Chapter 6 The Vocabulary and Pronunciation of Spoken Soul

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From: John R. Rickford and Russell J. Rickford, Spoken Soul (NY: John Wiley, 2000)

Chapter 6

The Vocabulary and Pronunciation of Spoken Soul

(May differ from final published version in some details—JRR, 1/2000)
Ebonics has no dictionary, no text books, no grammar, no rules. It is rebellious and outside rule-based language. America On-Line contributor, 12/23/96

You are 100% incorrect that “Ebonics” has no rules, structure, or dictionary. Africanized English has a consistent structure and rules. … Please do not confuse street slang with Africanized English. America On-Line contributor, 12/23/96

. . .all alive art is rebellious, and all alive speech, slang or otherwise, is rebellious, rebellious in the healthy sense that they challenge the stale and the conventional. Clarence Major, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang, 1994.

There are specific phonetic traits. To the soulless ear, the vast majority of these sounds are dismissed as incorrect usage of the English language… To those so blessed as to have had bestowed upon them at birth the lifetime gift of soul, these are the most communicative and meaningful sounds ever to fall upon human ears: the familiar “mah” instead of “my,” “gonna” for “going to,” “yo” for “your.”

Claude Brown, The Language of Soul, 1968.

For most people, various languages and dialects are distinguished primarily by their words and expressions. In French they say “Bonjour,” but in English we say “Hello”; the British say “lorry” where Americans say “truck”; Bostonians use “tonic” for what other Northeasterners refer to as “soda” and midwesterners call “pop”; and so on. Similarly, for most casual commentators, fans and foes alike, what sets Black talk apart is its distinctive word usage, particularly the informal but usually short-lived “slang” expressions known primarily to adolescents and young adults. The only examples of Black English in James Baldwin’s 1979 tribute to the vernacular (“If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What is?”) are examples of Black expressions—especially slang—that have crossed over into general American use, such as jazz, sock it to me, let it all hang out, right on, uptight, and get down. And for nine out of ten people who contributed to the America On-Line discussion of Ebonics in December 1996, Ebonics was “just a bunch of slang.”

But Ebonics, like any other language variety, is much more than slang, and much more than the sum of its words. For linguists, the scientists who study human language, two other aspects of any language variety are as important as vocabulary if not more so: its rules for pronouncing words (its pronunciation patterns), and its rules for modifying or combining words to express different meanings and to form larger phrases or sentences (its grammar). For instance, African American Vernacular has a rule of grammar that allows its speakers to move negative helping verbs like ain’t and can’t to the front of a sentence to make the sentence more emphatic, so that Nobody ain’t going can become Ain’t nobody going! (This is an emphatic statement, it should be noted, not a question, and it usually has the falling intonation of a statement or exclamation.) However, you can only move the verb to the front if the subject of the sentence is a negative quantifier like Nobody or nothing. If the subject is NOT a negative quantifier—for instance, John, or the boy—the rule cannot apply. That is, you can’t convert “John ain’t goin” into “Ain’t John going,” at least not as an emphatic statement. (With rising intonation, of course, “Ain’t John going?” would be an acceptable question.)

From this example, it should be clear that by “rules” we don’t mean regulations that are prescribed in grammar books or consciously memorized. Nobody sits a kid down at the age of six and says, “OK, kid, time to learn the ‘Negative Fronting or Inversion’ rule.” But through exposure and experimentation, children in every speech community around the world come to learn the conventional and systematic ways of pronouncing, modifying and combining words that are characteristic of their community’s language variety (or varieties). It is these conventional and systematic ways of doing things that we refer to as rules.

Every human language and dialect studied to date—whether loved or hated, prestigious or not—has regularities or rules of this type. A moment’s reflection would show why this is so. Without regularities, a language variety could not be successfully acquired or used in everyday life, and this applies to Spoken Soul or Ebonics as much as to the “Received Pronunciation” or “BBC English” of the British upper crust. Characterizations of the former as careless or lazy, and of the latter as careful or refined, are subjective social and political evaluations that reflect prejudices and preconceptions about the people who usually speak each variety. By contrast, linguists try, as objectively as possible, to understand and reveal the systematic regularities that each language inevitably possesses. That is what we will try to do in this chapter and the next, beginning with the vocabulary and pronunciation of Spoken Soul, and then considering its grammar. Whereas pronunciation and grammar vary less than lexicon from one region to another, they tend to vary more by social class. And because of their impact on verbal expression and literacy, they loom large when we consider the education of African American children.


