african american vernacular english

An Easy Digest of African American Vernacular English

What is African American Vernacular English (AAVE)?

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African American Vernacular English, is a dialect of Standard American English which is primarily spoken by the black community of the United States. You’ll commonly hear it in cities across America, and on SoundCloud.

Please note that AAVE is not one finite set of vocabulary and grammar. It encompasses a bunch of sub-sub-sets which can vary from region to region. Eg., New York vs. Chicago.

Some people have referred to African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as Ebonics (short for Ebony Phonetics), Black English Vernacular (BEV), and sometimes those who have no clue that AAVE is even a thing will refer to it as “slang” or “broken English”

AAVE is NOT Broken English

To set the record straight, both linguists and sociolinguists post-1970s have agreed that AAVE is in fact a proper form of English, despite how it may appear and sound. Originally during the boom of linguistics and sociolinguistics, it was referred to as “Nonstandard Negro English”

The difference between a dialect and broken usage of the parent language is consistency. AAVE has consistent grammar, phonetics, and vocabulary making it a d definite dialect. Although for a long period of time it was believed people who spoke this form of English were simply incapable of comprehending and learning normal English, or what we call Standard American English (SAE).

So to set the record straight, it is NOT broken English. However, a lot of music produced in AAVE (rap, drill, hip-hop, etc.) has been turned into slang with people taking parts of AAVE whether it be a portion of grammar, or vocabulary and then mixing it with their primary dialect (usually Standard American English) which can lead to inconsistency.

Where Did AAVE Come From?

So where did AAVE come from in the first place? Yeah… well that’s a good question and historians, and linguists have been debating this for decades. However, there are two main theories surrounding the origins of AAVE.

Dialectologist / Anglicist Hypothesis

This proposes that AAVE is a direct dialect of English. The idea is that African slaves adopted dialects of British English when they arrived to the “New World.” After adopting the local dialect of English (most likely an early form of Southern American English) they split into the dialect we know as African American Vernacular English. This idea has become less and less popular over the years.

The Creolist Hypothesis

Sometime between the 1960’s and 1970’s linguists challenged the Dialectologist Hypothesis stating that AAVE was actually a creole formed between English and other West African languages (Wolof, Igbo, etc.)

A creole is formed when speakers of two different languages can’t effectively communicate in their new local language, so they end up modifying it to communicate ideas more easily. One of the most notable being Haitian Creole.

Once this creole was established, African Americans started to lean in favor of English and left much of their original vocabulary behind, this process is called decreolozation. The process ultimately led AAVE to become a dialect not entirely a creole (although some may completely disagree and assert AAVE to still be a creole).

Why Don’t They Adopt Standard American English?

By “they” I mean speakers of AAVE, however this primarily applies to the black community given that they are the dominant speakers of the variant.

So if a black person is capable of learning “proper” English, specifically Standard American English, why is it that AAVE is the common dialect spoken, especially when it has brought a lot of resentment by the predominantly White American system?

It’s About Identity

To some, this question might sound absurd and almost insulting, but it is a commonly asked question especially in our age of continuous racism. Racism being the belief that one’s race is superior to another.

When it’s all said and done, language reflects identity. It reflects a person’s background, culture, beliefs, and overall identity. The words we use, the way we pronounce them, and the structures we use to create coherent sentences are all reflects of ourselves. To give this up means to surrender our identity.

The belief that Standard American English and or “proper’ English is superior to AAVE stimulates the belief that the White American identity is superior to Black American identity.

This is not only reflected in the way schools ridicule AAVE, but also in the way that employers typically resent black-sounding names.

Should Schools Start Teaching AAVE?

No. At the end of the day, while AAVE is a legitimate subset of English, it is not considered formal speech. At least not at the time of this article (June 19th, 2020.

However, people ought to recognize the validity of this dialect, and not assume racial superiority because one’s tongue is different than yours.

Vocabulary that Came From AAVE

The following are a select handful of words that originated from AAVE.

  • Dig – to understand or appreciate
  • Bad – good or really good
  • Be – used to describe a habitual action
  • Blade – knife
  • Strap – gun, usually a pistol
  • Hood – neighborhood, often where someone grew up
  • Paper – money
  • Whip – car
  • Crib – house, or place of dwelling
  • Feds – federal government

Grammar in AAVE

AAVE has a lot of interesting grammar rules. Arguably, the most notable feature is the use of double negatives. For instance, “he ain’t no op” would mean “he is not a cop” where “no” would NOT cancel our “ain’t”

The proper term for two negatives that don’t cancel each other in linguistics is called a negative concord.

Next, there is the notable deletion of verbal copulas. A verbal copula is simply a connector (word/phrase) that connects the subject and its complement. So in “the world is round” “is” is the copula. However, in AAVE you might hear “the world round” where the copula “is” is omitted.

The last obvious grammar feature is the omission of subject-verb agreement. For instance, in SAE we would say “The car doesn’t look nice” but in AAVE you would say “The car don’t look nice” where the car (subject) doesn’t cooperate with the “proper” usage of does not (doesn’t).


Here are the links to the material utilized in the making of both this blog and the video.

PBS Link

Stanford Link to Creole Origins

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