African American Vernacular English

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This article is about the variety of American English known as "Black English". For the fictional Middle Earth language, see Black Speech. For the minority group in Britain, see Black British.
African American Vernacular English
African American English
Region United States
Ethnicity African Americans
Latin (English alphabet)
American Braille
Language codes
ISO 639-3

African American Vernacular English (AAVE)—also called African American English (AAE); less precisely Black English, Black Vernacular, Black English Vernacular (BEV), or Black Vernacular English (BVE)—is a variety (dialect, ethnolect and sociolect) of American English, spoken by urban working-class African Americans and largely bi-dialectal middle-class African Americans.[1] It is sometimes colloquially referred to as Ebonics, a term avoided by linguists due to its other meanings and connotations.[2]

It shares a large portion of its grammar and phonology with the rural dialects of the Southern United States,[3] and especially older Southern American English.[4] Several creolists, including William Stewart, John Dillard and John Rickford, argue that AAVE shares enough characteristics with African Creole languages spoken around the world that AAVE itself may be an English-based creole language separate from English;[5][6] however, mainstream linguists maintain that there are no significant parallels,[7][8][9] and that AAVE is, in fact, a demonstrable variety of the English language,[10][11] having features that can be traced back mostly to the nonstandard British English of early settlers in the Southern United States.[12]

As with all linguistic forms, its usage is influenced by age, status, topic and setting. There are many literary uses of AAVE, particularly in African-American literature.


AAVE shares several characteristics with Creole English language-forms spoken by people throughout much of the world. AAVE has pronunciation, grammatical structures, and vocabulary in common with various West African languages.[13]

Many features of AAVE are shared with English dialects spoken in the American South. While these are mostly regionalisms (i.e. originating from the dialect commonly spoken in the area, regardless of the speaker's color), a number of them—such as the deletion of is—are used much more frequently by black speakers, suggesting that they have their origins in black speech.[14] The traits of AAVE that distinguish it from the General American accent and other American English dialects include the following:

  • phonological aspects found in creoles and dialects of other populations of West African descent and that also emerge in English dialects that may be uninfluenced by West African languages, such as Newfoundland English
  • distinctive vocabulary
  • distinctive use of verb tense and aspect
  • the use of double negative (negative concord)

Early AAVE contributed a number of African-originated words to the American English mainstream, including gumbo,[15] goober,[16] yam, and banjo. AAVE has also contributed slang expressions such as cool and hip.[17]

Misconceptions about AAVE are, and have long been, common, and have stigmatized its use. One myth is that AAVE is grammatically simple or sloppy. Another is that AAVE is the native dialect (or even more inaccurately, a linguistic fad) employed by all African Americans. Wheeler (1999) warns that "AAVE should not be thought of as the language of Black people in America. Many African Americans neither speak it nor know much about it."[18]


While it is clear that there is a strong relationship between AAVE and Southern U.S. dialects, the unique characteristics of AAVE are not fully understood and its origins are still a matter of debate.

One theory is that AAVE arose from one or more slave creoles that arose from the trans-Atlantic African slave trade and the need for African captives to communicate among themselves and with their captors.[19] According to this theory, these captives developed what are called pidgins, simplified mixtures of two or more languages. As pidgins form from close contact between members of different language communities, the slave trade would have been exactly such a situation. Dillard quotes slave ship Captain William Smith:[20]

As for the languages of Gambia, they are so many and so different, that the Natives, on either Side of the River, cannot understand each other.... [T]he safest Way is to trade with the different Nations, on either Side of the River, and having some of every Sort on board, there will be no more Likelihood of their succeeding in a Plot, than of finishing the Tower of Babel.

By 1715, this African pidgin had made its way into novels by Daniel Defoe, in particular, The Life of Colonel Jacque. In 1721, Cotton Mather conducted the first attempt at recording the speech of slaves in his interviews regarding the practice of smallpox inoculation.[21]

By the time of the American Revolution, varieties among slave creoles were not quite mutually intelligible. Dillard quotes a recollection of "slave language" toward the latter part of the 18th century:[20]

Kay, massa, you just leave me, me sit here, great fish jump up into da canoe, here he be, massa, fine fish, massa; me den very grad; den me sit very still, until another great fish jump into de canoe; but me fall asleep, massa, and no wake 'til you come...

Not until the time of the American Civil War did the language of the slaves become familiar to a large number of educated whites. The abolitionist papers before the war form a rich corpus of examples of plantation creole. In Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870), Thomas Wentworth Higginson detailed many features of his soldiers' language.

In the early 2000s, Shana Poplack provided corpus-based evidence[8][9]—evidence from a body of writing—from isolated enclaves in Samaná and Nova Scotia peopled by descendants of migrations of early AAVE-speaking groups (see Samaná English), that suggests that the grammar of early AAVE was closer to that of contemporary British dialects than modern urban AAVE is to current American dialects, suggesting that the modern language is a result of divergence from mainstream varieties, rather than the result of decreolization from a widespread American creole.[22]

Linguist John McWhorter maintains that the contribution of West African languages to AAVE is minimal. In an interview on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, Dr. McWhorter characterized AAVE as a "hybrid of regional dialects of Great Britain that slaves in America were exposed to because they often worked alongside the indentured servants who spoke those dialects..." According to Dr. McWhorter, virtually all linguists who have carefully studied the origins of AAVE "agree that the West African connection is quite minor."[23]

