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date: 30 September 2022

The History of African-American Vernacular Englishfree

The History of African-American Vernacular Englishfree

  • Guy BaileyGuy BaileyThe University of Texas Rio Grande Valley


African American English (AAE) originated from contact between Africans and Whites during slavery. The trajectory of slavery in the United States was different from that in the Caribbean, but in areas where population ratios and time frames were most like those in the Caribbean, a creole language, Gullah, emerged. In other areas, various degrees of creolization may have taken place. As a result, early AAE was not monolithic and included some regional variation. In recordings with former slaves and African Americans born during the last half of the 19th century, the reflexes of AAE’s origins appear in features that have strong parallels with Gullah and Caribbean creoles, including zero copula/auxiliary, monophthongal /e/ and /o/, fully back vowels, and non-front onsets of /au/.

As African Americans moved from slavery into farm tenancy, features emerged in AAE that were shared with Southern White vernaculars. These include grammatical forms such as yall and fixin’ to and phonological features like monophthongal /ai/ and the pin/pen merger. However, even as shared features emerged, AAE maintained its distinctiveness by typically not participating in the Southern Shift that affected vowels in Southern White vernaculars. Developments during the Great Migration in the 20th century enhanced AAE’s distinctiveness. During the Great Migration such well-known features as durative/habitual be, ain’t for didn’t, and had + past as a simple past became widespread.

AAE, then, is a product both of its unique heritage and the historical and demographic processes that promoted its independent development and also of people who valued (and still value) it as a mode of communication and as an instrument for identity and solidarity.


  • Historical Linguistics
  • Sociolinguistics

1. Introduction

The history of African American English (AAE) is one of the more complex and controversial topics in the study of language in the United States. The complexity is partly the result of a paucity of relevant data from the early part of AAE’s history. Prohibitions on literacy among enslaved Africans meant that they could leave behind few of the written documents that are typically used for making inferences about earlier varieties of a language. Further, only a few literary and other representations of early African American speech exist, and the majority of those are from the 19th century, some 200 years after the initial importation of slaves from Africa. Because those texts were written by Whites, the extent to which they are accurate portrayals of AAE is unclear.1 Scholarly work on the variety did not begin to appear until 1884, and it was not until the middle of the 20th century that research based on direct investigation of the speech of African Americans appeared.2 Finally, the documents most often used for making inferences about 19th-century AAE, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with former slaves and the recordings of former slaves archived in the Library of Congress, were not compiled until the 1930s and 1940s and not widely available for three or four decades after that.3 The consequence of this paucity of data is that descriptions of mid- to late-20th-century AAE (and often descriptions of the speech of adolescents and teenagers) provided much of the evidence used in comparative studies that have sought to decipher the origins and early shape of the variety.

While the paucity of data makes it difficult to delineate the precise shape of earlier AAE, the intricacies of African American history create another kind of complexity. That history is different from the history of descendants of slaves brought both to the Caribbean and elsewhere in the New World. Not only were there several patterns of slavery in the American South, but the flourishing of slavery came much later there than elsewhere.4 Moreover, the history of African Americans after slavery (and especially in the Great Migration, one of the major demographic movements in U.S. history) is critical in the evolution of AAE, but that history is often overlooked.

While the controversies over the history of AAE are in part the result of the issues described here, they also, especially early on, mirrored broader controversies about distinctive characteristics of African American culture. It is easy to forget that as late as the 1960s and early 1970s, differences between AAE and “standard English” were seen as signs of the inferiority of the former, things that needed to be remediated in schools.5 At the same time, even if many Whites regarded the distinctive features of AAE as signs of inferiority, for many Blacks they were mechanisms for establishing solidarity and a unique cultural identity, especially as other forms of African American cultural expression (e.g., musical styles) were being appropriated by Whites. AAE represented an independent rather than a derivative inheritance, one that arguably had roots in Africa, and certainly one that was uniquely African American.

Finally, questions about the degree to which AAE has ever been a homogeneous variety raise still another issue. Clearly not all African Americans use AAE as their primary mode of communication (though most African Americans share and use its resources to some extent), and regional and social differences in the variety have existed since its beginnings. Schneider’s analysis (1989) of the WPA slave narratives demonstrated well-defined regional variation in AAE in the 19th century, while scholars working in the linguistic atlas tradition argued that regional variation among African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was more important than ethnic differences among Blacks and Whites.6 Wolfram and Kohn (2015) provided perhaps the best perspective on regional variation in contemporary AAE. They pointed out that assumptions about the uniformity of AAE are in part a consequence of where and how early research on AAE was conducted and note that a full account of AAE would require an analysis of its structure across both space and time. The historical discussion here describes some of the temporal-spatial contexts that would need to be considered. The linguistic discussion focuses on a set of core features (e.g., zero copula, durative/habitual be, and zero third singular among others) that most varieties of AAE across the United States share to varying degrees and that are important in sorting out different aspects of its complex history.

Complexity and controversy notwithstanding, the history of AAE remains one of the most important topics in the study of language in the United States. Not only does AAE have enormous cultural significance, but its evolution illustrates how a variety created in a context of language contact both maintains aspects of its complex heritage and also reanalyzes and restructures forms inherited from different source languages to maintain its distinctiveness. It also demonstrates how historical and demographic processes have created contexts that allowed this distinct variety to develop independently even amid standardizing forces.

