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African American English in the Middle Class

Abstract and Keywords

The goal of this chapter is to provide an overview of the emerging body of research aimed at examining the use and perception of African American English (AAE) by middle class speakers. While many scholars have pointed out that AAE falls on a continuum of social dialect features that reflect a speaker’s socioeconomic status, among other factors, the use of AAE by middle class speakers has often been overlooked in favor of the idealized, vernacular speech patterns of working class African Americans and urban African American male youth. Yet, an emerging body of research provides evidence that the use of AAE by middle class speakers is rich and dynamic, reflecting the complex social, economic, and professional domains that shape middle class African American life and linguistic behavior. Finally, we reflect on linguistic definitions of the AAE continuum vis-à-vis middle class speakers.

Keywords: African American English (AAE), class, middle and working, socioeconomic status, vernacular, AAE continuum

44.1 Introduction

While a number of scholars have pointed out that African American English1 (AAE) falls on a continuum of social dialect features that reflect a speaker’s socioeconomic status, among other factors (see Labov 1972; Baugh 1983; Taylor 1983; Spears 1988; McWhorter 1998), the use of AAE by middle-class speakers has often been overlooked in favor of the idealized, vernacular speech patterns of working-class African Americans and urban African American youths. Yet, an emerging body of research provides evidence that the use of AAE by middle-class African Americans is rich and dynamic, reflecting the complex social, economic, and professional domains that shape middle-class African American life and linguistic behavior. This chapter provides an overview of important themes, discoveries, and directions for future research on middle-class African American English (MCAAE).

44.2 Defining the AAE Continuum

Despite over forty years of sociolinguistic research on AAE, linguistic attention to the variety has remained fairly narrowly focused on working-class vernacular speech. Labov (1972) directed attention to the Black English Vernacular (BEV) as “that relatively uniform grammar found in its most consistent form in the speech of Black youth from 8 to 19 years old2 who participate fully in the street culture of the inner cities” (1972, xiii). Middle-class African American speakers, falling outside the limits of this “street” or (p. 801) “vernacular” culture, were dismissed as linguistic “lames” and systematically excluded from consideration in AAE research. In fact, with the exception of Wolfram’s (1969) social stratification study in Detroit, Michigan, almost none of the seminal studies on AAE gave any serious consideration to middle-class speakers.

Bucholtz (2003) attributes this phenomenon to a practice of “strategic essentialism” by which linguists focused on the most marginalized and stigmatized members of the African American speech community in an effort to highlight the legitimacy of the vernacular. She also argues, however, that such tendencies reflect a type of “sociolinguistic nostalgia” by which the most “exotic” linguistic practices have been treated as the most “authentic.” This sociolinguistic practice has, thus, resulted in a conflation of AAE with nonstandard, or vernacular, language usage. As observed by Marcyliena Morgan (1994):

because vernacular AAE has been defined as hip, male, adolescent, street, or gang-related speech, nonvernacular speech is described as weak, lame, or White (Labov 1972). Those who do not fit the model of the vernacular-idealized speaker… are therefore, according to this sociolinguistic paradigm, not African American or, to put it in modern terms, not the “authentic Other.” (135)

Despite these tendencies, broader linguistic definitions of AAE have actually been in circulation since the earliest days of research on the variety. While Labov’s early definition of the vernacular set the standard for decades of research to follow, he actually proposed at the outset that a distinction be made between the terms Black English Vernacular and Black English (BE), with the latter being used as a more general cover term to refer to:

the whole range of language forms used by Black people in the United States: a very large range indeed, extending from the Creole grammar of Gullah spoken in the Sea Islands of South Carolina to the most formal and accomplished literary style. (1972, xiii; emphasis added)

Along these lines, studies such as Hoover (1978), Taylor (1983), and Spears (1998) have called for increased attention to the more standard end of the continuum, where standard grammatical constructions are used in combination with more ethnically marked and/or vernacular lexical, rhetorical, phonological, and prosodic features (see also Spears, this volume.) As observed in Mufwene (2001), broader definitions such as these are not only more inclusive but also more consistent with community notions of “talking Black.”

