Challenging Labov's account of Negative Inversion constructions in AAVE

Agnieszka Dziołak (Wrocław University)

The Negative Inversion (NI) pattern is probably one of the most distinct grammatical features characteristic of contemporary African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The term NI denotes a phenomenon in which a negated auxiliary precedes a negative quantifier expression in an emphatic declarative sentence, as exemplified by the following:

Ain't nobody in my family Negro. (Labov, 1972a: 60)

Can't nobody say nothing. (Rickford, 1999: 8)

While the syntax of NI constructions does not pose a major problem for linguistic analysis, the process of generating such structures appears to be twofold in nature, thus causing potential economy-related difficulties for speakers of AAVE. It is this very duality of the derivation of structures in question which shall be of interest to us and which shall be challenged in this paper.

One of the earliest accounts of the NI pattern, which we focus on herein, was provided by William Labov (1972b). This informal analysis was an attempt at putting forward an explanation of the way NI constructions are derived by AAVE speakers.

In his investigation, Labov distinguishes two types of NI sentences, namely the copular (cf. (1)) and the non-copular (cf. (2)) instances. This distinction constitutes the basis on which Labov proposes two separate analyses to account for the grammaticality of NI - the Existential analysis and the Subject-Auxiliary Inversion (SAI) analysis, respectively.

The Existential analysis is valid with respect to those NI cases which contain the contracted negative form of the primary auxiliary be . The surface structure realized as a NI construction, according to Labov, would be derived from an existential sentence from which the dummy subject it has been deleted.

a. It ain't no Santa Claus. D-structure

b. Ain't no Santa Claus. S-structure

The SAI analysis, on the other hand, pertains to those NI cases which contain an auxiliary other than the copula be . For such instances Labov proposes that they are generated simply by inverting the contracted auxiliary with the quantifier and moving it to sentence-initial position where it precedes the indefinite subject.

a. Nobody can't tag you, then. D-structure

b. Can't nobody tag you, then. S-structure

In this paper we challenge both analyses put forward by Labov in the light of the hypotheses supported by the proponents of the GB theory. We also demonstrate certain systematic inconsistencies we have observed with reference to these early accounts. Finally, following Labov's own line of reasoning, we argue that all types of NI constructions can be easily derived via either of the presented accounts, which leaves two individual derivation processes at an AAVE speaker's disposal. The aim of this argument is to show that the NI phenomenon remains to be unaccounted for under a truly unified theory.


Haegeman, L. 1994. Introduction to Government and Binding Theory . 2 nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Labov, William. 1972a. "Is the Black English Vernacular a Separate System?' in Language in the Inner City , William Labov, 36-64. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labov, William. 1972b. "Negative attraction and negative concord in English grammar." Language, 48: 773-818.

Rickford, John R. 1999. "Phonological and Grammatical Features of African American Vernacular English" in African American Vernacular English: features, evolution, educational implications , John R. Rickford, 3-14. Malden, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.