Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

1.4. Reproduktionen und Innovationen in Sprache und Kommunikation verschiedener Sprachkulturen / Reproduction and Innovation in Language and Communication in different Language Cultures
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Rudolf Muhr (Universität Graz)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

‘On Dead Dogs, Mr. Berbecs!’: Recent developments in Boston teenager vernacular

Steven Berbeco and Raul Lopez (Charlestown High School, Massachusetts, U.S.A.)



African-American English, also known as Ebonics and Black English Vernacular, has evolved from Standard English into dialects, including a dialect spoken by teenagers in the Boston towns of Roxbury, Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Dorchester. Lexical items include dog ‘friend, buddy,’ which can also be used as a tag I’m working after school, dog, derived from the expression on dead dogs ‘truthfully’ as in ‘On dead dogs I didn’t take your pen.’ Phonological features include limited -s excrescence in surnames, for example mis bevanz ‘Ms. Bevan’ but *mis marshalz ‘Ms. Marshall’ and *mista berbecoz ‘Mr. Berbeco’ (but mista berbecs after apocope). This paper includes an inventory of lexical items, including a sociolinguistic analysis of several, and a discussion of -s excrescence.


1. Introduction and Methodoloy

African-American English (AAE), also known as Black English Vernacular and Ebonics, has evolved from Standard English into dialects, including a dialect spoken by teenagers in the Boston towns of Roxbury, Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Dorchester. Boston African-American English (BAAE) as discussed in this paper is different from the well-known and documented Boston English dialect in that BAAE does not rhoticize syllable-final vowels, nor does it drop a word-final /r/. Lexical items are also distinct between Boston English and BAAE. Geographically, the two dialects differ as well: Boston English is concentrated in the areas just north and south of the city, while BAAE is found most often in the city itself. Despite its name, BAAE is spoken and understood by a variety of ethnicities, and is not a racially marked dialect among its speakers.

The basis of this study is an assignment given to twenty-two students at El Centro del Cardenal, an alternative high school that provides individualized learning for a limited number of students in the Boston Public Schools. The students constructed a slang dictionary, listing out words or short phrases that they felt were used prevalently among their peers but were not a part of Standard American English. Students included the part of speech and a sample of the word or phrase in a sentence. These dictionaries were then analyzed by Raul Lopez, co-author of this paper and a high school senior at Charlestown High School, in Boston. The dictionary entries were re-structured as fifteen multiple-choice and short answer questions, and developed into a survey given to seventy-six college-bound junior and senior students across four classes at Charlestown High School. Steven Berbeco, co-author of this paper and a history teacher at the high school, then evaluated the surveys qualitatively.

The purpose of this paper is to describe several of the features of BAAE and offer suggestions for further research and study. Italics represent examples of BAAE, and ‘single quotes’ are used for Standard English definitions.


2. Lexicon

Speakers of BAAE have developed innovations in their vocabulary by what we can call intrinsic and extrinsic adaptation of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Intrinisc adaptations are changes within the lexicon of Standard English, for example metonymy in the word minute below. Intrinsic adaptations can also be building new words from the Standard English lexicon, such as homegirl, or extending the meaning of a word, such as chillin and grimey.

Extrinsic adaptations are brought about by external factors, such as popular music or changes in the immediate environment of the speakers. For example, dog listed below is possibly derived from a combination of the music stars Snoop Doggy Dog, Nate Dogg, and Dre Dog, as well as lyrics from popular songs like Snoop Doggy Dog’s ‘Doggy Doggy World’: You can’t do me / I’m goin out looney like old doggs and other songs by 2PAC ‘My Closest Roaddogz’, Brotha Lynch Hung ‘Dogg Market’, Lil’ Flip ‘My Dogz’, Sticky Fingaz ‘My Dogz Iz My Gunz’, and Nate Dogg ‘Dogg Pound Gangstaville’.

