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2 - The Study of Middle-Class African American English

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2021

Tracey L. Weldon
University of South Carolina


This chapter begins with a review of the early literature on William Labov’s 1972 concept of the linguistic lame, its influence on the study of African American English, and its role in shaping linguistic perceptions of middle-class speakers. The chapter then proceeds with a summary of the small, but growing, body of research on the use of AAE by middle-class speakers, including studies of social stratification, intraspeaker variation, performative language practices, and attitudes and perceptions. The chapter ends with an overview of the topics covered in subsequent chapters of the book.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

To be lame means to be outside of the central group and its culture; it is a negative characterization and does not imply any single set of social characteristics. … What all lames have in common is that they lack the knowledge which is necessary to run any kind of a game in the vernacular culture.

—William Labov (Reference Labov1972a)

I have had numerous discussions about class and race with middle-class African Americans. None of them equate being middle-class with an absence of African American culture and values. … [R]acial consciousness continues to be an important indicator of community membership.

—Marcyliena Morgan (Reference Morgan and Morgan1994)

The Linguistic Consequences of Being a Lame

The concept of the linguistic “lame” emerged out of a tradition in early AAE research that focused disproportionately on the speech of working-class adolescent boys who were core members of the street or “vernacular” culture of the inner cities. Labov (Reference Labov1972a) provided a compelling argument for why the language of this group required the attention of sociolinguists to dispel harmful myths about verbal deprivation and genetic inferiority (see, e.g., Bereiter and Englemann Reference Bereiter and Englemann1966; Jensen Reference Jensen1969) and to address the severe reading challenges faced by many vernacular speakers in schools. (See also Labov et al. Reference Labov, Cohen and Robbins1965, Reference Labov, Cohen, Robbins and Lewis1968.) Middle-class speakers, among others, were cast aside as linguistic lames, who were presumed to be too far removed from street culture to be influenced by the vernacular. And even within urban working-class communities, Labov identified as lames certain “isolated individuals” who did not hang out in peer groups dominated by vernacular culture norms.

In his chapter on “The Linguistic Consequences of Being a Lame,” Labov (Reference Labov1972a) reported the results of a peer group study in Harlem, New York that compared the speech of inner-city “lames” to that of “members” of the vernacular culture.Footnote 1 Four preadolescent groups, ranging in age from nine to thirteen years old, were observed for their use of several socially diagnostic linguistic features (see Table 2.1), distributed across a range of speech styles. No casual speech data were collected from the “lames,” however, who were only recorded in individual interviews.

Table 2.1 Phonological and grammatical features in Harlem study (Labov Reference Labov1972a)

Phonological features
consonant cluster reductionpast, passed [s]
fricative stoppingthis [d]
post-vocalic [r] absencecar, four o’clock Ø
unstressed nasal frontingworking [n]
Grammatical features
copula (is/are) absenceHe Ø working with us.
existential itIt’s a policeman at the door.
inverted word order in embedded questionsI asked him could he do it.
negative concordNobody knows nothing about it.

Note: With the exception of unstressed nasal fronting, all examples in Table 2.1 are from Labov (Reference Labov1972a).

Labov also compared patterns of subject–verb agreement for have, do, want, say, and was – five verbs that have been found to exhibit high rates of nonagreement among vernacular speakers. For this comparison, Labov observed adolescent lames and club members, as well as an older peer group, known as the Oscar Brothers (ages eighteen to nineteen), and a White peer group from the Inwood section of upper Manhattan. Compared to the vernacular peer group members, the lames exhibited lower rates of vernacular usage for most of the observed features, often with patterns of linguistic constraint that resembled those found among White speakers. Labov interpreted the lames’ patterns as indicative of their removal from Black vernacular culture and a closer adherence to White mainstream norms.

In his analysis of the largest adolescent peer group, Labov also found a strong correlation between status in the group and rates of vernacular usage. Specifically, core members exhibited the most consistent use of vernacular features, compared to peripheral members, older members, and lames, who produced significantly lower frequencies of most vernacular forms. Furthermore, the Oscar Brothers, described as “older and wiser” than the other adolescent groups, were beginning to show signs of modifying their speech in the direction of more standard norms, particularly in their use of were with plural and second-person singular subjects. Also, a group of adults who were interviewed in the study produced vernacular frequencies that were much more consistent with those of the adolescent lames. Given these observations, Labov suggested that vernacular speakers might become more “lame” as they approach adulthood and become increasingly isolated from the influence of vernacular street culture. However, he also acknowledged the possibility that, over time, adults simply become more adept at shifting into more standard styles of speaking in formal contexts (Reference Labov1972a: 285). Unfortunately, because the adults in this study, like the younger lames, were only observed in interview settings, there was no opportunity for Labov to observe their styleshifting ability in this way.Footnote 2

Based on his findings, Labov concluded that lames suffered “a loss of some magnitude” in not being able to draw upon the “rich verbal culture” of the vernacular and the prestige of peer group membership. Consequently, they were deemed to be unreliable subjects in studies of the vernacular. “If we are interested in toasts, jokes, sounds, the dozens, riffing, or capping, we cannot turn to the lames. They have heard sounding from a distance, but proficiency at these verbal skills is achieved only by daily practice and constant immersion in the flow of speech” (Labov Reference Labov1972a: 288). What followed were decades of research focused on the “authentic Other,” contributing to the perception that the vernacular was only spoken by those who were “hip, male, adolescent, street, or gang-related” (Morgan Reference Morgan and Morgan1994: 135). This tradition of research left little room for consideration of the ways in which many middle-class African Americans use the vernacular to construct their own racial/ethnic identities and to counterbalance the effects of mainstream assimilation. As observed by Marcyliena Morgan,

I have had numerous discussions about class and race with middle-class African Americans. None of them equate being middle-class with an absence of African American culture and values. They argue that the street culture (as defined by sociologists) is integral to the community, and they object to any attempt to identify it as either representative or separate. Thus, though the representation of class may be changing in the African American community – and quite likely the significance of education as an indicator of social class – racial consciousness continues to be an important indicator of community membership.

