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Cunningham, Jennifer. African American Digital Language. C&C, June 2018. Posted 06/07/2018.

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Cunningham, Jennifer M. ‘“wuz good wit u bro’: Patterns of Digital African American Language Use in Two Modes of Communication.” Computers and Composition 48 (2018): 67-84. Web. 30 May 2018.

Jennifer M. Cunningham reports a study of three male African American college students living in Ohio as they communicated with each other via text messages (73). Cunningham analyzed the messages for features of digital language (DL), African American language (AAL), and digital African American language (DAAL). She compared the results with those from a 2014 study of 100 comments posted by 19 African American college students on My Space (72). Her goal was to determine whether the features of the three language classes remained consistent across the different purposes, audiences, and platforms. In her view, consistency across these different contexts indicate the degree to which a form of language use is a stable, rule-governed literacy (72).

The author contends that efforts within writing pedagogy to build on languages with which students are familiar and in which they are already accomplished in order to build a bridge to Standard American English can benefit from learning more about how people communicate outside of the classroom (82). Cunningham reports research showing that text messaging is a favored form of communication among both adolescents and college students (68). She argues that studies of digital communication provide a view of how literacies are used for “authentic communicative purposes in . . . non-academic spaces” (67), and, as such, offer important lessons for writing pedagogy.

Cunningham reviews work by scholars who have examined and classified features of DL and AAL language groups. However, her previous study of DAAL is unique in that, except for her work, “there are no existing theoretical frameworks or coding categories that specifically address AAL as it is used to communicate in a digital environment” (73). As a result, for coding, she drew on tables she developed for her 2014 My Space study (73-74).

The author notes that in some views, digital language is considered a substandard form of communication with deleterious impacts on the literacy of users (68, 70). Scholars, however, have argued that the ability to exploit “textisms” like “initialisms” (e.g., “lol”), “letter/number homophones” (e.g., “b4”), and various forms of “shortenings” or “deletions” indicates a larger language-use repertoire rather than a deficit (68). Research suggests that fluidity in the “code-meshing” (69) involved in DL correlates with better reading skills (68, 82).

Cunningham writes that, similarly, African American Language has been labeled “an inferior form of communication that can negatively affect literacy” (69). Scholarship has recognized AAL as a “rule-governed language and literacy” with West-African roots and an English vocabulary (69). Cunningham discusses use patterns in AAL that demonstrate the affinity of AAL with West-African grammar and phonology, including “zero copula,” which occurs because in these language families there is “no form or conjugates of ‘to be’” and the conversion of “th” sounds, which do not occur in the African phonologies, to various alternatives such “d” sounds (71).

She explains her coding process for analysis of 380 messages consisting of 3136 words (73-74). “Open coding” classified the 3136 “instances” into “one of eight DL subcategories, one of six AAL phonological subcategories, and/or one of eight AAL grammatical subcategories” (73). In both the text messages and the social-network posts, Standard American English (SAE) accounted for most of the instances, (54.9% and 59.1%, respectively), but “SAE was not further coded” in the study (73).

In each subcategory, Cunningham reports substantial consistency between the text messages and the My Space posts. She notes some areas of difference. For example, in the subcategory DL, punctuation tended to be missing in the text messages but “excessive” in the social media posts (e.g., !!!) (75).

Some differences could be attributed to specific word choices by participants. In the AAL phonological subcategories, the two sets of texts differed considerably in the feature Cunningham designates as “Syllables”: “Unstressed syllables may be omitted and two pronounced words in AE may become one construction in AAL” (76). The more prominent occurrence of this feature in the text messages may have resulted from the three men’s regular use of “ight” to mean “all right” (76). Similarly, the verbal choices of “specific interlocutors” accounted for a disparity in the use of “Replacement th” in which the “th” sound is replaced with “d”; “several participants” in the social-media posts tended to use a particular example of this construction (76-77).

The author analyzes the degree to which the features she examined affected “functionality” (78). DAAL appeared designed to “creat[e] concise words, phrases, and sentences that are noticeably different from SAE while also approximating spoken AAL” (78). Writing that AAL is already “a more concise language” (78) and “a pragmatic language” (81), Cunningham contends that DL as used by African American speakers reflects these tendencies.

The author examines scholarship that contends that DL itself is “a hybrid between speech and writing,” creating “a new linguistic system” (69). Cunningham contends that the combination of DL and AAL creates a literacy, DAAL, that employs representations that differ from Standard American English both visually and by “approximating spoken AAL” (78). She found that the features of AAL that were incorporated into DAAL were more consistent across the two corpora than were the DL constructions, suggesting that DL is evolving as it is used in different contexts while “AAL is a more established and less fluctuating form of communication” (80).

In her view, her results reveal DAAL to be a hybrid practice with features that are consistent across contexts and therefore can be identified as a literacy in which users “follow innate and learned linguistic and paralinguistic rules to compose consistent and somewhat predictable written messages” (81). She argues that as an example of enhanced “heteroglossia” and as a way for students to “combine, alter, and mesh” both academic and non-academic language forms in response to differing contexts (81), DL and DAAL should be valued not only as stable, rule-governed linguistic practices but as contributors to “rhetorical awareness and writing ability” (82).


Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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