LINGUIST List 14.195

Mon Jan 20 2003

Review: Language Description: Green (2002)

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  1. Shawn Steinhart, Green (2002), African American English

Message 1: Green (2002), African American English

Date: Mon, 20 Jan 2003 11:02:25 +0000
From: Shawn Steinhart <>
Subject: Green (2002), African American English

Green, Lisa J. (2002) African American English: A Linguistic
Introduction. Cambridge University Press, hardback ISBN 0-521-81449-9

Book Announcement on Linguist:

Shawn E. Steinhart, University of Arizona

In his forward, John Baugh finds it ''difficult to contain [his]
excitement'' (ix) at the publication of Lisa Green's ''African
American English: A Linguistic Introduction''. This is the first
textbook devoted to the grammar and use of African American English
(AAE), and is divided into eight chapters. The first four deal with
the structure of AAE, while the last four are concerned with AAE in
use in speech events, in literature, in the media, and in the

Chapters 1-4 are devoted to a discussion of the linguistic system of
AAE. The first chapter deals with the lexicon, perhaps one of the
most misunderstood elements of AAE. Green explains that the lexicon of
AAE is often discussed in terms of words used by African American
youth, and she acknowledges that this is an important component. There
is, however, a category of words with long histories that are used
consistently across all age groups. It is this kind of consistency and
systematicity that Green seeks to highlight.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 discuss verbal markers in AAE, syntactic and
morphosyntactic properties, and phonology, respectively. Chapter 2
contains a discussion of the AAE auxiliary system and the aspectual
''to be''. She provides ample examples of the use of these features in
speech, and compares them to Standard European American English (SEAE)
constructions. She gives similar treatment to the features she
discusses in chapters 3 and 4, providing charts and exercises in which
readers are asked to assess the grammaticality of sample sentences and
to compare the meanings of such sentences as ''Don?t nothing happen in
this small town'' and ''Nothing don't happen in this small town.''

Green discusses the use of AAE in chapter 5. She provides an overview
of such speech events as signifying, playing the dozens, and woofing,
and discusses the rules that govern such interactions. A large portion
of this chapter is dedicated to the African American church service
and the interactions one observes between pastor and
congregation. Excerpts from Baptist services are presented for
analyses, and Green calls attention to the pastor's use of
call-and-response and repetition. In a particularly interesting
(though extremely short) section of the chapter, Green touches on AAE
acquisition, and summarizes the studies which assess the development
of language in AAE-speaking children.

Chapters 6-7 analyze the representation of AAE in literature and the
media from the middle of the 19th century to the present. These
chapters include discussions of the work of William Wells Brown, Zora
Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Spike Lee. Green even analyzes
dialogue from the popular 1990's situation comedy The Fresh Prince of
Bel Air. While these chapters may seem like a distraction from the
linguistic material the book sets out to introduce, they serve to set
the language in context. This is, after all, one of Green's central
goals?-to show AAE as a language system in practice rather than as
linguistic features presented in isolation.

The book concludes with a discussion of the role of AAE in the
classroom and in the workplace, which will be of particular interest
to teachers. Those of us who are both students of linguistics and
teachers of English for academic purposes often find ourselves in a
difficult situation, wanting to validate and celebrate linguistic
diversity while trying to empower our students with skills in AAE. How
do we teach the standard without denigrating the home variety? Green
begins to address this question by summarizing some of the seminal
work on attitudes toward AAE in the workplace and in the classroom.
She discusses Labov's (1972) ''The Logic of Nonstandard English,''
which was among the first works to recognize the systematicity of AAE
and its legitimacy as a language variety. She also discusses the 1979
Ann Arbor ''Black English Case,'' in which parents of elementary
school children successfully argued that their children's learning was
hindered by the school's failure to recognize and account for their
use of language. Green goes on to summarize arguments about the
appropriateness of AAE in the workplace, providing a broad spectrum of
voices on the subject, but ultimately acknowledging that SEAE is the
language of power and that speakers of AAE must be bidialectal in
order to succeed. She summarizes some of the work in the area of
teaching bidialectalism, providing the reader with a few strategies
for implementation in the classroom. Green relies heavily on Labov's
(1995) four principles for teaching reading, which include doing
contrastive analysis of AAE and SEAE, and she provides a short section
on techniques teachers can use in the classroom (role-playing in AAE
and SEAE contexts, drills, flashcards), but does not give the reader
much in the way of innovative strategies. One cannot, of course, fault
Green for this; there is an unfortunate scarcity of new material on
the use of AAE in the classroom, and Green is simply working with what
is available,

Indeed, it is difficult to fault Green for any of the book's
shortcomings. She is, after all, a trailblazer, and one should expect
the path she cuts to be a little rough. One might, for example, argue
that Green tries to do too much with this book, including not only a
discussion of the linguistic features of AAE, but of its
representation in the media, its non-verbal elements (eye movement and
''giving dap''), and attitudes toward it in the workplace. However,
Green's book is valuable precisely because she includes these
elements. Rather than follow the traditional pattern of listing
features in isolation, Green shows AAE as a living language, and
though in his forward Baugh praises Green for setting aside the
sociolinguistic issues and focusing instead on ''relevant historical
issues'' (ix), this reviewer believes that Green does address
sociolinguistic issues. It would be virtually impossible to write such
a book without doing so.

Perhaps the only major criticism one can level at this book is its
inconsistency in addressing its intended audience. In her preface,
Green explains that the book ''is intended for students who are taking
general courses that address AAE as well as for those who want to
learn about the ways in which the variety is systematic'' (xi). One
can assume, then, that Green's intended audience has minimal training
in linguistics, and indeed Green defines basic linguistic concepts
(morphology, phonology, syntax, lexical items) as she goes. In the
phonology section, Green even includes a diagram of the larynx and a
description of the state of the vocal chords during the production of
different sounds. The book's style, however, seems more appropriate
for advanced graduate students, and though it defines certain
linguistic terms, it assumes a knowledge of others (e.g. such
grammatical terms as ''modal'' and ''future resultant state''). This
book might not be appropriate for undergraduate students or beginning
master's students in teacher training programs, but it is certainly
appropriate for those with some basic linguistics under their belts.

Baugh has every reason to be excited by this book. It serves as an
excellent introduction to the structure of AAE and of the
sociocultural issues surrounding its use. Green incorporates the work
of the major players in the field of AAE studies, and anyone
interested in further study can use this book as a starting point,
gaining basic information and finding sources for more in-depth
discussion. It should certainly be a part of any graduate course
dealing with AAE or, for that matter, language variation in general.


Shawn Steinhart is currently a doctoral student in the University of
Arizona's interdisciplinary Second Language Acquisition and Teaching
program. His academic interests are educational sociolinguistics,
dialect, and the teaching of English composition. He is also a
Graduate Associate Teacher in the English department, where he teaches
first-year composition.
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