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vrijdag, maart 24, 2017

Explanation of "habitual be".

The Unit of Caring

you gave me wings when you showed me birds

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[There's a] frequently misunderstood construction that linguists refer to as the "habitual be." When speakers of standard American English hear the statement "He be reading," they generally take it to mean "He is reading." But that's not what it means to a speaker of Black English, for whom "He is reading" refers to what the reader is doing at this moment. "He be reading" refers to what he does habitually, whether or not he's doing it right now.

D'Jaris Coles, a doctoral student in the communication disorders department, and a member of the African-American English research team, gives the hypothetical example of Billy, a well-behaved kid who doesn't usually get into fights. One day he encounters some special provocation and starts scuffling with a classmate in the school yard. "It would be correct to say that Billy fights," Coles explains, "but he don't be fighting."

Janice Jackson, another team member who is also working on a Ph.D. in communication disorders, conducted an experiment using pictures of Sesame Street characters to test children's comprehension of the "habitual be" construction. She showed the kids a picture in which Cookie Monster is sick in bed with no cookies while Elmo stands nearby eating cookies. When she asked, "Who be eating cookies?" white kids tended to point to Elmo while black kids chose Cookie Monster. "But," Jackson relates, "when I asked, 'Who is eating cookies?' the black kids understood that it was Elmo and that it was not the same. That was an important piece of information." Because those children had grown up with a language whose verb forms differentiate habitual action from currently occuring action (Gaelic also features such a distinction, in addition to a number of West African languages), they were able even at the age of five or six to distinguish between the two.

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