Stanford University, Fall 1996
Prof. John R. Rickford

Linguistics 73:
African American Vernacular English (AAVE)

TIME AND PLACE: TTh 10-11:30, Bldg 200 (History) Rm 034; In addition, there will usually be a section meeting each week, lasting 1 to 2 hours. This will involve, among other things, a visit to an Afr American church, viewing of videotapes and discussion of technical details and/or issues of interest covered in the texts or classes each week. Attendance at sections is required. Times tba..

COURSE CREDIT: 4 units; 5th unit for tutoring Af Am student and writing an 8-page double-spaced paper describing the experience and relating it to material covered in this course. Contact Anne Takemoto (3-5786, cr.ast@forsythe) at Haas Center for placement in Ravenswood Tutoring program.

DRs: Fulfills DR:3 American Cultures, and DR 9(4) Social and Behavioral Sciences.

INSTRUCTOR'S OFFICE: Bldg 460(CS), Rm 114; rickford@csli; 5-1565; Hrs: F 1:15-3:15

TEACHING ASSISTANTS: Jabari Anderson (frisco@leland;7-4046; office hrs Th 1-3, 460-113); Yukiko Morimoto (morimoto@csli; 3-0924; office hrs T 1-3, 460-124); Sean Williford (smw@csli; 3-0924; office hrs W 10-12, 460-124).

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This course deals with the distinctive varieties of English used by and among African Americans, particularly in big-city settings, and their parallels elsewhere in Africa and the New World (especially in the Caribbean). The subject is approached from four perspectives:

(1) Present-Day Features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), its pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary (phonology, syntax, lexicon), as exemplified primarily in the informal vernacular speech of African Americans, but also in literature, music and the media.

(2) History of AAVE, exploring earlier examples of African American English, and its source in African languages, as well as the controversial question of its possible creole ancestry. Comparison with creole languages currently spoken in the Caribbean and off the S Carolina coast (Gullah) will be undertaken to shed light on this controversy. A more recent issue, which we will also explore, is whether AAVE is currently diverging from Standard English and White Vernacular English.

(3) Speech Events and Expressive Language Use (SEELU): Structure and function of such expressive African American Speech Events (verbal routines and rituals) as preaching, rappin, signifying, soundin, and boastin, comparison of Black and White communicative styles, the structure of African American narratives, and the expressive use of AAVE in literature, music and the media.

(4) Educational Issues connected with the use of AAVE; attitudes towards this variety and its effects on students' progress; the extent to which AAVE affects the learning of Standard English and the acquisition of reading skills, the controversies about whether it should be "wiped out" or used as a basis for the teaching of initial literacy skills in the classroom, and so on.


(1) Kochman, Thomas. 1981. Black and White Styles in Conflict. $8.95

(2) Smitherman, Geneva. 1986. Talkin and Testifyin: The language of Black America. Wayne State University Press, 1986. $15.95

(3) Smitherman, Geneva. 1994. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. $14.95

(4) Wright, Donald R. 1990. African Americans in the Colonial Era. Arlington Heights, IL.: Harlan Davidson, Inc. 11.95 (recommended).

(5) One or two relatively small reading packets, from Copy Perfect (323-1025). NOTE: For Tues Oct 1, read Chap 1 "Intro" of Rickford/Green ms, (1996), given out in class.

REQUIREMENTS AND GRADES: Course grades will be based on the following:

A. Assignments and Mid-term exam (30%);

B. Final exam three hours (7-10 pm) on date assigned in Winter schedule (30%),.

C. Attendance & participation in classes and sections (10%)

D. Research paper on any subject related to one of the four primary areas of the course (30%). A one-page proposal describing your paper topic, references and data, is due in class on Thu Oct 31. The paper itself, 8-10 double spaced pages, is due in class Tue Nov 26 (no exceptions).



After completing section 1 of this course, students should:

1.1 Understand some of the basic principles and methods which linguists use in analyzing human language, such as the primacy of speech over writing, and the distinction between phonology (including phones and phonemes, grammar (including morphology and syntax), and semantics (including the lexicon).

1.2*: Be able to explain, with examples, some of the principal ways in which dialects of a language vary, in terms of phonology, grammar, and semantics, in terms of the effects of geography, socioeconomic factors, attitudes, and style, and also in terms of quantitative as well as qualitative differences.

1.3*: Appreciate the fact that languages and dialects in general are systematic and rule-governed, and that AAVE is not just a "careless" form of speech in which "anything goes", but a systematic and rule-governed system like other dialects.

1.4*: Be able to describe, with examples, some of the basic linguistic features of AAVE, as it contrasts with Standard English (SE) in phonology, grammar, and lexicon. Students should be able to give three examples of distinctive AAVE features in each of these areas.