Given these acknowledgments of the breadth and diversity of the African American speech community, it is surprising that sociolinguists have not directed more attention to middle-class speakers. In recent years, a small number of studies have begun to address these gaps in the sociolinguistic literature, with examinations of social stratification, intra-speaker variation, identity and public performance, and language ideologies and attitudes. Before discussing this emerging line of research, however, we will (p. 802) consider the African American middle class itself, and the social and historical context that defines it.

44.3 Defining the African American Middle Class

Scholars have used a number of factors (taken alone or in combination) to determine a person’s membership in the middle class. Landry (1987) uses occupation, with white-collar workers (e.g., those with jobs in management, sales, and clerical positions), small businessmen, and individuals in trained service positions (e.g., firemen, policemen, and dental assistants) making up this class segment. Others use income relative to the poverty limit, in some cases defining the middle class as earning between twice and four times the federally defined poverty level (Massey and Fischer 1999; Adelman 2004), or median income levels as a threshold (Haynes 2001; Lacy 2007). Others, such as Marsh et al. (2007) have created a Black middle-class index (BMCi) that assigns points based on the educational attainment (four years or more of college); wealth (i.e., home ownership); per-person income (a measure that allows for the comparison of incomes of families of different sizes); and occupational prestige of individuals in a household to determine whether the household has attained middle-class status. Families receiving a score of four (i.e., one point for each of the four measures) are considered middle class.

Despite these differences in approaches, scholars have long discussed the growth and distribution of an elite or upwardly mobile segment of the African American community.3 A small elite that, prior to the Civil War, served the White upper class eventually shifted to a budding middle class that was primarily dedicated to the service of the African American community (Frazier 1957; Wilson 1978; Landry 1987). In 1915, a steady flow of African Americans to the North to fill wartime industrial positions created a new opportunity for the growth of an African American middle class and a greater diversity of occupations within the African American community (Frazier 1957). In fact, the elite that emerged around 1915 consisted of entrepreneurs and professionals (such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers) that, due to discrimination, were highly dependent on fellow African Americans for support and patronage (Landry 1987; Lacy 2007). Although members of the White middle class in the early 1900s had access to “clean” clerical and sales positions, African Americans were still excluded from expanding into this occupational tier. However, a major shift driven by Civil Rights Era legislation occurred between 1960 and 1970, such that the African American middle class doubled and one in every four African American workers was middle class (Landry 1987, 70). Despite these gains, Oliver and Shapiro (1995) point out that, at the time of their study, African American families needed two incomes to maintain middle-class status; African American wage earners made one-fifth less than their White counterparts; African American families (p. 803) had a net worth that was one-fifth that of Whites; and young African American families often lacked substantial assets (96).

Furthermore, although African Americans have shown some gains in attaining middle-class status since the 1980s, they still lag behind Whites in noticeable ways. For example, Pattillo-McCoy (1999) points out that by 1995 half of all African American workers had attained middle-class jobs (compared to 60 percent of Whites). And while middle-class Whites traditionally occupy upper-middle-class occupations (including professionals and executives), middle-class African Americans tend to occupy lower-middle-class professions (including sales and clerical positions) (22). In addition, as a result of the Great Recession ending in 2009, the overall wealth gap between African Americans and Whites has widened significantly. A 2011 Pew Research Center report finds that African American households in 2009 had a median net worth (defined as the sum of all assets minus debts) of $5,677, while White households had a median net worth of $113,149 (Taylor et al. 2011, 1). Furthermore, a Pew Research Center report (2012) defines middle-income households as “those with a size-adjusted household income that is two-thirds to double the overall median size-adjusted income” (64). For example, for a three-person household in the year 2010, the middle-income range was from $39,418 to $118,255 (64). As of 2011, 70 percent of White adults were classified as middle income compared to 11 percent of Black adults (67).