As noted in Chapter 1, researchers in recent years have begun to extend the study of AAE beyond working-class speech communities, yielding a small body of research on middle-class AAE that includes studies of social stratification, intraspeaker variation, performative language practices, and attitudes and perceptions. In the sections to follow, I discuss some of these pioneering studies and position the current project within the context of this burgeoning line of research.

Social Stratification

Traditional approaches to sociolinguistic variation focused on the stratification (or social differentiation) of linguistic variables across a given speech community. Of primary interest were the relative frequencies of particular linguistic features, or markers, as they were distributed across social classes and along a formality continuum, thus reflecting the varying levels of prestige (or status) assigned to them (see, e.g., Labov Reference Labov1966). While stratification studies such as these were foundational to sociolinguistic research, there were relatively few such studies conducted in African American speech communities. Using dialect atlas methodology to classify speakers by level of education, Williamson (Reference Williamson1968) provided an early examination of the social distribution of phonological and morphological features among African American speakers in Memphis, Tennessee. However, her study provided no quantitative analysis of the relative frequencies of these features among the various groups. The first quantitative approach to social stratification in AAE was Wolfram (Reference Wolfram1969), which examined the use of four phonological variables and four grammatical variables (Table 2.2) in the speech of forty-eight African American participants in Detroit, Michigan. The speakers were evenly distributed across four social class categories (Lower Working, Upper Working, Lower Middle, and Upper Middle).

Table 2.2 Phonological and grammatical features in the Detroit study (Wolfram Reference Wolfram1969)

Phonological features
consonant cluster reductiontest [s], laughed [f]
medial and final /Ө/ as [f], [t], or Ø (i.e., zero realization)tooth [f]
nothing [f]/[t]/Ø
with [f]/[t]/Ø
post-vocalic [r] absencework, brother Ø
syllable-final /d/ as [t̚] (i.e., unreleased [t]), [ʔ] or Øgood [t̚ ]/[ ʔ]/ Ø
Grammatical features
s absence in third singular present, possessive, and plural environmentsHe stand_ on his hind legs. (third singular present)
He was really my grandfather_ dog. (possessive)
I wish I had a million dollar_. (plural)
copula (is/are) absenceDolores Ø the vice-president.
We Ø going Friday night.
invariant be in habitual or future contextsSometime she be fighting in school. (habitual)
I be twelve February seven. (future)
multiple negationI couldn’t hardly pick him up.
I don’t bother nobody.
They didn’t have no gym.

Note: All examples in Table 2.2 are from Wolfram (Reference Wolfram1969).

In this study, Wolfram observed relatively consistent use of standard variants among his middle-class speakers, though younger speakers showed some individual variation, and women across all social class categories exhibited more standard usage than men. He also observed that the grammatical variables were sharply stratified across social classes, compared to the phonological variables, three of which were gradiently stratified.Footnote 3 While Wolfram’s findings did not necessarily challenge the depiction of middle-class speakers as “lames,” they did draw attention to the complicating effects of gender, age, and linguistic salience on the social stratification of the observed variables.Footnote 4

Nguyen (Reference Nguyen2006) extended the focus on the social stratification of phonological variables, using data from the 1966 corpus on which Wolfram (Reference Wolfram1969) was based and contemporary interview data that she and others collected between 1999 and 2004 in Detroit, Michigan. Nguyen examined two consonantal variables analyzed by Wolfram – post-vocalic /r/ and syllable-final /d/ – as well as the glide reduction of /ai/ before voiced and voiceless consonants (e.g., ride as [rad], right as [rat]) and the fronting of /ʊ/ (e.g., in could, look). Several of Nguyen’s findings challenged traditional perceptions of middle-class speakers as “lames.” For example, in her examination of syllable-final /d/, Nguyen found that both the “high status” and “low status” speakers in her study exhibited a preference for the “AAE variants” [ʔ] and Ø over the “non-AAE variant” [d], which both groups reportedly used with low, but relatively equal frequency.Footnote 5 In her study, “high status” speakers used [ʔ] more frequently, while “low status” speakers preferred Ø. Nguyen also observed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the higher-status speakers had, in fact, led in a change toward a context-dependent pattern of [ʊ] fronting,Footnote 6 suggesting that middle-class speakers were not categorically disconnected from vernacular culture, but were, instead, speakers who “can and do introduce new features into AAE that may be adopted by speakers of all social status backgrounds” (Reference Nguyen2006: 178).

In a social stratification study of the vowel systems of working- and middle-class African Americans in Lansing, Michigan, Jones and Preston (Reference Jones, Preston and Dwyer2011) observed that young upper-middle-class women were making use of a “divided vocalic system” that was “at once reflective of on-going local changes in the front vowel system, in this case, the Northern Cities Chain Shift (Labov et al. Reference Labov, Yaeger and Steiner1972), but at the same time reflective of older African American norms in the back vowel system” (2). Upper-middle-class speakers in their study participated in the local pattern of /ae/-raising (e.g., “cad” [kæd] as [kɛd] or [kɪd]), which was described as “a regional but not ethnic characteristic” that was gradiently stratified across social classes. However, they resisted the local pattern of /a/-fronting (e.g., “cod” [kɑd] as [kæd]), which, according to Jones and Preston, was resisted by almost all of the African American speakers in their study, resulting in a sharp stratification across ethnic (rather than social class) boundaries. Based on these findings, Jones and Preston concluded that /a/-fronting was “a phonological marker of ethnic identity, and perhaps … even an avoided white sound” (17). They also suggested that this linguistic behavior might reflect what Smitherman (Reference Smitherman1977) called a “push-pull” effect, by which African Americans, and perhaps middle-class African Americans in particular, participated in local linguistic changes while simultaneously retaining a symbolic African American identity through the manipulation of finely tuned phonological features. While limited in their generalizability, given that both were conducted in Michigan, these contemporary studies by Jones and Preston and by Nguyen challenged some previously held assumptions about middle-class African American speakers that emerged from the early sociolinguistic tradition. They also shed light on the importance of ethnically marked, but less overtly stigmatized, phonological features as a means of “sounding Black” at higher levels of the socioeconomic spectrum.