1.5 Be able to recognize when children and adults are speaking AAVE, or when it is being used in literature, film, and/or song, and be capable of identifying the specific linguistic features by which they were able to recognize texts or speech samples as AAVE;

(*The wording of these asterisked objectives follows closely the wording of the Formal instructional Component of the plan submitted by the Ann Arbor School of District Board on August 24, 1979, following a ruling by the US District Court that the School Board had not taken appropiate action, as required by Equal Educational opportunities Act of 1974, to overcome the barrier to equal participation in instructional programs caused by the fact that African American children at the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School. District Court Judge J. Joiner ruled in favour of the plaintiffs on July 12, 1979, and required the defendant School Board to "take steps to help teachers to recognize home language of students and to use that knowledge in their attempts to teach reading skills and standard English."

The plan submitted by the School Board was an attempt to satisfy the court's ruling, and was intended to inform the professional staff of King Elementary School about the features of AAVE and to assist them in teaching speakers of AAVE to read S.E., by means of a formal course of instruction by a special language consultant.

This is a fairly long digression from my list of objectives for this course but the court decision is, as I noted above, a very significant one, and one which I thought was worth mentioning now even though I plan to return to it in more detail later on.)


After completing section 2 of this course, students should:

2.1: Understand, in general terms, what pidgin and creole languages are.

2.2: Have been exposed to some actual samples of Caribbean creole languages, and to earlier varieties of African American English.

2.3: Be able to describe, with an example, at least one "typical" linguistic feature of a Caribbean creole language in each of the following areas: phonology, grammar, and lexicon.

2.4: Be able to summarize the principal viewpoints about the possible "creole" history of AAVE.

2.5: Be able to explain what kinds of criteria might be used in assessing the arguments for and against a possible creole origin for AAVE

2.6: Be able to cite at least three bits of linguistic evidence which can be brought to bear on the issue of the possible creole origin of AAVE 2.7: Be able to summarize the hypothesis about the durrent "divergence" of AAVE from SE and White vernaculars, and present at least three bits of evidence for and against it.


After completing section 3 of this course, students should:

3.1 Be able to explain what a speech event is, in general terms.

3.2: Be able to describe some of the general components of speech events (setting, participants, etc.).

3.3: Have been exposed to some actual examples of AAVE speech events and communicative styles and have been involved in discussions of their characteristics, including similarities with and differences from comparable speech events/communicative styles of European Americans and Americans of other ethnic backgrounds.

3.4: Appreciate some of the positive effects of African American speech events in relation to the development of verbal and interactional skills, self-assertiveness, solidarity maintenance, and so on;

3.5: Be aware of parallels to African American spech events which exist in the Caribbean.

3.6: Appreciate some of the ways in which AAVE or its creole counterparts is put to expressive use in literature, music or other aesthetic art forms. 3.7: Be able to describe the characteristics of narratives told by African American speakers, especially as these vary in structure and complexity with age.


After completing section 4 of this course, students should:

4.1: Be aware of the attitudes toward AAVE which teachers and others tend to have, and the ways these can affect individual performance.

4.2: Appreciate the extent to which African American children, particularly in big-city areas, experience difficulty in learning to read and express themselves in Standard English (SE).

4.3:Be able to indicate some of the specific ways in which a native competence in AAVE might affect children's attempts to learn to read and express themselves adequately in SE.

4.4: Be able to discuss the pros and cons of the existing requirements of schools and society that individuals be able to understand and use SE adequately to succeed at school and in many kinds of work.

4.5: Be able to explain some of the possible instructional strategies which might be used to help children learn to read in SE (assuming that this is considered a desirable goal).

4.6:Be able to form and defend their opinions on which of these strategies are most feasible and likely to succeed.

4.7 Be able to suggest alternative ways of overcoming the reading/expression problems faced by many African American children in schools and society if it NOT considered desirable that all individuals be able to understand and use SE adequately in order to succeed.


By the end of the course, in addition to having attained the "content" objectives outlined above, students should also have attained the following general "facilitating" or "incidental" objectives:

5.1 Have had practice in contributing to class discussions, even if only with one's immediate neighbour in class, and thereby have had practice in the skills of speaking in public, expressing one's point of view, reasoning with others, etc.

5.2 Have gained experience (and hopefully expertise) in the making and organizing of notes from classes, readings, etc. (A 3-ring binder is essential for the class. Please buy and use one if you don't already have one.)

5.3 Have gained experience in reviewing the available literature and conducting some original research, in connection with the research paper.


Linguistics 73, Fall 1996, Stanford
John R. Rickford African American Vernacular English (AAVE)
Syllabus (Schedule of Topics and Readings)

Week 1: [No section]

#1: Thu Sep 26: Issues in the Study of African American Vernacular English (What IS AAVE? How do people feel about it? What did the earliest Africans arriving in colonial America speak?), followed by Overview of Course Objectives and Requirements.

Week 2: [Section focus: Regional and social variation in language]

#2: Tue Oct 1: How linguists approach the study of language, and How Dialects Vary. Video: "American Tongues." Read: Rickford & Green 1996, chap 1, 1-55.