Alongside wealth and income gaps, the growth of the African American middle class has been hampered by discriminatory practices that serve to delimit and constrain the geographic expansion of the African American community. For example, African Americans have historically lived in “Black Belts,” or concentrated areas of settlement whose boundaries are strictly enforced by discriminatory housing policies and violence (Patillo 2005). According to Massey and Denton (1993):

well-educated, middle-class Blacks of the old elite found themselves increasingly lumped together with poorly educated, impoverished migrants from the rural south; and well-to-do African Americans were progressively less able to find housing commensurate with their social status. (30)

Thus, African Americans are more likely than other ethnic groups to live in highly segregated communities (Massey and Fischer 1999). Furthermore, in a study of three metropolitan areas (Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland) in 1990, Alba, Logan, and Stults (2000) find that White residents live in neighborhoods that are twice as affluent as African Americans. And in an investigation of segregation patterns for middle-class African Americans in fifty large metropolitan areas of the United States in 1970, 1980, and 1990, Adelman (2004) finds that middle-class African Americans are more likely to live in moderate to highly segregated communities and in neighborhoods that are more disadvantaged or have more negative neighborhood characteristics than their White counterparts.

While the studies described above indicate that middle-class African Americans tend to experience urban blight and high rates of segregation, Lacy (2004) provides a critique of this generalization by suggesting that many of these studies are in fact, characterizing (p. 804) the experiences of lower-middle-class African Americans (i.e., those who make less than $50,000 per year, lack college degrees, and occupy clerical and sales positions) (2).

Lacy (2004, 2007) details the experiences of a small but growing segment of the middle-class African American community that lives in suburban settings in Black and White middle-class enclaves that are not in close proximity to urban blight. For example, African American residents of middle-class enclaves in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Prince George’s County, Maryland, enjoy similar lifestyle choices to their middle-class White counterparts (Lacy 2007). In addition, Lacy (2004) argues that while members of the African American middle class may work and operate in predominantly White contexts, some are engaged in a type of strategic assimilation where their interactions in African American spaces (including the African American church, African American fraternities and sororities, and other African American social institutions) provide them with a continual connection to the African American social world and cultural practices.

Overall, these studies suggest that researchers must be careful when choosing the factors that signal an individual’s or family’s class status. Furthermore, the data suggest that, while middle-class African Americans have historically lived in close proximity to other class segments of the African American community and have experienced unpleasant living conditions that often align with the experiences of the working class and poor, further differentiation of the middle class based on income, profession, and residential location (i.e., urban versus suburban) is necessary to tease apart the nuances of the middle-class African American experience.

44.4 The Study of African American English in the Middle Class

44.4.1 Social Stratification

Since Labov’s seminal research in the 1960s and 1970s, social stratification studies have played a central role in the language variationist tradition, revealing interesting patterns of behavior among lower-middle-class speakers, in particular, who have been described as “linguistically insecure” and prone to hypercorrection4 in the direction of mainstream prestige norms (see Labov 1966, 1972).5 Few researchers, however, have examined the ways in which phonological and grammatical variables are distributed across social class categories in African American communities. The earliest study, and one of the few studies to date, to provide this type of investigation is Wolfram (1969). In this study, Wolfram examines the social stratification of four phonological and four grammatical variables (see table 44.1) in the speech of forty-eight African American speakers, evenly distributed across four social class categories (lower working, upper working, lower middle, and upper middle), in Detroit, Michigan.

(p. 805) Among his findings, Wolfram observes relatively consistent use of Standard American English (SAE) features among middle-class speakers, though younger speakers exhibit some individual variation, and women across all social class categories show greater tendencies toward SAE forms. He also observes that the grammatical variables exhibit sharp stratification across social classes (suggesting a greater linguistic salience), whereas three of the four phonological variables are gradiently stratified.6 While these results seem to support the perception of middle-class speakers as “lames” relative to their working-class peers, they also draw attention to the complicating effects of sex, age, and linguistic salience (among other factors) on the social stratification of the observed variables.

