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Beyonce’s “Formation” and AAE in the Celebration of Blackness

February 7, 2016

As you may have heard, Beyonce is currently breaking the Internet with the incredible video that she posted Saturday afternoon. In case you’ve been living under a rock, you check out the video here (warning: explicit lyrics):


While several authors have already written thoughtful pieces about how “Formation” is an unapologetic celebration of blackness (see here and here), we at Word. were impressed by how Beyonce also uses clever wordplay and African American English features in the video. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, check out Bey’s use of some well-described AAE features.

Zero Copula

“Ya’ll haters corny with that Illuminati mess”

In her very first line of the song, Beyonce challenges those who might attribute her success to anything other than her simply being THAT talented. And she goes so hard that she doesn’t even need an overt copula verb. She does it again in the discussion of her roots:

“My daddy Alabama, Mama Louisiana”

Here, Bey’s use of zero copula serves to further enhance the message that she is authentically a Southern black belle.

Zero Possessive Marker

“I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros, I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils”

In what is perhaps the most ZFG moment of the song, Beyonce throws some serious shade at those who have criticized the looks of her child or her husband.


Finally, let’s turn to a few of the characteristic AAE vocabulary items that Bey employs.


“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”

“I grind ’til I own it”

“Clause I slay, slay”

Beyonce’s use of terms like “swag”, “grind”, and “slay”, which are all associated with black success, is the icing on the cake of this song. Bey uses “slay” 36 times in under 5 minutes, and she might be the only artist who slays hard enough to get away with it. Add her language use to the song’s overall encouraging message, the video’s powerful post-Katrina imagery, alongside the fact that she released it 6 days into Black History Month, and you’ve got a recipe for an pro-black anthem for the ages. #slay


African Americans and Their Not So “Strange” African Names

May 19, 2015

Guest Post by: Mercedes Drew (NYU, BA/MA student, Africana Studies), Naapane Faustina Marius (University of Ghana, MA student, Linguistics), and Nicole Holliday (NYU, PHD student, Linguistics)

Duke University Professor Jerry Hough has found himself the subject of criticism due to his racially provocative comments online about black and Asian Americans.

Hello Name Tag Sticker on White

Hello Name Tag Sticker on White

One of the more controversial points in Hough’s (self-admitted) racist commentary was his assertion that “Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.”

Read more…

Anything you say can and will be used against you: The case of “wilding”

July 3, 2014

Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise in 2012 at the New York premiere of the documentary “The Central Park Five.”


The Central Park Five have been back in the news recently, and this time it’s good news.

For those not familiar, the Central Park Five are a group of  young men from Harlem who were charged with the rape and attempted murder of a female jogger that took place in Manhattan’s Central Park in 1989. In spite of conflicting stories and a lack of DNA evidence (the DNA found on the victim didn’t match any of the accused), the five juveniles were found guilty and each served sentences ranging from 5-15 years in correctional facilities. Recently, they won a settlement from the city of New York where they were each awarded roughly $1 million for every year of they were imprisoned, for a total of $40 million combined. Read more…

Black Santa and “Ebonics Humor”

December 23, 2013

Guest post by Melissa Duvelsdorf and Mawutor Agbaku


Can Santa Claus be a black man? This holiday season, Indiana University – Bloomington’s CommUNITY Education Program posed the question to its student body on a residence hall bulletin board. A black Santa Claus poses next to the typical stockings, presents, and Christmas tree. A joyful “Yo yo yo” emerges from the saxophone that black Santa plays enthusiastically. The purpose of the bulletin board was to address racial stereotypes about African American men using a light-hearted Christmas theme. Read more…

Linguistic prejudice is a real prejudice (and has real consequences)

October 30, 2013


There’s been a lot of talk in the media and public discourse about racial discrimination and justice lately. Despite killing Trayvon Martin—an unarmed black teenager—George Zimmerman (who is white and hispanic) walked away a free man due to Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. But what flew under the radar for most was the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, the prosecution’s star witness. We’ve written a bit about Jeantel before, but we’d like it further discuss some of the issues raised by the reactions to her testimony. As soon as Jeantel’s testimony began, so did the criticism, and much of it was because of her language. She was called uneducated, unsophisticated, and difficult to understand. Defense lawyers even asked her if she was indeed a native speaker of English. But what linguists knew and tried to argue was that Jeantel was a native English speaker—it just wasn’t the variety of English that is seen as mainstream or standard, and Jeantel was being subjected to an intense form of linguistic discrimination which may have affected the degree to which she was seen as a credible witness.

Read more…

When it comes to Rachel Jeantel, who’s really on trial here?

July 10, 2013


When Rachel Jeantel stepped up to to testify at the trial for the shooting death of her childhood friend, Trayvon Martin, lawyers and later the American public had more to say about her language, mannerisms and appearance than her critical testimony. Ms. Jeantel is of Haitian American descent, and to our knowledge, speaks Haitian Creole, Spanish and African American English. Read more…

Dew as you dew: Baltimore Accent and The Wire

August 15, 2012

Even though HBO’s television show The Wire ran from 2002-2008, today it still remains hugely popular with television audiences around the country. This show continues to captivate viewers with its frank and realistic portrayal of life in the city of Baltimore. Each of its five seasons focused on characters in different urban domains including the drug trade, the seaport, local government, the education system and the print media, all as they interacted with Baltimore’s police department. The Wire has been praised by viewers for its anti-network stance and its devotion to presenting life in an American city in a way that is both authentic and thought-provoking. For linguists, perhaps of one of the show’s greatest achievements is its portrayal of local Baltimore accents.

Read more…