2.1 Intrinsic adaptations


Noun. ‘friend’, ‘female friend’, ‘girlfriend’

a minute

Noun. ‘a long time’, derived from ‘minute’ by metonymy


Noun. ‘fake gangsta’, ‘fake thug’, ‘fake ass’, ‘idiot’, ‘fool’, ‘clown’. Possibly derived from ‘wanker’ + gangsta, or wannabe + gangsta


Noun. ‘boyfriend or girlfriend’, possibly derived from the 1940s endearment ‘poopsie’ (from ‘poppet’) or from Haitian Creole ‘beau’ or ‘husband’


Adjective. ‘content’, also what’s good? ‘What’s happening?’ Note: What’s really good B? is a general question and does not refer to a person whose name starts with the letter B


Adjective. ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘mean’, also messed up


Adjective. ‘relaxed’, ‘not stressed’, also falling back


Adjective. ‘good’, ‘nice’, also fire, gangsta, off da hook


Verb. ‘dancing’, ‘partying’. Possibly from ‘gig’ = a musical performance


Verb. ‘staring’

da Germ

Noun. ‘AIDS’, ‘Herpes’, also on fire, da burn = ‘herpes’


Verb. For a male: ‘being hypocritical’, also frontin. For a female: ‘being loose’, ‘sleeping around’, also ho.

2.2 Extrinsic adaptations


Noun. ‘friend’, ‘buddy’, also as a tag I’m working after school, dog. Also on dogs or on dead dogs ‘truthfully’ as in On dead dogs I didn’t take your pen, similar to say on your life, for real, say you are dead serious. Possibly derived from the saying ‘dog is man’s best friend’.

bird gang

Noun. archaic, ‘group of girls’, ‘group of boys’, ‘street gang’. Possibly from ‘bird’ [British pejorative] or from a current rap group on the Diplomat recording label


Noun. ‘a tough person’, ‘a fearless person’, ‘someone who is a bad influence on the community’


Noun. ‘a rich person’, derived from ‘basketballer’, also gangsta, bling-bling


Verb. ‘flee’, also used as a backchannel dip or set. Possibly derived from the Diplomat recording label, also known as ‘Dipset’

2.3 Pimpin versus Being a Playa

As part of the survey study, we attempted to find the semantic fields for two words that appear to overlap in meaning in common usage: pimp and playa. Both words can mean ‘a man with several girlfriends’ and both can be used either as a compliment or as personally derisive. When asked to differentiate between the two, students had difficulty pinning down exact definitions of each, and came up with a small range of responses. The greatest overlap was that pimp and playa are male-designated words, so a girl with a lot of money wouldn’t been called a pimp even though an alternate meaning of the word is simply ‘someone who is rich’. Also, both pimp and playa usually, though not always, mean a boy with one or more girlfriends.

The three topics most often associated with pimp are money, ownership or possession, and materialism. A pimp is a boy who is rich, similar to a balla. Pimp also refers to the ownership or possession of something, typically one or more girls. This can be the literal ownership of a classic pimp-prostitute relationship, or a more abstract relationship where the boy provides the girl with a source of her spending money, like a ‘sugar daddy’.

A third definition of pimp is someone who is materialistic and flaunts his wealth conspicuously (flosses his bling, pops his collar). A well-dressed man can be referred to as a pimp in a positive way, as a compliment. Although there is some overlap, a playa is generally a boy who is indiscriminate about the number of girls he dates; it remains unclear whether there is a sexual element to either pimp or playa.

There is however a sense of unfairness to others associated with being a playa: a playa is more likely to cheat on his girlfriend than a pimp, even though both are typically polyamorous. Both pimp and playa can be used as verbs, as well: He’s pimpin it ‘He is dressed well’ and He’s playin it ‘He’s not taking the situation seriously’. Curiously, the direct object of pimpin is not the clothing, or the subject of the verb, but rather a location: He’s pimpin da unit ‘He is the best-dressed man in the school’s teaching unit’. This type of verb form also generalizes to playa: He’s playin da unit means ‘He’s trying to cheat or get away with something within the school’s teaching unit’.