In The Language of Professional Blackness, Grieser (Reference Grieser2014) found that final stop devoicing, which was treated in her study as a continuous variable (cf. syllable-final /d/ in Wolfram Reference Wolfram1969 and Nguyen Reference Nguyen2006), was used by young female “professional-class (PC) aligned” African American speakers in Southeast, Washington, DC to simultaneously index both African American and Professional Class identities.Footnote 7 Using Silverstein’s (Reference Silverstein2003) model of indexicality, Grieser explained:

Final consonant devoicing is a longtime documented feature of AAE, thus one first order meaning arising from this connection is the group-associational meaning of “African American.” … But final consonant devoicing, by departing from the expected pronunciation, shares the iconized connection between “pronounced” and “precise” that drives the patterning with other hyper-articulated features. Because of this, it gains a competing second-order meaning of “correct” or “precise,” which helps explain its presence in the speech of PC-aligned speakers who otherwise have low rates of features of AAE.

(Grieser Reference Grieser2014: 134)

Furthermore, Grieser observed that both the PC-aligned and PC-nonaligned speakers interviewed for her study exhibited an increase in final consonant devoicing with “talk about race,” demonstrating its status as an “ethnoracially marked” feature. And yet, for some PC-aligned speakers, there was also an increase in final consonant devoicing with “talk about talk” (i.e., metalinguistic commentary), where the salience of “correctness” in the topic of the discourse appeared to correlate with the performance of “correctness” or “professionalness” through the same phonological feature. Variable shifts of this sort have also been the focus of a related line of research on Middle-Class AAE, namely intraspeaker variation.

Intraspeaker Variation

In the study of AAE, intraspeaker variation has been the subject of considerable debate as it pertains to the nature of the system(s) at work. For years, linguists have debated whether such variation reflects “dialect mixture,” with speakers drawing from two separate and autonomous linguistic systems, or whether the variation is inherent to a single system. As discussed in Chapter 1, much of the early debate on this topic was linked to the question of AAE’s origins, with supporters of the Creolist Hypothesis arguing that the variation spanned two separate systems (see, e.g., Bailey Reference Bailey1965; Stewart Reference Stewart1967, Reference Stewart1968; Dillard Reference Dillard1972), while Dialectologists argued that the variation was inherent to a single system (see, e.g., Krapp Reference Krapp1924; Kurath Reference Kurath1928). Labov (Reference Labov1972a) endorsed a one-system model, citing linguistic phenomena such as the interrelatedness of contracted and deleted forms of the copula as evidence of its inherent variability.Footnote 8 Mitchell-Kernan (Reference Mitchell-Kernan1971) came to a similar conclusion in her study of an urban working-class community in West Oakland, California, noting the lack of strict co-occurrence restrictionsFootnote 9 between standard and vernacular forms, as well as the ideological treatment of standard and vernacular forms along a “single ranked system” of grammaticality (50). And in a comparison of the sociolinguistic interviews and public presentations of three African American political leaders in the rural South, Kendall and Wolfram (Reference Kendall and Wolfram2009) noted the absence of any “discrete shifts” in diagnostic features across styles, concluding that:

these structures are part of a core vernacular variety that seems immune to code switching. In effect, there is a default or “matrix” variety (Myers-Scotton Reference Myers-Scotton and Myers-Scotton1998) that may show some sensitivity to stylistic shifting or may even be switched from momentarily for performative effect (Schilling-Estes Reference Schilling-Estes1998), but there is no indication of coexisting dialect codes that can be readily accessed by the speakers.

(Kendall and Wolfram Reference Kendall and Wolfram2009: 325)
According to Debose (Reference Debose1992), it is owing to the prevalence of the inherent variability model that so little attention has been given to individual codeswitching in the African American speech community.

Labov’s theoretical claims regarding the inherent variability of American English presuppose a monolingual language situation in the African-American speech community … Dillard, while acknowledging a “bidialectal” linguistic repertoire for African-Americans seems to under-estimate the prevalence of bilingual speakers. He seems to believe that most middle-class blacks are monolingual speakers of SE, whereas most poor blacks are monolingual BE speakers; and that middle class African-Americans rely upon “ethnic slang” for the purpose of maintaining linguistic identity with their group.

(Debose Reference Debose1992: 158)

In his analysis of the conversational strategies of a middle-class African American woman from the San Francisco/Oakland Bay area, whom he described as a “balanced bilingual speaker of BE [Black English] and SE [Standard English],” Debose employed a codeswitching model, as described below:

In this paper, BE and SE are treated as two different closely-related linguistic systems which coexist in the African American linguistic repertoire. Each system is defined as an autonomous grammar, and the interaction between them is considered to be governed by the same principles as those that govern languages in contact (Weinreich Reference Weinreich1953) generally. Such a model does not rule out [Orlando] Taylor’s claim of standard/vernacular variation within BE, but it allows for the separate existence of an ethnically-unmarked standard English as a superposed variety.

(Debose Reference Debose1992: 159)
In a more recent treatment of this issue, Labov (Reference Labov, Mufwene, Rickford, Bailey and Baugh1998) proposed a similar model, by which he described the coexistence of an African American (AA) component and a General English (GE) component in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Like Debose, Labov distinguished the GE component of AAVE from the GE component of Other American Dialects (OAD), though his primary focus was on the ways in which the GE and AA components of AAVE impose mutual influence on one another. Unlike Debose, however, Labov did not view the AA system as an “autonomous grammar” but instead maintained his position that the AA component, which consists largely of a distinct tense/aspect system, is interdependently linked to the GE component.

AAVE consists of two distinct components: the General English (GE) component, which is similar to the grammar of OAD, and the African-American (AA) component … On the one hand, GE is a fairly complete set of syntactic, morphological, and phonological structures, which can function independently … The AA component is not a complete grammar, but a subset of grammatical and lexical forms that are used in combination with much but not all of the grammatical inventory of GE.