Table 44.1 Phonological and Grammatical Features Analyzed in Wolfram (1969)



  1. 1. Variable reduction of word-final consonant clusters

  1. 1. test [st]/[s]

    laughed [ft]/[f]

  1. 2. Variable realization of morpheme medial and final /Ө/as [Ө], [f], [t], or Ø (i.e., zero realization)

  • 2.  tooth [Ө]/[f]

  • nothing [Ө]/[f]/[t]/Ø

  • with [Ө]/[f]/[t]/Ø

  1. 3. Variable realization of syllable final /d/ as [d], [t ̚], [ʔ], or Ø

  1. 3. good [d]/[t ̚]/[ʔ]/Ø

  1. 4. Variable absence of post-vocalic /r/

  1. 4. work, car, brother [r]/Ø



  1. 1. Variable copula absence

  1. 1. Dolores_ the vice-president.

    We_ going Friday night.

  1. 2. Invariant be in habitual or future contexts

  1. 2. Sometime she be fighting in school. (hab.)

    I be twelve February seven. (future)

  1. 3. Variable realization of suffixal /–z/ in third person singular present tense, possessive, and plural environments

  1. 3. He stand_ on his hind legs. (third sing. pres.)

    He was really my grandfather_ dog. (poss.)

    I wish I had a million dollar_. (plural)

  1. 4. Multiple negation

  1. 4. I couldn’t hardly pick him up.

    I don’t bother nobody.

    They didn’t have no gym.

(a) All examples are drawn from Wolfram (1969).

Nguyen (2006) extends the focus on the social stratification of phonological variables, using data from the 1966 corpus on which Wolfram (1969) was based and contemporary interviews that she and others conducted between 1999 and 2004 in Detroit, Michigan. In her examination of syllable-final /d/ (see table 44.1), Nguyen finds that both “high status” and “low status” speakers exhibit a preference for the “AAE variants” [ʔ] and Ø over the “non-AAE variant” [d],7 which both groups reportedly use with low, but relatively equal frequency. Upper-class speakers use [ʔ] more frequently, while lower-class (p. 806) speakers prefer Ø. Furthermore, Nguyen observes higher status speakers leading in a change toward a context-dependent pattern of [ʊ] fronting (e.g., in could or look),8 suggesting that middle-class speakers are not categorically disconnected from vernacular culture but are, instead, speakers who “can and do introduce new features into AAE that may be adopted by speakers of all social status backgrounds” (2006, 178).

Jones and Preston (2011) revisit the question of linguistic salience in an investigation of the vowel systems of working- and middle-class African Americans in Lansing, Michigan. In this study, Jones and Preston observe upper-middle-class speakers, young women in particular, making use of a “divided vocalic system” that is “at once reflective of on-going local changes in the front vowel system (in this case, the Northern Cities Chain Shift9), but at the same time reflective of older African American norms in the back vowel system” (6–1). Upper-middle-class speakers participate in the local pattern of /ae/-raising (e.g., cad [kæd] as ked [kɛd] or kid [kɪd])—“a regional but not ethnic characteristic,” which is gradiently stratified across social classes (6–10). However, they resist the local pattern of /a/-fronting (e.g., cod [kɑd] as cad[kæd]), which, according to Jones and Preston, is resisted by almost all of the African American speakers in their study, resulting in a sharp stratification across ethnic (rather than social class) boundaries. Jones and Preston conclude that /a/-fronting is “a phonological marker of ethnic identity, and perhaps… even an avoided White sound” (6–10). More significantly, they suggest that this behavior may be reflective of a “push-pull” effect (Smitherman 1977), by which African Americans, and perhaps middle-class African Americans in particular, avoid highly stigmatized grammatical features, while retaining a symbolic African American identity through the manipulation of certain finely tuned phonological features (see Spears, this volume).

While the social stratification studies discussed here, all of which are based in Michigan, suggest that middle-class African American speakers are more likely to draw on (ethnically marked, but perhaps less overtly stigmatized) phonological resources as opposed to grammatical ones in their AAE usage, the paucity of research in this area leaves much to be explored. The findings by Jones and Preston, as well as Nguyen, challenge previously held assumptions about middle-class African American speakers as “lames” who simply assimilate into White middle-class norms of behavior at the expense of their African American identities. While the speakers in these studies show tendencies toward standard (or overt) prestige norms, particularly with regard to salient grammatical features, they also draw on the covert prestige (see Baugh 1999) of certain vernacular and/or ethnically marked phonological features, for the purpose of racial/ethnic identity and solidarity building.10 More such studies are needed, and in a variety of regional and social contexts, to get a fuller understanding of this phenomenon.

