African-American Vernacular English

African-American Vernacular English

Breanna Reynolds, Writer and Head Political Contributor

 

Some of you may or may not have heard of “AAVE” or “African-American Vernacular English.” Maybe if you use edgier language you’ve heard of a “blaccent.” These are all names that refer to the dialect of English that developed in the Black American community through slavery and segregation. It’s often inaccurately referred to as just being bad English, “ghetto talk,” or most recently as kpop/twitter slang, but it’s recognized as another form of the language, similar to what American English is to British English. 

Slang like “diss,” “lit,” “on fleak,” “ratchet,” “throwing shade,” “woke,” and “dope” are all examples of words adapted from AAVE but the language isn’t defined by the slang. AAVE has its own grammar.

Let’s take the very popular phrase “It do be like that sometimes,” which would be “It is like that sometimes” in SE (Standard English). We can see that the “be” is used instead of “is,” that’s a common pattern. The words “is” and “are” are often left out with the exception of when they’re at the end of a sentence. 

“You a funny dude.” 

“They kinda crazy.” 

“She over there.”

The use of “be” is habitual, meaning it’s used when something’s being done continuously. “We be out here day after day” means that they’ve been out there while “We out here” just means that they are there in the moment. This is just one of many examples of how AAVE has its own rules and correct way of speaking. 

The most popular theory of how the dialect developed is that when Africans were brought over from Africa not knowing English. They had to learn from indentured servants who were poor and didn’t speak the “proper” English that those higher up in the social ladder would. So, this lower class English developed into its own dialect over time. It’s also been theorized that it developed with the help of Creole language from the enslaved brought over from the Caribbean, Creole itself being a mix of languages from Africa and the European ones used by the slavers. Though Creole is further away from the standard language, it’s mixed with then AAVE is from SE. 

To state the obvious, not every Black person in America speaks AAVE, and not every person who speaks AAVE is black. How much and what kind of AAVE is spoken depends on the region the person speaking it is from. 

What inspired me to write this article is that, in some circles, there seems to be a bit of controversy around the concept of AAVE which has confused me greatly. The controversy stems from Ebonics, which is sometimes still used to refer to AAVE. Ebonics was the original term used in reference to the different way African Americans were seen as speaking. The word itself is a mix of “Ebony” and “Phonics,” it was created by Black scholars in 1973 who didn’t like the negative connotations that surrounded the term originally created in the 60’s, “Nonstandard Negro English.” 

Ebonics isn’t considered racist because it acknowledged a difference in speech, it’s considered racist because of the school board that tried to shame black students for speaking their own dialect and tried to use race science for extra federal funding.”

The term only became controversial in 1996 when a school in Oakland, California defined it as the “primary language” of Black Americans and decided to try to get a bigger budget to ‘teach’ them standard English as they found it to be the biggest reason for the performance difference between black and white students. Keep in mind that this was only 4 years after the LA riots so racial tensions were already high in the state. Not only was the classification of Ebonics as a language factually incorrect, but in the original declaration they claimed that certain languages that evolved from African languages were genetically easier for Black students to speak. To top it off, they would’ve been teaching standard English in a way that would encourage shame in students who spoke Ebonics. 

Ebonics isn’t considered racist because it acknowledged a difference in speech. It’s considered racist because of the school board that tried to shame black students for speaking their own dialect and tried to use race science for extra federal funding. Some people still want the word Ebonics to be used but because of the controversy caused by the Oakland school board most have simply started using the acronym AAVE. 

Rejecting AAVE because of a racist history in the linguistic field wouldn’t be reasonable. Freud is considered to be one of the fathers of psychoanalysis, but if you were to do most of the things that he did you wouldn’t be taken seriously. Almost everything Freud did has been discredited, but he’s still taught about because he was an important stepping stone. Almost every academic field has some sort of racist past and even though it’s an unfortunate thing we have to deal with, that doesn’t mean we can throw out every concept that was tainted by it in the past.

When it comes to communication problems stemming from dialects, there is a non-shame centered way of addressing it. “Code switching” is a term used to describe switching between languages or variants of a language in different settings. There’s plenty of people who use AAVE with friends and family but use SE during work. We’re not the only language that has things like this. In Arabic, the dialects vary so much that if you were to take a native Arabic speaker from Egypt and have them to talk to a native Arabic speaker from Morocco they probably wouldn’t be able to understand each other. To solve this issue there is a standard form of Arabic taught in schools that can be switched with the native dialects when talking to someone from a different region. 

The language differences in our own country are interesting and seeing how they interact with each other is a common topic among professional linguistics. The biggest take away I want people to take from this article is that people who speak in a different dialect from you aren’t uneducated. People raised in Upstate New York speak in a Northern Inland accent which is standard American English so we’ll never have to learn how to code switch. This makes it easy for us to overlook what others may have to do to be seen as acceptable to certain aspects of society. 

 

Sources

AAVE – African American Vernacular English. 2020. YouTube, www.youtube.com/

     watch?v=UZpCdI6ZKU4. 

“Hooked on Ebonics: the controversy that swirls around this ‘language.'” The

     Black Youth Project, 5 Apr. 2012, blackyouthproject.com/

     hooked-on-ebonics-the-controversy-that-swirls-around-this-language/. 

Rickford, John R. “What is Ebonics (African American English)?” Linguistic

     Society of America, www.linguisticsociety.org/content/

     what-ebonics-african-american-english.