This more recent approach to intraspeaker variation proposed by Labov is perhaps most closely aligned with Benor’s (Reference Benor2010) model of the ethnolinguistic repertoire, which abandoned the concept of an ethnic dialect (or “ethnolect”), in favor of a “tool kit” model in which speakers “deploy linguistic resources” in order to construct various ethnic and other identities (161). As observed by Benor, traditional conceptions of intraspeaker (as well as intragroup) variation, whether viewed as existing across or within the boundaries of a given variety, become complicated by the question of how much variation is required in order for the phenomenon to be described as styleshifting versus codeswitching. Benor explained, “The question arises: how many distinctive features must be present for a given stretch of speech to be considered part of the ethnolect rather than the standard?Footnote 10 … Should an African American who often speaks without distinctively African American features be seen as switching into AAVE when she uses one token of remote been?” (Reference Benor2010: 166). Benor proposed that, instead of focusing on the variety itself, researchers treat such variation in terms of the extent to which a speaker draws on the repertoire in a given stretch of speech. Using a passage from Jacobs-Huey (Reference Jacobs-Huey2006), in which the “selective use of elements of an ‘ethnolect’ confounds the notion of code-switching,” Benor offered the following alternative analysis,

In the repertoire approach, this problem disappears. We would say that in this excerpt Mrs. Collins is speaking in one code, but she is making increased use of a distinctly African American repertoire in lines 8–11 and then decreased use of the repertoire in the last section. There is clearly a stylistic shift, but the three sections are not different codes or dialects.

While the repertoire model perhaps renders moot the long-term debate over the nature of the system(s) at work, it still allows for a consideration of the various functions and motivations that the repertoire serves for individual speakers. As noted by Ervin-Tripp (Reference Ervin-Tripp, Eckert and Rickford2001), shifts in dialect features often resemble bilingual codeswitching phenomena in that both “invok[e] contrastive implications of the linguistic features” (47). It, therefore, remains instructive to consider the kinds of motivations that trigger the use of certain features, the various meanings that get invoked through such uses, and the kinds of functions that such uses serve. Within sociolinguistics, there have been three main approaches to the study of intraspeaker variation.Footnote 11 The “attention-to-speech” model introduced in Labov (Reference Labov1966) explores intraspeaker variation as it is distributed along a formality continuum, such that the use of a given feature is said to vary according to the formality of the situation and the extent to which a speaker is aware of their speech. A key consideration in such studies is tapping into the “vernacular,” defined in this context as “the style which is most regular in its structure and in its relation to the evaluation of the language” and “in which the minimum attention is paid to speech” (Labov Reference Labov1972b: 112). Studies emerging out of this tradition have observed that speakers typically increase their use of socially prestigious features as the formality of the event increases, and the amount of attention to speech increases, thus reflecting a sense of “linguistic insecurity” on the part of speakers (Labov Reference Labov1966). Accordingly, women and speakers located more centrally along the socioeconomic continuum have been found to exhibit a heightened sensitivity to such formality constraints, presumably reflecting their precarious position in society (Labov Reference Labov1966; Trudgill Reference Trudgill1983).

Alternative approaches have challenged the unidimensional nature of the attention-to-speech model and the primacy of the vernacular as the ultimate goal of sociolinguistic inquiry. One such approach, the “audience design” model explores intraspeaker variation as a function of a speaker’s reaction to their audience, including both ratified and nonratified conversational participants (Bell Reference Bell1984).Footnote 12 Emerging out of a tradition of study known as “accommodation theory” (Giles Reference Giles1984; Giles et al. Reference Giles, Coupland and Coupland1991), this model presumes that speakers converge with their conversational partners and other audience members in order to build solidarity and diverge from them in order to create distance.

Finally, a third approach looks at intraspeaker variation, not as a response to formality or audience, but rather as a way of proactively constructing identity through language (Eckert Reference Eckert2008, Reference Eckert2012; Silverstein Reference Silverstein2003). This approach, described by Wolfram and Schilling (Reference Wolfram and Schilling2016) as the “speaker design” model, shifts the focus to the speakers themselves and the ways in which speakers use language to index various meanings and to actively construct their individual identities or personas through styleshifting.

In contrast to the traditional “attention-to-speech” models in which variation has been measured primarily along the dimensions of formality and social status, many studies of middle-class AAE have taken a more nuanced approach to intraspeaker variation. For example, in a study of the codeswitching strategies of two middle-class African American women in a northeastern US city, Stanback (Reference Stanback1984) observed a considerable amount of individual variation that appeared to be governed by the race and gender of the speaker’s conversational partner, as well as “the circumstances under which she learned the code, how proficient she [was] in using the code, her attitude toward the code, and her opportunities to use the code in her everyday life” (Stanback Reference Stanback1984: 192). In a comparison of the styleshifting practices of middle-class AAVE speakers and German-English bilinguals in Houston, Texas, Linnes (Reference Linnes1998) observed a broad diglossic relationship between AAVE and Standard English, by which ethnic themes were linked to the vernacular, while more mainstream themes were tied to the standard. In their analysis of interview data from a 65-year-old middle-class African American woman from Seattle, Washington, Scanlon and Wassink (Reference Scanlon and Wassink2010) found that both /ay/ monophthongization and pen/pin merging showed signs of shift according to interlocutor ethnicity and familiarity, as well as some accommodation to interlocutor speech (cf. Baugh Reference Baugh1983; Rickford and McNair-Knox Reference Rickford, McNair-Knox, Biber and Finegan1994). And, in her 2014 study in Southeast, Washington, DC, Grieser observed professional class-aligned participants engaging in styleshifting triggered by topics such as race, personal history, and individual stances toward neighborhood gentrification.

Performative Language Practices

As some of above-mentioned studies of intraspeaker variation demonstrate, middle-class African American English has also been explored through the lens of public performance, with a particular focus on the public-speaking styles of some prominent African American public figures. While the social standing of some of these individuals far exceeds traditional measures of middle-class status, the linguistic practices exhibited through their public performances and the linguistic ideologies reflected therein have informed our understanding of the indexical meanings (Eckert Reference Eckert2008, Reference Eckert2012) associated with certain linguistic features and the parameters that govern their use in public settings.