44.4.2 Intra-Speaker Variation

Research on the linguistic repertoire and communicative practices of individual speakers has yielded considerable debate over the question of whether observed patterns of (p. 807) variation represent dialect mixture, by which speakers draw from two separate linguistic systems, or whether the variation is inherent to a single system.11

DeBose (1992) contends that the lack of attention in the early literature to intra-speaker variation in AAE is reflective of an inherent variability bias, which “presupposes a monolingual language situation in the African American speech community” (158). DeBose, instead, adopts a code-switching framework in his analysis of the conversational strategies of a middle-class African American woman, whom he describes as a “balanced bilingual speaker of [Black English] and [Standard English].” A similar model is used in Linnes (1998), in a comparison of standard-vernacular variation among middle-class African American speakers and middle-class German‒English bilinguals. Linnes argues that alternations in the African American speech community represent a broad diglossic relationship, by which ethnic themes are linked to the vernacular, while more mainstream themes are tied to the standard. And Stanback (1984) uses a code-switching model to describe the individual variation that she observes in her examination of two middle-class African American women, whose patterns of vernacular usage shift according to the gender and race of their conversational partners.

However, Scanlon and Wassink (2010) take issue with the code-switching approaches described above, noting that:

there is a danger in equating categorical or frequent use of core AAE features with expression of African American identity, because it implies that higher-status speakers who display variable use of core AAE forms or limited use of only a subset of forms are less ‘Black’ than speakers who deploy a full range of core AAE features. (206)

Instead, they use an approach that takes into account the multidimensionality of intra-speaker variation and recognizes the potential for African American identities to be expressed by a range of stylized features, not limited to the vernacular core. In their analysis of interview data from a middle-class African American woman 65 years of age, Scanlon and Wassink (2010) find that pin-pen merging and (ay) monophthongization or reduction (e.g., in hide, height, high) show signs of shift according to interlocutor ethnicity and familiarity, as well as some accommodation to interlocutor speech.

Studies of style-shifting or code-switching among MCAAE speakers represent an important complement to social stratification studies in that they help to shed light on individual aspects of AAE usage and the varied and multidimensional contexts in which such uses emerge. This continuum, or bidialectal ability, may be a reflex of the middle-class experience of crossing the boundaries of multiple speech communities and the need to communicate with both African American and White neighbors, friends, and colleagues (Garner and Rubin 1986; Lacy 2004; Moore 2008; Rahman 2008). For example, in Moore (2008), a woman prides herself for her abilities to cross social and ethnic boundaries: “When I’m with them [her professional status-seeking peers], I talk like them, eat like them, dress like them. But I prefer to think of myself as classless” (505). Furthermore, Garner and Rubin (1986) find that among Southern African American attorneys, code-switching may even surface as a rhetorical strategy depending on the (p. 808) audience, the level of rapport that they want to build, and the social risks of speaking either a standard or vernacular variety.

44.4.3 Identity and Public Performance

For the African American professional, language is an important tool for expressing ethnic identity and navigating the demands of a multiethnic personal and professional environment. While not all African American public figures fall squarely in the middle class in terms of income, there are some elements of their experiences that also cause them to use language as a tool for bridging African American and White worlds. For example, Hay, Jannedy, and Mendoza-Denton (1999) find that the use of /ay/ monophthongization significantly increased in the speech of African American talk show host Oprah Winfrey in the presence of an African American referee.12 Weldon’s (2004) examination of the speech of African American leaders speaking at the 2004 “State of the Black Union” symposium reveals variation in the distribution of AAE features ranging from speakers who made very little use of vernacular features to speakers, such as the host Tavis Smiley, who used a wide range of features. As Weldon observes, the types of variation seen at this symposium, which took place in front of a predominately African American audience while being simultaneously aired live on CSPAN, may relate to situational constraints, such as the host’s need to appeal to audience members from both standard- and vernacular-speaking communities. Overall, Weldon reveals the flexibility of African American professional language, including the use of African American rhetorical strategies such as signifying, call-response, and African American preaching register.