This overview of the evolution of AAE begins by describing the historical and demographic contexts that led to its emergence and have allowed it to continue to flourish. It then reviews the two issues that have driven most research on the history of AAE: its origins and its development after the mid-19th century. While neither issue has been completely resolved, increasing clarity exists about both.

2. Sociohistorical and Demographic Contexts

Slavery in the American South had a trajectory quite different from that in the Caribbean or elsewhere in the Americas. While the first slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619, for more than a century slavery grew quite slowly. The development of rice and long-staple cotton as cash crops in South Carolina around 1730, however, led to a rapid increase in slave importations, with annual importations increasing to between 4,000 and 6,000 per year between 1730 and 1770 (Homberger, 1995). Although during the 17th century most slaves were brought to the Upper South (and especially Virginia), after 1730, the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia became a primary destination. The Revolutionary War significantly reduced slave importations after the mid-1770s, and it also led to a decline in the slave population. “Wartime death, flight, and evacuation sharply reduced the slave population [especially in] the Lower South. Between 1775 and 1783, the number of slaves in Georgia fell from 15,000 to 5,000, a loss of two-thirds. In South Carolina, the loss was 25,000 . . . or approximately one-quarter of the prewar slave population” (Berlin, 1998, p. 304). However, these losses, along with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the subsequent rapid expansion of short-staple cotton production westward across the Lower South, fueled an even more dramatic rise in the African slave trade after 1790. As Bailey noted, “the period from 1790 to 1810 comprised the two most active decades for the foreign slave trade, in spite of the fact that this trade was made illegal in 1808 . . . . [A]s many slaves were imported in the 50 years after 1810 as in the 110 years before 1730” (2001, p. 59). The development of the Southern United States into a slave society, then, occurred much later than in the Caribbean.

The years between 1790 and 1860 were easily the most dynamic period in the history of slavery and the plantation system in the United States. As Bailey pointed out, “the cotton gin made short staple cotton a viable cash crop and plantation agriculture a plausible economic system for much of the area south of an isoline delimiting the 210-day growing season from the South Carolina Piedmont to the Brazos River valley in Texas” (2001, p. 59). The rapid, widespread geographic expansion of cotton production had stunning consequences. In 1790, the United States produced about 3,000 bales of cotton and had a population of just over 750,000 African Americans, the vast majority of them slaves. In 1860, it produced more than 3.8 million bales of cotton and had an African American population of more than 4.2 million, again almost all slaves.7 The resurgence of slave importations during this period led to what Berlin (1998) has called a “re-Africanization” of American slavery and slave culture, something that enhanced the spread of African influence across the entire Lower South at a relatively late point in the history of slavery.

The expansion of the international slave trade was paralleled by an explosion in the domestic slave trade as well. Because mortality rates in the United States (especially in the Upper South) were not as high as in the Caribbean, by the middle of the 18th century, natural increase outpaced importations as a source of new slaves despite the surge in the latter. The resulting surplus of slaves in the Upper South led to a robust domestic slave trade; perhaps as many as a million slaves born in the United States were transported and sold in newly developed cotton lands in the Interior South between 1790 and 1860 (Berlin, 1998). The simultaneous expansion of the international and domestic slave trades resulted in an interesting mix of new arrivals from Africa and new arrivals from the East Coast over a wide expanse of the South, and, of course, a reintroduction of African cultural (including linguistic) elements.

The Civil War ended the institution of slavery, but it did not end either plantation agriculture or the subjugation of African Americans. By 1880, farm tenancy had replaced slavery as the organizing principle for labor on the plantations, and it would remain so until World War II. Initially, most tenants were former slaves, but Whites increasingly fell into tenancy as well. Thus, in many cases, Blacks and Whites worked in closer proximity and, in some cases, on more equal footing, than before the Civil War. Bailey (2001) pointed out that in 1880, 36.2% of all farmers in the South were tenants; by 1930 the percentage had grown to 55.5% (2001, p. 63) as White farmers increasingly became tenants too.

Farm tenancy in the South used a crop lien system that allowed tenants to borrow from landowners in anticipation of profits from crops they planted. The percentage of the profits going to landowners to satisfy the lien depended on whether tenants rented just land or also implements and mules and purchased seeds from the landowners, who frequently owned the only store in rural communities.8 Tenants who rented land, implements, and mules, and purchased seeds were “sharecroppers,” with half the value of their crop going to the landowner. While in theory this arrangement gave tenants mobility and hence some control over their situations, in practice the vagaries of weather, wide variations in cotton prices, and later the boll weevil often caused tenants to go into arears on payments. This, in turn, created a kind of debt peonage that bound tenants to landowners for long periods of time and led to widespread poverty, especially among sharecroppers.9 These circumstances were exacerbated by the passage of Jim Crow laws beginning in the 1890s, which further limited opportunities for African Americans in the South. The situation began to change only when disruptions in labor markets in the North created new opportunities for African Americans there.

The draft implemented during World War I took large numbers of White laborers from northern factories into military service; after the war, restrictive immigration laws stemmed the steady flow of labor from southern and eastern Europe, exacerbating labor shortages the war had created. Black tenant farmers from the South were recruited to meet those shortages. Thus began the Great Migration, one of the largest, most significant demographic shifts in American history.