For example, in a study of the televised speech of African American talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, Hay et al. (Reference Hay, Jannedy and Mendoza-Denton1999) found that Winfrey used higher rates of /ay/ monophthongization in words with high lexical frequency and when discussing African American referees (usually upcoming guests whom Winfrey referenced on her show). Rahman (Reference Rahman2007) also found that /ay/ monophthongization was a tool used by some African American narrative comedians to contrast the “down-home common sense and resourcefulness” of African American characters with the “conservativeness [and] naivete” of White middle-class establishment characters (67). Studies such as these speak to the salience of the (ay) variable as a means of indexing racial/ethnic identities (and more specifically African American vs. European American identities) and the characteristics and values associated with these respective groups.

In a study of rhetorical “style switching,” Ervin-Tripp (Reference Ervin-Tripp, Eckert and Rickford2001) observed the performative practices of civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael and political comedian Dick Gregory, who strategically juxtaposed certain standard and vernacular features in order to accommodate to different audiences and highlight the contrasting ideologies of various social groups (e.g., “rioters versus sophisticated protesters,” “colonists versus British”) (56). And Johnstone (Reference Johnstone1996) described how the careful and consistent style of former Texas senator and U.S congresswoman Barbara Jordan compared to the situational versatility of novelist, historian, and jazz singer Sunny Nash in the construction and presentation of their individual personas.

My own entrée into the study of middle-class AAE began with an examination of television and radio personality Tavis Smiley’s 2004 “State of the Black Union” (SOBU) symposium, in which a panel of nationally recognized public figures exhibited a variety of linguistic behaviors, ranging from those with almost no vernacular structural usage to those employing a wide array of phonological, grammatical, lexical, and rhetorical features. As the moderator of the event, Smiley used vernacular features to build solidarity with the predominately African American audience assembled before him, while also shifting into more formal styles of speaking in order to appeal to the larger television viewing audience (Weldon Reference Weldon2004).

In an analysis of Smiley’s 2008 symposium, Britt (Reference Britt2011a, Reference Britt2011b) observed the panelists’ strategic use of “Black preaching style” to “establish rapport between the speaker and the audience, especially in moments of controversy, or in the moment-by-moment presentation of a specific point of view” (Reference Britt2011a: 229). Black preaching style was also observed by Alim and Smitherman (Reference Alim and Smitherman2012) in their analysis of US President Barack Obama’s presentation style, which they argued played a critical role in his election as the country’s first African American president. And in an analysis of the styleshifting practices of civil rights activist Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Wolfram et al. (Reference Wolfram and Schilling2016) described the ways in which King “consistently embodied his Southern-based, African American preacherly stance while fluidly shifting features that indexed performance and formality based on audience, interaction, and intentional purpose” (269).

Attitudes and Perceptions

While there has been considerable discussion in the linguistic literature about attitudes toward AAE and its speakers, only a few studies have focused on the language attitudes of middle-class speakers and even fewer have explored the perceptions of middle-class speakers’ use of the variety. As discussed at the beginning of this chapter, much of the early linguistic research on AAE perpetuated the perception of middle-class and other upwardly mobile African American speakers as mainstream-oriented “lames,” who were removed from, and largely disapproving of, Black vernacular language and culture (see, e.g., Stewart Reference Stewart and Luelsdorff1975). Indeed, as the now infamous “pound cake” speechFootnote 13 delivered by comedian and actor Bill Cosby epitomizes, middle- and upper-class African Americans have been among some of the fiercest critics of the vernacular (see, e.g., Morgan Reference Morgan and Morgan1994, Reference Morgan2002; Rickford and Rickford Reference Rickford and Rickford2000).

It’s standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. It doesn’t want to speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk. “Why you ain’t where you is go, ra,” I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk (laughter). Then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with “why you ain’t …” You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth.

In a stinging rebuke of Cosby’s elitist attitude toward the vernacular, Dyson (Reference Dyson2005) suggested that “[p]erhaps there is a deep element of shame that Cosby has not yet overcome in the use of black style and Black English” (77). He also pointed out the hypocrisy of Cosby’s blatant rejection of the very language and culture that helped to catapult him to fame, from the vernacular-rich dialogue of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids to the scat-singing improvisations featured in the theme song of The Cosby Show (75). (See also Coates Reference Coates2004). Similar displays of internal conflict have been demonstrated by other prominent African American public figures as well, including poet Maya Angelou, political and religious leader Reverend Jesse Jackson, and talk-show host and entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey (see, e.g., Lippi-Green Reference Lippi-Green1997, Reference Lippi-Green2012; Rickford and Rickford Reference Rickford and Rickford2000).Footnote 15

The broader in-group stigma associated with AAVE, however, might be more appropriately viewed through the lens of what Higginbotham (Reference Higginbotham1993) coined “the politics of respectability” – the idea that, in order to achieve success and acceptance in the American mainstream, certain cultural practices should be eschewed in favor of White, middle-class norms and behaviors. According to Higginbotham, this assimilationist perspective grew out of the Black Baptist church women’s movement that began at the turn of the twentieth century, led by the formation of the Woman’s Convention (WC), an Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention. The WC brought together Black women from across the country, who were committed to articulating a counternarrative to the depiction of Black people as dirty, lazy, violent, and morally depraved, and of Black women, in particular, as sexually promiscuous and unworthy of respect. Such negative stereotyping was bolstered by scholarly literature promoting Social Darwinist claims of Black inferiority, as well as pop cultural representations of Blacks as violent, immoral, sexual deviants, as depicted in films such as Birth of a Nation (1915). Caricatures such as these permeated the American psyche, spreading racist propaganda that promoted myths of White supremacy and Black inferiority and fueling the racial hatred and strict segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era. To contest these narratives, the WC urged working-class Blacks to behave in a “respectable” manner and to conform to purported hegemonic values of cleanliness and temperance in order to gain acceptance in the eyes of White America. In so doing, however, they inadvertently facilitated the internalization of these views among certain members of the African American community itself, creating a lasting fissure between “assimilated” and “unassimilated” Blacks that has had far-reaching effects. As observed by Higginbotham,

Although white society perceived blacks as an undifferentiated mass and confined them together in segregated neighborhoods, blacks – including those of the working poor – relied upon values and behavior in distinguishing class and status differences among themselves. Indeed, social scientists as well as members of the black community invariably focused on adherence to bourgeois standards of respectability and morality in designating social status. Because of the limited economic options available to all blacks and especially black women, early twentieth century leaders rarely alluded to income or occupation when referring, as they frequently did, to the “better class of Negroes.”

