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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

The Evolution of AAVE: Evidence from Liberian Settler English



John Singler


Mufwene (2015), argues that AAVE [African American Vernacular English] and WASE [White American Southern English] “appear to have been one and the same regional variety until Jim Crow was introduced in the late nineteenth century and triggered the Great Migration of African

Americans out of the South. AAVE was invented as a separate ethnolect in the North, where most White Americans were then getting their first exposure to American Southern English” (p. 59).

In the nineteenth century, 16,000 African Americans immigrated to Liberia. Of this number, 91% arrived in Liberia either prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865) or within seven years of its cessation (Singler, 1989). Singler (2004, 2015) argues that the Liberian Settler English (LSE) spoken today is a direct descendant of the language that the original Settlers brought with them from the United States. LSE shares a number of features with AAVE, including Urban AAVE, and WASE. However, it also shares many features with Urban AAVE to the exclusion of WASE (and for which no evidence of these features’ presence in prior WASE exists).

The present paper examines LSE and (Urban) AAVE, with particular reference to features shared by these two varieties to the exclusion of WASE. It explores the possibility of parallel development (subsequent to the African American migration to Liberia and to the Great Migration), the existence of “vernacular universals” (Chambers 2004), and post-migration influence (of AAVE on LSE, not vice versa), and it considers features that (1) the Settlers brought with them from the American South but which are not part of AAVE today or (2) are found in Urban AAVE but not in LSE. Additionally, it examines features that obtain in LSE and Urban AAVE alike but have undergone greater grammatical elaboration in Urban AAVE.

Key differences exist between LSE and Urban AAVE, an undeniable consequence of 150–200 years of separation. Ultimately, however, the weight of congruence argues against Mufwene’s assertion that (Urban) AAVE’s emergence as an ethnolect is relatively recent and Northern. Rather than being a post-Jim Crow, post-Great Migration phenomenon, Urban AAVE is—to use an LSE expression—the same old bumblebee in a brand-new suit.


Chambers, J.K. 2004. Dynamic typology and vernacular universals. In Bernd Kortmann (ed.), Dialectology meets typology: Dialect grammar from a cross-linguistic perspective, 127–145. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Lanehart, Sonja (ed.). 2015. The Oxford Handbook of African American Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mufwene, Salikoko S. 2015. The emergence of African American English: Monogenetic or polygenetic? Under how much substrate influence? In Lanehart (ed.), 57–84.

Singler, John Victor. 2015. African American English over yonder: The language of the Liberian Settler community. In Lanehart (ed.), 105–124.

_______. 2004. The morphology and syntax of Liberian Settler English. In Bernd Kortmann, Edgar W. Schneider, Clive Upton, Rajend Mesthrie & Kate Burridge (eds.), A Handbook of Varieties of English. Vol. 2: Morphology and Syntax, 879–897. (Topics in English Linguistics, ed. Bernd Kortmann & Elizabeth Closs Traugott.) Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

_______. 1989. Plural marking in Liberian Settler English, 1820–1980. American Speech 64.40–64.

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