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For example, In the lyrics of the "Pumped Up Kicks" song you can see this:

"He be coming home late, he is coming home late"

I assume that "he be coming home late" has the same meaning as "He comes home late", meaning that this is what normally happens?

Or is it just the same as "he is coming home late", which means his coming home late at the moment of saying that?

15

He be coming home late is a dialectical phrasing that means, as you surmise, he [habitually] comes home late. It is associated especially with African-American English and Caribbean English.

Linguists call this the invariant be or habitual be. Be is not simply a replacement for is; he be coming home late means he customarily or regularly comes home late, and not that he is currently in the process of coming home late. Some discussion of this in layman's terms can be found in the Slate article Why We Be Loving the “Habitual Be” by Katy Waldman, at the Lexicon Valley blog.

The meaning of lyrics is highly subject to interpretation. As Mark Foster is not a native speaker of African-American English (so far as I know), the lyric may be intended to paint a certain image of the narrator or setting, but it might simply have been an artistic choice for sonorous qualities aside from any cultural connotations. It's also impossible to know whether he is aware of the natural use of the habitual be or, as many do, he thinks he can drop it in anywhere to replace is, or if "Robert" thinks so.

Using dialects of minority communities is always fraught for an outsider, so I would advise the average English learner to stick with more standard English (e.g. he "always" comes home late).

  • 2
    I think it's more commonly called African American Vernacular English these days. – ColleenV Sep 27 '18 at 20:20
  • @ColleenV Ah, but not all AAE is AAVE from what I understand. I am not a linguist, however, and have no desire to get into the politics of classifying languages and dialects. – choster Sep 27 '18 at 20:23
  • Yeah and it's one usage in all of the lyrics - AAVE has a lot of similarity to rural Southern dialects as well, so who's to say where this stray "be" came from. The songwriter has admitted hip-hop influencing him though. – ColleenV Sep 27 '18 at 20:27
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"He be coming home late" is an example of AAVE, not standard English. It means "he is coming home late" or more recently "he comes home late (regularly)."

Though the musicians in question all appear to have white, middle class backgrounds, they are emulating speech patterns found in certain American ghettos, probably because these patterns are also common in certain musical styles.

  • 3
    It is certainly dialectal, and in the context of the song I would guess it is AAVE, but my comment is that that use of 'be' is by no means confined to AAVE but occurs in many dialects, such as, for example, that of rural Wiltshire in the south of England. In George Bernard Shaw's play "St Joan", Joan says "Where be Dauphin?" with the playwright presumably using a dialectal form of English to make the point that Joan was just a peasant girl (in reality a French-speaking peasant girl). – JeremyC Sep 27 '18 at 21:59
  • @JeremyC, not to mention Piratespeak. [Warning: TV Tropes link.] – Harry Johnston Sep 28 '18 at 9:16
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    @HarryJohnston Despite the superficial similarity, that's actually a different use of be, both in terms of grammar and meaning. – snailboat Sep 30 '18 at 11:16

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