Perceptions of African-American English: How We Perceive Authenticity

Peter Dunifon

City University of New York – Hunter College


Many people are familiar with at least some of the characteristic features of African-American English (AAE) either through direct contact, the commodification of hip-hop culture, or both. Increasingly, AAE has become arguably one of the most recognizable dialects in American English. That said, because of the different sociocultural contexts in which speakers may acquire and then use AAE grammatical features, there are some who appropriate these features, and some who at times may even pass as “authentic”AAE speakers. This talk will examines whether there are perceptual differences between the fluent speech of native AAE speakers and the speech of non-native AAE speakers who appropriate its features.

To investigate this issue, I conduct a matched-guise test comparing the speech of native AAE speakers to that of non-natives who appropriate at least some of the characteristic features of the dialect. Participants in the study listen to comparable audio samples that take advantage of AAE’s phonological and morpho-syntactic features and then make judgments of the audio samples based on their perceptions. In this way, any McGurk-like effects, where judgments might relate more to a speaker’s appearance than his/her speech itself, are avoided. Further, participants are asked to write a brief response explaining their reasoning which aids in the analysis of the research by clearly identifying the most salient features of AAE from the listener’s perspetive. My investigation primarily analyzes syntactic and morphosyntactic features of AAE including among others, the invariant be, copula deletion, certain uses of BIN, and third person singular -s absence.

This research separates AAE from its sociocultural context and thereby enables a broader understanding of what it means linguistically to use and appropriate AAE. This can aid in the advancement of research on the usage of AAE grammatical features outside of African-American communities and by non African-American speakers (such as Dunstan, 2010; Sweetland, 2002; Cutler, 2008, and others). Further, the findings of this research will help us come to understand, at least in the context of urban New York, more exactly how people perceive dialectal differences and AAE in particular.