SEPT 11: Black Vernacular Tradition



Prior to the end of slavery in the United States, white slaveholders generally limited or outright prohibited the education of enslaved African Americans, because they feared such learning might empower their chattel and inspire or enable emancipatory ambitions. In the United States, the legislation that denied slaves formal education likely contributed to their maintaining a strong oral tradition, a common feature of indigenous African cultures. African-based oral traditions became the primary means of preserving history, mores, and other cultural information among the people. This was consistent with the griot practices of oral history in many African and other cultures that did not rely on the written word. Many of these cultural elements have been passed from generation to generation through storytelling. The folktales provided African Americans the opportunity to inspire and educate one another, and black vernacular traditions and rhetorical techniques continue in a variety of forms.


Signifyin(g) refers to a combination of rhetorical strategies employed in African American speech communities—in particular, the use of irony and indirection to express ideas and opinions. In The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), Henry Louis Gates describes signifyin(g) as “a trope in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (the master tropes), and also hyperbole, litotes, and metalepsis.”

Signifyin(g) is closely related to double-talk and trickery of the type used by the Signifying Monkey of these narratives, but, as Gates himself admits, “It is difficult to arrive at a consensus of definitions of signifyin(g).” Bernard W. Bell defines it as an “elaborate, indirect form of goading or insult generally making use of profanity.” Roger D. Abrahams writes that to signify is “to imply, goad, beg, boast by indirect verbal or gestural means.”


  • “Above all, signifying is a ritualistic practice that serves various functions in different African American discursive and communal spaces. Some scholars define signifying as primarily a male-dominated activity (the female version is called ‘specifying’). African American men in this verbal art form focus their anger, aggression, and frustration into a relatively harmless exchange of wordplay where they can establish their masculinity in verbal ‘battles’ with their peers. This form of signifying lends itself to validating a pecking order style of dominance based on the result of the verbal exchange. . . .Signifying can affirm, critique, or build community through the involvement of its participants.”
    • Carole Boyce Davies, Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture. ABC-CLIO, 2008
  • “Women, and to a certain extent children, commonly use more indirect methods of signifying. These range from the most obvious kinds of indirection, like using an unexpected pronoun in discourse (‘Didn’t we come to shine today’ or ‘Who thinks his drawers don’t stink?’), to the more subtle technique, of louding or loud-talking in a different sense from the one above. A person is loud-talking when he says something of someone just loud enough for that person to hear, but indirectly, so he cannot properly respond (Mitchell-Kernan). Another technique of signifying through indirection is making reference to a person or group not present, in order to start trouble between someone present and the ones who are not. An example of this technique is the famous toast, ‘The Signifying Monkey.’
    • Roger D. Abrahams, Talking Black. Newbury House, 1976
  • “Rhetorically, for the African American community, the strategy behind indirection suggests that direct confrontation in everyday discourse is to be avoided when possible. . . . Normally, indirection has been treated as a function of the speech acts and not as a rhetorical strategy in oral discourse. Boasting, bragging, loud talking, rapping, signifying, and, to a degree, playing the dozens have elements of indirection. . . .  While signifying is a way of encoding a message, one’s shared cultural knowledge is the basis on which any reinterpretation of the message is made. Theoretically, signifying (Black) as a concept can be used to give meaning to rhetorical acts of African Americans and indicate a Black presence. Rhetorically, one can also explore texts for the manner in which the themes or worldviews of other texts are repeated and revised with a signal difference, but based on shared knowledge.”
    • Thurmon Garner and Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, “African American Orality.” Understanding African American Rhetoric: Classical Origins to Contemporary Innovations, ed. by Ronald L. Jackson II and Elaine B. Richardson. Routledge, 2003


The dozens are a game of put-downs: the rapid, ritualistic exchange of insults, often targeting family members. The rhetorical contest of playing or shooting the dozens (also known as capping, ranking, and sounding) is most commonly practiced by young African-American males.


Your mama’s so FAT, after she got off the carousel, the horse limped for a week.
Mo’s rebuttal: Your mama’s so skinny, she can hula-hoop through a Froot Loop.

Your mama’s so FAT, her blood type is Ragu.
Mo’s rebuttal: Your mama’s so skinny, she looks like a mic stand.

Your mama’s so FAT, instead of 501 jeans she wears 1002s.
Mo’s rebuttal: Your mama’s so skinny, she turned sideways and disappeared.

Your mama’s so FAT she’s not on a diet she’s on a triet. What y’all eating? I’ll try it.
Mo’s rebuttal: Your mama’s so skinny, I gave her a piece of popcorn and she went into a coma.

Your mama’s so FAT, when she jumped in the air she got stuck.
Mo’s rebuttal: Your mama’s so skinny, you could blindfold her with dental floss.