The Great Migration was a movement between 1916 and 1970 of African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North. It eventually involved the migration of more than 6,000,000 Blacks out of the South, and the transformation of a primarily Southern, rural population into a primarily urban one, with almost as many African Americans living in the North as in the South. Bailey and Maynor described this transformation:

In 1890, 90 percent of the Black population lived in the South, and 80 percent lived in rural areas. Twenty years later, 89 percent was still in the South and less than 25 percent was in cities. With the advent of World War I, however, Blacks began moving in large numbers to cities and to the North. . . . By 1970 the results of this massive population shift were clear: 47 percent of the Black population lived outside the South, while 77% lived in cities, with 34 percent . . . concentrated in seven major urban centers: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Baltimore. . . . The migration . . . was not just to cities but to inner city areas. As Jones (1980) points out, the settlement of Blacks in inner cities extended from the earliest years of the Great Migration to the present. By 1960 over half of the Black population lived in inner cities; in 1976, that figure had risen to nearly 60 percent.

The Great Migration represented the most significant development among African Americans since the surge in the international and domestic slave trade more than a century earlier.10 It was not the last significant development, however.

During the 1980s and 1990, African Americans began moving back to the South (and especially the urban South) in numbers almost as great as those in the Great Migration. For example, in the period between 1990 and 1995, almost 370,000 African Americans left the North and the West for the South, with about half leaving cities in the Northeast that had been primary destinations during the Great Migration.11 The Reversal of the Great Migration is a demographic movement that is still in progress, but one with the potential for linguistic consequences as significant as the Great Migration itself.

A complete history of AAE, then, would need to take into account at least five phases in the evolution of the African American population: (a) the initial establishment of slavery in the Upper and Lower South between 1619 and the Revolutionary War; (b) the resurgence of the international slave trade and the “re-Africanization” of slavery, along with its rapid geographic expansion, after 1790; (c) freedom and the establishment of the system of farm tenancy after the Civil War; (d) the Great Migration and the establishment of predominantly African American inner cities between World War I and the 1970s; and (e) the reversal of the Great Migration after 1980. However, most historical research on AAE has focused on the question of its origins, which is of great interest both for linguistic and for broader cultural reasons, or on its development in the 20th century, when better evidence is available.

3. Origins

The debate over the origins of AAE began in the 1960s as quantitative sociolinguistic analyses of AAE, and especially the AAE of adolescents and teenagers in urban areas, began to appear in response to differences in educational outcomes among between Black and White students in the destination cities of the Great Migration (see, for instance, Baugh, 1983; Fasold, 1972; Labov, 1969; Labov et al., 1968; Wolfram, 1969, 1974). The Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States (LAMSAS), fieldwork for which was begun in 1933 and completed in 1974, had included some African American informants in its sample, and a few individual studies in the linguistic atlas tradition had focused on African Americans in the South (e.g., Turner, 1949; Williamson, 1961, but the systematic analysis of AAE arose primarily from sociolinguists’ work on urban adolescents and teenagers. As that work was being done, creolists, who brought a unique perspective and crucial insights to the sociolinguistic data being collected, became interested in AAE as well. The different methods and perspectives of the various groups of researchers led to widely divergent views of the origins of AAE and even about how different AAE was from White vernaculars.12

Linguistic atlases explored the socio-spatial structure of dialects formed during the initial settlement of the United States, linguistic features that distinguished those dialects, and relationships among those dialects, settlement history, and British regional vernaculars (Tillery et al., 2004). As a result, atlas samples focused on elderly residents of small towns and rural areas, those whose speech was most useful for making inferences about research questions atlases addressed. African Americans were significantly underrepresented in their samples.13 In addition, linguistic atlases simply inventoried lexical items, pronunciation variants, and morphosyntactic features that might best reflect settlement history and a relationship with British regional vernaculars. Not surprisingly, then, almost everyone working in the linguistic atlas tradition concluded that African Americans and Whites who were of comparable age and social class and who lived in the same area spoke varieties of English that differed only quantitatively from each other: the inventory of features used by Blacks and Whites were the same, although one group or the other might use certain features more frequently. Further, they concluded that the features used by both African Americans and Whites all had their origins in British regional dialects, a position that became known as the “Anglicist” hypothesis.

Working mostly, but not exclusively, on the vernaculars of adolescents in urban areas, quantitative sociolinguists reached rather different conclusions about the differences between the speech of African Americans and Whites. Sociolinguists examined not only the presence or absence of features (i.e., the inventory), but also their quantitative distributions in the full range of linguistic environments in which they occurred. For example, while dialectologists might simply note that invariant be (as in “all them young girls be wantin’ they hair done and they nails”) appeared in the speech of both Blacks and Whites in the South, sociolinguists would look at how frequently the form occurred, the linguistic environments in which it most often appeared, and the meanings that it conveyed. Further, they focused primarily on features that seemed most distinctive in African American speech, including invariant be, zero copula (as in “they leavin’ to go to Kansas City”), and zero third singular (as in “she stay in Houston”) among others. After examining a number of such features, Labov concluded that AAE was not just quantitatively different from White vernaculars but was “a distinct system from other dialects in several important grammatical categories of the tense and aspect system” (1972, p. 61), a conclusion that Wolfram echoed, adding that “phonological differences [among African Americans and Whites] tend to be quantitative whereas the grammatical differences are often qualitative” (1969, p. 217).