(Higginbotham Reference Higginbotham1993: 204–5)

It is, arguably, owing to “respectability politics” that terms such as “country,” “ghetto,” “hood,” and “ratchet” have emerged in juxtaposition to terms like “bougie” (cf. bourgeoisie) and “proper” in the description and assessment of African American dress, temperament, manners, and of course, language.

Despite the widespread invective against the vernacular, some African American public figures have, in fact, defended and even celebrated AAE, particularly in artistic venues such as poetry, literature, and music (Rickford and Rickford Reference Rickford and Rickford2000). In a celebration of the beauty and creativity of Black English, James Baldwin wrote:

Now, if this passion, this skill, this (to quote Toni Morrison) “sheer intelligence,” this incredible music, the mighty achievement of having brought a people utterly unknown to, or despised by “history” – to have brought this people to their present, troubled, troubling, and unassailable and unanswerable place – if this absolutely unprecedented journey does not indicate that black English is a language, I am curious to know what definition of language is to be trusted.

And, in an interview published by Thomas LeClair, Toni Morrison ardently defended the richness, complexity, and cultural significance of Black language practices, exclaiming:

The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language. There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language. It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging. He may never know the etymology of Africanisms in his language, not even know that “hip” is a real word or that “the dozens” meant something. This is a really cruel fallout of racism. I know the Standard English. I want to use it to help restore the other language, the lingua franca.

While it is, perhaps, ironic that many prominent African Americans have publicly denounced AAE, even as they have used it to advance their own careers and public personas, this “love-hate” relationship with African American language is in no way unique to public figures. Rather it is a conflict that resonates with African Americans from all walks of life. Borrowing from W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness,” Smitherman (Reference Smitherman2006) described such conflicting attitudes in terms of the concept of “linguistic push-pull” – a term that she coined in the 1970s to describe “Black folk loving, embracing, using Black Talk, while simultaneously rejecting and hatin on it” (6). (See also Smitherman Reference Smitherman1977). Nowhere has this linguistic push-pull been more pronounced than in the conflicting attitudes of the African American community, and middle-class African Americans in particular, toward efforts to recognize AAE in educational contexts. In 1979, when a judge in Ann Arbor, Michigan ruled in favor of a group of African American parents from Martin Luther King Junior elementary school, who accused the school of failing to take into account their children’s home language in classroom instruction, many middle-class African Americans protested, claiming that such a ruling would encourage segregation and “continue oppression through miseducation by teaching AAE in the schools” (Morgan Reference Morgan and Morgan1994: 125). However, ten years later, when linguistic debate ensued over claims by William Labov and others that increased linguistic divergence between Black and White speakers resulting from residential segregation was an impediment to the success of African American students in schools (see Stevens Reference Stevens1985; Labov and Harris Reference Labov, Harris and Sankoff1986), many in the African American speech community took exception to these claims as well. Morgan (Reference Morgan and Morgan1994) explained,

Considering the position taken by the middle class on the King case, perhaps the most surprising reaction to the divergence controversy appeared in Kenneth M. Jones’s September 1986 article in EM: Ebony Man, a middle class publication devoted to African American men. In this article, Jones maintained that many sociolinguists simply did not understand the community’s notion of pride or power. He argued that AAE is the language variety of choice throughout the African American community and cites language use in rap and hip-hop music as an example of the expressive character and “African beat” inherent in African American speech styles.

Another decade later, there were similarly mixed reactions expressed by many in the African American community to the Oakland, California school board resolution that recognized “Ebonics” as the primary language of many African American students and endorsed instructional use of the home language as a bridge to teaching Standard English in schools.Footnote 18 While the media played a critical role in dispensing misinformation and fueling negative reactions to these and other such efforts (see, e.g., Baugh Reference Baugh2000a; Rickford and Rickford Reference Rickford and Rickford2000; Morgan Reference Morgan2002), Morgan (Reference Morgan and Morgan1994) suggested that sociolinguists should also be held accountable for failing to “incorporate the language and educational values and beliefs of the African American community within language and education plans” (123).

Of course, conflicting attitudes toward AAE are not limited to the African American community either, but can instead be found in all corners of American society. While it is largely through the “gaze” of White America that Black cultural and linguistic practices have been maligned by the public-at-large (Du Bois Reference Du Bois1903), the imitation, appropriation, and commodification of many of these same practices stand in stark contrast to the negative depictions that continue to permeate society. As noted by Rickford and Rickford (Reference Rickford and Rickford2000), “Americans of all types tend to bad-talk soul talk, even though it is the guts of the black music they so relish, and even though this would be a much duller country without it” (74). Alongside nonverbal cultural practices such as high fives, fist bumps, dabs, and twerks, members of the dominant culture regularly adopt African American linguistic practices in order to index identities of “coolness,” “toughness,” or “street savvy,” often with little to no acknowledgment of their African American origins (Cutler Reference Cutler1999; Smitherman Reference Smitherman2006). The prevalence of such appropriations in American society is a testament to the fact that the stigma associated with African American language varieties is not really about the language at all, but rather about the speakers who use it. As observed by Rosina Lippi-Green,

The real problem with AAVE is a general unwillingness to accept the speakers of that language and the social choices they have made as viable and functional. Instead we relegate their experiences and capabilities and, most damaging, their potential to spheres which are secondary and out of the public eye. We are ashamed of them and because they are a part of us, we are ashamed of ourselves.