The claim that Ebonics has no dictionary (see the first epigram at the beginning of this chapter) is certainly incorrect. Since 1994 there have been two authoritative guides: Clarence Major’s 548-page Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang (a revised, expanded version of his 1970 Dictionary of Afro-American Slang), and Geneva Smitherman’s 243-page Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. There has also been no dearth of shorter, more informal glossaries, from the “Introduction to Contemporary Harlemese” at the end of Rudolph Fisher’s 1928 novel, The Walls of Jericho, through The New Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary (1944), to more recent word and phrase-books like A 2 Z: The Book of Rap and Hip-Hop Slang (1995). Add to this dozens of scholarly articles and a number of book-length studies like J.L. Dillard’s Lexicon of Black English (1970) and Edith Folb’s runnin’ down some lines (1980), and it’s clear that there is substantial information on the vocabulary of Spoken Soul, past and present. Since vocabulary—especially slang—is always changing, new studies will always be needed. And a full-fledged Ebonics dictionary with pronunciation, etymologies, and historical attestations—as in the Oxford English Dictionary or Webster’s Third—still remains to be written. But we know enough from existing studies to make a number of generalizations about the vocabulary of Spoken Soul.

One of the many fascinating features of “black” vocabulary is how sharply it can divide blacks and whites, and how solidly it can connect blacks from differing social classes. In 1992, for instance, sociologist Teresa Labov published a study that examined the extent to which adolescents used and understood 89 slang terms. Of all the social variables she considered, race turned out to be the most significant factor, with blacks much more familiar with terms like bougie “an uppity-acting African American,” busting out “looking good,” and fresh “terrific,” and whites much more familiar with terms like schlep “to carry,” and bombed or smashed as snyonyms for “drunk.” That the black respondents knew the black terms is quite significant given that they were college students at predominantly white institutions. Although bloods from the hood and those from the hills certainly differ in the range and kinds of black slang they use (see the end of this section), familiarity with distinctive black vocabulary is one of the ways in which virtually every African American can be said to speak some form of Ebonics or Spoken Soul

Back in 1972, Robert L. Williams, the psychologist who coined the term “Ebonics,” created a so-called BITCH test which, like Teresa Labov’s study, highlighted differences in black/white vocabulary and experience. Williams’ in-your-face acronym stood for the “Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity,” designed to give blacks an advantage, in contrast to the usual intelligence tests that privileged the experience of whites. The BITCH included 100 multiple-choice questions, most of them requiring the test-taker to select the right gloss for words and expressions “from the Black experience.” Test items (with Williams’ glosses) included: blood “a brother of color,” to hot comb “to press [one’s hair],” H.N.I.C. “Head Nigger in Charge” and playing the dozens “insulting a person’s parents.”

What is revealing about Williams’ test is that many of its terms are not slang—relatively new and informal usages that are most common among teenagers, and likely to be short-lived—but regular words that are familiar across all age groups in the African American community and that have been around for a long time. As the examples in the preceding paragraph show, many of these historically “black” words refer to unique aspects of the black experience, including the physical attributes, social distinctions, and cultural practices and traditions of African Americans. Other examples in this category include the following (definitions are from Smitherman’s Black Talk):

Ashy “the whitish of grayish appearance of skin due to exposure to wind and cold; shows up more on African Americans due to Black people’s darker skin pigmentation.”

Bad. “Good, excellent, great, fine. From the Mandingo language in West Africa, a ka nyi ko-jugu, literally, “It is good badly,” meaning “It is very good” …"

Juneteenth. “The day, usually in mid to late June, when African Americans celebrate emancipation from enslavement; originally June 19, 1865, the date enslaved Africans in Texas learned they had been freed.”

