do you say that merging to [ɑ] is “more conservative”? Why is pronouncing collar/caller with [ɑ] more conservative than pronouncing both with [ɔ]?

      • m.m. says:

        well, when you take the low back merger, the typical/expected/’original’ result is [ɑ], even before /l/ (collar/caller).

        the ‘innovative’ version of the merger results in a rounded variant [ɔ~ɒ], esp before/l/ and /ŋ/ common in: california/canadian shifts, southwest pennsylvania, northeast new england

        • dw says:

          Are you saying that all cot/caught merged accents originally had [ɑ] for the merged vowel? Or that the first cot/caught merged accents did so?

          That’s very interesting — do you have a source? I find it very difficult to believe of the New England accent, although that is somewhat different from most other C-C-merged varieties.

  5. Ellen K. says:

    what linguists call u-fronting, where the sound in a word like “do” gets pronounced as “dew”

    I’m puzzled as to what Shousterman means by that.

    I realize that dew is pronounced by some people with a yod, while do is not. But not for all of us. Plus I don’t see that adding a yod would fit the label “u-fronting”.

    Reading the actual article I get a description of u-fronting, but also “ooh” called a u sound. Uh, no. Ooo is a u sound, oooh is an O sound, and even matches the letter name. I think IPA would be much clearer.

    And I’m still wondering about the dew/do distinction.

    • I think it’s just an attempt to describe oo-fronting (or u-fronting, or however one wants to describe it). “Dew” is probably just an impressionistic way of suggesting this.

      • gaelsano says:

        I have a different vowel for the two.

        RP uses the same vowel, but uses yod after t/d/n (sometimes s and l), while GenAm typically uses the same vowel also for both, too, but drops the yod.

        I pronounce “ewe” and “you” differently though I have no “yod” in Tuesday. To me “you” is Yod + GOOSE vowel and “ewe” is the long U sound.

        To me the “u” in muse and the “u” in dune are the same, but the version with the yod is an allophonic variant.

        /ʉ/ = [ʉ~i̯ʉ~jʉ]
        I use the (i̯)ʉ as a representation in my head. A non-syllabic [i̯] is nearly the same as [j] and to me it’s part of the vowel.

        ewe /ʉ/ [i̯ʉ~jʉ]
        dew /dʉ/ [dʉ]

        you /yu/ [yu]
        goose /gus/ [gus]

        This isn’t that odd for some Americans. They may not notice it, but they do it. For example, the very author of that article.

        I know this because if I slip in fast speech or a tongue twister while talking to people from my area in New York (State!) it sounds really off.

        I normally say as [spun] and [tɪʃʉ]. If someone says [spun] and [tɪʃu] I don’t flinch though I notice it. Yet if I accidentally said [spʉn] and [tɪʃu] my peers raised an eyebrow.

        I think lexically ALL Americans “remember” these vowels as distinct.

        Hence, Britons sometimes merge “tense U + R” and “GOOSE + R” with “THOUGHT/NORTH/FORCE (GOAT + R)” while Americans merge “GOOSE + R” with “FORCE” and merge “tense U + R” with “NURSE”.

        Br: sure = shaw; poor = pore
        Am: sure = sher; poor = pore

        In fact, when I was young I didn’t understand “4” as an abbreviation for “for” nor “U” for “you” because I had all of those slightly distinct. I wasn’t aware of the distinction nor did I have much in the way of expressing this via explanation, but I noticed later in life I reliably used one variant with every word spelled “u” and one variant with every word spelled “oo” and realized they were in fact distinct phonemes. I never thought of them as distinct in the same way of DRESS versus TRAP but if I never interchange the two they must be phonemes.

        Also strange I have a partial COT/CAUGHT merger. COT and CAUGHT are merged though “god” and “laud” don’t rhyme. Again, I never really thought of them as distinct (and my THOUGHT vowel is quite far from NORTH…dictionary pronunciations using the same vowel for both baffled me) yet I never freely mixed them. For some reason though certain words that should have gotten the THOUGHT vowel got the LOT vowel.

        • Peter S. says:

          Is it the voiced/unvoiced vowel vowel shortening phenomenon? That is, does the THOUGHT vowel tend to become the LOT vowel before unvoiced consonants. Or is this just a wild guess on my part?

        • Ellen K. says:

          Thanks, Gaelsano.

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Zora Neale Hurston seemed to make your point in some of her writing.

  7. Peter S. says:

    I expect some uniform features of an African-American accent will survive as long as racism does. Yiddish managed to survive in a sea of different varieties of German, even though nearly all Jews in German-speaking areas could also speak German.

  8. Nathan Brown says:

    From my personal observation, I think African American English is, despite its regional variation, distinct from white speech in those regions and is going to stay distinct for a long time to come, on the East Coast at least. In New York, for example, even though they’ve adopted some features of the local white speech (like the raised /)@/ in THOUGHT/CLOTH), they have also preserved some Southern features, like the /a:/ in time, my, nine, etc. Black New Yorkers also don’t seem to participate at all in the complicated split in aesch words you hear in a lot of white speech in the Northeast; this vowel is usually a conservative /&/, raised only before nasals, with sometimes a Southern drawl when they’re in a stressed position. Sometimes it can sound like more of an /E:/ to my ears, but when you hear this, it can be before any type of consonant; I’m convinced it’s a Southern holdover and not a sign that they’re taking part in the East Coast aesch split.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that black New Yorkers tend to be more consistently non-rhotic than whites, but they’ve adopted a New York style of non-rhoticity. Sometimes you hear the linking “r,” and words like “poor” and “more” usually have an /o@/ sound; pronunciations like “Poe” and “moe” are only common in old people who were actually born in the South.

    Or look at Boston, where black people I’ve heard generally keep “caught” and “cot” separate, using an older /)/ and /A/, respectively, unlike whites. Another thing I’ve noticed there is that a lot of black people there pronounce START words with an /A:/, different both from Southern patterns and from the /a:/ you’d hear in the local white non-rhotic accents. Maybe that’s because the nasal “paahk the caah” pronunciation is both somewhat stigmatized and associated with Irish Catholics who weren’t exactly welcoming to the black people when they first moved there.

    To my ears, black speech in New York City has moved closer to the white speech than in some cities further north and west, like Buffalo; black people from Buffalo sound more Southern to me. Maybe this is because New York has had a large black population with thriving black neighborhoods for generations, while most of the black settlers in the Rust Belt cities came more recently.

    • David says:

      And don’t forget: most black Americans are (and correct me if I’m wrong) still only about two generations (and in some cases, even only one generation) removed from the South.

  9. badboy says:

    afro american accent is spokn erywhere specially nowdays , if you look around yo anytime you can see bosses , ceos, headmasters ect ect using it daily so it seems to me the whole world is interested in this , so if you know how to speak it then you gotta know how important it is to sound lil bit gangs .