(Mo’nique Imes and Sherry A. McGee, Skinny Women Are Evil: Notes of a Big Girl in a Small-Minded World. Atriz, 2004)


  • A Game of Insults
    “The dozens is usually played by two young black males, often surrounded by an interested and encouraging audience of peers in which the players insult and provoke each other with put-downs of each other’s mother or other female family members. This process teaches one to take insults in stride while encouraging verbal retorts. . . . The dozens is played more often and more intensely in urban ghettos where frustrations are greater and the strategies of the ghetto are appropriate in a zero-sum game; neither player really wins. The dozens works when the players share a common ethnicity, a degree of connectedness, and acceptance of the activity for what it is—a game (Bruhn and Murray, 1985).”
    John G. Bruhn, The Sociology of Community Connections. Kluwer Acacademic/Plenum, 2005
  • A Rite of Passage
    “Alan Dundes found that the social and artistic are infused in the Afrodiasporic practice of the dozens, which he notes functions both as an assertion of masculinity and as a rite of passage for the secular mastery of words. The dozens not only establishes a framework for verbal creativity; children also use them to determine a social hierarchy. A good dozens player not only cooly withstands merciless insults to his family; he also twists memorized insults quickly to suit the opponent at hand.”
    Ali Colleen Neff, Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story. University Press of Mississippi, 2009
  • An Inoculation
    “While retaining the form and spirit of the West African original, African-American dozens has elaborated the witty one-liners into complex verbal war games involving huge armories and modes of attack and defense undreamt of in the homeland. It is a case of Darwinian adaptation for survival of the species in the killing jungles of slavery and racism. The mother remains the central figure. By learning to deal with verbal abuse of her, the modern black youngster learns to endure the historical, real-life abuse. It is as if the system is inoculated with virtual (verbally imagined) strains of the virus, thereby gaining immunity and new health in spite of the reality on the ground.”
    Onwuchekwa Jemie, Yo Mama! New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes, and Children’s Rhymes From Urban Black America.



Toasts are stock tales that were generally recounted in rhyme. Most are bawdy, violent, highly stylized and funny. Toasts are performed narratives of often urban but always heroic events.  For many African Americans, both performers and audience, hearing about or performing the winning ways of the central character becomes as creative a release as Black music. Many of the folkloric examples were collected in prisons, military contexts, barbershops, street corners, etc. As with the dozens, some trace their roots to West Africa.  Some of the most famous examples are The Signifying Monkey, Stagger Lee (Stackolee), Mexicana Rose, The Freaks Ball, Doriella Du Fontaine, etc.

African American Vernacular English

AAVE is a variety of English spoken by many African-Americans in the USA which shares a set of grammatical and other linguistic features that distinguish it from various other American dialects.  Morphological and syntactic features of AAVE grammar include:

  • Existential it: AAVE speakers often use it as the empty subject where speakers of other dialects would use there, as in It’s some coffee in the kitchen. Often it’s pronounced as i’s.
  • Absence of plural –s marking: For example, four girl. Not a very common feature overall. Based on a survey of existing studies, [John Russell] Rickford and [Russell John] Rickford report that –s absence occurs from 1 to 10 percent of the time.
  • Absence of possessive –s marking: For example, at my mama house. Rickford and Rickford note that this feature is more frequent than plural –s absence, and report it occurring at a rate of over 50 percent in a number of studies.
  • Absence of third person singular –s marking: For example, It seem like . . . or She have three kids. Rickford and Rickford report that this feature is very frequent, occurring at percentages that range from around 50 percent to up to 96 percent or 97 percent.
  • Zero copula (either is or are): For example, She φ in the same grade. The first person singular copula (I am) cannot be deleted. Rickford and Rickford note that deletion is also very unusual in the forms it’s, that’s, and what’s, which tend to have a phonological process that deletes the [t] instead.
  • Invariant (or habitual) be: As in Your phone bill be high, meaning “Your phone bill is usually or often high.” Most frequent with – ing forms as in He be getting on my nerves.
  • Unstressed been: Similar to have been or has been in other dialects, as in I been playing cards since I was four.
  • Stressed (remote-past or emphatic) BEEN: Indicates an action that has been true for a long time or is emphatically true. For example, She BEEN tell me that, meaning “She told me that a long time ago.”
  • Completive done: an aspectmarker signaling completion, as in I done already finished that. Rickford and Rickford note that it may differ slightly from perfective forms in other dialects, in that speakers report that done has a higher degree of intensity.
  • Future perfect be done: For example: I be done did your hair before you know it, meaning “I will have finished doing your hair before you know it.”
  • Use of ain’t for negation: For example, I ain’t lyin’. This form is of course extremely common in dialects other than AAVE, as a variant for forms of isn’t or hasn’t. The usage that is more unique to AAVE is its alternation with didn’t, as in He ain’t go no further than third or fourth grade.
  • Negative concord: For example, I don’t want nothing nobody can’t enjoy. Again, this feature (which may also be referred to as “multiple negation”) is common to other dialects as well. Negative inversion, though, seems to be more specifically characteristic of AAVE, as in Can’t nobody beat them.
  • Preterite had: Use of had + past tense verb to refer to a simple past event, as in I had slipped and fell to mean “I slipped and fell.” (Rickford and Rickford suggest that preterite had may be age-graded, so that speakers stop using it as they get older.)
  • Steady: Used to emphasize the intense or persistent nature of an action, as in Them students be steady trying to make a buck.
  • Come: Used to express indignation, as in Don’t come acting like you don’t know what happened.
  • Finna: Used to mark an action that is about to take place, as in I’m finna get up out of here, meaning “I’m about to leave.” Related to fixing to, used throughout the South.

Fought, Carmen.  Language and Ethnicity: Key Topics in Sociolinguistics. Cambridge University Press, 2006.  pp. 47-49

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