Who (be) takin’ it to the man

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) – without getting into its terminological complications – has a versatile and distinctive grammar for conveying aspect.* For one thing, it can omit the copula be in some situations: She is working todayShe working today.

This is known as copula deletion, zero copula, or zero auxiliary. The American Heritage Dictionary says it’s “even more characteristic of AAVE than is invariant habitual be”. The latter, as in She be working, differs from zero copula in that it refers mainly to habitual or prolonged action.

The two constructions – zero copula and habitual/invariant be – are sometimes confused by people unfamiliar with AAVE’s syntactic subtleties, as the dictionary’s fifth edition reports:

In place of the inflected forms of be, such as is and are, used in Standard English, [AAVE] and some varieties of Southern American English may use zero copula, as in He working, or an invariant be, as in He be working, instead of the Standard English He is working. As an identifying feature of the vernacular of many African Americans, invariant be has been frequently seized on by writers and commentators trying to imitate or parody black speech. However, most imitators use it simply as a substitute for is, as in John be sitting in that chair now, without realizing that within AAVE, invariant be is used primarily for habitual or extended actions set in the present.

You can read more about the usages here, and via the previous link, both of which point to an earlier edition of the AHD.

George Pelecanos - King Suckerman book coverThe distinction gets a nice mention in George Pelecanos’s crime novel King Suckerman. Two characters, Rasheed and Cheek, are talking about the eponymous (fictional) blaxploitation film showing in their city:

“What new one?” said Rasheed.

King Suckerman,” said Cheek.

Rasheed looked up. “That the one about the pimp?”

“Not any old pimp. The baddest player ever was. ‘The Man with the Master Plan Who Be Takin’ It to the Man.’”

Who be. That’s what the ad says, huh? I bet some white man wrote that movie; produced it, too. Even wrote that line about ‘the Man’ that’s gonna get you in the theatre.”

King Suckerman hasn’t always been “takin’ it to the man” – at least not in a way worth making a film about – but he is doing so now. Who be takin’ it to the man indicates ongoing rebellion; who takin’ it to the man would imply more immediate (and hence cinematic) events. So we infer that whoever was responsible for the tagline is not a native AAVE speaker.

John Rickford says the invariant habitual be construction “has clear parallels with and possible derivations from creole ‘does be’”. Does be is a feature of Hiberno-English too, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage summarises:

The ability of a verb form or auxiliary to indicate continuation or duration of an action is called by grammarians and linguists aspect. Since English is somewhat deficient in aspect, compared to some other languages, these dialectal forms [Black English and Hiberno-English] do constitute an enrichment of the language. But they are not yet available to the writer of ordinary standard English, and no one knows if they ever will be.

*

* Grammatical aspect is defined by Huddleston and Pullum as “a verbal category mainly indicating the speaker’s view of the temporal structure of the situation the clause describes, such as whether it is habitual or complete”. For more, see SIL and Glottopedia.

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9 Responses to Who (be) takin’ it to the man

  1. I really need to check out the new AHD. I’m surprised that they contain an explanation of the zero copula in the first place and impressed that they cover the topic so well.

  2. Stan says:

    It’s an excellent dictionary, and a beautiful book; lately I’ve been browsing the etymology bits at the back. You probably saw Victor Mair’s post at Language Log recently.

  3. languagehat says:

    Another plug for AHD here. M-W is what I have literally by my left elbow for professional reasons (it’s the standard editorial reference in these parts), but AHD is what I go to for pleasure. The color photos, the design, and oh the lovely etymologies (and of course the appendixes of IE and Semitic roots). Really a joy to the mind and the senses.

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I find it mildly troubling, looking back in retrospect, that in their seemingly well-meaning attempt to give African-American English a modicum of legitimacy, or academic caché, through the mid-70′s coining of the term “ebonics”, that those committed folk who advocated, early-on, for its use (and wide acceptance) were generally soundly derided by many of the noted linguists, and academics of the day– African-American, and non-African-American alike.

