Hip hop and linguistics: You ain't heard no research like it!

January 26, 2006

It's rare to use the words 'hip hop' and 'serious academic research' in the same sentence, but a University of Calgary linguistics professor has relied on rap music as source material for a study of African American vernacular English.

Dr. Darin Howe recently contributed a book chapter that focuses on how black Americans use the negative in informal speech, citing examples from hip hop artists such as Phonte, Jay Z and Method Man. Howe is believed to be the only academic in Canada and one of the few in the world to take a scholarly look at the language of hip hop.

"There is still a lot of prejudice against black vernacular English," Howe says. "People tend to assume it's illogical and ungrammatical, but there is a system there and a grammar that you can describe. Rap music may be ear torture for many people, but for linguists, this is what makes us really excited."

Howe specifically focused on the use of the word 'ain't' and on other negative constructions - or, as it's called in linguistics, negation. "When you have multiple negation it seems really confusing, and what happens in black English is that the negation extends across multiple clauses."

For example, the book chapter quotes Tupac Shakur as saying, "It's like can't nobody never get confused and think I'm like Mike Tyson;" in other words, no one could confuse Tupac with Mike Tyson.

In another example, black English commonly substitutes the word 'ain't' for 'didn't.' So 'I didn't see him' could become, 'I aint see him.' "However, black English speakers know that you should only do this for about half the time," Howe says. "White hip hop artists try to imitate black speech, and for the most part they do a decent job, but when they don't have the rules down it becomes noticeable."

One of the intriguing conclusions that Howe draws is that there is an accelerating divergence in the speech dialects of whites and blacks, a subject that surfaced in the late 1990s with the debate on Ebonics.

Howe's focus was purely on the mechanics of the language and not on the culture of hip hop, which some have criticized as violent and misogynistic. He was assisted by an undergraduate linguistics student, Jeff Long, who is keenly interested in hip hop music and who found many of the examples cited in the research. "It's not often that you can combine your own interests with school work, so it was a real joy for me to work on this," Long says.
Howe did his master's thesis on African Nova Scotian English but has since specialized at U of C in native languages and phonology, or speech sounds. His chapter, "Negation in African American Vernacular English," appears in the book, Aspects of English Negation, edited by Yoko Iyeiri and published by John Benjamins Publishing Company / Yushodo Press. To arrange an interview with Dr. Howe, contact his office at (403) 220-6110, or phone Greg Harris, (403) 220-3506 or cell, 540-7306. Phone Harris to request a copy of the chapter.

University of Calgary

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