Creolists believed that many of these qualitative differences were a consequence of the unique origins of AAE. Stewart proposed one version of those origins: “With very few exceptions the form of English which [enslaved Africans] acquired was a pidginized one, and this kind of English became so well established as the principal medium of communication between . . . slaves in the British colonies that it was passed on as a creole language to succeeding generations . . ., for whom it was their native tongue” (1967, p. 22). According to Dillard (1972), Stewart (1967, 1968), and some other creolists, present-day AAE is a decreolized version of this “Plantation Creole,” and many of its most distinctive forms (for example, zero copula/auxiliary, zero third singular, zero possessives, and invariant be) are relics of the earlier creole. In other words, many creolists believed that AAE originated and followed a developmental trajectory much like that of creoles in the Caribbean. In at least one case, Gullah (a creole spoken along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia), that was clearly the case. Many quantitative sociolinguists saw the possibility of creole origins as well. Thus, Fasold concluded that “the creole hypothesis seems most likely to be correct, but it is certainly not so well established as Dillard (1972) would have us believe. Decreolization, however, seems . . . to have obliterated most of the original creole features (1981, p. 164).14

The Creolist position on the origins of AAE, of course, stands in stark contrast to the Anglicist position, and the two hypotheses have been debated vigorously for more than half a century. Over time, both positions have been modified and nuanced as new data has come to light, as new features have been analyzed, and as linguists have come to realize that Black-White speech relationships may reflect the influence of African Americans on Whites as well as the reverse.

Initially, invariant be and zero copula/auxiliary were seen as the two most likely remnants of an earlier creole. The work of Fasold (1972), Labov (1969), Labov et al. (1968), and Wolfram (1969, 1974) clearly established that invariant be in AAE was different from the one that appeared in older White speech, not only in its frequency of occurrence, but also in its meaning and its syntactic distribution. In AAE, unlike in older Southern White vernaculars, invariant be is a marker of habitual or durative aspect and occurs most often before present participles, as in (1) and (2).



The differences between durative/habitual be in AAE and the invariant be that occasionally appeared in White speech led Wolfram to conclude that this feature “is typically NOT found in Southern white speech, although it is an integral aspect of all [AAE] varieties studied” (1974, p. 524).

Research on zero copula/auxiliary established an even stronger case for a creole derivation. The work of the quantitative sociolinguists demonstrated that two factors strongly influenced the appearance of zero in AAE: the form of the subject (personal pronoun subjects favored zero) and the form of the predicate (more verb-like predicates such as gonna and present participles favored zero, while noun phrase predicates favored the presence of is and are, with predicate adjectives and locatives falling somewhere in between). Of these factors, the following predicate seemed to be most important (see Blake, 1997, and Rickford et al., 1991 for excellent summaries of research demonstrating the effects of these factors). However, what is perhaps most important here is that the hierarchy of predicate types that affect zero has parallels in Caribbean creoles (Baugh, 1980; Holm, 1984) and in Gullah (Weldon, 2003).15 In many creoles, copula forms are required before noun phrases and locatives but not before verbal predicates (including adjectives, which function as verbs). The parallels between the effects of predicate types in creoles and AAE are best accounted for, creolists argued, by a creole origin for AAE.16

Although both durative/habitual be and zero copula/auxiliary initially seemed to be clear examples of forms derived from an earlier creole, subsequent research has cast doubt on both. Using evidence collected from a wide age range of urban and rural African Americans in Texas and Mississippi, Bailey and Maynor (1987, 1989) demonstrated that neither the Creolist nor the Anglicist hypotheses could explain durative/habitual be. Rather, the distribution of this form in apparent time suggested that it was an innovation within AAE during the 20th century, the consequence of a grammatical reanalysis of the infrequently used invariant be that existed in earlier Black and White vernaculars in the South (see the discussion in section 4).

The problems with zero resulted primarily from inconsistency in the effects of predicate adjectives and locatives on the occurrence of zero in various studies.17 As pointed out, Bailey (1965), Bickerton (1981), and others noted that in creoles, adjectives are verbs and hence do not require a preceding copula, while locatives do. One might expect, then, that adjectives would promote zero at a higher rate than locatives in AAE if zero developed from an earlier creole. However, the results from various studies have been mixed, with zero sometimes occurring at higher rates before adjectives and sometimes before locatives, and this variance in the rates of zero has been used as an argument against a creole origin (see, for example, Mufwene, 1992; Poplack and Tagliamonte, 2001). In addition, Mufwene (1992) has also suggested that given the status of adjectives as verbs in creoles, the rates of zero before predicate adjectives should be as high as those before gonna and present participles if zero in AAE in fact has creole origins.

Winford (1992) has countered these arguments by suggesting that the problem is actually the point on the creole continuum used for comparison.18 He suggests that while comparisons between AAE and creoles usually assume the creole basilect as the point of reference, the reference point should really be the mesolect. He points out that in the mesolect neither adjectives nor locatives require a copula. In a detailed summary of the Creolist-Anglicist debate, Rickford indicates that while the appeal to the creole continuum does not answer all the relevant issues regarding zero,

there is enough persuasive evidence . . . to suggest that [AAE] did have some creole roots. The very fact that copula absence is widespread in both [AAE] and in mesolectal creoles, but not in white Englishes outside of the American South (where it can be argued that whites adopted the speech patterns of blacks) suggests that at least some of the predecessors of modern [AAE] arose from a restructuring process similar to that which produced the English-based creoles. (1998, p. 189)

Rickford might well have added that the fact that the following predicate has any effect at all on the occurrence of zero is a powerful argument for a non-English source.19

