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3rd Person Singular and Default Case in Child African American English

Lisa Green, University of Massachusetts Amherst

November 10, 2021 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · via Zoom

Program in Linguistics

Children developing African American English (AAE) produce bare verb forms in 3rd person singular contexts (1):


  1. She she pop out the house and she buy some more butter.

‘She pops out of the house and she buys some more butter’


Overt 3rd person singular verbal marking is absent from the adult AAE grammar (Labov, 1972; Green 2002, 2011) although native speakers of AAE produce 3rd person –s morphology in limited contexts. Because bare forms such as those in (1) seem to be identical to zero forms produced by adult AAE speakers, children’s developing AAE is generally compared to the adult AAE grammar.

In this talk, I investigate data from repetition tasks performed with 3- to 6-year-old developing AAE-speaking children in a community in southwest Louisiana. The participants were shown pictures from Pancakes for Breakfast while they heard descriptions about them. They were then asked to repeat lines they heard about the pictures. The data show that even when some children heard Nominative marked pronominal subjects followed by verbs with overt 3rd singular –s marking, they produced default case-marked subjects followed by verbs with variable –s marking (2b, 3b):


  1. a) Experimenter: She wishes she could make pancakes.
  2. b) Child: Her wish her could make pancakes.


  1. a) Experimenter: She reaches for the book.
  2. b) Child: Her reaches for the book.


The subject-verb sequence in (2b) is identical to constructions that children developing mainstream American English (MAE) and other languages produce during the optional infinitive stage, in which children produce bare verb forms with default-case marked subjects. On the other hand, the subject-verb sequence in (3b) is different from that in developmental MAE, in which children do not generally produce 3rd singular –s agreement (e.g., reaches) with default-case marked subjects (e.g. her).

Data from repetition tasks, such as (2b) and (3b), provide insight into AAE-speaking children’s acquisition path to developing verb forms. The data also underscore the importance of considering default-case marked subjects in studies of verb forms in developing AAE.


Lisa Green is Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her research and teaching interests include syntax, syntactic variation, child language acquisition and development of African American English, and linguistics and education. She is the author of African American English: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2002) and journal articles and book chapters on syntax and semantics of African American English (e.g., tense and aspect, negation, left periphery phenomena). Her work also addresses the practical applications of linguistic description of African American English in educational contexts. Green’s research on the development of language patterns in the speech of three-, four- and five- year-olds in African American speech communities, which was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is reported in her book Language and the African American Child, published by Cambridge University Press (2011). Her third book, African American English Through the Years: Getting at the Core Grammar, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. She is currently co-PI of  “Understanding Variation in African American Language: Corpus and Prosodic Fieldwork Perspectives”, which is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Green is also the founding director of the Center for the Study of African American Language (CSAAL) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Its goal is to foster and integrate research on language in the African American community and applications of that research in educational, social, and cultural realms. The Center serves as a resource for communities across the country, with a commitment to furnishing information and training to educators who address language- and dialect-related issues. During the summer months, undergraduates from different universities, including historically black colleges and universities (such as Howard University, Hampton University, and Tennessee State), work on research projects in linguistics at CSAAL. Green is the 2017 recipient of a Conti Fellowship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and she was named a Linguistic Society of America Fellow in 2016.

Before moving to UMass Amherst, Green taught in the linguistics program in the Department of English at Binghamton University (1994-1995), and she was also a member of the faculty in the Department of Linguistics at The University of Texas at Austin (1995-2006). She was an Old Dominion Fellow in the Linguistics Program at Princeton University in Fall 2009. Green holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an MA in English from the University of Kentucky, and a BS in English Education from Grambling State University. She also completed postdoctoral fellowships at Temple University and Stanford University.

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