As observed by Geneva Smitherman, African American public figures often tap into the sacred-secular continuum of African American speech (see Smitherman 1977, 2000). This continuum, with its emphasis on verbal performance and its foundation in a spiritual worldview, is the thread that unifies the speech styles of a wide array of African American public speakers from poets, disc-jockeys, and rappers, to politicians, academicians, and preachers. Drawing from this understanding of the sacred-secular continuum, Britt (2011a, b) finds that African American public speakers at the 2008 “State of the Black Union” symposium made limited use of hallmark vernacular features of AAE (such as copula deletion and invariant be), yet consistently utilized elements from African American preaching style, allowing them to take controversial political stances as they expressed their ethnic, religious, and philosophical affiliation with members of the African American community.

Similarly, Kendall and Wolfram’s (2009) study of style-shifting patterns in the speech of three African American leaders of two southern African American communities showed that the leaders demonstrated a range of standard and vernacular features. However, the speakers also lacked significant style-shifting between formal, public speaking, and broadcast events and informal interview contexts. Kendall and Wolfram attributed this unexpected result, in part, to the demographic makeup of the (p. 809) communities themselves, which may have placed different pressures on the leaders that determined which dialect features surfaced in their speech.

Language may also serve a creative, rhetorical function for African American public speakers, as observed by Ervin-Tripp (2001), in an examination of the speech of Stokely Carmichael, Chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and comedian and political activist Dick Gregory. In this study, Ervin-Tripp finds that AAVE surfaced strategically in the punch line for Carmichael when he intended to make a point to African American audience members, and contrasted with his standard speaking style, which he directed at members of the media and the television audience. On the other hand, Gregory moved back and forth between AAVE and more standard speech as a rhetorical tool to give voice to the various “characters” in his narrative.

44.4.4 Language Ideologies and Attitudes

The range of middle-class African American language practices described above may reflect deeper ideologies and attitudes about language. Wassink and Curzan (2004) define language ideology as “a system of collectively held beliefs or dispositions toward language” that governs how speakers “interpret and understand the language variation they encounter” (175). Borrowing from W. E. B. DuBois’s notion of “double consciousness,” Smitherman (2006) uses the term “linguistic push-pull” to describe the practice of “Black folk loving, embracing, using Black Talk, while simultaneously rejecting and hatin on it” (i.e., covert prestige) (6).13 A discussion of middle-class African American language ideology is critical here, since members of the middle class are often “pushed and pulled” between positive and negative evaluations of AAE and more mainstream varieties. For example, broader, mainstream discourses tend to devalue and subordinate non-mainstream varieties like AAE, and speakers of AAE may internalize these norms and even reject any view that AAE has internal structure and regularity (Lippi-Green 1997). Yet, Smitherman (2000) points out that African Americans may be divided generationally on their views on AAE such that older, more established leaders may reject AAE while younger African Americans may be more accepting (153). Morgan (1994, 2001, 2002) has also observed that African Americans vary widely in their language attitudes, ranging from the view that AAE is a useful expressive tool and a symbol of resistance (e.g., Toni Morrison) to the belief that it is a symbol of slave mentality (e.g., Bill Cosby). As a result, a speaker’s use of AAE may send signals about their age, class, ethnic orientation, and level of integration into the mainstream, as well as their own personal language ideologies.

In a study of the correlations between parents’ economic and education levels and perceptions of the appropriate contexts for AAE use, Hoover (1975) found that parents who were highly educated and who had high positive ethnicity tended to support the use of AAE in the classroom (101). Thus, Hoover observed that “Africanized English is (p. 810) valued for solidarity purposes, for logic, and as a preserver of Black culture” (102) and that “their most salient reasons for keeping both were ‘survival’ and ‘communications’ ” (102). Hoover (1978) also found that educated professionals did not oppose AAE in schools because “the standard level can be learned from them at home” (81). However, African American parents with low preference for AAE in schools (including those who spoke AAE at home) felt that “their children would learn vernacular Black English with friends and that the school’s job was to teach the ‘other kind’—the kind they didn’t know” (81). Hoover concluded that “Black consciousness, political involvement, cultural behavior and general attitudes to Black English… were significantly related to parent’s attitudes toward vernacular English” (83).

