Review of African American English
Date: Sat, 18 Jan 2003 14:16:07 -0700
From: Shawn Steinhart
Subject: Review: Green (200) African American English
Green, Lisa J. (2002) African American English: A Linguistic Introduction.
Cambridge University Press, hardback ISBN 0-521-81449-9 ix-271
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
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.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.