Kitchen “hair at the nape of the neck, inclined to be the most curly (kinky) and thus the hardest part of straightened hair to keep from going back.”

Tom, Uncle Tom. “A negative reference to a Black person, suggesting that he/she is a sell-out, not down with the black cause. Tom comes from the character Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who put his master’s wishes and life before his own. . . . for women, Aunt Thomasina, Aunt Jane."

Yelluh, high yelluh. “A very light-complexioned African American.”

Many blacks don’t realize that their use of words like these differs from that of other Americans. (Of course bad and yelluh, which have crossed over into general usage, are somewhat different from the other words on the list.) When a group of African American college students was told recently that ashy in the sense of dry skin was not a regular English usage—you wouldn’t find it in standard American dictionaries, for instance, much less British ones—they were totally bowled over. It’s often only when a questionnaire survey is conducted that the impact of race on word usage becomes clear. Back in 1976, for instance, a survey of thirty-five blacks and thirty-five whites revealed that blacks were far more familiar with cut eye and suck teeth, words for visual and oral gestures respectively which express annoyance or anger at the person to whom they are directed. Twenty-three of the blacks (94%) but only four of the whites (11%) were familiar with cut-eye; twenty-four of the blacks (69%) were familiar with suck-teeth, but only one of the whites (3%) was.

When the multi-volume Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) was being prepared back in the 1970’s, an even larger survey was conducted in which 2,777 American informants--representing various races, age groups, and education levels--participated. One result was a comprehensive picture of which terms were used “among Black speakers” e.g. ace-boon-coon (“a very close friend”), or “chiefly among Blacks,” e.g. bid whist (“a variation of the card game whist in which players bid to name trump”), and which were “especially common among Blacks” (e.g. bubba as “term of address for a brother”). Some of the terms which DARE identified as black were compounds involving body parts, like bad-eye (“the evil eye: a curse or threatening glance”) bad-mouth (“to speak ill of someone”), and big-eye (“greedy, covetous”). Like suck-teeth, these turn out to be translations into English of literal and metaphorical expressions in West African languages, e.g. Mandingo da-jugu and Hausa mugum-baki for “bad mouth,” and Igbo íma osò, Yoruba (k)p‘os˘é, Hausa tsaki, Efik asiama, Kikongo tsiona, and Wolof cipu for the suck teeth sound. (Definitions in this paragraph are from allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage)

The mention of African languages raises a larger question about what are the major sources and domains of black vocabulary. Besides African languages, these include Music, especially the blues (jazz, gig, funky, hep, boogie), Religion and the Church (shout, Amen corner), Sex and Lovemaking (grind, Johnson, mack), Superstition and Conjure (obeah, voodoo, mojo), Street Life, including prostitution, drugs, gangs, fights, and cars (trick, pimp walk, numbers, cracked out, bus a cap, hog), People terms (cuz, posse, saddity/seddity, the Man), Abbreviations (CP time, HNIC, on the DL), and Slang or Youth Culture (fresh, phat, bustin out).

When it comes to Slang, which overlaps to some extent with the other categories (e.g. sex), variation by region and social class is widespread, as is rapid change over time. Edith Folb’s two decade old study of the language of Black teenagers in Los Angeles documents how slang use there varied according to age, gender, region, social class and lifestyle. Her comments on class differences are worth quoting, if only to counteract the impression one might otherwise get that ALL blacks are hip to exactly the same range of black slang (if the slang sounds dated it’s because Folb’s fieldwork was conducted in the late sixties and early seventies):

There are ghetto realities that most middle-class teenagers simply have no contact with. As one politically active middle-class youth put it, “Sure, I know a lot of the words [in the lexicon], but I’m not livin’ down there. It’s different. Can’t pretend it isn’t. Some of those terms just not part of my life.” His ghetto peer agrees: “Dig. The brothers up dere in dem Hollywood Hills, out dere at UCLA and all dem li’l ol’ colleges, they okay—hear what I’m sayin’? They hip to some o’ d’ happ’nin’s, they blood. But when dude come down here, better take it slow, ‘cause gon’ be lot shit he ain’ got together. Some blood blow his mind, send ‘im on a hombog. Run down some lines he done never heard!”