Distinctive features

Although the distinction between AAVE and General American accents is clear to speakers, some characteristics, notably double negatives and the omission of certain auxiliaries (see below) such as the has in has been are also characteristic of general colloquial American English.[citation needed] There is near uniformity of AAVE grammar, despite its vast geographic spread.[24] This may be due in part to relatively recent migrations of African Americans out of the American South (see Great Migration and Second Great Migration) as well as to long-term racial segregation.[25]


Phonological (or pronunciation) features that may set AAVE apart from other forms of American English (particularly, General American) include:

  • Word-final devoicing of /b/, /d/, and /ɡ/, whereby, for example, cub sounds similar to cup,[27] though these words may retain the longer vowel pronunciations that typically precede voiced consonants.[28]
  • Reduction of certain diphthong forms to monophthongs, in particular, /aɪ/ is monophthongized to [aː] except before voiceless consonants (this is also found in many Southern dialects). The vowel sound in boil (/ɔɪ/ in General American) is also monophthongized, especially before /l/, making it indistinguishable from ball.[29] Conversely, older speakers in some regions (such as the American South) may even use [oɪ] in words like coach and road that have [oʊ] in General American (i.e. [koɪtʃ], [roɪd]).[30]
  • AAVE speakers may not use the fricatives [θ] (the th in thin) and [ð] (the th of then) that are present in standard varieties of English. The actual alternative phone used depends on the sound's position in a word.[31]
    • Word-initially, /θ/ is normally the same as in other English dialects (so thin is [θɪn]); in other situations, it may move forward in the mouth, going from dental (with the tongue near the top teeth) to labiodental (with the lower lip near the top teeth).
    • Word-initially, /ð/ is [ð~d] (so this may be [dɪs]). In other situations, /ð/ may move forward in the mouth, much like the aforementioned behavior of /θ/.
  • Realization of final ng /ŋ/, the velar nasal, as the alveolar nasal [n] in function morphemes and content morphemes with two or more syllables like -ing, e.g. tripping is pronounced as trippin. This change does not occur in one-syllable content morphemes such as sing, which is [sɪŋ] and not *[sɪn]. However, singing is [sɪŋɪn]. Other examples include wedding[wɛɾɪn], morning[mɔɹnɪn], nothing[ˈnʌfɪn]. Realization of /ŋ/ as [n] in these contexts is commonly found in many other English dialects.[32]
  • A marked feature of AAVE is final consonant cluster reduction. There are several phenomena that are similar but are governed by different grammatical rules. This tendency has been used by creolists to compare AAVE to West African languages since such languages do not have final clusters.[33]
    • Final consonant clusters that are homorganic (have the same place of articulation) and share the same voicing are reduced. E.g. test is pronounced [tɛs] since /t/ and /s/ are both voiceless; hand is pronounced [hæn], since /n/ and /d/ are both voiced; but pant is unchanged, as it contains both a voiced and a voiceless consonant in the cluster.[34] Note also that it is the plosive (/t/ and /d/) in these examples that is lost rather than the fricative or nasal. Speakers may carry this declustered pronunciation when pluralizing so that the plural of test is [tɛsəs] rather than [tɛsts].[35] The clusters /ft/, /md/, are also affected.[36]
    • More often, word-final /sp/, /st/, and /sk/ are reduced, again with the final element being deleted rather than the former.[37]
    • For younger speakers, /skr/ also occurs in words that other varieties of English have /str/ so that, for example, street is pronounced [skrit].[30]
    • Clusters ending in /s/ or /z/ exhibit variation in whether the first or second element is deleted.[38]
  • Similarly, final consonants may be deleted (although there is a great deal of variation between speakers in this regard). Most often, /t/ and /d/ are deleted. As with other dialects of English, final /t/ and /k/ may reduce to a glottal stop. Nasal consonants may be lost while nasalization of the vowel is retained (e.g., find may be pronounced [fãː]). More rarely, /s/ and /z/ may also be deleted.[39]
  • Use of metathesized forms like aks for "ask"[40] or graps for "grasp".
  • General non-rhotic behavior, in which the rhotic consonant /r/ is typically dropped when not followed by a vowel; it may also manifest as an unstressed [ə] or the lengthening of the preceding vowel.[41] Intervocalic /r/ may also be dropped, e.g. General American story ([stɔri]) can be pronounced [stɔ.i], though this doesn't occur across morpheme boundaries.[42] /r/ may also be deleted between a consonant and a back rounded vowel, especially in words like throw, throat, and through.[43]
  • /l/ is often vocalized in patterns similar to that of /r/ (though never between vowels)[44] and, in combination with cluster simplification (see above), can make homophones of toll and toe, fault and fought, and tool and too. Homonymy may be reduced by vowel lengthening and by an off-glide [ɤ].[45]
  • Before nasal consonants (/m/, /n/, and /ŋ/), /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ are both pronounced [ɪ], making pen and pin homophones.[29] This is also present in other dialects.
  • The distinction between /ɪ/ and /iː/ before liquid consonants is frequently reduced, making feel and fill homophones. /ʊər/ and /ɔər/ also merge, making poor and pour homophones.[29]
  • In addition to these, there are a handful of multisyllabic words that differ from General American in their stress placement so that, for example, police, guitar and Detroit are pronounced with initial stress instead of ultimate stress.[46]

