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Stateside Podcast: African American vernacular from Guyana to Detroit

A globe showing Africa
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Walter F. Edwards followed the African Diaspora from Guyana to Detroit to explain how African American Vernacular English has evolved.

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) refers to the distinct form of English that Black people speak, which differs from white or non-Black English speakers — even those from the same region of the country. While there may be some similarities, a Black New Yorker is likely going to sound different than a white one. And a Black Detroiter is usually going to have different patterns of speech than a white person from the same area. White Americans may be more likely to speak standard American English, but that doesn’t mean Black people are using the language incorrectly.

“A lot of people think that it is broken English,” said Wayne State University linguistics professor Walter F. Edwards. “It is not.”

Edwards joined Stateside to explain how Afro-Caribbean languages have influenced AAVE and the distinct dialects of AAVE spoken by Black Michiganders.

Edwards, who came to Michigan in 1980, grew up in Guyana speaking Guyanese Creole. He studied linguistics and English language while teaching at the University of Guyana. There, he met professor Derek Bickerton, who had a keen understanding of Guyanese Creole and its linguistic systems.

“I took a course in linguistics from him, and the rest was history,” Edwards said.

After moving to the states and studying AAVE, Edwards realized a common misconception it shared with his native Guyanese Creole. Despite the belief that these are “corruptions of other languages,” Edwards explained that they are a result of “contact linguistics,” or communication that develops when speakers of different languages come together. This phenomenon has led to the creation of the vast number of languages and dialects spoken today.

“I mean, you can take Anglo-Saxon, which ended up as English. Before the invasion of England in 1066, when it became a colony of France, there were Germanic tribes […] that went into England, and their varieties [of language] coalesced into something called Anglo-Saxon.”

Edwards applied his expertise to AAVE in Detroit in a 1989 National Science Foundation study. He was looking for a distinct dialect spoken by Black Detroit men in a specific neighborhood on the eastside, something comparable to the “Pittsburgh-ese” dialect spoken by longtime residents of Pittsburgh.

“In the process of that study, I found that sort of all the African-American men were very strong users of non-rhotic pronunciations,” Edwards said. That is, whereas most Black Detroiters enunciate their Rs, this particular community of Black males he studied did not. For instance, instead of "car," they would say "cah," a linguistic feature distinct to that group’s speakers.

Non-rhotic pronunciation is an example of a linguistic variation that has been stigmatized by Standard English speakers — and even some AAVE-speakers in Detroit. But Edwards set the record straight:

"AAVE exists on a continuum. Just as how, if you go to Jamaica, and you go to Kingston, you would hear a variety of Jamaican Creole," he said. And he emphasized that these variations do not result in “broken English”; they allow the language to grow in new ways. They are a testament to “the achievements of the Black people.”

“In Black History Month, we should be celebrating the very creative work that enslaved people in this country did in devising, in synthesizing, in bringing together the linguistic substances, the linguistic varieties that they encountered in this very hostile environment and sort of fashioning them into new language.”

——

Looking for more conversations from Stateside? Right this way.

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Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.

Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

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Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.
Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.