Although some slang words do hang around for a long time (pad, for instance, has been an alternative term for one’s “apartment or home” since the 1800s) slang is THE most rebellious and dynamic aspect of any language. As noted by Clarence Major:

Black slang is a living, breathing form of expression that changes so quickly no researcher can keep up with it. A word or phrase can come into existence to mean one thing among a limited number of speakers in a particular neighborhood and a block away it might mean something else or be unknown entirely—at least for a while.

The regional and rapidly changing aspects of slang account for the variations in vocabulary that people sometimes notice between East Coast rap and West Coast (not to mention Southern or Mid-Western) rap. (When in Philadelphia, one says "That's whassup" to affirm a statement. In Washington, D.C. it's "I'm with it," and in New Orleans it's "I'm 'bout it." To learn the state of affairs, ask a New Yorker "Yo, what the deal?" and a Chicago native "what the demo?") Because the life span of slang verbiage is so short, many of the most contemporary terms cannot be found in the 1994 dictionaries of Major and Smitherman. For instance, both dictionaries include player. In one of Major’s definitions, the term is defined as “a lady’s man; a sexually active male; male with more than one woman”; Smitherman has a similar gloss, but adds too “a flamboyant, flashy, popular man or woman, who may or may not have many women or men.” But neither scholar includes the more recently coined to player-hate (pronounced playa-hate) “to be jealous of or to impede the success of a player or anyone who is doing well.” Similarly, while they both include short, a slang word for a “car” which goes back to the 1930’s, neither includes shorty (pronounced shawty), a newer term for “girl friend or female” (as in “Shorty, what your name is”?) popular in the East Coast and the South, especially Atlanta.

Claude Brown commented on this changing nature of slang back in 1968:

The expression “up-tight,” which meant being in financial straits, appeared on the soul scene in the general vicinity of 1953. Junkies were very fond of the word and used it literally to describe what was a perpetual condition with them. The word was pictorial and pointed; therefore it caught on quickly in Soulville across the country. In the early Sixties when “uptight” was on the move, a younger generation of people along the Eastern Seaboard regenerated it with a new meaning: “everyhing is cool, under control, going my way.”

Clarence Major comments on the subsequent evolution of uptight: “later, in the late sixties, early seventies, it was adapted by white teenagers to mean mental or emotional disorder.”

Which brings us to one last point. Quite apart from words like bubba, big daddy, grits and chitlins/chitterlings—which long ago diffused among Southerners as a group (from black to white in the case of bubba and big daddy, from white to black in the case of grits and chitlins)—black slang has been spreading to teenagers of other ethnic groups more generally (primarily through music), and thence to mainstream America, for quite some time. James Baldwin made these remarks about the phenomenon back in 1979:

Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way they sound. Jazz, for example, is a very specific sexual term, as in jazz me, baby, but white people purified it into the Jazz Age. Sock it to me, which means roughly the same thing, has been adopted by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s descendants with no qualms or hesitations at all, along with let it all hang out and right on!

And in 1998, Hampton Professor Margaret Lee listed more than sixty black expressions that had crossed over into mainstream newspaper use, including chill out, threads, all that, boom-shaka-laka, main squeeze, you go girl, high-five, homeboy, soulmate and got game.

Although many blacks complain about white and mainstream adoption of black slang, new slang terms which provide secrecy and reflect rebelliousness are constantly being created within the black community. Furthermore as Clarence Major reminds us, the process of diffusion is not only normal, but inevitable:

This evolution from private to public is not only essential to the vitality at the crux of slang, but inevitable. By this I mean, African-American slang is not only a living language for black speakers but for the whole country, as evidenced by its popularity decade after decade since the beginning of American history. The most recent example of this popularity is rap and hip-hop during the 1980s and 1990s.


