Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The Non-Aspectual Meaning of African American English 'Aspect' Markers
by Harris, Alysia Nicole, Ph.D., Yale University, 2019, 429; 13810147
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation contributes to the existing treatments of African-American English (AAE) by providing a new formal semantic account of the meanings of the AAE particles 'preverbal' done and 'invariant' be. The work presented here sheds much-needed light on both the semantic and distributional patterns of AAE sentences containing preverbal done and invariant be with respect to their unmarked counterparts. Preverbal done and invariant be are often understood as elements within a class of uninflected preverbal material unique to AAE. This class also includes perfect been, focused remote perfect BIN, and irrealis be done. Though they differ in the meanings assigned to each member, previous studies—from the early observations of Labov (1972) and Rickford (1975) to more recent investigations by Green (1993, 1998, 2000), Edwards (1991, 2001) Dayton (1996) and Terry (2004, 2006, 2010)—treat all members of this class as contributing the highly-specified aspectual information that form the complex set of overt aspectual distinctions that are seen as the dialect's distinguishing feature par excellence. This dissertation pivots from traditional views to cast the behaviors and contributions of two of these elements— done and be— in a new light.

Contra existing analyses, I present evidence that preverbal done and invariant be are not primarily aspectual markers at all. I argue that these two elements are discourse-oriented particles whose semantic contributions index speaker's evidence, expectations, and evaluations concerning the propositions in which they appear. While perfective –ed and progressive –ing carry the majority of the aspectual load, done's and be's non-aspectual meanings provide evidence in favor of the broader cross-linguistic hypothesis that discourse properties— like relevancy, speaker-expectation and evidential strength— can affect the temporal and aspectual interpretations of sentences.

Because I make a departure from purely-aspectual analyses, Chapter 2 is designed to present those familiar with the behavior of AAE done and be with the theoretical concepts of evidentiality (Section 2.2), mirativity and noncongruence (Section 2.3), and Kratzerian modality (Section 2.4) that I rely on to specific done and be's specific discourse functions.

Chapter 3 puts forth a non-aspectual treatment of done, which carries a specialized version of the perfect's relevance presupposition— current diametric relevance— but none of the perfect's aspectual features. Done is shown to be a particle used to express the speaker's sentiment that a proposition does not align with the speaker's expectations, desires, or plans— a property I am calling ‘noncongruence'.

Chapter 4 presents evidence for the status of be as an epistemic-evidential marker against the traditional understandings of be as directly indexing habitual aspect. Chapter 4 shows that be carries an evidential presupposition which requires the speaker to have some partial perceptual evidence on which to base their generalizations about normal states of affairs. This chapter provides semantic analyses of be, be +V–ing, and the constructions with which they alternate: predicate instantiation with the null copula, Present Progressive and the Simple Present.

With the minimally distinct semantic entries for each formal alternative from Chapter 4, we can easily capture the significant overlap in the distributions of be +V–ing, the Present Progressive, and the Simple Present. Chapter 5 explains how these formal variants divide up the pragmatic labor of expressing propositions that are true of the present interval. Within a Neo-Gricean framework and building off Deo's work on the progressive-imperfective contrast (2015), I sketch the formal competition between be and non-be forms in both the verbal and nonverbal domains, accounting for be's habitual (Green 2000) and emphatic readings (Labov 1998, Alim 2004) as conversational implicatures.

In Chapter 6, I refine the observations of Dayton (1996) and connect the meanings of done and be through their indexation of inference, and explore the broader implications for how evidential and epistemic notions can affect the interpretation of aspectual temporal reference. Lastly, I put forth a proposal that conceptualizes AAE's class of preverbal particles as advanced grammaticizations of highly-specified pragmatically-conditioned uses of the progressive and the perfect found in both Mainstream and nonstandard varieties of American English.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Bowern, Claire L., Deo, Ashwini
Commitee: Zanuttini, Raffaella, Horn, Laurence R., Green, Lisa
School: Yale University
Department: Linguistics
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 81/3(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Linguistics, African American Studies
Keywords: African american english, Dialect variation, Nonstandard english, Pragmatics, Semantics
Publication Number: 13810147
ISBN: 9781088316559
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