Yo You Wanna Learn ‘African American English?’ Listen to Rap

January 4, 2012 ‐ By

I bet you thought you were just entertaining yourself bopping around to the lyrics of Drake’s newest song or Kanye and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne album. Nope. You were actually learning a new language called African American English. That’s cray right?

Researchers at the University of Alberta with nothing better to do asked 166 non-African-Americans from the the University of Minnesota the meanings of 64 expressions used in “black youth culture.” Results from the survey showed a positive association between the number of hip-hop artists listened to and African American English comprehension vocabulary scores. Yes, they actually named it.

So what covert wordsmithing did the researchers uncover? The use of “road dog” to mean friend (what year is?), “guap” as referring to a lot of money (2007?), and “dollar cab” as an underground railroad (isn’t that the black town car that charges me $7 to go up the block in NYC?) What takes the cake is that the study is actually titled, “You Know What It Is: Learning Words through Listening to Hip-Hop.

I thought the whole ebonics discussion went out the window years ago, so the fact that someone actually took the time to study this fictitious thing known as African American English is baffling to me. Is it just me or does this whole study make African Americans sound like a foreign species? While I want to chalk this all up to one of those “white people being impressed with average things black people do” moments like “Oh my God how does he come up with those lyrics,” something feels just a bit more Divisive about this. Oops, I mean, these researchers are on one. Newsflash: African Americans are Americans and we speak English like everyone else.

What do you think about this study and the whole idea of African American English?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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  • FL

    Linguist, here.

    African American English DOES exist; as does “Valley Girl,” “New York English,” “Redneck,” and every other dialect that is “different” than the one you speak. There is, in fact, no such thing as a standard English. We have formulated a standard as a means to learn and, roughly, maintain the language (mostly due to writing). Certainly no one in the US is expected to pronounce every letter in every word (20 = twunny; not twen-tee). AAE exists just like other dialects. In fact, it’s not even a “lesser” variety of English; not one dialect of English is lesser than any other. If you feel that there is, it’s based solely on your thoughts of the speakers of that dialect, not on the dialect itself. Phonemes (sounds) are arbitrary. Phonemes make up languages. And dialects. And accents. There are no inherently good or bad sounds in language, therefore no dialect of one’s language can be considered inherently bad based on the language itself. Social constructs around the speakers create opinions.

    AAE even has it’s own structure. There are verb combinations that occur in AAE that aren’t used in other varieties of English. They are systematic and occur without error just as much as other dialects. It’s important to note, however, that the mere fact that AAE has a system for syntax and pragmatics deems it a true variety of English and not a lesser version. Speakers of AAE have no trouble understanding other speakers of AAE, just as two speakers within a single dialect would have no trouble understanding each other.

    The “slang” comes and goes in AAE just as it does in other dialects. Imagine the cool words to say when you were in your teens compared to what teenagers say now- drastically different. The lexicon of AAE is unique, just as other dialects have their own lexicon.

    It is untrue that non-speakers of AAE learn the dialect through rap music. That’s like comparing knowing the names of football players because one watches football every Sunday during the NFL season. With repetition and thought, words stick. These non-speakers may know the correct usage but they do not use the words consistently, if at all, because they are not speakers of this dialect.
    Dialects exist because of our differences. Anything can contribute to the language that you use; age, sex, geographic location, race, multi-lingualism, social status, occupation, education level, etc.One final note is that Ebonics is an entirely incorrect term. It literally means “black sounds” (eb from ebony=black, onics from phonics=sounds). This term was dubbed in 1973 and stuck when a study was conducted in Oakland, CA to promote the existence of AAE. Ebonics now refers to this specific study only.KASHBMARYD- we already are talking about Spanglish. And every utterance that you create. We have been for years. Try googling “code-switching.” Just might blow your mind. Better yet, Google anything in regards to how you speak or anything that someone with a “funny accent” says. There’s a study on it, guaranteed. APRILMAYJUNE- Linguists are not obsessed with black English. Some linguists (such as myself) love the topic and choose to study, experiment with, and write about it.

  • Kashbmaryd

    Clearly Canada is bored playing in the snow and watching hockey so they went back and renamed ebonics. Give these “researchers” another 10 years and they’ll be talking about Latino-American English (spanglish). This happens from time to time so don’t let it get to you.

  • reese

    No, most black people don’t talk this way.  I don’t even understand alot of the slang.

  • aprilmayjune

    ridiculous. every race, culture, and segment has its own vernacular…..why are wht ppl constantly obsessed with us?

  • IllyPhilly

    Why is slang under scrutiny and pin pointed as black English. fagetaboutit (forget about it) Italian for everything. Why don’t we talk about everyone’s slang.