#3: Thu Oct 3: Speech Events & Expressive Language Use (SEELU) I--Black culture, classroom modalities, fighting words, boasting & bragging. Read: Kochman 1981, Black and White Styles in Conflict, chaps 1-4, pp 1-73 ASSIG 1 ON LEXICON, DUE T 10/8

Week 3: [Section focus: Lexicon and discussion of Smitherman, Kochman]

#4: Tue Oct 8: Present-Day Features I: Lexicon ; Read: Smitherman 1986, Talkin and Testifyin , chap 3: 35-72, Appendix C:251-59; Smitherman 1994. [ASSIGNMENT 1 DUE]

#5: Thu Oct 10: Speech Events &Expressive Language Use (SEELU) II The African American Oral Tradition--from the Sermon to the Snap. Video: "The Performed Word." Read: Smitherman 1986, Talkin and Testifyin, chap 4, 73-100 & 5, 101-166

Week 4: [Section focus: Phonetics and discussion of Kochman]

Sun Oct 13: Visit to Black Church--Jerusalem Baptist Church, Palo Alto

#6: Tue Oct 15: Speech Events & Expressive Language Use (SEELU) III--Male/Female interaction to Style. Read: Kochman 1981, Black and White Styles in Conflict, chaps 5-10, pp 74-160.

#7: Thu Oct 17: Phonetics. Read: Ohio Language Files #20, Sounds of Speech, 45-47, #21, Artic and Descrip of Eng Consonants, 49-54, and #22, Artic and Descrip of Eng Vowels, 55-57

Week 5: [Section focus: Phonetics & Grammar]

#8: Tue Oct 22: Present Day Features II: AAVE Phonetics and Phonology . Read: Smitherman 1986, Talkin and Testifyin , chap 2:16-18; Fasold and Wolfram 1975:49-55;

#9 Thu Oct 24: Present Day Features III--AAVE Grammar . Read: Smitherman 1986, Talkin and Testifyin, chap 2:18-34; App. B:247-50; Fasold and Wolfram 1975:63-71 Week 6: [Section focus: Grammar and revision for mid-term exam]

#10: Tue Oct 29: Present Day Features IV-AAVE Grammar . Read: Fasold & Wolfram 1975:72-82. RESEARCH PAPER PROPOSALS (1 PG.) DUE IN CLASS TODAY. #11: Thu Oct 31: Celebration of Knowledge (aka Mid term exam)

Week 7: [Section focus: Creoles; Video: Daughters of the Dust]

#12: Tue Nov 5: History I : Pidgins and Creoles. Read: Rickford 1992: 224-232; Alleyne 1980: 11-13, 26; Smitherman 1986, Talkin and Testifyin , chap 1:1-15; Jones-Jackson 1987:132-46. Video: "Story of English: Black on White"

#13: Thu Nov 7: History II: Creole Hypothesis wrt AAVE. Read: Rickford 1977:190-221; Burling 1970:111-128; Rickford 1996:1-15

Week 8: [Section focus: Prior creolization and Divergence issues]

#14: Tue Nov 12: History III: Development of AAVE in the US Read: Stewart 1970:351-379. Donald 1990, chaps 2 & 3:46-80, 81-115

#15: Thu Nov 14: History IV: The Divergence Issue . Read: Fasold et al. 1987:3-80. Video: Kochman, Labov, Smitherman, Vaughn-Cooke debate Divergence issue on TV

Week 9: [Section focus: Attitudes to AAVE; ]

#16: Tue Nov 19: Education I--Language attitudes towards AAVE vs Standard English Read: Labov 1972 [1970]: 201-240; Terrell & Terrell 1983:27-29; Jordan 1985:123-39; Fordham and Ogbu 1986:176-206; Jones 1995 [1982}: 290-293. Video: Oprah Winfrey's "Black English"

#17: Thu Nov 21: Education II-- Standards and Testing Read: Vaughn-Cooke 1983:29-34; Smitherman 1986, Talkin and Testifyin, chap 6:167-201; Hoover, Politzer and Taylor 1987:81-98; Wolfram 1991, Dialects & American English, chap 10:207-27)

Week 10: [Section focus: King Case]

#18: Tue Nov 26: Education III: The King case; in Ann Arbor Read: Smitherman 1981:40-56 (Harvard Ed. Rev paper); Labov 1982:165-201; Scott 1985:63-71; Video: The King Case



Week 11: [Section focus: Literacy]

#19: Tue Dec 3: Education III Literacy . Read: Smitherman 1986, Talkin and Testifyin, chap 7:201-241; Taylor and Matsuda 1988:206-220. Video: "I am a Promise"

#20: Thu Dec 5: Education IV: Dialect Readers. Concluding Remarks, Course Evaluations Labov 1995:39-68; Rickford and Rickford 1995:107-128