Rahman (2008) also investigated middle-class African American attitudes toward speech that “sounds Black” and found that speech lacking ethnically or regionally marked features is seen as more standard and more appropriate for professional contexts, reflecting both higher education and higher class status. Yet this result does not suggest that the participants viewed AAE negatively. As Rahman puts it, “they see SE [standard English] as appropriate for advancing in mainstream environments” (167). For these speakers, AAE is valued as a tool that keeps them connected to their African American heritage. Interestingly, African American Standard English (see Spears, this volume) was viewed by listeners in Rahman’s study as suitable for all contexts. This intermediary variety is seen as an important tool for meeting both the need for professionalism as well as the need to identify with the African American community.

Others have investigated perceptions of standard and vernacular language use in college students revealing that African American students also tend to rate standard varieties more favorably in formal contexts, tend to give higher ratings to “appropriate” code-switching (i.e., using standard varieties in formal contexts and vernacular varieties in informal contexts, and not vice versa), and tend to see standard speakers as more competent and likeable (Larimer, Beatty, and Broadus 1988; Doss and Gross 1992; White et al. 1998; Koch, Gross, and Kolts 2001). However, White et al. (1998) also found that African American students may not internalize discrimination against the language of lower-status African Americans as much as Whites. Furthermore, White et al. suggest that an understanding of the student’s ethnic affiliation is important since students without a strong African American identity rated vernacular varieties much lower than standard varieties when compared to students who scored higher on an African Self Consciousness scale.14

While these studies may suggest that there is a higher value for standard over vernacular varieties, there is still evidence that both standard and vernacular ways of speaking have value for middle-class African Americans, depending on the contexts of use and the speaker’s ethnic (and even class) orientations. For example, Moore (2008) conducted ethnographic fieldwork in a low-income neighborhood near downtown Philadelphia and identified six distinct class identities—ghetto, poor, working-class, multi-class, middle-class-minded, rich/upper-class. Within this continuum, multi-class and middle-class individuals share professional and income similarities. However, (p. 811) multi-class individuals are distinguished by the fact that they have moved through several class layers between childhood and adulthood, and the ways that they intentionally remain connected, both personally and in terms of their residential choices, to low-income African Americans. On the other hand, middle-class African Americans are seen as individuals who gravitate toward White standards and status symbols, who live in predominantly middle-class neighborhoods, and who are more inclined to adopt an integrationist ideology.

These class structures have interesting implications for language. Multi-class individuals value code-switching patterns as a sign of their ability to move comfortably across class and cultural boundaries. On the other hand, some middle-class-minded individuals may be redefining traditionally White middle-class habits (including speaking SAE) as authentically African American. For example, one middle-class-minded participant, Valerie, was often criticized for her insistence that her children use SAE in all contexts. In fact, this was “her way of claiming cultural space, in this case language, as authentically Black, that had previously been identified only with White people” (Moore 2008, 502).

Valerie’s experiences are not uncommon among middle-class-minded or upwardly mobile African Americans who grapple with the view of SAE varieties as “White” language. For example, Fordham and Ogbu (1986) examine the conflicting messages sent to African American students about the ways that academic achievement is associated with “acting White” and the ways that “certain forms of behavior and certain activities or events, symbols, and meanings are not appropriate for them because those behaviors, events, symbols, and meanings are characteristic of White Americans” (181). Smitherman (1977) also argues that members of the African American community may view the use of what is considered “White English” as suspect.

Similarly, Baugh (2000) gives a personal account of his own chameleon-like abilities to navigate this social minefield by using nonstandard speech with friends while embracing standard language with his family and at church (6). These examples suggest that while an individual may have fairly positive views of both mainstream varieties and AAE, they still may be pushed and pulled between external, competing discourses that require competence in mainstream varieties and the need to be fluent in AAE (or to avoid “talking proper”) as a sign of ethnic solidarity.