3. Phonology

Speakers of BAAE have shown several interesting phonological innovations. We focus first on a minimal pair dawg/dog. As noted above, the word dog has entered BAAE lexicon as a synonym for ‘friend’. Dog is also used in several expressions, such as on dogs to indicate earnestness:

Say on dogs that your pops got the new whip.
‘Is it true that your father has a new car?’

The survey question gave the respondants the opportunity to choose between dogs and dawgs for the statement above. Surprisingly, 71% of speakers prefer dawgs to dogs, even though published sources used dog or dogz almost exclusively. The two remaining phonological phenomena have been noted in daily interaction with the students. First, there is a common practice of paradigmatic levelling in the possessive pronouns:

Hey mistah, wherez mines at?
‘Excuse me, teacher, where is my (worksheet, homework, etc.)?’










Another phonological innovation is a rule-based -s excrescence in teachers’ surnames:

Mis bevans [bevænz]

‘Ms. Bevan’

Mis summars [sumarz]

‘Ms. Summer’


Mis cheng

‘Ms. Cheng’

Mista fung

‘Mr. Fung’

Mis micdowel

‘Ms McDowell’

Mis marshl

‘Ms. Marshall’

Mis lakrin

‘Ms. Loughran’

Mis davis

‘Ms. Davis’

Mista berbeko

‘Mr. Berbeco’

The rule can be articulated as word-final -s excrescence when preceded by a syllable with a low front vowel. Cheng, micdowel, and berbeko have mid front vowels, fung has a back or center vowel, and marshl has a syllabified final consonant. As an interesting extension, a student recently apocopated mista berbeko > mista berbek and then applied excrescence mista berbeks possibly by paradigmatic levelling.

The excrescence isn’t general to all uses of the surname, however. When addressing a teacher directly students can use a form with a final -s or without. Excrescence is more common when the teacher is the object of a preposition, like I’m about to go to mis lakrins ‘I will probably go to see Ms. Loughran’. A name with a final sibilant won’t undergo excrescence, either: I’m about to go to mis davis ‘I will probably go to see Ms. Davis’. One possible explanation is that this is actually an example of ellipsis, with a prohibition on syllable reduplication. Also, students report that Mis vaya ‘Ms. Via’ is acceptable but I’m about to go to mis vayas is ill-formed.


4. Conclusions

This paper was intended to introduce the reader to an emerging minority dialect and to document some of its characteristics. While a robust study of a language is well within the domain of linguistics, and the expectations of the field, BAAE here at least is treated as a linguistic curiosity, and as such is not subjected to the rigors of a careful study. Emerging dialects can develop into stable languages, of course, but from this vantage point it is difficult to differentiate between a synchronic local anomoly and a significant diachronic development.

That said, there is certainly reason to study BAAE outside of the belt of linguistics. As is the case with any multilingual educational setting, speakers who are permitted to learn in their native language are much more capable learners than those who are forced to study through the medium of an official, but foreign, language. By recognizing the distinct features of BAAE, teachers in the Boston area can retool their curricula to anticipate and account for differences in dialects. Students who are able to learn comfortably in their own dialect are more empowered in their own education, and become more actively engaged students.

Another benefit of conducting this study, and following it up with others like it, is that the students themselves are actively involved in both sides of the research and so are building important skill sets that can be applied to other areas. For instance, students were excited about the prospect of designing and taking a linguistic survey about their own dialect, and were curious about the results. The pedagogical benefit of the survey is that students are exposed to proper scientific research and investigation, and can then in turn design surveys in other classes, in other contexts. Carefully directed self-investigation then becomes a powerful tool for classroom learning.

© Steven Berbeco and Raul Lopez (Charlestown High School, Massachusetts, U.S.A.)

1.4. Reproduktionen und Innovationen in Sprache und Kommunikation verschiedener Sprachkulturen / Reproduction and Innovation in Language and Communication in different Language Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Steven Berbeco and Raul Lopez (Charlestown High School, Massachusetts, U.S.A.): ‘On Dead Dogs, Mr. Berbecs!’: Recent developments in Boston teenager vernacular. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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