What is AAVE?

AAVE is an acronym for African American Vernacular English. Other terms for it in academia are African American Varieties of English, African American English (AAE), Black English (BE) and Black English Vernacular (BEV). [EDIT: since I wrote this post in 2014, a new term has gained a lot of traction with academics: African American Language (AAL), as in the Oxford Handbook of African American Language edited by Sonja Lanehart (2015), or the Corpus of Regional African American Language (CORAAL). I now use either AAE or AAL exclusively, unless I’m specifically talking about an informal, vernacular variety, however “AAVE” has gained traction in social media just as AAL replaced it among academics]

In popular culture, it is largely misunderstood, and thought of as "bad English," "ebonics" (originally coined in 1973 by someone with good intentions, from "ebony" and "phonics," but now starting to become a slur), "ghetto talk" (definitely a slur), and the "blaccent" (a portmanteau word of "black" and "accent") that NPR seems to like using.

Why do I say it's misunderstood? Because it is emphatically not bad English. It is a full-fledged dialect of English, just like, say, British English. It is entirely rule-bound -- meaning it has a very clear grammar which can be (and has been) described in great detail. It is not simply 'ungrammatical'. If you do not conform to the grammar of AAVE, the result is ungrammatical sentences in AAVE.

That said, its grammar is different than many other dialects of English. In fact, it can do some really cool things that other varieties of English cannot. Without further ado, here's a quick run-down of what it is, what it do, and where it be:

Where does it come from?

AAVE was born in the American South, and shares many features with Southern American English. However, it was born out of the horrifically ugly history of slavery in the United States. Black Americans, by and large, did not voluntarily move to North America with like-minded people of a shared language and cultural background, as happened with waves of British, Irish, Italian, German, Swedish, Dutch, &c. &c. immigrants. Rather, people from different cultures and language cultures were torn from their homelands and sold into chattel slavery. Slaves in the US were systematically segregated from speakers of their own languages, lest they band together with other speakers of, say, Wolof (a West African language), and violently seize freedom.

There are two competing hypotheses about the linguistic origins of AAVE, neither of which will linguists ever be likely to fully prove, because the history of the US has completely obscured the origins of the dialect. Because of historical racism, we're left with hypotheses instead of documentation.

The two hypotheses are the Creole Origin Hypothesis, and the Dialect Divergence Hypothesis. Both are politically charged (linguists are people too...). The first is that contact between English speakers and among speakers of other languages led to the formation of a Creole language with an English superstrate but strong pan-African grammatical influences -- meaning lots and lots of English words, but still a distinct language from English. Another example of such a language is Bislama. The second hypothesis is that it is basically a sister dialect of Southern American English which started to diverge in the 1700s and 1800s.

How is it different?

AAVE has a number of super cool grammatical features that non-speakers tend to mistake for 'bad grammar' or 'lazy grammar'. Here is a - by no means exhaustive - list of the key differences between it and the useful hypothetical construct "General American" (GA -- basically, how newscasters speak):

  1. Deletion of verbal copula (not as dirty as it sounds). This means that in some contexts, the word "is/are" can be left out. If you think this is "lazy grammar," speakers of Russian, Arabic, and Mandarin would like to have a word with you. example. "he workin'."

  2. A habitual aspect marker (known as habitual be, or invariant be). Aspect refers to whether an action is completed or on-going. Habitual aspect means that a person regularly/often/usually does a thing, but does not give any indication of whether they are currently in the process of doing that thing. example: "he be workin'" (meaning: he is usually working.)

  3. A remote present perfect marker (stressed been). This communicates that not only is something the case, and not only is it completed (ie. perfective aspect), but it has been for a long time. example: "he been got a job." meaning: he got a job a long time ago.

  4. Negative concord. This means that negation has to all "match." If you've ever studied French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, or any of a whole slew of other languages, you've seen this. It is often stigmatized in English ("don't use double negatives!"), but is totally normal in many, many languages and in many varieties of English. example: He ain't never without a job! Can't nobody say he don't work.