Rickford’s nuanced statement of the Creolist position is typical of more recent thinking on the origins of AAE, both among Creolists and Anglicists. That thinking has been influenced by several factors, both including extensive analyses of data sources that reflect earlier phases in the development of AAE and also explorations of a wider range of features (e.g., relativizers and negation) that show earlier British influence more clearly. Among the sources reflecting earlier stages of AAE, Schneider’s examination of the WPA slave narratives (1989), Ewers’s exploration of the Hoodoo texts (1996), and Kautzsch’s synthesis of diachronic sources (2002) proved especially important, and the work of Poplack and Tagliamonte and their associates brought to bear resources that allowed for comparative reconstruction.20 Much of the current thinking on the debate is summarized in the essays by Mufwene, Rickford, Schneider, Singler, Van Herk, Winford, and Wolfram and Kohn in Lanehart (2015). The authors represent a wide range of viewpoints, from Anglicist (Van Herk prefers “English Origins Hypothesis”) to Creolist, and although there is no consensus on the precise origins of AAE in these essays, the two extremes are universally rejected. As Rickford noted, “no current ‘creolist’ favors the view expressed by Stewart (1967) and Dillard (1972) that there was a widespread creole across large areas of the American South” (2015, p. 36), and Van Herk pointed out that identifying sources of particular features in White vernaculars does not eliminate “possible influence from other sources—creole, African, or universal. Some input systems may have survived because they mapped easily onto substrate systems” (2015, p. 29). Winford’s careful delineation (2015) of the different sociohistorical contexts within which slavery arose provided the context for the emergence of the kind of regional traits in AAE that Wolfram and Kohn (2015) identified.21 In the end, most of these authors would agree with Mufwene’s contention that “Africans definitely shaped the varieties now associated with their descendants in the New World by selecting from within English those features that were congruent with [African languages], by modifying the characteristics of some of the English options they selected, or by introducing new features” (2015, pp. 57–58).

While most of the Anglicist-Creolist debate has focused on morphosyntactic features, in some respects phonological data has provided less ambiguous evidence. Although the early evidence is not extensive, as Bailey and Thomas (1998) pointed out, the vowel system provides a solid venue for historical reconstruction since even brief mechanically recorded texts include data on most vowels. By examining vowel features in the recordings made with former slaves and comparing the results both with recordings of Whites from the South born about the same time and also with creole speakers from Guyana and Grenada, Thomas and Bailey (1998) and Bailey and Thomas (1998) were able to identify several vowel features that appear both in early AAE and in Caribbean creoles, but typically not in earlier Southern White speech. Based on these features, they suggested that some of the “distinctive characteristics of the [AAE] vowel system are a consequence of its unique origins, origins that reflect some sort of shared history with Caribbean anglophone creoles. Although some of the earlier [AAE] features that most clearly tie [AAE] to its creole relatives have disappeared (e.g., monophthongal /e/ and /o/), other features (e.g., non-front onsets of /au/ and fully back vowels) persevere” (Bailey & Thomas, 1998, p. 106).22 Thomas and Bailey (1998) noted that while the precise relationship between AAE and creole languages cannot be determined without more evidence from both Caribbean creoles and West African languages, the parallels are obvious and demonstrate a shared history.

It seems clear at this point that neither the Anglicist nor Creolist hypothesis, at least as they were originally formulated, tells the complete story of the origins of AAE. However, when the phonological evidence and the effects of the following predicate on zero are taken in conjunction, it is obvious that there is at least some kind of shared heritage between AAE and Anglophone creoles. In fact, it is this heritage that, in part, makes AAE unique among linguistic varieties in the United States. But as Bailey and Thomas indicated, “the unique origins of [AAE] . . . do not account for all of the distinctive features of [AAE]” (1998, p. 106). Some of those features are the result of its later history.

4. Later History

Much less has been written about the later history of AAE (i.e., between the end of slavery and the end of the 20th century) than about its origins.23 Recent work, however, does show that this period was instrumental in shaping AAE. Bailey and Thomas pointed out that “during the last quarter of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth century, a number of innovations emerged in AAE” (1998, p. 106). Some of those were features shared with Southern White vernaculars, but others were unique to AAE. Further, the work of Bailey and Maynor (1987, 1989), Bailey and colleagues (forthcoming), and Cukor-Avila (1999) showed that morphosyntactic innovation during the 20th century has affected the grammar of AAE in significant ways that help maintain its distinctiveness.

Because they also did spectrographic analyses of the vowels systems of comparable African Americans and Whites born in the late 19th and early and mid-20th centuries, Thomas and Bailey (1998) and Bailey and Thomas (1998) provided insight into some later linguistic developments. As might be expected, their results show a continually evolving AAE vowel system. Even as some features with parallels in Caribbean creoles began to disappear during the last quarter of the 19th century, new features began to emerge, some of them shared with Southern White vernaculars. These include such stereotypes as glide-shortened /ai/ before voiced obstruents (e.g., in words like tide and rise) and the merger of the vowels in words like pen and pin. The emergence of shared features during this period should not be surprising given that African Americans and Whites had significant interaction with one another through the farm tenancy system.

The development of shared features notwithstanding, some vowel features that distinguished AAE from Southern White vernaculars were maintained, including non-fronted onsets of /au/ and fully back vowels. Just as important, though, AAE did not typically participate in the most important process affecting Southern White vowel systems during the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries: the Southern Shift. The Southern Shift was a set of vowel rotations that included the lowering and retraction of /e/, the fronting and sometimes lowering of /o/, and the fronting of high back vowels so that they became central or even front rounded vowels. Because many African Americans did not participate in this process, the distinctiveness of the AAE vowel system was maintained well into the 20th century even as some features that were shared with Southern White vernaculars emerged.