Author Claude Brown, who paid homage to the “communicative and meaningful” sounds of Spoken Soul, insisted that it was such sounds (called “soul vocalization”), rather than slang, that represented the distinctive identity of the black vernacular. As he noted:

Spoken soul is distinguished from slang primarily by the fact that the former lends itself easily to conventional English, and the latter is diametrically opposed to adaptations within the realm of conventional English. Police (pronounced po¯´lice) is a soul term, whereas “The Man” is merely slang for the same thing.

Brown was not a linguist, and most of his 1968 article was about slang. But he did realize that the system represented by black pronunciation was a more fundamental part of Spoken Soul. As he observed, this system allowed virtually any word in “conventional English” to be converted to the black vernacular.

The first example provided by Brown was the pronunciation of “my” as mah, to which one could add other examples—“I” as Ah, “side” as sahd, and so on. In all of these cases, what linguists call a “diphthong” (a two-vowel sequence) involving a glide from an ah-like vowel to an ee- like vowel, is produced as a long “monophthong” (a single vowel) without the glide to ee. Like many other pronunciation features of Spoken Soul, this monophthongal pronunciation is also characteristic of Southern white speech, as shown by the very first entry in a popular little glossary entitled How to Speak Southern:

Ah: The things you see with, and the personal pronoun denoting individuality. “Ah think Ah’ve got somethin’ in mah ah.” [“I think I’ve got something in my eye.”]

Another instance in which Spoken Soul resembles Southern white speech is in the similar pronunciation of e and i before "nasals" (sounds like m, n and ng, in which air from the lungs flows through the nose as well as the mouth), so that pin and pen both sound alike (like “pin”), and one might have to ask, “Do you mean a sticking pin, or a writing pen?”

That white Southerners also say mah and Ah and merge pin and pen does not detract from the significance of these features as markers of Spoken Soul. For one thing, in the vast areas of the North, East, Midwest and West where African Americans now live, mah, ah and the pin/pen merger are used and interpreted as distinctive elements of sounding “black.” In a recent study in Detroit, for instance, linguist Walter Edwards found that working class blacks used monophthongal pronunciations like mah and ah 60% of the time, while working class whites used them only 12% of the time. It is likely that in these as in other cases (e.g. r-lessness as in yo for “your”—an example that Brown also cites) white Southerners got the feature from the blacks who lived and worked around them rather than vice versa.

Recall that until the northern and western migrations of the early 20th century, 90% of America’s black population was concentrated in the South. The fact that it is Southern white speech that most resembles black speech is probably not an accident, and some observers have explicitly attributed the features of southern white speech to black influence, most recently linguists Erik R. Thomas and Guy Bailey:

Campbell (1746), Barker (1855), Jackson and Davis (1908), and Cash (1941) all report that White children on plantations often adopted features from the slave children who were their playmates. Feagin (1990) uses such historical evidence as a basis for postulating that African American influence promulgated r-lessness among Whites in the South. It is important to remember that on smaller plantations and farms (where the vast majority of slaveholders lived), the owner and his family often worked alongside slaves in the fields. Moreover, after the Civil War, Whites often fell victim to the system of tenancy so that in many cases Blacks and Whites worked alongside each other as tenant farmers (Thompson 1940, p. 150).

Ironically, in at least some cases, blacks who influenced southern white speech in the 19th and 20th centuries might have been transmitting features which their ancestors in turn had acquired from English, Irish and Scots-Irish indentured servants and peasant settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries, better preserved by them for a variety of historical reasons. (Compare East Indians in Guyana, who acquired deep Guyanese Creole from the newly emancipated Africans when the former group first came to what was then British Guiana as indentured servants in the 1830s. Today, because East Indians are more heavily represented in the rural peasant farming areas where deep Creole speech thrives, they are statistically more likely to exemplify deep Creole speech than the more urban descendants of the Africans.)

