What is Chicano English (ChE)? And what characterises African American English (AAE)? Here is an introduction to these two American variants of English.
In this text, you will find terminology that you may not have encountered before. Go through these terms and find out what they mean. Use the internet and discuss with a partner.
Variants of American English
Standard American English is the most familiar dialect of American English, but many other variants are also spoken in the United States. The definition of 'a language variety' can be a bit hard to comprehend, but we can use 'variety' to mean a language, a dialect, an idiolect, or an accent. It is a general term for any distinctive form of a language or linguistic expression (Bauer, 2002). Among the most distinct American variants we find African American English (AAE) and Chicano English (ChE). They originated among two major ethnic groups in the United States and could be referred to as ethnolects. In the following text, we will be focusing on these two variants and look at some of their most characteristic features.
African American English (AAE)
Today, about 13.4% of the US population is of African American ethnicity. The transatlantic slave trade was the origin of the African American community in the US, and most African Americans are descended from slaves. 'African American' is also used for the children of recent immigrants from Africa. This is a large and varied group of people, and far from all of them speak African American English:
AAE is a variety of English spoken by some African Americans, particularly those living in concentrated urban areas. There are conflicting views on the origin of African American English. Some claim that it is similar to varieties of English spoken by whites in the southern states (therefore, clearly a dialect of English), while others consider it to be a creole, independently developed from Standard English and more deserving of the word language than that of dialect. (Richards & Schmidt, 2010).
This variety of English contains certain unique linguistic traits. One of the most interesting features of AAE is that the conjugated verb 'to be' is dropped in certain situations:
In syntax, AAE speakers can delete the verb 'to be' (…) [where] American English permits it to be contracted. For example, the verb 'is' in 'He is nice' can be contracted to 'He’s nice' in American English and deleted ('He nice') in AAE (Richards & Schmidt, 2010).
In other words, sentences like 'She going to school' and 'They at John's house' would be common and accepted in AAE. This only occurs in the present tense and is known as copula deletion.
Another feature of AAE is its use of double modals. In Standard English you would only include one modal verb in a sentence. For example 'I might go to the party'. However, in AAE you will hear the same sentence including two modal verbs: 'I might could go to the party.'
What is a modal verb?
A modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb that is used to express obligation, possibility, certainty, ability, or permission ('can', 'may', 'will', 'could', 'might', 'would', 'ought to', 'used to', 'should').
The third feature worth mentioning is the use of double negatives in AAE. It is not uncommon to hear statements like "We don't have nothing to do", "He's not going nowhere", or "I ain't got no money". Double negatives are not used in Standard English, but are quite common in AAE - as well as in other regional dialects, both in the United States and in Britain. It is also a natural linguistic feature of many languages worldwide, such as Persian, Russian, and Greek.
The largest non-Caucasian immigrant group in the United States is by far the Hispanics, constituting 18.5% of the American population. Hispanic immigration, predominantly in the southwestern part of the United States, has resulted in large areas where people use Spanish as their first language and English as their second language. In fact, more than 40 million people aged five and older speak Spanish at home. This amalgamation of languages has given birth to several varieties, the most important being Chicano English (ChE).
ChE has close links to Spanish, which are clearly audible in pronunciation. One example is the devoicing of [v] after the last vowel of a word. For example, a word like 'have' would be pronounced [hæf] with an /f/. The same goes for wives [waɪfs] and 'lives' [layfs]. In addition, consonants are often pronounced as in Spanish.
Additionally, Spanish words are constantly adopted into ChE. These words can be used as simple substitutes. For example, 'my love' becomes 'mi amor'. They can also be used to add additional information or to add weight to an utterance. For example, in a sentence like 'I will protect you, te lo prometo con todo mi corazón' ('I promise with all my heart'), the added sentence in Spanish emphasises the speaker's sincerity.
In order to understand the role of ChE in American society, we must recognise the socio-cultural setting of the variety and the low prestige it carries in most circles:
Despite its omnipresence, Spanish has a very low overt prestige, because its speakers form the lowest socioeconomic group next to African Americans and Native Americans. For a long time, it was simply regarded as "defective English", or merely "Spanish-accented English", mispronounced English of Spanish speakers who are learning English as a second language. (Weber, 2014, p. 32)
Both ChE and AAE are English variants that lack prestige in society, and they are often considered barriers to further success. However, ChE has not enjoyed any upswing in popular culture similar to what AAE has enjoyed. Also, whereas AAE has been tried out in educational situations in some places, ChE has not received the same academic support.
AAE and ChE in literature and popular music
Ethnolects like AAE and ChE are often used by authors to add more authenticity to the characters of their stories. We see examples of this in the novel The Deportation of Wopper Barraza by Maceo Montoya (2014), where the protagonist uses ChE. He states for example “Oh, mijo, I never did tell you about my land, eh?”, substituting 'my son' with 'mijo', the contracted form of 'mi hijo' (Montoya, 2014).
Another example could be Aibileen, the black maid in The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The author builds much of Aibileen's identity around her African American English, and it clearly shows that she belongs to a Black community, but also - her exclusion from the more privileged white community. Overall, her vernacular gives the character more complexity.
If you listen to popular music, it is almost impossible not to come across AAE. Artists like 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West have recorded songs that are popular across borders and across ethnic groups, and this has led to an export of words and expressions from AAE into everyday informal English. Expressions like 'bling', 'my bad', 'chill out', 'diss', and 'how we roll' are all examples that can be traced back to AAE.
We also find the familiar grammatical features of AAE in many rap lyrics, such as double negation ("ain't never told on nobody" - Snoop Dogg) and copula deletion ("some say he arrogant", "he big-headed" - Kayne West). Another common language feature is the use of the word 'ain't', for example in 2Pac's song 'Brenda's got a baby': "So now what's next, there ain't nothing left to sell." The informal expression 'ain't' is not accepted in Standard American English, but is a well-integrated part of AAE.
As mentioned above, there is a stigma attached to both AAE and ChE. The variants have often been defined as substandard versions of English – they are 'broken English' or 'grammatically wrong'. However, the fact is that both ChE and AAE have a fully formed and distinctive vocabulary, syntax, and consistent grammar. The languages are not random; they are only different.
Speakers of AAE and ChE feel this stigma every day as they move about in a society that often does not accept their home language and the culture it comes from. So, in order to be included in mainstream society, they often have to code switch: they speak one language at home with their friends and family, and change to a more standardised English elsewhere. In order to succeed as a student or on the job market, they have to be able to switch from their home language to 'proper English' whenever it is deemed necessary. We see this very clearly in the novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017), where Starr, the protagonist of the novel has to switch between two worlds: her own Black community and her white high school:
Williamson Starr doesn't use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn't say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she's the “angry black girl.” Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is non-confrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn't give anyone a reason to call her ghetto. (Thomas, 2017)
Code switching means that you adjust your style of speech, appearance, and behaviour to fit in and to make other people feel comfortable. However, this often comes at a cost, because it means that you cannot truly be yourself with people outside your own community. Language is a fundamental aspect of cultural identity and an integral part of who you are. Being forced to be someone you are not is not a good spot to be in. It is therefore important to work for a greater understanding of AAE, ChE, and other, similar ethnolects. By learning more about these minority variants, it will also be easier to bridge differences and resolve conflicts between people.
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