By the early 20th century, a distinct phonology had developed in many varieties of AAE, the result of the interplay between its unique heritage and later innovations, some of them shared with Southern white vernaculars and others occurring only in AAE. It was this phonology that most Africans Americans brought with them in the Great Migration as they moved from the rural South to the urban North. While that phonology differed from Southern White systems in many ways, it differed even more from the phonologies of Whites in the North.

This interplay between inheritance and innovation was not unique to the AAE vowel system. As with phonology, AAE and Southern White vernaculars share several morphosyntactic features that became widespread throughout the South during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These include such iconic forms as yall as a plural personal pronoun, fixin’ to as an inceptive (as in “he’s fixin’ to fin’ somewhere to stop”), and multiple modals such as might could (as in “I might could be there Friday”).24 Even with these shared features, other developments during the 20th century have helped maintain the distinctiveness of AAE. For example, durative/habitual be, one of the most widely recognized features of AAE and one that was initially believed to be derived from an earlier creole, has been shown to be a 20th-century development (see Bailey & Maynor, 1987; Bailey et al., forthcoming), as has the use of ain’t for didn’t (see Fisher, 2018; Howe, 2005) and the use of had + past to mark simple past tense (see Cukor-Avila, 1995; Cukor-Avila & Bailey, 1995). The evolution of durative/habitual be is particularly well understood and will illustrate how these innovations emerged.

Bailey and colleagues (forthcoming) documented the evolution of durative/habitual be using data from the rural community of Springville, Texas. They pointed out that at the beginning of the 20th century, AAE (and some Southern White vernaculars) had two types of invariant be. One resulted from the deletion of an underlying will or would, as in (3) and (4):



The other was a relic of an earlier third person plural form (ben or be) that had been widespread in Middle English. It had been gradually replaced by are during the Early Modern English period, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was still occasionally used for are and sometimes am and is, as in (5) and (6).25



The invariant be that served as an alternative for are/am/is occurred much less frequently than the invariant be that resulted from will/would deletion. In fact, Bailey et al. (forthcoming) indicated that will/would deletion accounted for more than three-quarters of all invariant be tokens used in the recordings with former slaves and more than half the instances used by their informants born during the first two decades of the 20th century. Over the course of the century, however, invariant be that was an alternative for are/am/is expanded rapidly. As this happened, the use of be derived from will/would deletion declined sharply—so much that by the last decades of the 20th century, invariant be derived from will/would deletion, the most common type of invariant be early in the century, comprised less than 5% of invariant be tokens. But this was more than simply a flip-flop in the rates of occurrence of the two types of invariant be. As the invariant be that was an alternative form for are/am/is began to be used more frequently, it also began to be used primarily in habitual contexts. By the last half of the 20th century, this invariant be had not only come to be used quite often but had also developed into a marker of durative/habitual aspect in AAE.

The question, of course, is how and why this happened. Bailey and colleagues (forthcoming) suggested that two factors led to this development. First, there was a mismatch between form and function in the AAE present tense copula/auxiliary be paradigm: unlike am/is/are, the invariant be not derived from will/would deletion had no function to distinguish it from other copula/auxiliary forms—it was a form without a function.26 Second, both would and invariant be resulting from would deletion frequently marked past habituality in earlier AAE, while will and invariant be derived from will deletion sometimes conveyed habitual meaning as well (see examples 3 and 4). However, AAE also had a second form that marked past habituality: useta, as in “she useta stay in Houston.”27 Bailey et al. (forthcoming) showed that over the course of the 20th century useta expanded along a trajectory that paralleled both the decline of invariant be derived from will/would deletion and the expansion of invariant be that was simply an alternative for are/am/is. As useta became the preferred past habitual form in AAE and the use of invariant be derived from will/would deletion consequently declined, the invariant be that had simply been an alternative for are/am/is developed the habitual meaning associated with be derived from will/would deletion, and as it acquired this new meaning, it became a marker of durative/habitual aspect in the present tense. As this happened, a new feature emerged in AAE, one that helped maintain distinctiveness between AAE and White vernaculars.

Bailey and Maynor (1987) and Fisher (2018) argue that the Great Migration provided the demographic and cultural context for the development of grammatical innovations such as ain’t for didn’t and durative/habitual be. Several factors were important here. On the one hand, the migrations led to the creation of mostly African American communities in central cities and to increased segregation (de facto in the North, de jure in the South). On the other, the Great Migration was the impetus for a remarkable surge in African American culture that eventually impacted all of America, especially in music, literature, and journalism. This context also promoted the development of AAE along an independent trajectory and as a result, helped AAE maintain its uniqueness.