But despite mutual influence between blacks and whites, it would be a mistake to assume that black and white pronunciations are identical, even in the South. Thomas and Bailey in fact point to two other features of vowel pronunciation that distinguished or distinguish blacks and whites, even those from the same area. One is the pronunciation of the a vowel (phonetically /e/) in name, state, pay, say, baby, slaves and similar words, and the o vowel (phonetically /o/ in go, so, no, home and similar words), as pure "monophthongs," or words with little variation or change in sound from beginning to end. Ex-slaves born in the 1840s and1850s have this feature, in common with older African Americans born before World War I, and Caribbean English Creole speakers. White Americans born in the 1840s and 1850s do NOT have this feature, displaying a more "diphthongal" pronunciation, in which the tongue rises at the end. Younger African Americans follow their white counterparts in this respect, but in their pronunciation of the second feature, the /a/ onset of the /au/ diphthong in words like down and house, they differ from whites of all ages, and follow older African Americans and their Caribbean English Creole brethren in using non-front pronunciations, more like the vowel of “father” than like the vowel of “cat.” In a recent study, nearly 70 percent of Black Texans began the diphthong of “thousand” with a non-front pronunciation, but less than 20 percent of White Texans did.

The issue of whether blacks can be distinguished from whites by the sound of their voices alone came to national attention during the recent O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles. On July 12, 1995, prosecutor Christopher Darden tried to get witness Robert Heidstra to validate an earlier statement he had allegedly made that one of the two voices he heard near Nicole Brown Simpson’s house on the night of her murder sounded like that of a black man. Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran objected immediately, and Judge Lance Ito sustained his objection. In a dramatic moment, the jury and the witness were asked to leave the courtroom, and Mr. Cochran angrily explained the basis of his objection:

You can’t tell by somebody’s voice whether they sounded black. . . . I resent that is a racist statement. . . . this statement about whether he sounds black or white is racist and I resent it and that is why I stood and objected. And I think it is totally improper in America at this time in 1995 we have to hear and endure this.

However, as linguist John McWhorter has noted in a recent book:

In fact, however, Cochran got away with murder on that one . . . most Americans, and especially black ones, can almost always tell that a person is black even on the phone, and even when the speaker is using standard English sentences.

The evidence lies in more than a dozen studies that have been conducted over the past three decades showing that listeners are able to accurately identify the ethnicity of black and white speakers on the basis of tape-recorded samples of their speech, some less than 2.5 seconds long. The overall accuracy of identification is typically between 80% and 90% in these studies, and the pronunciation cues (for in many cases the speakers are reading utterances with identical standard English grammar) include differences in vowel quality of the type described above, and other features. In a 1972 study by John Rickford, speakers uttering “Hey, what’s happening” and other phrases were accurately identified as black or white 86% of the time, apparently on the basis of what listeners described as their “inflection,” “variation in pitch and rhythm” “intonation” and “tone.” Acoustic phonetic analysis revealed that the two black speakers did indeed show wider variation in pitch and intonation (with their voices rising higher and falling lower) than the whites, even when their pronunciation of individual consonants and vowels was more similar.

However, the speech of highly educated black speakers was identified much less accurately in early studies by researchers Richard Tucker and Wallace Lambert (around 50%), and Roger Shuy (8% to 18%). These results, along with a subsequent study by William Labov and his colleagues in which listeners were only moderately successful (30% to 66% correct) in identifying the ethnicity of “difficult cases”—whites who had been raised in the South or otherwise showed strong black influence, and blacks who had been raised entirely in white communities—firmly established that “sounding black” (or “white”) is not rooted in genetics or physiology, but influenced by society and culture. Cochran was right to resist the “racist” insinuation that ANY black person, regardless of education, cultural upbringing and association, could be infallibly identified as black by the sound of his or her voice alone. However it was certainly NOT “totally improper” for Darden and the prosecution to allege otherwise, for in the vast majority of cases, cultural and sociological factors have conspired to make blacks and whites sound different, and they do.

So far we have been talking about “soul vocalization” almost entirely in terms of vowels and intonation. But sometimes what’s distinctive is what happens with syllables. Take, for instance, the fact that blacks place the stress on the first rather than the second syllable in words like POlice and HOtel (versus poLICE and hoTEL), or the fact that blacks (especially older blacks) delete the unstressed initial and medial syllables in words like (a)bout, (be)cause, (a)fraid and sec(re)t(a)ry more often than whites do.

