Lessons in AAVE from a Hitchhiker

Posted by Jim Johnson on November 06, 2012 0 Comments

I’m on the road! Summer dialect recording season has begun! I don’t know if I’m the only one who participates in this “season” but I’m certainly willing to celebrate alone, if that’s what it takes… I’m out growing the AccentHelp collection!

I actually spent a week in LA in May picking up a number of recordings (more on this soon!), including some African-American Vernacular English. I’ve had a strong range of recordings for AAVE from throughout the south, but I’ve needed to expand recordings from the north and west.

To that end, I’m on my way northeast towards Detroit, and then on to Chicago, where I used to teach composition at a largely African-American university for six years. Along the way, I’m heading through Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio in the old 87 VW camper – so far, so good! (That’s something to be proud of, when driving an 87 veedub.)

Yesterday, heading northeast out of Houston, I spotted an old gentleman attempting to hitchhike on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. He seemed harmless enough, seeming to be 70 years old, so I stopped to give him a lift.

He also seemed to have suffered from a stroke at some point in the past. I imagine he hadn’t gotten the full range of treatments he needed, and some of that was indicated by his challenges with speech – I couldn’t understand where he was headed! This is a little problematic for the driver…

After struggling for a bit, I just started driving and trusted that he would let me know when we were there. He kept trying to communicate with me, but between his speech difficulties and my inability to hear him over the sound of the road – the windows have to be down on the van to keep from sweating to death in the Texas heat – I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to say…

Finally I asked him to write it down, and he wrote Dibeaux. Unfortunately there’s no such thing on the map, but I finally saw the upcoming town of Diboll on the map!

It’s possible he was Cajun or Creole, which would help explain the spelling choice, but either way it was clear that the person who told him where to go didn’t quite make it to the L’s at the end, a common feature in a lot of American speech, and certainly a big factor in AAVE.

This African-American gentleman was going to meet a family member, so odds are he’d only heard the name of the town from them, which helps me to understand the absence of L’s in the understanding and in the spelling. Final L’s often sound like a W – or like “eaux” if you’re from southwest Louisiana…

The picture’s a little blurry, but it’s done while driving. It’s a VW, though, so I’m sure I wasn’t back up to 55 by the time I took this. I’ll be spending the entire trip in the slow lane. Wave as you pass me!

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