I dig your rap

Posted by on November 01, 2011

Moving on from theatre and acting to music, subcultural English month brings you a guest post by Orin Hargraves, an independent American lexicographer and author of books about English, including Slang Rules!, a lesson book for English learners about American slang.

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The music that we call rap today can be heard in nearly every spoken language. But the rap music that began today’s worldwide phenomenon was in English, specifically in a subcultural variety of American English. It’s informally called Black English but that’s not quite accurate; many Americans with African roots don’t in fact use this dialect, and Africans around the world speak a wide variety of English dialects, but not this one. A more accurate name for the variety of English that fuels Rap English, and the name currently favored by academics, is African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.

Perhaps no variety of English generates more enthusiasm among English learners in the world today than the English they hear in rap – and perhaps no variety of English is more opaque to the learner, especially to the learner who is studying standard English in a classroom. The good news is that Rap English is actually much simpler than the English that you may be studying. You can throw out a number of rules, and you can dispense with one of English’s worst bugbears: spellings that bear little resemblance to the sounds they represent. Let’s explore some of the rule bending that goes on in rap songs today.

The pronunciation of many of the most common verbs and pronouns that you hear in rap music is the pronunciation found in most varieties of informal American English, including AAVE. Rappers often go one step further, and do us the favor of actually spelling words the way they sound. So, for example, when you hear (or see) “Whatcha gonna do?” it may not be immediately obvious what the standard English translation is. “Whatcha gonna do?” is a pronunciation spelling of “What you going to do?” – that is, a spelling that closely matches the way that people pronounce the words. When a word ending in a t sound is followed by a word beginning with a y sound, American tongues tend to convert this combination to a ch sound. The spelling whatcha reflects this pronunciation.

Gonna is a pronunciation spelling of going to and reflects two patterns of informal American pronunciation: words ending in –ing often lose the g sound in speech, and the word to, rarely stressed, is pronounced with a schwa vowel: hence, gonna. What happened to the t in to? No one has reported its whereabouts, but the t sound is a common one to disappear in informal pronunciations. Two ts go missing in wanna, a pronunciation spelling of want to.

If you’re an astute learner of English, you’ll notice that we skipped over an important problem with “What you going to do?” It’s not grammatical! The correct form of the sentence is “What are you going to do?” Informal dialects of American English, including AAVE, have simplified use of auxiliary verbs, and in many sentences, auxiliary verbs are eliminated. This is particularly true of are and have when they are part of a verb phrase. So if you noticed already that “What you going to do?” is not strictly grammatical, you get an extra point: before “What are you” becomes whatcha, it has already lost the are. This loss of an auxiliary verb can also be seen in a line like: “I’ll deliver and give ya whatcha been waitin for”, which in standard, more difficult English, is “I’ll deliver and give you what you have been waiting for”.

Are you ready to tackle a whole stanza? Try this one, from the song “Life Ain’t Easy”:

When I get old Imma be real cool
Sittin on the porch with a fresh pair of shoes
Whole bunch of stories for the neighborhood kids
Tell em to believe that we makin it big

Here you can see illustrated the points discussed above, along with two new elements:
1) em is a pronunciation spelling of them that dispenses with the th sound;
2) imma is an AAVE shortening of an informal contraction: I’m going to > I’m gonna > Imma.

Armed with these two principles – “spell it like it sounds” and “don’t be bothered with too many auxiliary verbs” – you’ll find that Rap English is not as mysterious as it looks.

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