The syntax of questions and variation in adult and child African American English




White-Sustaíta, Jessica Bridget

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This dissertation is the first in-depth examination of the syntax of questions and question variation in African American English (AAE). Question syntax in AAE can vary among subject-auxiliary inversion (e.g., What did you eat?), non-inversion (e.g., Why I can’t play?), and auxiliary-less questions (e.g., What he said?). Historically, AAE question syntax, when considered at all, has been dismissed as essentially identical to mainstream English. Thus, commentary on AAE question syntax is limited to observing that auxiliaries may “delete” in auxiliary-less questions, and that subject-auxiliary inversion may be “absent” in non-inverted questions. In other words, question syntax in AAE has generally been represented as a derivation or deviation from mainstream English. In the first half of this thesis I provide a syntactic analysis of the three question types, and I argue that question variation in AAE—in contrast to question variation in MAE—is the product of true syntactic variation. I show that 1) auxiliary-less questions are not necessarily cases of deletion, but are rather generated by AAE-specific parametric settings that—due to a lack of covert movement— never call upon an auxiliary, and 2) variation among different question types is tightly constrained and predicted by grammatical factors, such as negation, auxiliary verb-type, and tense. In the second half of this thesis, I examine question patterns among AAE-speaking children based on a corpus of over 50 hours of elicited and spontaneous speech data from more than 80 AAE- and mainstream English-speaking children (ages 5-7) in a New Orleans elementary school. My analysis of these data show the following: 1) by age 5, child speakers of AAE already follow the same grammatical patterns constraining question variation that are documented in adult AAE, 2) variation is inherent to the syntax of AAE questions, and not an artifact of dialect-switching or social variation, and 3) the patterns in the children’s data support the analysis of AAE question syntax presented in the first half of this thesis.



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