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, in place of the Standard English inflected forms of be, such as is and are. In AAVE, use of be indicates that an entity repeatedly does an action or embodies a trait. In Standard English, the use of (an inflection of) be merely conveys that an individual has done an action in a particular tense, such as in the statement "She was singing" (the habitual being "she sings").

It is a common misconception that AAVE speakers simply replace is with be across all tenses, with no added meaning. In fact, AAVE speakers use be to mark a habitual grammatical aspect not explicitly distinguished in Standard English. For example, to be singing means to sing habitually, not to presently be singing. 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]

Hypothesized sources[edit]

The source of habitual be in AAVE is still disputed. Some linguists suggest it came from the finite be in the 17th to 19th century English of British settlers, while other linguists believe that it came from Scots-Irish immigrants whose Ulster Scots dialects mark habitual verb forms with be and do be.

One hypothesis is that habitual be simply diffused into New World Black English from Hibernian English (HE) through contact in the Caribbean. Some evidence is that the two dialects structure sentences with the habitual be almost identically:

(1) Even when I do be round there with friends, I do be scared. (HE)

(2) Christmas Day, well, everybody be so choked up over gifts and everything, they don't be too hungry. (AAVE)[3]

Criticism of the hypothesis stems from the fact that there is no evidence that be was used as a habitual marker in the past or is used today in Caribbean creoles of English.[3] Instead, Caribbean English speakers use the preverbal does to mark habitualness. They use be only as filler between does and the sentence's predicate.

The 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.[3] During the 17th and 18th centuries, Northern HE speakers immigrated more to North America, and Southern HE speakers immigrated to the Caribbean Islands, both working alongside blacks. Although the expansion to include the differences in the dialects of HE accounts for the absence of habitual be in Caribbean English creoles, the hypothesis has its disadvantages as well. The first problem is the 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.[3] Hibernian English marks habitualness on be, and Caribbean English rarely marks it, if at all. A second problem 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.

A further expansion and modification of the diffusion hypotheses account for the periphrastic do found in Caribbean English creoles. The do feature was common in British English and persisted in the nonstandard Southern and Southwestern English dialects that were used by the white colonials in the Caribbean colonies.[3] The Irish and 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 and the two assemblages of people were in close contact and communicating with a new tongue. It is possible that British dialects could have had features that served as models for habitual do (be)' in the Caribbean creoles, which, in turn, expanded 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.[3] Another hypothesis for the origins of habitual be in NWBE and afterwards into AAE is the most logical and the strongest of the lot.

The decreolization theory for the emergence of habitual be 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.[3] The process is seen as one code-shifting 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 but kept 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.[3] It is hypothesized that the first three stages were present in the speech of plantation slaves, and the 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.[3] 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 blacks and the fact that the decreolizing of habitual be also follows the pattern of decreolization in general linguistics and the pattern in cultural anthropology, with formal approximations of English over time and cultural assimilation of language respectively.[3] 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. 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 the hypothesis is that it does not work for area in which creoles did not develop, such as areas of America with very few blacks in the population.[3] 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, leading to the different habitual markers in AAE and Caribbean English creoles. The two minor problems are far outweighed by the advantages that the hypothesis has and further affirm that it is the best possible origin of habitual be.


  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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Rickford, John (1986). "Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English". Language. 62 (2): 261-265. 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"