Wednesday, September 29, 2010

AAVE in Big Green Neon Letters

I was just sent a music video for Sxip Shirey's song I live in New York City. It's a pretty cool song (even if it is about NYC). Shirey is apparently known for his creative instruments, and this song features his playing-a-harmonica-into-a-bullhorn-aphone (my own coining).

But this post isn't about playful morphology. At 4 seconds into the video, a scene flashes by which displays AAVE in big green neon lights.

Of course, the possessive marker "'s" is frequently (or usually?) omitted in AAVE. Thus, what would be "Alex's Barber Shop" in White NYC English is "Alex Barber Shop" in AAVE.

I find examples of dialectal features that are carved into stone (or neon signs or whatever) really interesting, specifically because of how much effort is involved in putting them there. Talk is really cheap compared to the cost of creating a neon sign. Some people might argue that dialects like AAVE are just sloppily spoken Standard English, but could you really argue that the sign says "Alex Barber Shop" due to laziness? I've never owned a barber shop, but if I did, I'd definitely check the neon sign order form three or four times to make sure that it said exactly what I wanted it to say. Therefore, I conclude that Alex's sign says "Alex Barber Shop" because he meant it to, and he must have invested a lot of energy and money to make sure it said exactly that.

This also reminds me of something Bill Labov talks about1. He has a presentation where he puts up a picture of a Dunkin' Donuts sign. Then he asks us why Dunkin' Donuts decided to call themselves Dunkin' Donuts. "Because," he says, "everyone knows that Dunkin' Donuts taste better than Dunking Donuts."

I wonder, then, whether everyone knows that it's better to go to Alex Barber Shop than Alex's Barber Shop.

1. I talk a lot about things Bill Labov talks about, but can I really help it? Can anybody?

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