    Most of these naysaying critics viewed the legitimizing of “ebonics” as nothing short of giving official sanction to what boiled down to bad, or faulty English grammar; in sum, a bastardization of ‘proper’ Am. English.

    I recall at the height of the “ebonics” debate where the likes of such heavy-weight African-Americans as comedian/ actor/ author Bill Cosby* weighed in quite vocally on the issue. He was particularly
    disturbed by the proposition advocated by many in the “ebonics” camp that inner-city African-American public school kids should have the option to converse, discuss, or write essays, and such in class, articulating in “ebonics” throughout.

    Seems like the heated “ebonics” debate has lost major traction over the years, although I sense their is a less prejudiced attitude toward its use, particularly w/ the more open, more worldly, millennial generation. Today AAVE seems to have become the official academic label for what was earlier termed “ebonics”.

    Stan, in reading your fine article, and some of the attached links, I tend to agree w/ the general consensus that the argument for some West African linguistic connection w/ AAVE is tenuous at best**, although I found quite fascinating the notion of the multiplicity of distinct languages spoken amongst the ranks of the thousands of West African slaves destined for America; and how this linguistic diversity played right into the malevolent, or at least avaricious schemes of the slave traders; namely, by majorly mixing up the onboard tribal composition during ‘the great passage’, the possibilities of slaves plotting, verbally at least, against their captors would be greatly minimized due to the motley mix of alien tongues.

    Of course, it’s also been well documented that slave holders deliberately, and systematically separated individuals of entire slave families from one another— yet another method of reducing the inter-slave collusion potential. But I digress.

    I be movin’ along, ’bout now.

    *Bill Cosby actual earned a Phd in Psychcology from Temple University in Philadelphia, his home town.

    **For me, the argument for early Creole influences is most compelling, particularly re/ the ‘omitted copula’, and the ‘invariant habitual “be” ‘ phenomena.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      Oops!

      Technically, that should have read African-American Vernacular English in the first paragraph intro. I left out “Vernacular”… but hopefully the context implied AAVE, nonetheless.

  5. Stan says:

    Hat: Yes, AHD is really well designed, with a clear layout and colour tastefully applied: a sight for screensore eyes.

    Alex: It was a troubling chapter, very revealing of social and cultural attitudes above and beyond linguistic matters. Anyone who natively speaks a minority dialect is likely to have some experience of such prejudice.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      Stan,

      On the merits of reading (and hearing) a bevy of glowing reports re/ the current 5th edition iteration of the AHD, including your very positive assessment of this venerable reference tome on more than one occasion, over a month ago, I asked my dear mum and brother back in Canada to include it on my short list of most desired Xmas gifts. (I don’t always have to be gobsmacked by a present I wasn’t really expecting. HA!)

      I’m heading from my adopted home turf here in L.A. back to the Toronto area, my native home grounds, for a fortnight-and-a-bit holiday stay with those nearest-and-dearest, and look forward to opening a rather heavy, squarish, festively wrapped certain present; namely that most recent edition of the AHD, which will surely entertain and illuminate for years to come.

      Thanks again for your AHD praises and positive critique, Stan.

      I liked your “sight for screensore eyes” bit, by-the-by.

  6. Warsaw Will says:

    This reminds me of a joke by Black stand-up comedian Reginald D Hunter, who is from the deep south but has worked in Britain for some time now. A British woman asks him if he knew about Tommy Cooper. Hunter says “He dead”. And the woman replies, “I must be terribly British and correct your grammar. I think it’s ‘he died’.” – To which Hunter answers, “At first he died, now he dead.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuq8ZU2Uf_0 (it’s near the beginning)

  7. Stan says:

    Will: That’s a good one; I hadn’t heard it. I wonder if it’s based on a true story.

    Alex: Pleased to hear you’ll be joining the AHD5 club. You’re in for a treat.

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