Tense and aspect

Although AAVE does not necessarily have the preterite marker of other English varieties (that is, the -ed of worked), it does have an optional tense system with four past and two future tenses or (because they indicate tense in degrees) phases.[47]

Phases/Tenses of AAVE[48]
Phase Example
Past Pre-recent I been bought it
Recent I done buy ita
Pre-present I did buy it
Past Inceptive I do buy it
Present I be buying it
Future Immediate I'm a-buy it
Post-immediate I'm a-gonna buy it
Indefinite future I gonna buy it

^a Syntactically, I bought it is grammatical, but done (always unstressed) is used to emphasize the completed nature of the action.[49]

As phase auxiliary verbs, been and done must occur as the first auxiliary; when they occur as the second, they carry additional aspects:[48]

He been done work means "he finished work a long time ago".
He done been work means "until recently, he worked over a long period of time".

The latter example shows one of the most distinctive features of AAVE: the use of be to indicate that performance of the verb is of a habitual nature. In most other American English dialects, this can only be expressed unambiguously by using adverbs such as usually.[50]

This aspect-marking form of been or BIN[51] is stressed and semantically distinct from the unstressed form: She BIN running ('She has been running for a long time') and She been running ('She has been running').[52] This aspect has been given several names, including perfect phase, remote past, and remote phase (this article uses the third).[53] As shown above, been places action in the distant past. However, when been is used with stative verbs or gerund forms, been shows that the action began in the distant past and that it is continuing now. Rickford (1999) suggests that a better translation when used with stative verbs is "for a long time". For instance, in response to "I like your new dress", one might hear Oh, I been had this dress, meaning that the speaker has had the dress for a long time and that it isn't new.[53]

To see the difference between the simple past and the gerund when used with been, consider the following expressions:

I been bought her clothes means "I bought her clothes a long time ago".
I been buying her clothes means "I've been buying her clothes for a long time".
AAVE grammatical aspects
Aspect Example Standard English meaning
Habitual/continuative aspect[54] He be working Tuesdays. He works frequently (or habitually) on Tuesdays.
Intensified continuative (habitual) He stay working. He is always working.
Intensified continuative (not habitual)[55] He steady working. He keeps on working.
Perfect progressive He been working. He has been working.
Irrealis He finna go to work. He is about to go to work.a
  • ^a Finna corresponds to "fixing to" in other varieties.[56] it is also written fixina, fixna, fitna, and finta[57]

In addition to these, come (which may or may not be an auxiliary[58]) may be used to indicate speaker indignation, such as in Don't come acting like you don't know what happened and you started the whole thing ('Don't try to act as if you don't know what happened, because you started the whole thing').[59]


Negatives are formed differently from most other varieties of English:[60]

  • Use of ain't as a general negative indicator. As in other dialects, it can be used where most other dialects would use am not, isn't, aren't, haven't and hasn't. However, in marked contrast to other varieties of English in the U.S., some speakers of AAVE also use ain't instead of don't, doesn't, or didn't (e.g., I ain't know that).[61] Ain't had its origins in common English, but became increasingly stigmatized since the 19th century. See also amn't.
  • Negative concord, popularly called "double negation", as in I didn't go nowhere; if the sentence is negative, all negatable forms are negated. This contrasts with standard written English conventions, which have traditionally prescribed that a double negative is considered incorrect to mean anything other than a positive (although this wasn't always so; see double negative).
  • In a negative construction, an indefinite pronoun such as nobody or nothing can be inverted with the negative verb particle for emphasis (e.g. Don't nobody know the answer, Ain't nothing going on.)

While AAVE shares these with Creole languages,[62] Howe & Walker (2000) use data from early recordings of African Nova Scotian English, Samaná English, and the recordings of former slaves to demonstrate that negation was inherited from nonstandard colonial English.[60]

Other grammatical characteristics

  • The copula be in the present tense is often dropped, as in Russian, Hebrew, Arabic and other languages. For example: You crazy ("You're crazy") or She my sister ("She's my sister"). The phenomenon is also observed in questions: Who you? ("Who're you?") and Where you at? ("Where are you (at)?"). On the other hand, a stressed is cannot be dropped: She is my sister. The general rules are:
    • Only the forms is and are (of which the latter is anyway often replaced by is) can be omitted; am, was, and were are not deleted.
    • These forms cannot be omitted when they would be pronounced with stress in General American (whether or not the stress serves specifically to impart an emphatic sense to the verb's meaning).
    • These forms cannot be omitted when the corresponding form in standard English cannot show contraction (and vice versa). For example, I don't know where he is cannot be reduced to *I don't know where he just as in standard English forms the corresponding reduction *I don't know where he's is likewise impossible. (I don't know where he at is possible, paralleling I don't know where he's at in standard English.)
    • Possibly some other minor conditions apply as well.[63]
  • Present-tense verbs are uninflected for number/person: there is no -s ending in the present-tense third-person singular. Example: She write poetry ("She writes poetry"). Similarly, was is used for what in standard English are contexts for both was and were.[64]
  • The genitive -'s ending may or may not be used.[65] Genitive case is inferrable from adjacency. This is similar to many creoles throughout the Caribbean. Many language forms throughout the world use an unmarked possessive; it may here result from a simplification of grammatical structures. Example: my momma sister ('my mother's sister')
  • The words it and they denote the existence of something, equivalent to standard English's there is, or there are.[66]
  • Altered syntax in questions: Why they ain't growing? ('Why aren't they growing?') and Who the hell she think she is? ('Who the hell does she think she is?') lack the inversion of most other forms of English. Because of this, there is also no need for the auxiliary DO.[67]
  • Usage of personal pronoun "them" instead of definite article "those" or "these".[citation needed]

