African American Vernacular English (AAVE) – also called African American English; less precisely Black English, Black Vernacular, Black English Vernacular (BEV), or Black Vernacular English (BVE) – is an African American variety (dialect, ethnolect and sociolect) of American English. Controversially, non-linguists sometimes call it Ebonics (a term that also has other meanings or strong connotations) or jive (which can mean the slang of AAVE and/or the signifying for which AAVE is famous). Its pronunciation is in some respects common to Southern American English, which is spoken by many African Americans and many non-African Americans in the United States. There is little regional variation among speakers of AAVE. Several creolists, including William Stewart, John Dillard, and John Rickford, argue that AAVE shares so many characteristics with Creole dialects spoken by black people in much of the world that AAVE itself is a creole. It has been suggested that AAVE has grammatical structures in common with West African languages or even that AAVE is best described as an African based language with English words. Speakers of AAVE are typically bidialectal. As with all linguistic forms, its usage is influenced by age, status, topic and setting. There are many literary uses of this variety of English, particularly in African-American literature.
Many features of AAVE are shared with English dialects spoken in the American South. While these are mostly regionalisms (i.e. originating from white speech), 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. The traits of AAVE that separate it from Standard American English (SAE) include:
Early AAVE contributed a number of words of African origin to Standard American English, including gumbo, goober, yam and banjo. AAVE has contributed slang expressions such as cool, hip and bling.
|He workin'.||Simple progressive||He is working [currently].|
|He be workin'.||Habitual/continuative aspect||He works frequently or habitually. Better illustrated with "He be workin' Tuesdays."|
|He stay workin'.||Intensified continuative||He is always working.|
|He been workin'.||Perfect progressive||He has been working.|
|He been had dat job.||Remote phase (see below)||He has had that job for a long time and still has it.|
|He done worked.||Emphasized perfective||He has worked. Syntactically, "He worked" is valid, but "done" is used to emphasize the completed nature of the action.|
|He finna go to work.||Immediate future||He is about to go to work. Finna is a contraction of "fixing to"; though is also believed to show residual influence of late 16th century archaism "would fain (to)", that persisted until later in some rural dialects spoken in the Carolinas (near the Gullah region). "Fittin' to" is commonly thought to be another form of the original "fixin' (fixing) to", and it is also heard as fitna, fidna, fixna, fin'to, and finsta.|
|I was walkin' home, and I had worked all day.||Preterite narration.||"Had" is used to begin a preterite narration. Usually it occurs in the first clause of the narration, and nowhere else.|
With non-stative verbs, the role of been is simple: it places the action in the distant past, or represents total completion of the action. A Standard English equivalent is to add "a long time ago". For example, She been told me that translates as, "She told me that a long time ago".
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. Linguist John R. 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.
To see the difference between the simple past and the gerund when used with been, consider the following expressions:
While these are features that AAVE has in common with Creole languages, Howe and Walker 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.
The linguist William Labov carried out and published the first thorough grammatical study of African American Vernacular English in 1965.
The general rules are:
AAVE also has words that either are not part of Standard American English, or have strikingly different meanings from their common usage in SAE. For example, there are several words in AAVE referring to white people which are not part of mainstream SAE; these include the use of gray as an adjective for whites (as in "gray dude"), possibly from the color of Confederate uniforms, possibly an extension of the slang use for "Irish", "Ofay," which is pejorative, is another general term for a white; it might derive from the Yoruba word ofe, spoken in hopes of disappearing from danger such as that posed by European traders. However, most dictionaries simply refer to this word as having an unknown etymology. Kitchen refers to the particularly curly or kinky hair at the nape of the neck, and siditty or seddity means snobbish or bourgeois.
AAVE has also contributed various words and phrases to other varieties of English; including chill out, main squeeze, soul, funky, and threads
AAVE has survived through the centuries also as a result of varying degrees of isolation from Southern American English and Standard American English through marginalization from and by mainstream society. Still, most speakers of AAVE are bidialectal, since they use Standard American English to varying degrees as well as AAVE. This method of linguistic adaptation in different environments is called code-switching. Each dialect, or code, is applied in different settings. Generally speaking, the degree of exclusive use of AAVE decreases with the rise in socioeconomic status (although it is still used by even well educated African Americans). As with the case of many nonstandard varieties, almost all speakers of AAVE (at any socioeconomic level) fully understand Standard American English, even if they are not able to speak it. Thus use of AAVE, as with the use of SAE, can be a conscious choice. The level of usage of any dialect is subject to the speaker's volition. In certain situations, speakers of AAVE may deem it more appropriate to use SAE, and in other instances (most likely among other African Americans) use AAVE.
The preponderance of code switching indicates that AAVE and SAE are met with different reactions or discernments. AAVE is often perceived by members of mainstream American society as indicative of low intelligence or limited education. Furthermore, as with many other non-standard dialects and especially creoles, AAVE sometimes has been called "lazy" or "bad" English, although among linguists there is no such controversy, since AAVE, like all dialects, shows consistent internal logic and structure.
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. During the Middle Passage, these captives (many already multi-lingual speakers of dialects of Wolof, Twi, Hausa, Yoruba, Dogon, Akan, Kimbundu, Bambara and other languages) 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:
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.