While few linguistic studies have examined the complex range of social, emotional, and psychological dynamics that influence the attitudes and perceptions of middle-class African American speakers, two notable exceptions are the research of Mary Rhodes Hoover (Reference Hoover1975, Reference Hoover1978) and Jacqueline Rahman (Reference Rahman2008). In Hoover’s study, a group of African American parents in East Palo Alto, California were asked about their attitudes toward their children’s use of three different levels of Black English, identified as Standard Black English, Vernacular Black English, and Superstandard Black English (cf. “talking Proper”).Footnote 19 In this study, Hoover found that Standard Black English was accepted by an average of 85 percent of parents in “all domains, channels, and contexts” (Reference Hoover1978: 78). However, the parents in her study also accepted Vernacular Black English, depending on the domain, channel, and topic. They found the vernacular to be acceptable for certain types of listening and speaking channels, but not for reading and writing. They accepted its use in the home and in some community contexts, but typically not in schools. And they accepted its use in informal settings, but rarely in formal ones. Vernacular Black English was valued by the parents in Hoover’s study for purposes of solidarity and cultural identity. And both standard and vernacular varieties of Black English were valued for purposes of survival and communication. “Talking Proper,” on the other hand, was not endorsed by the parents in Hoover’s study. Based on these findings, Hoover concluded that:

Parents with high occupational levels – professionals, students, skilled workers – generally control standard Black English and so do not object to their children being exposed to vernacular. The standard level can be learned from them at home. The lower-occupation parents do not have such an advantage, and so depend on the schools to stress the standard level which they generally do not control.

Rahman (Reference Rahman2008) looked at the attitudes and perceptions of AAE by middle-class African American students and employees at a “prestigious university in California.” Rahman used subjective reaction tests, interviews, and an online survey to test participants’ judgments about the linguistic indexing of ethnicity, standardness, and social class, as well as the appropriateness of AAVE, Black Standard English (BSE), and Mainstream Standard English (MSE) in various contexts. Rahman found that dense use of AAVE grammatical and phonological features was strongly correlated with African American ethnicity, nonstandardness, and working-class identity, while heavy use of MSE was strongly correlated with whiteness, standardness, and middle- to upper-middle-class identity. Like Hoover, Rahman found that speakers who exhibited standard grammatical usage and only moderate use of non-overtly stigmatized AAVE phonological features were judged to be standard, African American, and middle class (i.e., BSE speakers). And like Hoover, the participants in Rahman’s study found BSE to be appropriate in all contexts, unlike AAVE and MSE, which were only perceived to be appropriate in certain contexts and for certain sectors of society. Rahman observed, “By meeting the conflicting linguistic demands of establishment institutions and the African American community, BSE is a tool that works to resolve the linguistic push-pull that middle-class African Americans often face” (Rahman Reference Rahman2008: 170).

A related line of research in the area of social psychology corroborates many of the findings reported in these linguistic studies. In an examination of the attitudes and perceptions of middle-class Blacks toward Black English and Standard English, Garner and Rubin (Reference Garner and Rubin1986) observed a group of southern African American attorneys who regularly shifted between standard and vernacular styles of speaking in order to navigate various personal and professional domains. They reportedly valued the expressiveness of the vernacular in more relaxed settings, while at the same time acknowledging the importance of Standard English as a means of garnering respect in the workplace. Some also described times when more vernacular styles of speaking were useful in conveying “solidarity and humility” in the courtroom, as illustrated by the following anecdote, shared by one of their study participants:

There is a brand of lawyer that my associates and I might jokingly call “Cornbread lawyers.” These are the people that say “I’m just an ole country lawyer” and they may be as sophisticated as anybody you want to see. But they’re gonna adopt a drawl and adopt the colloquialisms to make themselves human to the jury, to get their point over to those that they’re trying to persuade.

(Garner and Rubin Reference Garner and Rubin1986: 38–39)

Another important observation made by Garner and Rubin was that while their participants had difficulty describing what might constitute “formal Black English,” they rejected the idea that Standard English was a “White dialect.” Some participants observed that many of the southern Whites with whom they came in contact on a regular basis were not Standard English speakers at all, while many of the Blacks spoke primarily Standard English. Garner and Rubin argued that by separating Standard English from whiteness in this way, these lawyers were able to employ more standard ways of speaking without compromising their sense of racial and cultural attachment. “Since SE [Standard English] is not white English, and is rather an educated person’s tool for survival, these professionals have found a way to maintain cultural identity while at the same time communicating credibility in the dominant culture” (Garner and Rubin Reference Garner and Rubin1986: 46).

In another study, Koch et al. (Reference Koch, Gross and Kolts2001) reported the results of a matched-guise experiment that tested the perceptions of African American college students to Black English, Standard English, and to “appropriate” and “inappropriate” codeswitching (as defined by social norms) in casual and formal settings. The results pointed to a positive evaluation of both Standard English and “appropriate codeswitching” (ACS) guises over Black English and “inappropriate codeswitching” (ICS). However, Koch et al. did not interpret these results as an outright rejection of Black English, but rather an indication that Black English tends to be viewed negatively when used in situations that require more formal ways of speaking. Codeswitching was, therefore, seen as an important mechanism for achieving mainstream success while still maintaining ties with the African American community.Footnote 20 (See also Doss and Gross Reference Doss and Gross1994.) Studies such as these highlight the importance of examining the role and perception of African American English at all points along the standard-vernacular continuum and exploring the many and varied ways in which it is used and evaluated by middle-class speakers as a symbol of racial pride, solidarity, and consciousness.

The Present Study

In the chapters to follow, I use a variety of methodological approaches to pursue several lines of inquiry inspired by these pioneering studies and to raise new questions about the current status of middle-class AAE and its trajectory vis-à-vis other varieties of American English. In Chapter 3, I present an updated analysis of my 2004 study of Tavis Smiley’s “State of the Black Union” symposium, in which I explore the performative use of AAE as a marker of racial and ethnic identity and consider the implications of such stylized uses for traditional definitions of “lame” linguistic behavior (cf. Labov Reference Labov1972a). I also consider the implications of such performances for our understanding of intraspeaker variation. I continue this focus on intraspeaker variation in Chapter 4, with a self-study, in which I provide an autoethnographic account of the use of AAE in the “stylistic construction of a self” (Eckert Reference Eckert and Rickford2001: 123) and reflect on some of the tensions and expectations that inform my own identity performance in everyday interactions as a middle-class speaker of AAE. I also examine the quantitative distribution of several salient AAE features within my own stylistic repertoire and discuss how such distributions inform our assumptions about middle-class AAE as well as our understanding of intraspeaker variation.