"Deep" AAVE

According to John McWhorter, there is a continuum from "a 'deep' Black English through a 'light' Black English to standard English," and the sound on this continuum may vary from one African American speaker to the next or even in a single speaker from one situational context to the next.[68] McWhorter argues that what truly unites all varieties of AAVE is its unique intonation pattern or "melody," which characterizes even the most "neutral" light Black English. McWhorter regards the following as rarer features, characteristic only of a deep Black English but which speakers of light Black English may occasionally "dip into for humorous or emotive effect":[69]

  • Lowering of /ɪ/ before /ŋ/, causing pronunciations such as [θɛŋ~θæŋ] for thing (sounding something like thang).[30]
  • Word-medially and word-finally, pronouncing /θ/ as [f] (so [mʌmf] for month and [mæɔf] for mouth), and /ð/ as [v] (so [smuːv] for smooth and [ɹævə(ɹ)] for rather.[70] This is called th-fronting. Word-initially, /ð/ is [d] (so those and doze sound nearly identical). In other words, the tongue fully touches the top teeth.
  • Glide deletion (monophthongization) of all instances of //, universally, resulting in [aː~äː] (so that, for example, even rice may sound like rahs.)
  • Full gliding (diphthongization) of /ɪ/, resulting in [iə] (so that win may sound like wee-un).
  • Raising the vowel /ʌ/ of words like strut, mud, tough, etc. to something like [ɜ].
  • Using the word bees even in place of be to mean is or are in standard English, as in the sentence "That's the way it bees." This is one of the rarest of all deep AAVE features today, and most middle-class AAVE speakers would recognize the verb bees as part of only a deep "Southern" or "country" speaker's vocabulary.

Lexical features

AAVE shares much of its lexicon with other varieties of English, particularly that of informal and Southern dialects. There are some notable differences, however. It has been suggested that some of the vocabulary unique to AAVE has its origin in West African languages, but etymology is often difficult to trace and, without a trail of recorded usage, the suggestions below cannot be considered proven; in many cases, the postulated etymologies are not recognized by linguists or the Oxford English Dictionary.[71]

AAVE also has words that either are not part of most other American English dialects or have strikingly different meanings. For example, there are several words in AAVE referring to white people which are not part of mainstream American English; these include gray as an adjective for whites (as in gray dude), possibly from the color of Confederate uniforms; and paddy, an extension of the slang use for "Irish".[76] "Ofay," which is pejorative, is another general term for a white person; it might derive from the Ibibio word afia, which means "light-colored"; or from the Yoruba word ofe, spoken in hopes of disappearing from danger such as that posed by European traders; or via Pig Latin from "foe". However, most dictionaries simply say its etymology is unknown.[77] Kitchen refers to the particularly curly or kinky hair at the nape of the neck, and siditty or seddity means snobbish or bourgeois.[78]

AAVE has also contributed various words and phrases to other varieties of English; including chill out, main squeeze, soul, funky, and threads.[79]

Social context

Linguists maintain that there is nothing intrinsically "wrong" or "sloppy" about AAVE as a language variety since, like all dialects, AAVE shows consistent internal logic and grammatical complexity, and is used naturally to express thoughts and ideas.[80] Other attitudes about AAVE are less positive; since AAVE deviates from the standard, its use is commonly misinterpreted as a sign of ignorance, laziness, or both.[81][82] Perhaps because of this attitude (as well as similar attitudes among other Americans), most speakers of AAVE are bidialectal, being able to speak with a more General American accent as well as AAVE. Such linguistic adaptation in different environments is called code-switching[83][84]—though Linnes (1998) argues that the situation is actually one of diglossia:[85] each dialect, or code, is applied in different settings. Generally speaking, the degree of exclusive use of AAVE decreases with increasing socioeconomic status (although AAVE is still used by even well-educated African Americans).[86][87][88][89]

The United States courts are divided over how to admit statements made in AAVE under evidence. In United States v. Arnold, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that "he finna shoot me" was a statement made in the present tense, so it was admissible hearsay under the excited utterance exception; however, the dissent held that past or present tense could not be determined by the statement, so the statement should not have been admitted into evidence.[90]

Ogbu (1999) argues that the use of AAVE carries racially affirmative political undertones as its use allows African Americans to assert their cultural upbringing. Nevertheless, use of AAVE also carries strong social connotations; Sweetland (2002) presents a white female speaker of AAVE who is accepted as a member into African American social groups despite her race.