Moreover, it is often the pronunciation of CONSONANTS that distinguishes the speech of blacks from the speech of other ethnic groups in America, quantitatively as well as qualitatively. Some black consonant pronunciations—such as aks (or axe) for “ask”—are shibboleths of vernacular black speech. In a March 1995 segment of Sixty Minutes, television news reporter Morley Safer asked Arch Whitehead, a well-suited African American who recruits corporate executives, what would happen if a black man applying for a Wall Street job were to say “May I aks you a question?” (as opposed to “ask you a question”). Whitehead laughs and says, “He won’t get to aks that very often, I’ll tell ya,” and they both agree that he won’t even “get a foot in the door.” But two things should be noted about this widely stereotyped and stigmatized pronunciation, which is often the focus of “speech improvement” classes taken by black students. The first is that it was widespread in British English in earlier times, for instance, in Old English, where as the Oxford English Dictionary or Webster’s Third New International Dictionary will tell you, a¯csian alternated with a¯scian as the word meaning “to ask.” Even in Middle English, the spelling alternated between axen and asken although the latter won out to become the standard English pronunciation of modern times. Secondly, aks for “ask” is an example of what linguists call “metathesis”—changing around two consonants in a word, often to achieve an easier articulation. (An example from standard English is "comfortable," where the t is often pronounced before the r, even though it’s spelled with r before t). Another example in Spoken Soul is the pronunciation of “wasp” as waps, but that is much less common than aks for “ask,” and it is hard to think of other examples.

Much more widespread in their effects are rules deleting l and r after vowels, as in he’p for ‘help,’ afta for “after,” or yo for “your” (one of Claude Brown’s examples of soul vocalization). These processes are also found in the speech of whites and other ethnic groups, but they tend to occur more often in black vernacular speech, and they sometimes affect r between vowels (as in Ca(r)ol) where other dialects do not. Note that the deletion of contracted “’ll” from will allows invariant be to function sometimes as a future marker, as in “He (‘ll) be here in a few minutes”—a point we’ll return to in the “grammar” chapter (chap. 5b).

Another pronunciation that is often described as deleting a consonant—the so-called practice of “dropping the g” in words like walkin’ and singin’—does not actually involve deletion, but the replacement of one type of nasal (the “eng”-like “velar” nasal at the end of thing that is formed with the back of the tongue raised towards the back of the mouth) with another (the “en” like “alveolar” nasal at the end of thin that is formed with the front of the tongue raised behind the upper teeth). Other examples of distinctive pronunciation features of Soul that involve consonant replacement rather than deletion are the pronunciation of “street” as skreet, and “stretch” as skretch (with k replacing t in str sequences, especially in the South), and the pronunciation of “v” as b (as in hebben “heaven, nebba “never”).

What all this talk about consonant deletions and replacements tends to miss, however, is the fact that these processes are highly systematic, and not the careless or haphazard pronunciations that observers often mistake them for. (Recall the America On- Line contributor quoted at the beginning of this chapter who said that Ebonics has no rules, and the William Raspberry column, quoted in chapter 4?, in which Ebonics is said to have “no consistent spellings or pronunciations and no discernible rules.”) To appreciate this, let us consider two well-known features of Spoken Soul—the simplification of consonant clusters (by deletion of the final consonant) at the ends of words, as in tes’ for “test,” des for “desk” and hand for “hand,” and the replacement of “th” by t, f, d or v, as in tin for “thin,” Rufe for “Ruth,” dem for “them” and bave for “bathe.” As it turns out, not just ANY consonant cluster at the end of a word can be simplified (for instance, you can’t simplify “jump” to jum’ or “pant” to pan’), and the th in “Ruth” can’t be replaced by v instead of f (*Ruve instead of Rufe), nor can the th in “them” be replaced by t instead of d (*tem instead of dem). In order to produce the correct vernacular pronunciations in each case, speakers of Spoken Soul have to attend to whether the corresponding standard English pronunciations are “voiced” or “voiceless.”

