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Linguistic constraints on copula production in Black English child speech

Toya Annette Wyatt, University of Massachusetts Amherst


There have been several studies of the Black English (BE) copula. The majority of BE copula studies, however, have focused on production patterns within older child, adolescent and adult speech. Few have concentrated on the copula production patterns of younger BE child speakers, particularly preschool-aged speakers. This has resulted in a general lack of information about the developing grammar of BE child speech. The purpose of the present study is to provide an in-depth analysis of copula production within early BE child speech using a variable rule analysis framework. Thirty 30-minute spontaneous conversational samples from ten 3 to 5 year old BE child subjects were examined for the presence of the following six copula variants: the standard agreeing copula, zero copula, standard non-agreeing copula, go copula, ain't and invariant be. The primary purpose of the analysis procedure was to determine the relative ranking of targeted linguistic constraints with respect to nonstandard copula use. All variants were therefore coded according to the following information: utterance context (i.e., declarative, wh-questions, etc.), type of variant (i.e., standard agreeing, zero copula, etc.), preceding linguistic context (i.e., pronoun, noun phrase, etc.), adjective following linguistic context (i.e., adjective, noun phrase, etc.), person/number context (i.e., third person singular, second person singular, etc.) semantic context (i.e., nomination, attribution, etc.), speech act context (i.e., comment, report/inform, etc.), and discourse function context (i.e., response, initiation, etc.). Nonstandard copula production patterns were then identified for five major utterance types: non-negative declarative, negative declarative, wh-questions, yes/no questions, and embedded clauses. Results revealed similar profiles of zero copula use within the preceding subject, following predicate and person/number environments of non-negative declaratives as has been noted for older speakers in other investigations of the BE copula. In addition, results revealed additional findings relative to zero copula use within negative declaratives, questions and embedded clauses; invariant be, go copula, nonstandard agreeing copula and ain't use across all utterance types; and pragmatic constraints on copula production. The clinical and theoretical implications of these findings are discussed with regard to existing theories of developing BE child grammar, adult BE grammar, and speech/language assessment for the BE child speaker.

Subject Area

Speech therapy|Linguistics|African Americans

Recommended Citation

Wyatt, Toya Annette, "Linguistic constraints on copula production in Black English child speech" (1991). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9120958.