Amid related research in the 1960s and 1970s—including William Labov's groundbreaking thorough grammatical study, Language in the Inner City—there was doubt as to the existence of a distinct variety of English spoken by African Americans; Williamson (1970) noted that distinctive features of African American speech were present in the speech of Southerners and Farrison (1970) argued that there were really no substantial vocabulary or grammatical differences between the speech of blacks and that of other English dialects.[91]

In literature and media

There is a long tradition of representing the speech of blacks in American literature. A number of researchers[92] have looked into the ways that American authors have depicted the speech of black characters, investigating how black identity is established and how it connects to other characters. Brasch (1981:x) argues that early mass media portrayals of black speech are the strongest historical evidence of a separate variety of English for blacks.[93] Early popular works are also used to determine the similarities that historical varieties of black speech have in common with modern AAVE.[94][95]

The earliest depictions of black speech came from works written in the eighteenth century,[96] primarily by white authors. A notable exception is Clotel, the first novel written by an African American (William Wells Brown).[53][97] Depictions have largely been restricted to dialogue and the first novel written entirely in AAVE was June Jordan's His Own Where (1971),[98] though Alice Walker's epistolary novel The Color Purple is a much more widely known work written entirely in AAVE.[99] Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun also has near exclusive use of AAVE.[100] The poetry of Langston Hughes uses AAVE extensively.[101][page needed]

Some other notable works that have incorporated representations of black speech (with varying degrees of perceived authenticity) include:[102]

As there is no established spelling system for AAVE,[106] depicting it in literature is instead often done through spelling changes to indicate its phonological features,[107] or to contribute to the impression that AAVE is being used (eye dialect).[108] More recently, authors have begun focusing on grammatical cues,[53] and even the use of certain rhetorical strategies.[109]

Portrayals of black characters in movies and television are also done with varying degrees of authenticity.[110] In Imitation of Life (1934), the speech and behavioral patterns of Delilah (an African American character) are reminiscent of minstrel performances that set out to exaggerate stereotypes, rather than depict black speech authentically.[111] More authentic performances, such as those in the following movies and TV shows, occur when certain speech events, vocabulary, and syntactic features are used to indicate AAVE usage, often with particular emphasis on young, urban African Americans:[112]

In music

Spirituals, blues, jazz, R & B, and most recently, hip-hop are all genres associated with African American music; as such, AAVE appears in these musical forms. Examples of morphosyntactic features of AAVE in genres other than hip-hop are given below:

Artist Song Lyric AAVE feature
Nina Simone "It Be's That Way Sometime" "It Be's That Way Sometime" habitual aspect with be
Vera Hall "Trouble So Hard" "Don't nobody know my trouble but God" negative concord
Texas Alexander "The Rising Sun" "She got something round and it look just like a bat" lack of inflection on present-tense verb
WC Handy "Saint Louis Blues" "Cause my baby, he done left this town." Use of "done" to indicate the recent past

More recently, AAVE has been used heavily in hip-hop to show street cred.[113] Examples of morphosyntactic AAVE features used by black hip-hop artists are given below:

Artist Song Lyric AAVE feature
LL Cool J "Control Myself" "She said her name Shayeeda" absence of copula
LL Cool J "Control Myself" "I could tell her mama feed her" lack of inflection on present-tense verb
Kanye West ft. Jay-Z "Gotta Have It" "You can bank I ain't got no ceilin'" negative concord
Nick Cannon "Can I Live" "It's a lot of angels waiting on their wings" expletive it

In addition to grammatical features, lexical items specific to AAVE are often used in hip-hop:

Artist Song Lyric AAVE lexical itema Standard English definition
Kanye West ft. Jay-Z "Otis" "Or the big-face rollie, I got two of those" rollie Rolex (watch)
Tupac Shakur "Straight Ballin'" "And getting ghost on the 5-0" 5-0 ("five-oh") police
Lil Wayne "Blinded" "I can put bangles around yo ashy ankles" ashy dry skin

^a Lexical items taken from Smitherman (2000)

Because hip-hop is so intimately related to the African American oral tradition, non-black hip-hop artists also use certain features of AAVE; for example, in an MC battle, Eyedea said, "What that mean, yo?"[114] displaying lack of subject-verb inversion and also the auxiliary DO. However, they tend to avoid the term nigga, even as a marker of solidarity.[114] White hip-hop artists such as Eyedea can choose to accentuate their whiteness by hyper-articulating postvocalic r sounds (i.e. the retroflex approximant).[114]

AAVE is also used by non-black artists in genres other than hip-hop, if less frequently. For instance, in "Tonight, Tonight", Hot Chelle Rae uses the term dime to mean "an attractive woman".[115] Jewel's "Sometimes It Be That Way" employs habitual BE in the title to indicate habitual aspect. If they do not employ similar features of AAVE in their speech, then it can be argued that they are modeling their musical performance to evoke aspects of particular musical genres such as R & B or the blues (as British pop musicians of the 1960s and beyond did to evoke rock, pop, and the blues).[116]

Some research suggests that non-African American young adults learn AAVE vocabulary by listening to hip-hop music.[113]

In social media

On Twitter, AAVE is used as a framework from which sentences and words are constructed, in order to accurately express oneself. [117] Grammatical features and word pronunciations stemming from AAVE are preserved. [117] Spellings based on AAVE have become increasingly common, to the point where it has become a normalized practice. Some examples include, "you" (you're), "they" (their/they're), "gon" (going to), and "yo" (your). [117]

In education

AAVE has been the center of controversy about the education of African American youths, the role AAVE should play in public schools and education, and its place in broader society.[118] Educators have held that attempts should be made to eliminate AAVE usage through the public education system. Criticism from social commentators and educators has ranged from asserting that AAVE is an intrinsically deficient form of speech to arguments that its use, by being considered unacceptable in most cultural contexts, is socially limiting.[119] Some of the harshest criticism of AAVE or its use has come from African Americans.[120][121][122] A conspicuous example was the "Pound Cake speech", in which Bill Cosby criticized some African Americans for various social behaviors, including the way they talked.

