Habitual be

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Habitual be is the use of an uninflected be in African American Vernacular English(AAVE) and Caribbean English to mark habitual or extended actions, instead of using the Standard English inflected forms of be, such as is,are,and the past tense was and were. Habitualness entails that an entity repeatedly does an action or embodies a trait. A normal use of the verb be, for example, conveys that an individual does an action in a particular tense. She was singing, is an example of be utilized in the past tense.

With respect to Habitual be, it is a common misconception that AAVE speakers simply replace is with be across all tenses: For example in the present tense, "She be singing" for "She is singing." In fact, AAVE speakers use be to mark a habitual grammatical aspect which is not explicitly distinguished in Standard English. To be singing in this example means to sing habitually, not to be singing right now. In one experiment, children were shown drawings of Elmo eating cookies while Cookie Monster looked on. Both black and white subjects agreed that Elmo is eating cookies, but the black children said that Cookie Monster be eating cookies.[1][2]

The source of habitual be in AAVE is still disputed because some linguists suggest it represents influence from finite be in the 17th to 19th century English of British settlers. Other linguists feel that Scots-Irish immigrants may have played a larger role since their Ulster Scots dialects mark habitual verb forms with be and do be. Those are two of the diffusion hypotheses put forth in John Rickford’s paper, Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno English and New World Black English along with an addition diffusion hypothesis, all grouped under diffusion as a potential origin, as well as a decreolization hypothesis.

The first diffusion hypothesis states that habitual be simply diffused into New World Black English from Hibernian English. A major boon in this hypothesis is that the sentence structures of both HE and AAE containing habitual be, are nearly identical. The examples given by Rickford are as following;

(1) Even when I be round there with friends, I be scared. (2) Christmas Day, well, everybody be so choked up over gifts and everything, they don’t be too hungry.

The first example is from Northern Hiberno English and the second is from an AAVE speaker.[3] Both sentences appear to have similar uses for the habitual be feature. But with this one major advantage, there are two big disadvantages for this diffusion hypothesis. One disadvantage is that even though habitual be could have spread from HE into NWBE and into AAE through contact in the Caribbean, there is no evidence that be was used as a habitual marker in the past, and it is not used as one today in Caribbean Creoles of English.[4] Caribbean English speakers use preverbal does to mark habitualness and only use be as filler between does and the sentence’s predicate. The second disadvantage is that this diffusion hypothesis does not take into account the distribution and co-occurrence of habitual do in Hiberno English. Do is the more common HE habitual marker but is used less in Northern HE. It is used more frequently in the form, do be, in conjunction with be in Southern HE.[5] Do also occurs with other verbs in both varieties of HE. This simple diffusion hypothesis is too simple in that it does not provide a clear picture of how be was diffused. A deeper look at the diffusion going between HE and NWBE is needed as well as a solution to the weakness of this hypothesis.

A modified, expanded, and improved diffusion hypothesis is the second attempt at finding the origins of habitual be in AAE. This hypothesis states that the geographical differences in use of be and do (be) by Northern and Southern HE speakers respectively accounts for the difference in use of be and does (be) in AAE and Caribbean English respectively.[6] During the 17th and 18th centuries, Northern HE speakers immigrated more to North America while Southern HE speakers immigrated to the Caribbean Islands, both, however working alongside African Americans. Although this expansion to include the differences in the dialects of HE accounts for the absence of habitual be in Caribbean English creoles, this hypothesis has its disadvantages as well. The first fault in this hypothesis is in distribution of do and be again. In Southern HE, do is more common with be than other verbs, but in Caribbean English, does is less common with be than other verbs.[7] Hibernian English marks habitualness on be while Caribbean English rarely marks it, if at all. A second fault is that there is not sufficient evidence to show that Southern HE speakers did not introduce do (be) to the American colonies, since there were Southern HE speakers in the colonies that worked closely with Blacks. Also, with this introduction, was a later vanishing of this feature, with it only surviving now in United States Sea Islands.

