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African American English: A Linguistic Introduction (2002)

African American English: A Linguistic Introduction

Author(s): Lisa J. Green

Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Year: 2002

ISBN: 9780521891387,0521891388,0521814499,9780521814492,9780511078231

Lisa J. Green’s AFRICAN AMERICAN ENGLISH: A Linguistic Introduction caused something of a sensation when it was first published in 2002. Here we have a rigorous, detailed examination of the grammar, lexicon, and sociolinguistics of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) written by a native speaker, and moreover of a lesser cited dialect (New Orleans). All volumes in this Cambridge University Press series assume that the reader has training in linguistics, and Green’s work is no exception. If you haven’t taken general linguistics courses, then a more accessible introduction to AAVE might be Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English.

About half of the book covers the grammar and lexicon of AAVE. Green covers the terms found only in AAVE (“kitchen” in the meaning of “hair on the nape”, “ashy” for skin, etc.). She then lists the AAVE’s dizzying array of verbal markers and its interesting syntactic rules, showing how this non-standard, low-prestige variety nonetheless has an elegance and naturalness about it. The chapter on phonology discusses such things as final consonant sounds, devoicing, sound patterns and th and liquid vocalization.

The second half of the book is sociolinguistic. Few volumes in this Cambridge series cover speech events and rules of interaction, but Green details traditions of call-response, rap braggadocio and “playing the dozens” among the community of AAVE speakers. Green devotes an entire chapter to AAVE in literature, from the early, often inaccurate portrayals of black talk in minstrel shows to AAVE in the works of African-American writers. The final chapter talks about how AAVE is perceived in the American public education system, and I was aghast to read that speech pathologists are brought in to “heal” speakers who have no problems with their speech organs, but have merely learnt this non-standard variety natively.

This is a very informative work, with exhaustive citations to other research, and showing the diversity within AAVE that isn’t always apparent in other treatments. That said, the book could have used some tighter editing and more careful typesetting. The amount of material packed onto each page can seem overwhelming. There are also some annoyances in transcription, with Green mixing IPA and standard English orthography within sentences for no apparent reason.