Faced with such attitudes, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), a division of National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), issued a position statement on students' rights to their own language. This was adopted by CCCC members in April 1974 and appeared in a special issue of College Composition and Communication in Fall of 1974. The resolution was as follows:[123]

"We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language."

Around this time, pedagogical techniques similar to those used to teach English to speakers of foreign languages were shown to hold promise for speakers of AAVE. William Stewart experimented with the use of dialect readers—sets of text in both AAVE and standard English.[124] The idea was that children could learn to read in their own dialect and then shift to "Standard English" with subsequent textbooks.[125] Simpkins, Holt & Simpkins (1977) developed a comprehensive set of dialect readers, called bridge readers, which included the same content in three different dialects: AAVE, a "bridge" version that was closer to "Standard American English" without being prohibitively formal, and a Standard English version.[126] Despite studies that showed promise for such "Standard English as a Second Dialect" (SESD) programs, reaction to them was largely hostile[127] and both Stewart's research and the Bridge Program were rejected for various political and social reasons, including strong resistance from parents.[125][128][129]

A more formal shift in the recognition of AAVE came in the "Ann Arbor Decision" of 1979 (Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children et al., v. Ann Arbor School District). In it, a federal judge of the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that in teaching black children to read, a school board must adjust to the children's dialect, not the children to the school,[125] and that, by not taking students’ language into consideration, teachers were contributing to the failure of such students to read and use mainstream English proficiently.[130]

National attitudes towards AAVE were revisited when a controversial resolution from the Oakland (California) school board (Oakland Unified School District) on December 18, 1996, called for "Ebonics" to be recognized as a language of African Americans.[131] In fact, ebonics would be classified as a "second language".[132][133] The proposal was to implement a program similar to the Language Development Program for African American Students (LDPAAS) in Los Angeles, which began in 1988 and uses methods from the SESD programs mentioned above.[134]

Like other similar programs,[135] the Oakland resolution was widely misunderstood as intended to teach AAVE and "elevate it to the status of a written language."[136] It gained national attention and was derided and criticized, most notably by Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume who regarded it as an attempt to teach slang to children.[137] The statement that "African Language Systems are genetically based" also contributed to the negative reaction because "genetically" was popularly misunderstood to imply that African Americans had a biological predisposition to a particular language.[138] In an amended resolution, this phrase was removed and replaced with wording that states African American language systems "have origins in West [sic] and Niger–Congo languages and are not merely dialects of English. . . ."[139]

The Oakland proposal was explained as follows: that black students would perform better in school and more easily learn standard American English if textbooks and teachers incorporated AAVE in teaching black children to speak Standard English rather than mistakenly[30][140] equating nonstandard with substandard and dismissing AAVE as the latter. Baratz & Shuy (1969:93) point to these linguistic barriers, and common reactions by teachers, as a primary cause of reading difficulties and poor school performance.[141]

More recently, research has been conducted on the overrepresentation of African Americans in special education[142] Van Keulen, Weddington & DeBose (1998:112–113) argue that this is because AAVE speech characteristics are often erroneously considered to be signs of speech development problems, prompting teachers to refer children to speech pathologists.[143]

According to Smitherman, the controversy and debates concerning AAVE in public schools imply deeper deterministic attitudes towards the African-American community as a whole. Smitherman describes this as a reflection of the "power elite's perceived insignificance and hence rejection of Afro-American language and culture".[144] She also asserts that African Americans are forced to conform to European American society in order to succeed, and that conformity ultimately means the "eradication of black language . . . and the adoption of the linguistic norms of the white middle class." The necessity for "bi-dialectialism" (AAVE and General American) means "some blacks contend that being bi-dialectal not only causes a schism in the black personality, but it also implies such dialects are 'good enough' for blacks but not for whites."[145]