The research that first established the development of innovations in AAE during the 20th century also argued that these innovations represented more than just the maintenance of distinctiveness between AAE and White vernaculars. Rather, the innovations represented their continuing divergence. Graff and colleagues (1986), Labov and Harris (1986), and Myhill and Harris (1986) first proposed the idea that, regardless of the origins of AAE, over the course of the 20th century AAE and White vernaculars were becoming more different from one another. Bailey and Maynor (1987, 1989) provided further evidence for divergence. As might be expected, this led to another controversy over AAE—the Divergence Controversy. An entire issue of American Speech was devoted to the controversy (see Fasold, 1987), and over the years, a steady stream of work has either addressed it directly (see, for instance, Bailey, 1993; Butters, 1989; Gordon, 2000; Wolfram & Thomas, 2008) or indirectly (see Ewers, 1996; Kautzsch, 2002). Although the controversy remains unresolved (in part because research has focused on a relatively small number of features), most linguists now recognize that at least some of the differences between AAE and White vernaculars reflect 20th-century developments.

As the reversal of the Great Migration began during the 1980s and 1990s and as residential segregation began to decline, in some cases dramatically, AAE and White (and increasingly other) vernaculars have been in closer contact. The linguistic consequences of this for AAE (and for White and other vernaculars) are still unclear, but one development among rural African Americans in Texas suggests a possible scenario.

During the 1980s and 1990s, quotative be like (as in “An’ I’m like ‘don’t talk to me that way”) emerged and spread in much the same form and way across the English-speaking world (Tagliamonte et al., 2016). Cukor-Avila (2002, 2012) showed that quotative be like has also spread among young African Americans in the rural Texas community of Springville, although its diffusion there occurred more than a decade later than elsewhere. The diffusion among these young Springville residents differed in one other way as well: as it has been adopted by teenagers and young adults, the feature has adapted to the distinct morphosyntactic structure of AAE. For example, when be like is used in durative/habitual contexts, invariant be is used, as in (7):


Thus, even as this non-AAE feature has spread into Springville, AAE has maintained its distinctiveness by adapting the feature to its morphology.

While the ultimate linguistic consequences of the reversal of the Great Migration and of diminishing segregation are still not clear at this point, it is obvious that AAE carries enormous cultural significance and has long been an instrument of group identity and solidarity for African Americans. Those factors will surely play a role in its developing history.

5. Conclusion

Although the primary controversies surrounding the history of AAE have not been fully resolved, the substantial research on the topic since 1960 does make it possible to provide a broad outline of its evolution. AAE clearly originated from contact between Africans and Whites. Although the trajectory of slavery in the United States was different from that in the Caribbean, in the one area (along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia) in which the population ratios and time frame were most like that in the Caribbean, a creole language, Gullah, emerged. In other areas, with different population ratios and different time frames, various degrees of creolization may have taken place, and as a result early AAE was not monolithic: regional variation in AAE must have originated in this context. Moreover, throughout the history of slavery, Africans continued to be infused into the slave population, even after the slave trade was made illegal in 1808. The language contact situation that emerged with the beginning of slavery, then, persisted to some degree throughout its history. In recordings with former slaves and African Americans born during the last half of the 19th century, the reflexes of AAE’s origins can be seen in features that have strong parallels both with Gullah and with Caribbean creoles, including zero copula/auxiliary, monophthongal /e/ and /o/, fully back vowels, and non-front onsets of /au/.

As African Americans moved from slavery into farm tenancy and Blacks and Whites worked in closer proximity and on more equal footing in some cases, a number of features emerged in AAE that were shared with Southern White vernaculars. These include such iconic features as yall, fixin’ to, monophthongal /ai/, and the pin/pen merger. Even as these shared features emerged, however, AAE maintained its distinctiveness, in part by what it did not typically do—participate in the Southern Shift that affected vowels in Southern White vernaculars. Developments during the Great Migration in the 20th century simply enhanced AAE’s distinctiveness. During the Great Migration such well-known features as durative/habitual be, ain’t for didn’t, and had + past as a simple past became widespread in AAE.

AAE, then, is a product not only of its unique heritage, but also of historical and demographic processes that have promoted its independent development and of people who valued and still value it both as a mode of communication and as an instrument for identity and solidarity. In this respect, the history of AAE is much like that of other languages.

Further Reading

  • Bailey, G., Maynor, N., & Cukor-Avila, P. (1991). The emergence of Black English text and commentary. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.
  • Lanehart, S. (Ed.). (2002). Sociocultural and historical contexts of African American English. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.
  • Lanehart, S. (Ed.). (2015). The Oxford handbook of African American language. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Mufwene, S. S., Rickford, J. R., Bailey, G., & Baugh, J. (Eds.). (1998). African-American English: Structure, history, and use. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Wolfram, W., & Thomas, E. (2008). The development of African American English. Oxford, UK: Wiley.


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  • Bailey, B. L. (1965). Toward a new perspective in Negro English dialectology. American Speech, 40(3), 171–177.
  • Bailey, G. (1989). Sociolinguistic constraints on language change and the evolution of are in Early Modern English. In J. B. Trahern (Ed.), Standardizing English: Essays in the history of language change (pp. 158–171). Tennessee Studies in Literature Vol. 31. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  • Bailey, G. (1993). A perspective on African-American English. In D. Preston (Ed.), American dialect research: An anthology celebrating the 100th anniversary of the American Dialect Society (pp. 287–318). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.
  • Bailey, G. (1997). When did Southern English begin? In E. Schneider (Ed.), Old Englishes and beyond: Studies in honour of Manfred Gorlach (pp. 255–275). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.
  • Bailey, G. (2001). The relationship between AAVE and White vernaculars in the American South: Some phonological evidence. In S. Lanehart (Ed.), Sociocultural and historical contexts of African American English (pp. 53–92). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.
  • Bailey, G., Cukor-Avila, P., & Salinas, J. (Forthcoming). Inheritance and Innovation in the Evolution of Rural African American English (Elements in World Englishes). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bailey, G., & Maynor, N. (1987). Decreolization? Language in Society, 16(4), 449–473.
  • Bailey, G., & Maynor, N. (1989). The divergence controversy. American Speech, 64(1), 12–39.
  • Bailey, G., Maynor, N., & Cukor-Avila, P. (1991). The emergence of Black English text and commentary. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.
  • Bailey, G., & Thomas, E. (1998). Some aspects of African-American vernacular English phonology. In S. S. Mufwene, J. R. Rickford, G. Bailey, & J. Baugh (Eds.), African-American English: Structure, history, and use (pp. 85–109). London, UK: Routledge.
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  • 1. For examples of work that use these texts, see Dillard (1972) and Stewart (1967, 1968).

