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  • Street-Conscious Copula Variation in the Hip Hop Nation
  • H. Samy Alim (bio)
H. Samy Alim
Stanford University
H. Samy Alim

H. Samy Alim is a doctoral candidate in educational linguistics at Stanford University. He is coauthor of Street Conscious Rap (with James G. Spady and Charles G. Lee, Philadelphia: Black History Museum Umum/Loh Pub., 1999) and is editor of Blacks Arts Quarterly. His dissertation investigates stylistic variation and identity in schools and society from the dual perspectives of quantitative sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology.


1. Hip Hop Culture is sometimes defined as having four major elements: MCing (rappin), DJing (spinnin), breakdancing (streetdancing), and graffiti art (writing). To these, Hip Hop pioneer KRS-One adds knowledge as a fifth element, and Afrika Bambaata, a founder of the Hip Hop Cultural Movement, adds overstanding. Even with six elements, this definition of a culture is quite limited in scope, and it is useful to distinguish between the terms Hip Hop and rap. Rappin, one element of Hip Hop Culture, consists of the aesthetic placement of verbal rhymes over musical beats. Hip Hop Culture refers not only to the various elements listed above, but to the entire range of cultural activity and modes of being that encompass the Hip Hop Culture-World. This is why we might hear Hip Hop fans say, "Hip Hop ain't just music, it's a whole way of life!"

2. Transcribing Hip Hop lyrics is far more difficult, not to mention more tedious, than transcribing conversational speech data. One song (usually about three to four minutes in length) may take several hours to transcribe. Lyrics have to be transcribed (rather than purchased or downloaded from the Internet) because of issues of linguistic accuracy. The relatively small corpus of data is due, in part, to this constraint. The Black History Museum Committee has collected rich speech data from hundreds of Hip Hop artists, and future studies should expand upon the present study.

3. The data were analyzed using Labov's principle of accountability (1969). Each count of the copula was listed in this format: preceding phonological environment, [End Page 301] preceding grammatical environment, preceding environment, copula slot, following environment, following grammatical environment, and following phonological environment. I have listed the phonetic transcription of the preceding and following phonetic environment. This is relevant to Walker's (2000) work on prosodic conditioning of the copula in AAL, and to Rickford, Sweetland, and Hsu's (2000) response paper. Table 4 is a sample. All possible combinations of the four categories preceding phonological environment, preceding grammatical environment, following grammatical environment, and following phonological environment were listed, and the data were tallied for each environment. This present study, however, is primarily concerned with the frequency of copula absence.

Table 4.
Sample Data
Preceding Preceding Preceding Copula Following Following Following
Phono. Env. Gram. Env. Env. Slot Env. Gram. Env. Phono. Env.
C /s_ / N   business is business N         C /_b/
V /u_/ Pro you     Ø gon        gon     C /_g/
V /i_ / Pro we     Ø family    N         C/_f/
V /i_ / Pro we     Ø chasin    V + -ing C /_t∫/
V /i_ / Pro he     Ø cool     Adj      C /_k/
V /I_/ Pro he     's livin     V + -ing C /_l/


Alim, H. Samy. Forthcoming. "Hip Hop Nation Language." In Language in the USA, ed. Edward Finegan and John Rickford. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
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pp. 288-304
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Archived 2005
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