See also


  1. ^ Edwards (2004), p. 383.
  2. ^ For the reasons that linguists avoid using the term Ebonics, see for example Green (2002:7–8).
  3. ^ McWhorter (2001), p. 179.
  4. ^ Thomas, Erik R. (2006), "Rural White Southern Accents" (PDF), Atlas of North American English (online), Walter de Gruyter, pp. 16, 19–20 
  5. ^ Mufwene (2001:29) and Bailey (2001:55), both citing Stewart (1964), Stewart (1969), Dillard (1972), and Rickford (1997a).
  6. ^ Smith & Crozier (1998), pp. 113–114.
  7. ^ Wardhaugh (2002), p. 341.
  8. ^ a b Poplack (2000), p. ?.
  9. ^ a b Poplack & Tagliamonte (2001), p. ?.
  10. ^ The Oakland school board's resolution "was about a perfectly ordinary variety of English spoken by a large and diverse population of Americans of African descent. . . . [E]ssentially all linguists agree that what the Oakland board was dealing with is a dialect of English."Pullum (1997)
  11. ^ McWhorter (2001), pp. 162, 185.
  12. ^ McWhorter (2001), pp. 162, 182.
  13. ^ See Howe & Walker (2000) for more information
  14. ^ Labov (1972), p. 8.
  15. ^ Shorter OED, 5th edition, cf Bantu kingumbo
  16. ^ Shorter OED, 5th edition, Kikongo nguba
  17. ^ Guralnik (1984), p. ?.
  18. ^ Wheeler (1999), p. 55.
  19. ^ Wolfram (1998), p. 112.
  20. ^ a b Dillard (1972), p. ??.
  21. ^ Read (1939), p. 247.
  22. ^ William Labov, in the Foreword to Poplack & Tagliamonte (2001), says "I would like to think that this clear demonstration of the similarities among the three diaspora dialects and the White benchmark dialects, combined with their differences from creole grammars, would close at least one chapter in the history of the creole controversies."
  23. ^ Ludden, Jennifer (September 6, 2010). "Op-Ed: DEA Call For Ebonics Experts Smart Move". NPR.
  24. ^ Labov (2001), pp. 506–508.
  25. ^ Wardhaugh (2002), p. 339.
  26. ^ Heggarty, Paul et al, eds. (2013). "Accents of English from Around the World". University of EdinburghSee pronunciation for "Chicago AAVE" and "N.Carolina AAVE." 
  27. ^ Green (2002), p. 116.
  28. ^ Bailey & Thomas (1998:89), citing Wolfram (1994)
  29. ^ a b c Labov (1972), p. 19.
  30. ^ a b c d Green (2002), p. 123.
  31. ^ Green (2002), pp. 117–119.
  32. ^ Green (2002:121–122) although her examples are different.
  33. ^ Green (2002), p. 107.
  34. ^ Rickford (1997b), p. ??.
  35. ^ Green (2002), pp. 107–116.
  36. ^ Labov (1972), p. 15.
  37. ^ Labov (1972), pp. 15–16.
  38. ^ Labov (1972), pp. 17–18.
  39. ^ Labov (1972), pp. 18–19.
  40. ^ See Baugh (2000:92–94) on "aks" and metathesis, on the frequency with which "aks" is brought up by those who ridicule AAVE (e.g.Cosby (1997)), and on the linguistic or cognitive abilities of a speaker of another variety of English who would take "aks" to mean "axe" in a context that in another variety would probably call for "ask".
  41. ^ Green (2002), pp. 119–121.
  42. ^ Green (2002:121), citing Wolfram & Fasold (1974:140)
  43. ^ Labov (1972), p. 14.
  44. ^ Green (2002), p. 121.
  45. ^ Labov (1972), pp. 14–15.
  46. ^ Green (2002), p. 131.
  47. ^ Fickett (1972), pp. 17–18.
  48. ^ a b Fickett (1972), p. 19.
  49. ^ Green (2002), pp. 60–62.
  50. ^ Aspectual be: Green (2002:47–54)
  51. ^ In order to distinguish the stressed and unstressed forms, which carry different meaning, linguists often write the stressed version as BIN
  52. ^ Green (2002), pp. 54–55.
  53. ^ a b c d Rickford (1999), p. ??.
  54. ^ Fickett (1972:17) refers to this as a combination of "punctuative" and "imperfect" aspects.
  55. ^ Green (2002), pp. 71–72.
  56. ^ Green (2002), p. 71.
  57. ^ Green (2002:70–71), citing DeBose & Faraclas (1993).
  58. ^ See Spears (1982:850)
  59. ^ Green (2002), pp. 73–74.
  60. ^ a b Howe & Walker (2000), p. 110.
  61. ^ Labov (1972), p. 284.
  62. ^ Winford (1992), p. 350.
  63. ^ "Why Ebonics Is No Joke.". Lingua Franca [transcript of interview with grammarian Geoff Pullum]. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 17 October 1998. Archived from the original on 9 February 2010. Retrieved 1 May 2014. .
  64. ^ Green (2002), p. 38.
  65. ^ Green (2002), pp. 102–103.
  66. ^ Green (2002), p. 80.
  67. ^ Green (2002), pp. 84–89.
  68. ^ McWhorter (2001), pp. 146.
  69. ^ McWhorter (2001), pp. 146–7.
  70. ^ McWhorter (2001), pp. 148.
  71. ^ e.g.: "dig", which the OED traces solely from ME vt diggen
  72. ^ Smitherman (2000) s.v. "Dig"
  73. ^ Random House Unabridged, 2001
  74. ^ a b Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 146.
  75. ^ Smitherman (1977:??) cited in Rickford and Rickford, Spoken Soul, 240.
  76. ^ Gray: Smitherman, Black Talk, s.v. "Gray". Paddy: Dictionary of American Regional English, s.v. "Paddy".
  77. ^ Smitherman (2000) suggests either a general West African or the Pig Latin origin. Black Talk, s.v. "Ofay".
  78. ^ Smitherman (2000), s.v. "Kitchen". Kitchen, siditty: Dictionary of American Regional English, s.vv. "Kitchen", "Siditty".
  79. ^ Lee (1999), pp. 381–386.
  80. ^ Green (2002:217), citing Burling (1973) Labov (1969)
  81. ^ Green (2002), p. 221.
  82. ^ Lanehart (2001:4–6) argues that it is no coincidence that a population that has historically been "ridiculed and despised" would have its characteristic speech variety treated the same way.
  83. ^ DeBose (1992), p. 157.
  84. ^ Wheeler & Swords (2006).
  85. ^ Cited in Kendall & Wolfram (2009:306)
  86. ^ Coulmas (2005), p. 177.
  87. ^ Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 8.
  88. ^ DeBose (1992), p. 159.
  89. ^ Linnes (1998).
  90. ^ U.S. v. Arnold, 486 F.3d 177 (2007) Retrieved on Sept 23, 2013.
  91. ^ Cited in Green (2002:218)
  92. ^ For example,Holloway (1978), Holloway (1987), Baker (1984), and Gates (1988)
  93. ^ cited in Green (2002:166)
  94. ^ Green (2002:166), citing Dillard (1992)
  95. ^ Walser (1955), p. 269.
  96. ^ Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 13.
  97. ^ Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 19.
  98. ^ Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 21.
  99. ^ Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 22.
  100. ^ Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 28.
  101. ^ The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (New York: Vintage Classics, 1994).
  102. ^ Examples listed in Rickford & Rickford (2000:14)
  103. ^ "Hurston Reviews". 
  104. ^ Archived June 14, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  105. ^ Sapphire (1996). Push. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 9780679446262. 
  106. ^ Green (2002), p. 238.
  107. ^ Green (2002), pp. 168, 196.
  108. ^ Rickford & Rickford (2000), p. 23.
  109. ^ Green (2002), p. 196.
  110. ^ Green (2002), p. ?.
  111. ^ Green (2002), p. 202.
  112. ^ Green (2002), pp. 206–209, 211.
  113. ^ a b Chesley (2011).
  114. ^ a b c Cutler (2007).
  115. ^ Smitherman (2000), p. 108.
  116. ^ Trudgill (1983).
  117. ^ a b c Florini (2014), p. 233.
  118. ^ Green (2002), pp. 217–218.
  119. ^ Wardhaugh (2002), pp. 343–348.
  120. ^ Lippi-Green (2000), p. 200.
  121. ^ Lanehart (2001), p. 6.
  122. ^ "Black critics [of Black English] use all the different arguments of the white critics, and spare us the more or less open embarrassment that all white Americans feel when publicly criticizing anything or anyone Black. So, of course, they can be even more wrong-headed and self-righteously wrong-headed than anyone else . . ." Quinn (1982:150–51).
  123. ^ Smitherman (1999), p. 357.
  124. ^ Stewart & 1975 (p 117-120).
  125. ^ a b c Wardhaugh (2002), p. 345.
  126. ^ Simpkins, Holt & Simpkins (1977), p. ??.
  127. ^ Morgan (1999), p. 181.
  128. ^ Downing (1978), p. 341.
  129. ^ Morgan (1999), p. 182.
  130. ^ Green (2002), p. 123, 222.
  131. ^ Coulmas (2005), p. 213.
  132. ^ WOO, ELAINE; Curtius, Mary (December 20, 1996). "Oakland School District Recognizes Black English". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 25, 2016. 
  133. ^ ""Black English" Named Second Language". December 20, 1996. Archived from the original on December 22, 1996. Retrieved July 25, 2016. 
  134. ^ Morgan (1999), pp. 184–185.
  135. ^ Green (2002), pp. 230, 232.
  136. ^ Coulmas (2005), p. 214.
  137. ^ Morgan (1999), p. 173.
  138. ^ Wolfram (1998), p. 114.
  139. ^ Golden (1997), p. ?.
  140. ^ Nonstandard language is not the same as substandard, as explained for example by the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct (pp. 28 et seq. (Pinker's comments on dialects in general and AAVE in particular go unmentioned by Geoffrey Sampson in Educating Eve, a book-length attempted debunking of The Language Instinct.) The same point is made in various introductions to language and sociolinguistics, e.g. Radford et al. (1999:17) and Schilling-Estes (2006:312) et seq.; and also in surveys of the English language, e.g. Crystal (2003), sec. 20, "Linguistic Variation".
  141. ^ Cited in Green (2002:229)
  142. ^ .Green (2002:227), citing Artiles & Trent (1994) and Harry & Anderson (1995)
  143. ^ Cited in Green (2002:227)
  144. ^ Smitherman (1977), p. 209.
  145. ^ Smitherman (1977), p. 173.


