Thursday, June 20, 2013

The relationship between Kanye, Rap and African American English

This started out as an update to my post on Kanye West's song "I am a God," but wound up being nearly as long as the post itself, so I'm separating it out. But look over that first, or maybe keep it open in a separate tab.

A concern has been conveyed to me that I may have been equating rap as a lyrical form, African American English, and Kanye West in a problematic way. I wasn't really clear about my assumptions about how these three things are related, so I'll try to clarify.

So first, I definitely don't want to imply that the conventions of what is possible and not possible in rap is equivalent to the grammar of African American English. Rap is strongly identified as an African American art form such that people frequently malign hip hop as code for AAE, but as a linguist I know better than to draw similar equivalencies. As a lyrical and musical form, rap has its own conventions which aren't the same as AAE grammar. This must be the case, because speakers of other dialects and languages can produce songs which are clearly identifiable as rap!

I am assuming that Kanye West is a speaker of AAE as it spoken in Georgia, and that his phonology, as he acquired it, generates a bunch of representations. That's why I tied in the Labov, Cohen & Robins (1968) reference, to try to emphasize that these ∅ coda Go(d)s weren't just a quirk of Kanye, but rather reflective of larger dialectal trends in which Kanye is a participant. What does it matter? It's just more interesting if the reasoning I proposed here could generalize beyond just Kanye.

Next, I assume that Kanye has a personal filter, partially due to his personal taste, partially due to the conventions of rap, whereby he decides whether two words work as a rhyme. My reasoning is that if we understand Kanye's filter, and can see what comes out the other end, then we can make some assumptions about what went into it in the first place. Importantly, Kanye's rhyme filter is not AAE. In AAE, the set of words {God, Go(d), massage, ménage, garage, restaurant, croissants} definitely aren't perfect rhymes, but they all passed through Kanye's filter as rhyming equivalent.

My reasoning is as follows. All of these words passed some metric of Kanye's rhyming filter as being equivalent enough. The zero coda variant "Go(d)" is a product of Kanye's AAE phonology. If we can figure out what Kanye's filter is, then we can know something about the phonological status of "Go(d)",  which can tell us something about this feature of AAE phonology. Excluding "Go(d)", all of the final syllables of the words in this rhyming scheme have 1) a low-back vowel 2) a coronal obstruent. The coronal obstruents vary quite a bit in the sub-coronal place of articulation, their manner, and in their complexity. So, I want to conclude that Kanye's filter requires matching on the vowel quality, and the major place of articulation of the coda, but not its manner or complexity.

The zero coda Go(d) is an outlier in this pattern, unless we conclude that the missing /d/ actually counts as being there. Whether or not the missing /d/ counts as being there has more to do with Kanye's phonology than his rhyming filter, and since I'm assuming Kanye's phonology comes form AAE, this could also be a property of the phonology of many AAE speakers. So, I want to conclude that it is probable that for many AAE speakers, when they produce zero coda Go(d), the /d/ still counts as being there.

Now how gone is the /d/? That's where the phonetics comes in, and the answer seems to be "very."

This is just a very general view of how to use rhyming verse to figure out something about the phonology of any language or dialect. A speaker of some language has some phonology which generates forms, and then they have a rhyming filter to see what works. By working out what the properties of the filter might be, you can try to reconstruct what the properties of the phonology is.

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