Voiced or voiceless, you say? What you talkin' bout? Well, we're refering to whether the vocal cords in your “voice box” are held closely together, vibrating noisily (voiced) or whether they are spread apart (voiceless). The consonants s and z are identical sounds, except that s is voiceless and z is voiced. If you put your fingers in your ears and say a prolonged s followed by a prolonged z--sssszzzz—you’ll hear the difference quite dramatically as voicing begins for z and the vibrations resonate from your throat through your entire head. The consonants s, f, p, t, and k (among others) are voiceless, and z, v, b, d, and g (among others) are voiced. Now we’ll bet your parents or teachers never sat you down and taught you about voicing. But, if you’re a native speaker of English, it’s something you’ve been attending to every day of your life, at least from the time you learned to form plurals. Although grammar books tell you that you simply add an “-s” or “-es” to the end of a word to form a regular English plural, the rule only holds true for writing. In speech, it’s slightly more complicated. If the word ends in a sibilant (a hissing sound like ch or s), the pronunciation becomes uhz or ihz, as in rozuhz “roses” or churchihz “churches.” If the word ends in a vowel (all English vowels are voiced) or a voiced non-sibilant consonant, like b or g, you add a voiced z, as in teaz “teas,” cabz “cabs” or bidz “bids”; if the word ends in a voiceless non-sibilant sound, like p or t, you add a voiceless s, as in caps “caps” or bits “bits.”

Now that you understand voicing, let’s return to Spoken Soul. The unconscious but very regular rule for simplifying consonant clusters by deleting the final consonant at the end of a word is that you can only apply it if both (or all three) consonants are voiceless (as in test) or voiced (as in hand). If one of the consonants is voiced and the other is voiceless, as in jump and pant, you can’t simplify them. Of course, all good rules have exceptions (compare oxen and sheep as English plurals), and Spoken Soul is no exception, but even the exceptions are regular: negatives like can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t regularly lose their final voiceless t (as in can’, won’, shouldn’) even though it’s preceded by a voiced n. Many colloquial dialects of English have similar rules for consonant cluster simplification, but African American Vernacular English applies it more often than most. And for speakers who regularly simplify the final cluster in “test” to tes’, the latter becomes the base form in their mental dictionary, and its plural becomes “tesses” (tessuhz) instead of “tests” (which ends in a triple consonant cluster) by virtue of the very rules for plural formation that we outlined in the preceding paragraph. (Compare also desses for “desks.”)

In the case of th, the reason voicing is relevant is that English th actually comes in both a voiceless variety as in “think,” and a voiced variety, as in “them.” English spelling masks the difference, but you can hear it by taking the initial voiced sound in “them” (more like a dh than a th) and substituting it for the initial sound of “think” (yielding something like dhink, which sounds funny), or taking the initial voiceless sound of “think” and substituting it for the initial sound of “them” (THem, which also sounds funny). Well the rules for replacing “th” in Spoken Soul depend crucially on voicing. Voiceless th can be replaced by voiceless t or f (the latter primarily at the ends of words, as in toof “tooth,” the former almost anywhere: tink “think”, nutten “nothing,” toot “tooth”); voiced th can be replaced by voiced d or v (the latter in the middle or at the ends of words, as in muvva “mother” and bave “bathe”, the former anywhere: dem “them,” mudda “mother,” bade “bathe”). The ways in which English “th” is pronounced in black vernacular therefore reveal in a very systematic way whether it is voiced or voiceless, even more so than English spelling does.

Finally, voicing is relevant to another pronunciation feature of Spoken Soul, which shares with many English-based creoles a rule deleting b, d, or g when when they are the first consonant in tense-aspect markers or auxiliary verbs, for instance, the d of “don’t” (ah ‘on’ know = “I don’t know”) and “didn’t” (he ain’t do it=“He didn’t do it”) ) and the g of “gonna” (ah ma do it= “I’m gonna do it” with the g and most of gonna deleted). Among American dialects, this rule is apparently unique to the black vernacular or very nearly so, and it provides one indication among others that Spoken Soul may have had Creole ancestry or been influenced in its history by creole speech. (See chapter 10.)

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