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  • Wolfram, Walter A.; Fasold, Ralph W. (1974), Social Dialects in American English, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall 

Further reading

  • Delpit, Lisa; Dowdy, Joanne Kilgour (2002), The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom., New York: New Press, ISBN 1-56584-544-7 
  • McDorman, Richard E. (2012). "Understanding African-American English: A Course in Language Comprehension and Cross-Cultural Understanding for Advanced English Language Learners in the United States" (PDF). Retrieved 8 October 2012. 
  • Nunberg, Geoffrey (1997), "Double Standards", Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 15 (3): 667–675, doi:10.1023/A:1005815614064, retrieved 4 March 2010 
  • Oubré, Alondra (1997). "Black English Vernacular (Ebonics) and Educability: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Language, Cognition, and Schooling". African American Web Connection. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  • Patrick, Peter L. (2007). "A bibliography of works on African American English". University of Essex. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  • Pollock, K.; Bailey, G.; Berni; Fletcher; Hinton, L.N.; Johnson; Roberts; Weaver (1998). "Phonological Features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE)". Child Phonology Laboratory. University of Alberta. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  • Rickford, John R. (December 1996). "Ebonics Notes and Discussion". Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  • Rickford, John R.; Rickford, Angela E. (1995), "Dialect readers revisited", Linguistics and Education, 7 (2): 107–128, doi:10.1016/0898-5898(95)90003-9 
  • Sidnell, Jack. "African American Vernacular English (Ebonics)". Archived from the original on 10 February 2010. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
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