Invariant 'Be' in Grammar and Rhetoric

Mos Def during Voodoo Music Experience 2003 - Day Two at City Park in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States.

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A verb form characteristic of African American vernacular English that is used to indicate a habitual and repeatable action. The term derives from the fact that the verb does not change its form to reflect past or present tense or to agree with the subject. This is also known as aspectual "be," habitual "be," and durative "be."

General Examples

"'You don't get tired o' Momma beatin' you?' Jerry asked him one day.
"'She don't really be mad,' Enoch explained lovingly. 'Dat's jes what she suppose to do. Sometime she be laughin' as she be beatin' me.'" (Daniel Black, "The Sacred Place." St. Martin's Press, 2007)

"When I get down in my zone
I be rockin Bad Brains and Fishbone.
I ain't tryin to slow your groove
But that ain't the way I'm tryin to move.
I don't turn on Korn to get it on;
I be playin Jimi Hendrix 'til the dawn."
(Mos Def, "Rock n Roll." "Black on Both Sides," 1999)

Using Invariant 'Be' in Context

"Aspectual be must always occur overtly in contexts in which it is used, and it does not occur in any other (inflected) form (such as is, am, are, etc.); it is always be. Thus the marker is referred to as invariant. It has one form, and that form always occurs overtly; it does not vary in forms or shapes. Aspectual be indicates that eventualities recur, happen from time to time or habitually (Green 2000, 2002). . . . It does not indicate that an eventuality occurred in the past, is occurring now, or will occur in the future, so it is not a tense marker." (Lisa J. Green, "Language and the African American Child." Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011)

Indicating Habitual Action

"In the case of 'He be hollin at us,' the speaker indicates habitual action. The standard English verb system of past, present, and future tenses cannot accommodate this type of construction, while the Black English usage has captured all three tenses simultaneously. The closest standard English equivalent would be: he is always (or constantly) hollering at us; he frequently (or often) hollers at us; or, he sometimes (or occasionally) hollers at us. Other examples of aspectual be collected from taped interviews with the plaintiff children are: When school is out dis time, uhma be going to summer school; They be hitting on peoples; and I like the way he be psyching people out." (Geneva Smitherman, "Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America." Routledge, 2000)

Distinctive Senses of Invariant 'Be'

"The best known syntactic feature unique to Black English is invariant be, so called because it is usually not conjugated (although occasionally forms like 'It bees that way' are heard). For example, a Detroit teenager said,

My father, he work at Ford. He be tired. So he can't never help us with our homework.

He be tired means that the father is usually tired. If the speaker had wished to say that her father was tired now, she could have said, 'He is tired,' 'He's tired,' or 'He tired.' Invariant be can also be used with a present participle to indicate habitual action.

BLACK ENGLISH: They be playing basketball every day.
STANDARD ENGLISH: They play basketball every day.

The invariant be plus present participle contrasts with:

BLACK ENGLISH: They playing basketball right now.
STANDARD ENGLISH: They're playing basketball right now.

In questions, invariant be can be combined with the auxiliary verb do:

BLACK ENGLISH: Do they be playing every day?
STANDARD ENGLISH: Do they play every day?

Lacking invariant be, Standard English uses the simple present tense to express both habitual and present action or state of affairs. Thus, Black English makes a distinction that Standard English cannot make by verb tense alone." (H. D. Adamson, "Language Minority Students in American Schools." Routledge, 2005)

With Stative Verbs

"The use of aspectual be with a stative verb like know is akin to the use of stative verbs in the progressive construction in Standard English as in John is living with his parents. Both cases of each of these types may be viewed as a form of state to event coercion resulting from the use of particular aspectual morphology, and as a result, the subject carries an agentive reading as well.(David Brian Roby, "Aspect and the Categorization of States." John Benjamins, 2009)

An Encounter With the Durative 'Be'

"The next year in eighth grade, on one occasion I stood outside the school building door, waiting for the bell to ring, so I could enter the building after lunch and return to classes.

"'Why you be here?' a Black student asked me, as I looked at him perplexed and afraid, remembering what had happened the year before.

"'I'm sorry, I don't understand,' I answered as I moved a little further away from the door.

"'Why you be here?' He was adamant.

"'I'm waiting for the bell to ring so I can go into the building and go to my class.'

"'No, I mean, why you be here. Every day, you be here. Why you not move to another place?'

"'Uh?' I couldn't understand his dialect, having recently learned standard English.

"'All the time you be here,' he answered.

"'Oh, this is usually where I stand before the bell rings.' My first encounter of the durative 'be' verb, in Afro-English was a rather humorous encounter. Boy, did I have many more dialects to decipher in English." (Ignacio Palacios, "The Eagle and the Serpent: A Bi-Literacy Autobiography." Hamilton Books, 2007)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Invariant 'Be' in Grammar and Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Mar. 14, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, March 14). Invariant 'Be' in Grammar and Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Invariant 'Be' in Grammar and Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 10, 2021).