44.5 Conclusion

Contrary to early research, which portrayed middle-class African Americans as “lames” relative to African American vernacular language and culture, the studies reviewed here show that the African American middle class is not a monolithic group but has internal variations and nuances that are linked to a wide variety of linguistic behaviors. For example, middle-class African Americans who live in distinctly middle-class enclaves, who are second generation members of the middle class, and who may be more (p. 812) middle-class-minded, may have a different set of attitudes and linguistic practices from middle-class African Americans who are first generation members of the middle class or who live in close proximity to the working class. Furthermore, middle-class individuals’ linguistic practices may also be responsive to external pressures such as audience composition, the need to express their ethnic orientation linguistically, or the need for creative and rhetorical moves during professional or public speaking engagements. Overall, the middle class provides an exciting site of sociolinguistic research given that middle-class African Americans often fall on the boundary between speech communities and display the nuances and tensions of that experience in their linguistic choices.15

Overall, the research previously conducted on the linguistic practices of middle-class African Americans, whether first generation or second generation, strongly demonstrates that AAE is complex. Furthermore, research on AAE needs to be more inclusive of all members of the African American community, regardless of age/generation, class, gender, region, education, and sexuality.


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                                                                                                                                      (1.) With the exception of direct quotes or references to other studies, we use the label African American English (AAE) in accordance with the most common practice in the current literature, though we recognize that African American Language (AAL) is also becoming a popular choice among linguists. Our decision to use the AAE label is also driven by the observation made by Mufwene (2001) that most speakers of the variety see themselves, first and foremost, as speakers of English.

                                                                                                                                      (2.) In this same text, Labov later described the age range as that of 9 to 18 (1972, 257).

                                                                                                                                      (3.) See also Spears (this volume) for a discussion of the “Black elite” as it pertains to the “social locus” of African American Standard English (AASE).

                                                                                                                                      (4.) The term hypercorrection is used here to refer to the observed tendency for lower-middle-class (LMC) speakers to exhibit more extreme style-shifting than their upper-middle-class (UMC) counterparts, resulting in a crossover pattern in more formal styles, by which LMC speakers exhibit higher frequencies of the prestige variant than UMC speakers (see Labov 1972, 244‒45).

                                                                                                                                      (5.) Later, alternative approaches to style and sociolinguistic variation have challenged the unidimensional nature of this approach and, consequently, the findings associated with it. See Eckert and Rickford (2001) for a discussion of various approaches to style and sociolinguistic variation.

                                                                                                                                      (6.) The /Ө/ variable (e.g., in tooth or nothing) is the exception here, where “14 of the 24 middle class informants exhibit categorical absence of the [f] variant” (Wolfram 1969, 85).

                                                                                                                                      (7.) Nguyen uses the notation [alv] in the study itself to refer to the non-AAE variant, which includes any alveolar stop closure on the coda, voiced or voiceless (2006, 75). However, given the relative infrequency of [t] in her study, we refer to the non-AAE variant here simply as [d].

                                                                                                                                      (8.) Specifically, Nguyen observes here a pattern by which [ʊ] is fronted more in pre-alveolar contexts (e.g., put) than in pre-velar ones (e.g., look).

                                                                                                                                      (9.) For more on the Northern Cities Chain Shift (NCCS), see Labov, Yeager, and Steiner (1973).

                                                                                                                                      (10.) The terms overt and covert are used in sociolinguistics to draw a distinction between the prestige norms of mainstream society and those of smaller social groups, respectively (Labov 1966).

                                                                                                                                      (12.) In the tradition of Bell (1984), the term referee is used here to refer to people who are not part of the present audience, but who, nonetheless, have the potential to influence the speaker’s language through the speaker’s mere reference to them.

                                                                                                                                      (14.) The African American Consciousness scale is a forty-two-item questionnaire that assesses the individual’s recognition of, value for, and respect for Black/African identity, African survival, and African development and their level of resistance toward “anti-Black” elements in society. See White et al. (1998) for more details.

                                                                                                                                      (15.) Weldon (forthcoming) provides a fuller treatment of many of the issues discussed in this chapter.