A further expansion and modification of the diffusion hypotheses account for the periphrastic do found in Caribbean English creoles. This do feature was common in British English and persisted in the non-standard Southern and Southwestern English dialects that were used by the white colonials in the Caribbean colonies.[8] The Irish as well as the Blacks were both learning English at the same time, and both groups learned a new language while retaining the conventions of their native languages. In America, the Irish feature habitual be may have diffused into AAE while the two assemblages of people were in close contact and communicating with a new tongue. Or these British dialects could have had features that served as models for habitual do (be) in the Caribbean Creoles which in turn expended to AAE in the Americas. It is also worth noting that Southern and Southwestern British immigrants traveled to the American colonies as well and their dialects would have been used as a model to Blacks, leading to a drawback, the introduction and subsequent loss of habitual do (be) in America which was also the problem with the first expansion of the diffusion hypothesis.[9] Another, alternate theory for the origins of habitual be in NWBE and afterwards into AAE proves to be the most logical and strongest of the lot.

The decreolization theory for habitual be’s emergence in AAE is the most likely and most supported of the theories of its origin. It involves the decreolization process of Caribbean English creole, with the loss of does (be), which itself is a decreolization of a previous creole habitual marker, and its co-occurrence with be.[10] This process is seen as one code shift in the series of English learned by Blacks in the New World. The existence of a category of habituals in the native Caribbean languages at the basilectal level shows that over time, Blacks learned English while keeping the conventions of their native languages until code shifting replaced these old conventions with new ones. The evidence that Rickford gives is as following:

(18) Habitual aspect with a prepositional phrase or locative:

Stage 1: He (d)a de [dc] in the bed. (basilect)

Stage 2: He does de in the bed. (hab. (d)a -> does)

Stage 3: He does be in the bed. (loc. cop. de -> be)

Stage 4: He 0 be in the bed. (does -> 0; be 'habitual')

This data is just one set of three, with this one preceding a predicate containing a prepositional phrase, and shows the shifting from the basilectal, native language convention, level to the English habitual be level in stage 4, with the coexistence of two or more stages at once.[11] It is hypothesized that the first three stages were present in the speech of plantation slaves, and this hypothesis appears to be supported by the presence of these stages today on the Sea Islands of the United States, with only stage four surviving anywhere else in America.[12] The advantages of this hypothesis are that there is no assumption that Blacks had no native language influence and that the conventions of English were perfectly copied to the emerging English grammars of African Americans, as well the fact that the decreolizing of habitual be also follows the pattern of decreolization in general Linguistics in addition to the pattern in Cultural Anthropology with formal approximations of English over time and cultural assimilation of language respectively.[13] Another merit is that this same pattern of decreolizing of be is found in other creoles that are relatively close to AAE and affirm the plausibility of this origin for habitual be. And yet another merit for this hypothesis is that it can incorporate the strong points of the revised diffusion hypotheses and surmount the weaknesses associated with them. For instance, Creoles and dialects have lexicons that derive from the languages that feed them and AAE and Caribbean English are no different. They followed the models of language dialects that came in contact with them and used their native language conventions as well as the newly learned conventions to mutate into varieties of the model language. A possible disadvantage of this hypothesis is that it will not work for area where creoles did not develop, such as areas of America with very few Blacks in the population.[14] And another possible disadvantage is that the sources of slaves for the differing regions of America and the Caribbean could have led to different creole starting points, thus leading to the different habitual markers in AAE and Caribbean English creoles. These two minor demerits are far outweighed by the advantages that this hypothesis has and further affirm that this hypothesis is the best possible origin of habitual be.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Do You Speak American . For Educators . Curriculum . High School . AAE". PBS. Retrieved 2012-05-23. 
  2. ^ "SYNERGY – African-American English". Umass.edu. Retrieved 2012-05-23. 
  3. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 261. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  4. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 261. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  5. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 262. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  6. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 263. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  7. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 264. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  8. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 264. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  9. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 265. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  10. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 265. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  11. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 267. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  12. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 267. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  13. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 268. doi:10.2307/414674. 
  14. ^ Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language 62 (2): 273. doi:10.2307/414674. 

External links[edit]

  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000 "Be"
  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000 "Zero Copula"