African American English Articulation Differences and Language Characteristics

African American English Articulation Differences and Language Characteristics

Central to the learning of any SLP who wants to provide more equitable services is an understanding of African American English articulation differences and language characteristics in comparison to Standardized American English (SAE). 

The great news is that some really digestible, critical work is gaining the audience and attention it deserves so that we can confidently do our part to make sure that kids that are on our caseload should actually be there, and if they are identified correctly, that they have solid goals.  

In this post, we highlight the work of Linda M. Bland-Stewart, PhD, CCC-SLP. Her publication in the ASHA Journal, Difference or Deficit in Speakers of African American English? What Every Clinician Should Know…and Do,” (May, 2005) contains an in-depth look at the difference vs disorder of morphosyntax of AAE vs SAE, as well as evaluation tools for assessing speakers of AAE. 

Here are a few key parts of this article to be sure not to miss: 

“Language development in AAE-speaking children is similar to that of SAE-speaking children up to age 3 across content, form, and use.”  

Bland-Stewart (2005)

Before age 3, there are many blurred lines between dialectal and developmental variations, making it challenging to distinguish difference or disorder.   Between 3-5 years of age, research has noted that there is an increase in features of AAE.  This is also when we get many speech and language referrals, so we need to really turn on our difference or disorder thinking caps.  

SAE and AAE do share many similarities in the phonological and morpho-syntactic rules, however there are a handful of specific, rule-governed differences. According to Latimer-Hearn (2020), in a national survey of school-based SLPs from 2015-2016, only “24% of SLPs working in schools have received consistent training to support speakers of AAE. Meanwhile, a noteworthy majority of SLPs—76%—received minimal training to differentiate between dialect and disorder.”

Take a moment to internalize those statistics.  

Only 24% of SLPs have received consistent training to support speakers of AAE.  

Because many linguistic patterns of AAE mimic what we label as “disordered speech or language” in SAE, it is not hard to misdiagnose a child with a speech and/or language disorder, when in fact, they are appropriately using specific phonological-morpho-syntactic rules of their AAE dialect.  In some cases, AAE may be the only dialect they have been exposed to or that they speak.  Therefore, it is crucial that clinicians know the linguistic variations between AAE and SAE as to truly differentiate a speech language difference from a true disorder. 

In a nutshell, the following chart features African American English articulation differences that may be accidentally identified as “disordered.” As you look through these, also consider how these differences may affect a student’s reading or writing in SAE. 

Phonemes/ SuprasegmentalsExample: SAE AAE
“Th/th”  [ð,θ] Grapheme “th” can be pronounced as [ð,θ]
them [ðɛm] brother  [brʌðɚ]birthday [bɝθdeɪ]south [saʊθ]
Grapheme “th” can be pronounced as [d,v,f], depending on its position in the word
them  [dɛm]brother [brʌvɚ]birthday [bɝfdeɪ]south [saʊf]
“R/r”  [ɹ]Rhotic variation of [ɹ] is required for the grapheme “r,” in all positions of words fort [fɔɹt]door [dɔɹ]  
throw [θɹoʊ] 
story [stɔɹɪ/]
Production of rhotic [ɹ] is not required for postvocalic grapheme “r”  
fort [foʊt] door [doʊ]
Production of [ɹ] is not required between a consonant and a back-rounded vowel
throw [θoʊ]
story [stɔ:ɪ]
“L/l”  [l] Inclusion of [l] is required for the grapheme “L/l,” in all positions of words, unless it is a duplicate
low [loʊ]hello [həloʊ]told [toʊld]tool [tul]  
Inclusion of [l] is required as a singleton in word initial and medial positions, but not required for the grapheme “L/l,” in blends and final position of words 
low [loʊ]hello [həloʊ]told [toʊ:d]tool [tu:]
Final consonants 

-Required where written -Strict voicing rules -“ing” pronounced as [ɪŋ]

cub [kʌb]his [hɪz] man [mæn] live [lɪv]looking [lʊkɪŋ] test [tɛst] hand [hænd]tests [tɛsts]  wasps [wɑsps]
-Not required in all contexts (inclusion of final nasals and final blends are not required, etc.)-Voicing rules for final consonants vary -“ing” pronounced as [ɪn]
cub [kʌp]his  [hɪs]man [mæ̃]live [lɪ:]looking [lʊkɪn]test [tɛs]hand [hæn]tests [tɛsəs] wasps [wɑsəs]
Consonant clusters Graphemes in clusters produced in order of appearance   ask [æsk]escape [ɪskeɪp]  Graphemes in clusters may have flexible order of production   
Allowable to produce one consonant in final clusters
ask [æks] escape [ɪkskeɪp]test [tɛs]hand [hæn]
Vowels Written diphthongs are produced with both vowel sounds
[i] [ɪ] and [ɛ] are distinct phonemes 

boil [bɔɪl]  our [ɑʊɚ]  feel [fil] thing [θɪŋ]  pen [pɛn]
Written diphthongs may be produced with one vowel sound 
[i] and [ɪ] are interchangeable [ɛ] and [ɪ] are interchangeable 
boil [bɔl] or [boʊl]our [ɑr] feel [fɪl]thing [θeɪŋ]pen [pɪn]

*Note: this list is a great starting point, but it is impossible to catch every possible dialectal variation! Always include dynamic assessment and a thorough caregiver interview to get a full picture of a child’s communication abilities!

Language Features of African-American English Speakers

Interesting to see the differences in phonological patterns between AAE and SAE, isn’t it? Now, let’s take a look at morphosyntax.  As much as we SLPs love our big words like MOR-PHO-SYN-TAX, a good way to internalize and understand the language features of African-American English speakers is to see examples.

