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Linguistic aspect in African-American English-speaking children: An investigation of aspectual "be"

Janice Eurana Jackson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Several studies have been conducted on the features of African-American English (AAE). Findings have generally been limited to descriptions of those surface level features used by adult or adolescent AAE speakers. Little emphasis has been placed on how AAE emerges as a linguistic system in young children. Consequently, much of the information gained on AAE surface features are limited to lists of how AAE features used by adults and teenagers contrast with those used by speakers of Standard American English (SAE). There has been limited information gathered on the underlying grammatical and syntactic principles of AAE. An informed perspective is that in order to differentiate normal language functioning from disordered language functioning in AAE speaking children, there is the need for a greater understanding of the underlying linguistic systems governing the functioning of AAE grammar. This research investigation represents a step in understanding the linguistic systems of AAE which govern its surface level representations. The purpose of this study was to investigate AAE speaking children's knowledge of the specific aspectual properties that comprise the meaning of aspectual "be" in AAE. These linguistic properties included: habituality, iterativity, imperfective viewpoint, and the marker "be." Thirty-five normal AAE speaking children and eighteen normal SAE speaking children served as subjects. The children were between the ages of five and six years. The results of this study confirmed that AAE speaking children understand the targeted aspectual contours of aspectual "be" and do not confuse aspectual "be" with SAE regular forms of "be," but rather are able to identify aspectual "be" as a separate additional lexical item (marking specific aspectual contours) in their linguistic repertoires. Findings also revealed that AAE speaking subjects could correctly manipulate aspectual "be" in the deep structure of their grammar. Finally, it was demonstrated that with the exception of aspectual "be," AAE and SAE children share essentially equivalent aspectual abilities. The AAE subjects' ability to recognize two separate linguistic meanings of "be" (regular and aspectual) provided clear evidence that at a young age AAE speaking children are able to control the subtle features of their dialect.

Subject Area

Speech therapy|Linguistics|Black studies|Communication|African American Studies

Recommended Citation

Jackson, Janice Eurana, "Linguistic aspect in African-American English-speaking children: An investigation of aspectual "be"" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9841880.