  • 2. Harrison (1884) seems to be the first scholarly work on AAE. African Americans were interviewed for the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States (LAMSAS) beginning in the 1930s, but the pioneering work here was Lorenzo Dow Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949).

  • 3. Many of the interviews were published in Rawick (1972–1979); see Schneider (1989) for an important analysis of some of those interviews. See Bailey et al. (1991) for transcripts of most of the recordings of former slaves held by the Library of Congress and for a group of essays that analyze those recordings. Kautzsch (2002) is an important analysis of a variety of early sources; see also Ewers (1996). Schneider (2015) has an excellent discussion of all the sources that provide insight into 19th-century AAE.

  • 4. See Berlin (1998) for a comprehensive discussion of the first two centuries of American slavery.

  • 5. Bereiter and Engelmann (1967) is probably the best-known example of a scholarly work that takes this approach.

  • 6. In fact, some dialectologists such as Williamson (1961) and argued that ethnic dialects as such do not exist; rather, ethnic differences are largely quantitative and part of the larger fabric of regional dialects. For an interesting early account of regional differences in AAE, see Pederson (1972).

  • 7. Much of the discussion and the statistics cited here come from Bailey (2001), which includes a number of tables and maps that show the expansion of slavery and a useful list of historical and demographic sources.

  • 8. For a more complete discussion of the role of the country store in the Southern economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, see Ayers (1992); see Bailey (1997) for some linguistic implications.

  • 9. The classic study of farm tenancy is Agee and Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

  • 10. See Bailey and Maynor (1987) for a more extensive discussion of the Great Migration and some of its linguistic consequences.

  • 11. See Frey et al. (2001) and Tillery et al. (2004) for further discussion of the reversal of the Great Migration.

  • 12. For an overview of the early debate on the origins of AAE, see the introduction in Montgomery and Bailey (1986).

  • 13. The Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (LAGS) is a notable exception. Begun in 1968, with publication completed in 1995, the LAGS sample is 21% African American. It includes a significantly larger number of urban and younger informants and is the first atlas to be completely tape recorded, with the recordings preserved for future use. It is an important but largely untapped resource of information on AAE as it was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • 14. Not all quantitative sociolinguists would agree with Fasold. Note especially the essays in Poplack (2000). As Poplack pointed out, the selection of features and the failure to make comparisons with Southern White vernaculars made the Creolist position seem much stronger than it actually was.

  • 15. Although it is sometimes now overlooked, the work of Beryl Bailey (1965) was especially important in formulating the Creole hypothesis.

  • 16. Zero copula/auxiliary also occurs sometimes in Southern White vernaculars, but Wolfram (1974) argued persuasively that this most likely was the result of the influence of Black speech on White.

  • 17. Rickford (1998) is an excellent summary of the issues surrounding zero copula/auxiliary.

  • 18. Something that complicates the discussion of the Creole Hypothesis is disagreements about the status of creole languages themselves. See McWhorter (1998) and Mufwene (1996a, 1996b) for excellent discussions of this issue.

  • 19. See Bailey et al. (forthcoming) for a detailed discussion of this point.

  • 20. In an effort to reconstruct earlier AAE, Poplack and Tagliamonte (2001) and the essays in Poplack (2000) examine several “sister varieties” of present-day AAE—that is, varieties that are independent developments from an earlier ancestor. Most prominent among these is Samaná. Like Schneider (1989) and Kautzsch (2002), they also examined a broader range of features than earlier studies had. See also Singler’s work (1989) on Liberian Settler English for additional work in comparative reconstruction. Some of this work also appears in Bailey et al. (1991).

  • 21. See also the carefully nuanced position in Winford (1997, 1998).

  • 22. Thomas and Bailey (1998) pointed out that evidence from the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States confirms the differences between earlier AAE and White speech: monophthongal /e/ and /o/ rarely occur in White speech, and when they do, it is in areas with majority African American populations.

  • 23. Even much of the research on the slave narratives and other texts compiled from people born in the 19th century has looked at the implications of this evidence for the origins of AAE rather than its later history.

  • 24. See Bailey (1997) for a discussion of the origins and spread of these shared features. Although fixin’ to is shared with Southern White vernaculars, the form has undergone further reductions in AAE (e.g., to fitna) that make it phonologically distinct from fixin’ to in many Southern White vernaculars.

  • 25. See Bailey (1989) for more details on the history of this second type of invariant be.

  • 26. The mismatch between form and function was further complicated by zero copula/auxiliary, which also served as an alternative form for are and is, especially before present participles and gonna.

  • 27. Of course, will/would and useta function as past habituals in White vernaculars too.