Some slave owners preferred slaves from a particular tribe. For consigned cargoes, language mixing aboard ship was sometimes minimal. There is evidence that many enslaved Africans continued to use fairly intact native languages until almost 1700, when the Wolof language became one of the bases of a sort of intermediary pidgin among Africans. It is Wolof that comes to the fore in tracing the African roots of AAVE. By 1715, this African pidgin had made its way into novels by Daniel Defoe, in particular, The Life of Colonel Jacque. Cotton Mather claimed to have been very familiar with his slaves' speech, knowing enough to affirm that one of his slaves was a Coromantee, a general term applied during slavery to the Akan, Ashanti and Fanti peoples of the Gold Coast, whom slaveholders commonly regarded as particularly rebellious in nature. Mather's imitative writing shows features present in many creole languages and even in modern day AAVE.
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:
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 became 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 particular, this book contains the first reference to the distinction within AAVE "been" between stressed BÍN and unstressed bin.
Following the abolition of slavery, some freed slaves traveled to West Africa, taking their creole with them. In certain African tribal groups, such as those in west Cameroon, there are varieties of Black English that show strong resemblances to the creole dialects in the United States documented during this period.
Recently, Shana Poplack has provided corpus-based evidence from isolated enclaves in Samaná and Nova Scotia peopled by descendants of migrations of early AAVE-speaking groups, 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.
Changes in formal attitudes regarding the acceptance of AAVE as a dialect correlated with advancements in civil rights. One notable 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 ruled that a school board, in teaching black children to read, must adjust to the children's dialect, not the children to the school.
Prior to this, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), a division of National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), issued a position statement on students' right 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:
"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."
The formal recognition of AAVE was revisited when a controversial resolution from the Oakland, California, school board on December 18, 1996, called on "Ebonics" to be officially recognized as a language of African Americans. At its last meeting, the outgoing Oakland school board unanimously passed the resolution, before being replaced by the newly elected board. The new board's members held different views; the board modified the resolution then effectively dropped it. Had the measure remained in force, it would have affected funding and education-related issues.
The Oakland resolution declared that AAVE was not English or even an Indo-European language, asserting that the speech of black children belonged to "West and Niger-Congo languages and are not merely dialects of English. This claim is inconsistent with the current linguistic theory that AAVE is a dialect of English and thus of Indo-European origin. Also, the differences between modern AAVE and Standard English are nowhere near as great as those between French and Haitian Creole, which are considered separate languages. The resolution was widely misunderstood as an intention to teach AAVE and "elevate it to the status of a written language. The resolution 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. The statement that "African Language Systems are genetically based" also contributed to widespread hostility because it was popularly misunderstood to mean that African Americans have a biological predisposition to a particular language. In an amended resolution, this phrase was removed and replaced with wording that states African American language systems "have origins in West and Niger-Congo languages and are not merely dialects of English.
Proponents of AAVE instruction in public education believe that their proposals have been distorted by political debate and misunderstood by the general public. The underlying belief is 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 dismiss it as substandard.
For students whose primary dialect was AAVE, the Oakland resolution mandated some instruction in that dialect, both for "maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language... and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills." This also included the proposed increase of salaries of those proficient in both AAVE and Standard English to the level of those teaching LEP (limited English proficiency) students and the use of public funding to help teachers learn AAVE themselves. Teachers were to recognize that the "errors" in Standard American English that their students made were not the result of lack of intelligence or effort, and indeed were not errors at all but instead were features of a grammatically distinct form of English. Rather than teaching Standard American English by proscribing non-standard usage, the idea was to teach SAE to AAVE-speaking students by showing them how to translate expressions from AAVE to SAE.
Pedagogical techniques similar to those used to teach English to speakers of foreign languages appear to hold promise for speakers of AAVE. William Stewart experimented with the use of dialect readers—sets of text in both AAVE and SAE. The idea was that children could learn to read in their own dialect and then shift to Standard English with subsequent textbooks. 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 SAE without being prohibitively formal, and a Standard English version. Despite studies that showed promise for such dialect reader programs, reaction to them was largely hostile and both Stewart's research and the Bridge Program were rejected for various political and social reasons, including strong resistance from parents. Opinions on AAVE still range from advocacy of official language status in the United States to denigration as "poor English."
In 2002, Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy edited and contributed to the book The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. It examines how classrooms deal with the issue in practice and what that can mean for students. While policymakers debate the issue, teachers have to make their own policies.
Teaching children whose primary dialect is AAVE poses problems beyond those commonly addressed by pedagogical techniques, and the Oakland approach has support among some educational theorists. However, such pedagogical approaches have given rise to educational and political disputes. The American public and policymakers remain divided over whether to even recognize AAVE as a legitimate dialect of English. Though she had no standing in the school district, California State University, San Bernardino sociology professor Mary Texeira suggested in July 2005 that AAVE be included in the San Bernardino City Unified School District. The recommendation was met with a backlash similar to that in Oakland nine years before.
According to Smitherman, the overwhelming controversy and debates concerning AAVE in public schools insinuate the deeper, more implicit 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". She also asserts that since African Americans, in order to succeed, are forced to conform to European American society, this ultimately means the "eradication of black language…and the adoption of the linguistic norms of the white middle class." The necessity for a "bi-dialectialism" (AAVE and SAE) has "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. However, this is an errant view, for it is the norm throughout the world for one's dialectical mother tongue to subordinate to the Standard Language in the realms of education and interregional and intercultural communication, such as is the case for Swiss who speak Alemannisch as their native language, but use Standard German at school and for communication with speakers of other Germanic dialects, and as is also the case for all Chinese who do not speak Mandarin as their native tongue. The development of a Standard Language alongside variant dialects is the usual and healthy structure of a language. It is only by cultural bias, instead of logic and communicativeness, that effort is made to eliminate these dialects rather than foster their cultivation through the balanced use and sufficient teaching of an unambiguous standard dialect for all.