  5. It for the dummy expletive there. What's a dummy expletive? It's that word that's necessary to say things when there isn't really an agent doing the thing in question -- like in "it's raining." Some languages can just say "raining," and be done with it. English is not one of them. In contexts where speakers of other dialects might say there, some AAVE speakers say it. example: "it's a man at the door here to see you." More famous example "Oh, Lord Jesus, It's a fire."

  6. Preterite had. This refers to grammatical constructions that in other dialects do not use had, but use the simple past. It's usually used in narrative. example: "he had went to work and then he had called his client." meaning: he went to work and then he called his client.

  7. Some varieties have 'semantic bleaching' of words that are considered obscenities in other dialects - this is where a word loses shades of meaning over time. Here's a famous example.

There are quite a few other cool grammatical features and quirks, but these are among the major innovations (yes, innovations). There's also tons of lexical variation (read: different words).

Sounds cool, what's the big deal?

Basically, racism and linguistic prejudice. We have a long cultural history of assuming that whatever black people in America do is defective. Couple this with what seems to be a natural predilection toward thinking that however other people talk is wrong, and you've got a recipe for social and linguistic stigma. For instance, in 1996 the Oakland school board took the sensible step of trying to use AAVE as a bridge to teach AAVE-speaking children how to speak and write Standard American English. They also took the less sensible step of declaring AAVE a completely different language. This was wildly misrepresented in the media, leading to a storm of racist, self-congratulatory "ain't ain't a word" pedantry from both white people and older middle-class black people who do not speak the dialect. (author's note: ain't been a word...for over 300 years.)

The use of ebonics  as a derisive slur comes out of this national media shitstorm. Literally nobody even wanted to teach AAVE, they simply wanted to use the native dialect of pre-literate children as a bridge to teach the standard dialect and to teach reading and writing. Like this program, Academic English Mastery, in Watts. How awesome was that?! Instead, it was portrayed as marxist nutjobs trying to force anarchist anti-grammar on helpless (white) American children instead of teaching them standard English.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with AAVE, but it is stigmatized for social and historical reasons, related to race, socioeconomic class, and prestige.

Who speaks it?

In general, black Americans, however there are exceptions to every part of this. Not all black Americans speak it (eg. Bill Cosby, who displays his ignorance of dialect variation often, and with gusto). Some black non-Americans speak it (eg. Drake, who speaks it professionally, and is Canadian). Not all people who speak it are black (eg. the author, Eminem, that white guy in the movie Barbershop).

In general, it can be assumed that non-black Americans probably don't speak or understand it. You can't necessarily assume, however, that a given black American does speak it. I recently tried to do the math to get a rough idea of how many people speak it, and came up with something like 30 million people, plus or minus about 10 million. I did this by looking at census data, linguistics papers that make estimates about how many black folk do speak it (ie., Rickford 1999), and guesses about how many non-black AAVE speakers might exist. So I basically pulled it out of ... a hat. (note to self: this would make a good research topic. Note to other academics: I called dibs!). Many people who do speak it are extremely adept at code-switching: in the popular imagination, that's deftly switching between dialects or registers as the social situation calls for.

As an aside, one common trope used by those against its recognition as a dialect is "no academic could ever teach a class or publish in it." The argument being that linguists are hypocritical for claiming it is a legitimate dialect, since they could never actually publish in it. This would be simply misguided if it weren't for the fact that linguists like Geneva Smitherman have published articles in AAVE.

Is it spoken the same everywhere?

Yes and no. Certain grammatical features seem to be universally used in AAVE, however there is regional variation in pronunciation. More on this in another post.

Closing thoughts

AAVE is a dialect of English like any other, but suffers extreme stigma due to the history of race in America. It has a systematic, coherent, rule-bound grammar. It has some super cool grammatical features that allow it to communicate complex ideas in fewer words than other dialects of English. While the rise of hip-hop and some reintegration of our cities has exposed more of the mainstream to some varieties of AAVE, it is still, unfortunately, highly stigmatized. Regarding those who still think it is somehow not valid, Oscar Gamble said it best: They don't think it be like it is, but it do.



©Taylor Jones 2014

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