Below: F = Feature, R = AAE Rule, E = Example, and C = Contrast to SAE 

F Plurals
R Plurals are indicated by context. No final “s” is required. 
E James got three toy.  
C James got three toys.
F Possessive ‘s
R It is appropriate to not include final ‘s. Possession is inferred from context. 
E I go to Jenny house. 
C I go to Jenny’s house
F Modal verbs 
R Two modal auxiliary verbs may be used in a single clause
E I might could help you. 
C I could help you. 
F Copulas
R Not required (AKA “zero copula”)
E That dog cute 
C That dog is cute
F Auxiliary/modal verbs 
R Not required (AKA “zero modal auxiliary”)
E How you get here?
C How did you get here? 
+
E They running.
C They are running. 
F Negation
R “Ain’t” is a permissible contraction that replaces SAE words and contractions such as, “am not, isn’t, aren’t, hasn’t, don’t, and haven’t.”
E Don ain’t gonna tell you the secret.   You ain’t seen nothing yet. 
C Don isn’t gonna tell you the secret.  You haven’t seen anything yet.  
F Verb inflection 
R Inflection is not required or differentiated depending on the subject.  Third person singular verbs are the same as first person, second person, and third person plural verbs. 
E I eat, you eat, he/she/they eat, we eat
C I eat, you eat, he/she/they eats, we eat
F Negation
R Two negative may be used in one sentence 
E My brother don’t never play with me.
C My brother never plays with me.
F Habitual markers
R Inflected form of “be” is used to denote habitual actions, or an event that takes place over time.  
E She be at school (every day).  We be sleepin in (every weekend). She been had her bike. 
C She goes to school (every day). We sleep in (every weekend).  She has had her bike (for a while)

African American English Past Tense Use

There are a number of rules and ways in which to indicate past tense in AAE that vary from SAE.  

F Past tense (general)
R Past tense can be indicated with the word “had,” followed by a past tense verb, either regular or irregular.  This feature “had” is not used to indicate past perfect (as it is in SAE), but rather to indicate the simple past (preterite).  
E I had seen it.  She had ate a donut. My dog had went home.  
C I saw it.  She ate a donut.  My dog went home.  
F Irregular past tense 
R Various possibilities.  Past tense may be implied by context without any change to the verb stem. It is also appropriate to use the past participle or add -ed to the end of the verb.  
E She throw the ball. Or She throwed the ball.  Or She thrown the ball.  
C She threw the ball. 
+
E I see the movie.  I seed the move.  I seen the movie. 
C I saw the movie
F Past tense (completion of a recent or ongoing action) 
R Stressed “been” may be used to mark the completion of an action 
E I been done with my homework. She been playing soccer. 
C I finished my homework/ I am done with my homework.   She has played soccer (for a long time).  
F Past tense (completion of a recent action)
R Completive “done” is used to emphasize a recently completed action 
E Who done ate all the cereal?  You done read the book. 
C Who ate all the cereal? (recent change- i.e. it was here this morning and now it’s gone).  You read the book (and just finished). 
F Regular past tense 
R Implied by context. No additional morphemes required. 
E He play soccer last weekend. 
C He played soccer last weekend.

AAE SLP Progress

aae slp power

Phew, that’s a lot to learn and a lot to take in! Instead of promising yourself you’re going to commit these African American English articulation differences and language characteristics to memory, how about printing these charts out and keeping them handy at your desk for your next evaluation/progress report?  Remember, like anything, learning these differences takes time and practice.  

Inspired by Megan Brette Hamilton’s ASHA journal publication, An Informed Lens on African American English (2020), we are working to change the language we use to describe dialectal rules and variations.  Historically, clinicians have explained AAE patterns with the same terminology and characteristics as we use to describe a communication disorder language, which can be very confusing! For example, instead of saying, “Johnny deleted/dropped plurals” (a description consistent with disordered language), we could say, “Johnny exhibits plurals marked by a numerical word preceding the noun” (a description of how the AAE morphological rule is being exhibited).   

We challenge and encourage you to adopt this language into your own clinical practice and assessments as well.  

Here’s how to start practicing what you’ve learned today: 

  1. Start to notice differences between the dialects of your clients, your friends and family, and your own dialect.  If you want to have some fun with it, take this short quiz! It was eerily accurate for me, down to the city where I grew up! https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/upshot/dialect-quiz-map.html 
  2. Reframe the words you use to describe dialectal and language differences.  In the context of AAE, remember–  no rules are being broken by using patterns consistent with AAE! In fact, rules are being FOLLOWED within this distinct, rule-governed phonological and linguistic system.  
  3. Look up the dialects that are commonly spoken in your community.  
  4. Print off the charts and look at them while writing your next evaluation report.  

Further Reading and Learning

Explore the Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation (DELV)

asha dialectal differences on delv

Did you know that The Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation (DELV) (Seymour, Roeper, de Villiers, 2004), with contributions by Peter A. de Villiers, Ph.D. and Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D. (2018) is the first test designed to be dialect neutral with respect to AAE (ages 4-9), and is non-discriminatory to non-SAE users?! 

So, you can have your difference or disorder language analysis AND standardized assessment too! 

Click here to learn more about the DELV and evaluating speakers of dialects other than SAE. 

Live Chats about the DELV

If you didn’t see them already,  the publisher of the DELV (Ventris Learning) sponsored two live Chats early last year on the topic of language variation. 

Additional Reading

ASHA dialectal differences: Difference or Deficit in Speakers of African American English?

An Informed Lens on African American English

Julie Washington’s Quest to Get Schools to Respect African-American English – The Atlantic

Written by: Alyson Hendry

One Comment on “African American English Articulation Differences and Language Characteristics”

  1. January 28, 2022 at 1:58 pm #

    Excellent article. Well written. Lots to learn….
    Thank you

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