In Chapter 5, I use survey methodology to explore the use and interpretation of camouflaged features (identified by Labov [Reference Labov, Mufwene, Rickford, Bailey and Baugh1998] as a central element of the AA component of AAVE) and consider how the displayed patterns contribute to our understanding of the relative trajectories of African American and European American varieties today, particularly among speakers positioned along the middle of the socioeconomic continuum. Chapter 6 makes use of social psychological techniques that explore the attitudes and perceptions of college students regarding the concept of “sounding Black” and how various circulating labels both reflect and inform such perceptions. Finally, in Chapter 7, I consider the future of middle-class AAE and future directions of sociolinguistic research on this topic, both in light of the findings presented in this book, and in the context of the current social, racial, economic, and political climate in the United States.


1 Peer group membership was determined by level of participation in group activities as well as the boys’ responses to the question “Who are all the cats you hang out with?”

2 According to Keith Gilyard (Reference Gilyard1991), a closer examination of the “lames” in a variety of social and stylistic contexts might have revealed a more complex verbal range than that observed by Labov.

There were shrewd youngsters out there who were not in traditional gangs but were, nonetheless, fashioning and reinforcing and projecting intricate selves through complex manipulations of Black English and Standard English. By over romanticizing the basilect often heard in the street clubs and viewing the language of the so-called lames as diametrically opposed to that of the gang members, Labov may have missed an opportunity to describe those intriguing processes.


3 The pronunciation of /Ө/ as [f] (e.g., tooth, nothing) was the exception here, where fourteen of the twenty-four middle-class participants produced no [f] variants at all, compared to working-class participants, for whom [f] was the most frequent variant (Wolfram Reference Wolfram1969: 85).

4 Though restricted to a Black inner-city working-class community in Detroit, Michigan, Edwards (Reference Edwards1992) observed similar trends with regard to age, gender, linguistic salience, levels of social isolation, and attitudinal factors.

5 Nguyen used the notation [alv] to refer to the non-AAE variant, which included any alveolar stop closure on the coda, voiced or voiceless (Reference Nguyen2006: 75). For purposes of readability (and given the relative infrequency of [t] in her study), she gave me license (via personal communication) to refer to the non-AAE variant simply as [d].

6 Specifically, Nguyen observed here a pattern by which [ʊ] was fronted more in pre-alveolar contexts (e.g., put) than in pre-velar ones (e.g., look).

7 Grieser used the terms “PC-aligned” and “PC-nonaligned” to distinguish between those participants in her study who affiliated with the professional class through their education, occupation, social network, and self-identification and those who did not (Reference Grieser2014: 82).

8 In his chapter on “Contraction, Deletion, and Inherent Variability of the English Copula,” Labov observed that “the population upon which the deletion rule operates is limited to the pool of forms already contracted” suggesting that the rules are inherent to a single system (Reference Labov1972a: 87).

9 Mitchell-Kernan did suggest, however, that such co-occurrence restrictions might be more commonly found in Black middle-class communities than they were in the working-class community that she was studying (Reference Mitchell-Kernan1971: 85).

10 To the extent that I adopt a repertoire approach in the current study, it is important to recall that my own conception of the African American ethnolinguistic repertoire differs from Benor’s in that it encompasses both standard and vernacular features along a continuum of standardness. From this perspective, the distinction that Benor invokes between “the ethnolect and the standard” represents a false dichotomy, as the ethnolect encompasses the standard.

11 For a succinct overview of these three approaches, see Wolfram and Schilling (Reference Wolfram and Schilling2016).

12 See Rickford and McNair-Knox (Reference Rickford, McNair-Knox, Biber and Finegan1994) for a test of this theory, using AAVE data.

13 The “pound cake” speech was delivered by Cosby in May of 2004 at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awards ceremony in Washington, DC, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education – the 1954 US Supreme Court decision ruling against school segregation. The pound cake reference comes from a section of the speech in which Cosby lambasts thieves who risk incarceration for petty crimes such as stealing a piece of pound cake in contrast to those civil rights activists who were jailed in their fight for racial equality and justice.

15 Rickford and Rickford (Reference Rickford and Rickford2000) also explicitly demonstrated Cosby’s hypocrisy vis-à-vis the vernacular by citing his use of the vernacular in a 1972 routine, “The Lower Tract,” juxtaposed by his ardent critique of the vernacular during this same time period in discussions of language usage in educational contexts (64–65).

18 For a documentary depiction of the Oakland Ebonics controversy, see the “E-word,” directed and produced by Jonathan Gayles (

19 Unlike the current study, where “talking Proper” is treated as existing outside the AAE continuum, Hoover (Reference Hoover1978) characterized “talking Proper” in terms of “‘network’ grammar and attempted ‘network’ phonology” but with an intonation pattern that is “decidedly black” (74). (See also Mitchell-Kernan Reference Mitchell-Kernan1971).

20 Some scholars, however, have taken exception to the argument that codeswitching represents the “happy medium” between accommodating to the demands of mainstream America and satisfying the expectations of the African American community, since it places all of the burden for change on members of the nondominant culture. Keith Gilyard writes, “I have often chosen to switch, rather than fight, but the routine hasn’t always implied any emotional ease” (Reference Giles, Coupland and Coupland1991: 31). An alternative to codeswitching that is gaining some currency in educational settings, and particularly in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, is the concept of “codemeshing,” which Young (Reference Young2009) describes as “the blending and concurrent use of American English dialects” (51). Codemeshing allows students to strategically incorporate their home varieties into their academic writing rather than switching them off when they enter the classroom. (See also Canagarajah Reference Canagarajah2006; Young and Martinez Reference Young and Martinez2011). Codemeshing has also been demonstrated in the writing styles of linguists Geneva Smitherman and Samy Alim (see, e.g., Smitherman Reference Smitherman1977; Alim and Smitherman Reference Alim and Smitherman2012).

Figure 0

Table 2.1 Phonological and grammatical features in Harlem study (Labov 1972a)

Figure 1

Table 2.2 Phonological and grammatical features in the Detroit study (Wolfram 1969)

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