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The Meaning of “we been knew” Demystified

The Meaning of “we been knew” Demystified

For some people, grammar is a rigid structure that does not change over time.

They believe that it consists of a set of logical rules that are as constant as the rules of maths and physics, and these tend to be the same people who are easily offended by any grammatical infraction, believing that it presents a perversion of the language. 

However, grammar isn’t rigid, and it isn’t constant over time. If anything, grammar is just a set of agreed-upon rules that change with time.

Therefore, what is grammatically correct today isn’t necessarily what was grammatically correct 200 years ago. What is grammatically correct today is what we as a society agree is correct.

What’s more, different sub-communities within a particular society are liable to develop their own unique grammatical rules that are distinct from those of the rest of the community, and we can’t call these different rules wrong.

They are legitimate within the sub-community in question and should be treated as such.

One clear case where a sub-community developed their own distinctive grammatical rules and linguistic style can be seen in how the African American community in the United States speak and converse with one another.

They have a unique form of English, dubbed as Ebonics by some linguistic scholars, and this English tends to have a few grammatical rules that would baffle anyone foreign to that community.

Nevertheless, there is no reason to consider “Ebonics” ungrammatical.

To see what I’m talking about in action, let’s look at a single phrase and dissect it thoroughly.

Let’s look at “we been knew.”

What is the meaning of “we been knew”?

“We been knew” means that “we already knew something” or that “something was really obvious from the outset.” It can also be another way of saying “duh” or “I told you so.”

Here is a sample conversation to show you the expression in action.

Person #1: I was really surprised to learn that they were back together.
Person #2: You were surprised? We been knew the entire time that they would get back together.


A closer look at the expression “we been knew”

If you are unfamiliar with Ebonics, this expression must strike you as odd. After all, if we break it down, there are several issues that we would consider as grammatical infractions by non-Ebonics standards.

“We been knew” consists of three words. You have the pronoun “we” that acts as the subject of the expression.

Then, you have “been,” which is the past participle of the verb “to be.” Finally, there is “knew,” the past simple form of the verb “to know.”

Now, the first “grammatical issue” is that any past participle is usually preceded by an auxiliary verb. For instance, you say, “I have been to the Supermarket” rather than “I been to the supermarket.”

However, there is no auxiliary verb that precedes “been.”

In fact, an argument could be made that “been” here is the auxiliary verb leading up to the verb “know.”

The second “grammatical issue” is that “knew” is hard to grapple with.

On the one hand, if you want “knew” to remain in the past simple tense, you don’t need the verb “been” in the first place and can get by without it.

After all, “we knew” is a perfectly fine sentence.

On the other hand, if you want “know” to be preceded by an auxiliary verb, then you need to place it in the past participle tense. You can either say, “we have known” or “it was known.”

Yet, when all is said and done, not only is “we been knew” a valid statement, but it also adheres to grammatical rules that make it comprehensible to African Americans.


How to use “we been knew”

This expression requires no inflection. And, it actually never uses the auxiliary verb “have” seeing as it is not in any perfect tense, despite the usage of the past participle.

But, to truly understand it, we need to understand how Ebonics makes use of “been.”

”Been” in Ebonics, also known as the stressed BIN

In Ebonics, “Been” is pronounced as BIN, which explains why it is dubbed as stressed BIN.

“Been” is also used to show that something either happened a long while ago, “we been knew,” or has been happening for a long time, “we been studying.”

Here are another few examples with “been.”

I been started the project.

The above sentence means that the speaker has started working on the project a long time ago.

I been doing business with them.

Here, the speaker is letting us know that he has been doing business with a group of people for a long while and is still in business with them.

Person #1: Is he at the factory?

Person #2: Yea, he been at the factory.

In this third example, we are told that the person in question is currently at the factory and has been for a while.

The difference between Ebonics “been” and Standard American English “been”

While the two may seem quite similar, Ebonics “been” and Standard American English “been” are not always interchangeable.

For instance, in the last example mentioned above, we could rewrite it as follows.

Person #1: Is he at the factory?

Person #2: Yea, he’s been at the factory.

The simple addition of the auxiliary verb “has” turned the above example from African American English to Standard American English.

However, in the following examples, there is no easy way to substitute one “been” for another.

I been got the lesson.

The subject is letting us know that they had learned the lesson a while back.

However, we can’t turn this sentence into Standard American English without morphing it a little. We can’t say the following.

I have been gotten the lesson.

I have been understood the lesson.

To make it comprehensible in Standard American English, we have to remove “been.”

I have gotten the lesson.

I have understood the lesson.

So, how does Ebonics “been” work?

Ebonics “been,” which we will refer now to as just “been” to make life easier, is considered as an obligatory stressed remote perfect marker according to Harris (2013).


”Been” can be used with nouns

Dayton (1996) classifies “been” as a remote stative, which means that it is a verb that shows a state of being rather than a specific action.

He been a baller.

The above sentence is telling us that the subject is currently a basket player and has been so for a while.


”Been” can be used with verbs

“Been” can be followed by different types of verbs.

If it is followed by the progressive form of the verb, then this shows that the action that started in the past is still going on now.

We been reading in the library.

This means that we have been reading in the library for a while and are still doing so.

If “been” is followed by the perfect form of the verb, then this indicates that the action was done a long time ago in the past.

We been heard the news.

The example here is saying that we heard the news a while back.

Now, you might be asking yourself, “what about “we been knew””?

Well, you see, in African American English, both the past tense form of the verb and the perfect tense form of the same verb tend to be one and the same.

Ergo, what we consider as the past tense form in Standard American English is considered both the past and past perfect form in Ebonics.

The Meaning of We Been Knew