The United States Of Accents: African American Vernacular English

What is AAVE? Where did it come from? How is it used today? All this and more are answered in this installment of the United States of Accents.
February 3, 2020
The United States Of Accents: African American Vernacular English

In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, African American Vernacular English, often shortened to AAVE, is “a nonstandard variety of English spoken by some African Americans.” Nonstandard is pretty vague, though, in the all-encompassing terms of language. What exactly is so “nonstandard” about this particular dialect of English? Where is it spoken, and by whom? When and how did it become popular? Let’s take a closer look.

From The South To The Mouth

AAVE’s origins stem from how Black Americans first came to this country over 400 years ago — on slave ships coming primarily from West Africa. Its actual roots are somewhat muddled, however. Like a lot of unknown Black history, it’s still argued whether AAVE is simply a variant adapted from the Germanic American English overheard on plantations, or if it’s an entirely separate Creole language that evolved from contact between English and several West African languages.

The fact that AAVE shares many structural and pronunciation characteristics with other African-based Creoles around the world makes the Creole Theory intriguing for linguists. That said, AAVE also shares much of its grammar and phonology with rural dialects across the American South.

Out of the beauty of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ‘30s came Harlem jive — or simply, jive. It was an amalgamation of AAVE, Harlem slang, lingo from criminals and Broadway gossip, and it evolved into a fast-talking, exciting lingo that spread with New York’s influence. On top of this, linguist William Labov studied how racial segregation further pushed the development of AAVE. He found that living in segregated communities (unsurprisingly) made for further divergence from Standard American English over time. 

So, What Exactly Is AAVE?

African American Vernacular English is also known as Black English or Black Vernacular English (and historically as “Ebonics,” although we’ll get to that term later). This dialect has unique phonology, grammar and vocabulary, and these characteristics are conventionalized, meaning that they’re used and understood by the wider speech community. That said, you’ll also find that accents and some vocabulary in AAVE will vary from New York to New Orleans to Chicago, just as they would for any other geographically based dialects.

Verb Conjugation

The addition, subtraction and replacement of key words, vowels and consonants separate AAVE from Standard American English. Deleting the verbal copula in the present tense — leaving out “is” or “are” — is one of the most distinct characteristics of AAVE. “Sasha going to the store” or “Tyrone working Saturday night” are prime examples of this, and still means the same thing if the “is” were present.

AAVE speakers can take this one step further, and adding a habitual “be” to signify something that is often or usually done. “Tyrone be working Saturday nights” means that Tyrone regularly works on Saturday nights. To show that Tyrone has always worked Saturday nights, you’d say “Tyrone been working Saturday nights.”

Verbs are also often uninflected (not changed) for number or person, which means there is no –s suffix in the present-tense third-person singular. So if you want to describe where Tyrone works, you’d drop the final s, saying, “He work at the bar.” 

Sound Changes

There are some regular sound changes often observed in AAVE, in particular, something called metathesis. Metathesis involves switching around sounds within words. For example, “ask” could be pronounced “aks,” or “library” pronounced “libary.” TH-fronting is also a prominent feature of African American Vernacular English. For example, “those” and “doze” can sound nearly identical. Another common sound change involves dropping the R when it’s not followed by a vowel, which makes AAVE one of many non-rhotic dialects spoken in the USA. 

Word Order

Word order in questions is also a distinctive characteristic of AAVE grammar. For example, instead of moving the verb to immediately follow the question word (“Why aren’t they coming?”), AAVE speakers often maintain the typical word order of a statement (“Why they ain’t coming?”).

Sometimes, we AAVE speakers like to add more words than would be considered strictly necessary to get our point across. (Why? Because we be extra, of course.) We’ll often use double negatives (“Sasha ain’t never at the store”) and preterite “had” (“Tyrone had went to work”) to get our point across. The expletive “it” is one of my favorite aspects of AAVE: it’s simply replacing “there” with “it.” “It’s a bodega just two blocks away” is how I’d direct someone coming off the NYC subway in my former neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. 

Lexicon

One of the most notable and familiar parts of AAVE is our lexicon of colorful, descriptive words. Hopefully it’s common knowledge that jazz was invented by Black Americans, but did you know that the modern way we use “cool” and “hip” was coined by us as well? Here are a few recent highlights:

Finna

  • Meaning: About to. Replaced “fixing to” from Southern English.
  • Example: I’m finna go to the store, you want anything

Wildin / whilin

  • Meaning: To say or do something crazy. Synonymous with buggin or trippin.
  • Example: That professor was whilin assigning us all that reading.

GOAT

  • Meaning: Acronym that stands for Greatest Of All Time. Typically used to describe an icon.
  • Example: Solange is the GOAT.

A Note On “Ebonics” And “Correctness”

African American Vernacular English used to be called “Ebonics” (a portmanteau of “ebony” and “phonics”) when the term was coined in 1970s. It was created by the Black psychologist Robert Williams in the hope of changing the conversation around the dialect, which was often referred to as lazy or broken English by the white establishment. The term garnered national attention when the Oakland School Board declared it to be the primary language of its 28,000 primarily Black students. Because of the media storm that followed, Ebonics now has a negative connotation.

It should go without saying that there are a multitude of ways to speak the English language. As the late Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison emphasized, “It’s terrible to think that a child with five different present-tenses comes to school to be faced with books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging.”

AAVE In Today’s World

In music, pop artists like Italian-American singer Ariana Grande have shifted from the flowery lyrics and dance beats that defined the 2000s and early 2010s to rap interludes over trap rhythms in the past few years. Grande chirps in her Grammy-nominated song 7 rings, “My receipts be lookin like phone numbas / If it ain’t money then wrong numba / Black card is my business [pronounced as “bidniss”] card.” She adds various habitual “be”s and “ain’t”s, as well as omits the verbal copula and final consonants. Since the internet has been at our fingertips over the last 30 years — particularly in the past 5-10 years with the rise of social media — the proximity to AAVE for those who aren’t Black has risen considerably. 

There are, however, other situations where AAVE still isn’t accepted — and where this creates tangible consequences. Take, for example, the United States’ legal system. When “He don’t be in that neighborhood” was heard in a courtroom in Philadelphia, a court reporter erroneously transcribed it to “We going to be in this neighborhood” — exactly the opposite of what was said.

When Warren Demesme was up for trial in 2017 and asked the police “Why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dog?” his rights were ignored because someone presumed he’d requested a “lawyer dog,” not an actual attorney. “The larger implication is that people are not being afforded a sense of fairness and justice because the system is not responding to their language,” said Anthony L. Ricco, a New York-based criminal defense lawyer, when told about this study’s findings.

To some, the Black dialect is equated with being uneducated. But then there are non-Black individuals, like Grande, who seem to be fine hopping between the two without the the consequences of what Black speakers can experience. This is why AAVE usage often neatly falls along the lines of cultural appropriation.

Black Americans also experience situations where we might switch from AAVE to Standard American English — also known as code-switching. This can happen in the workplace or in academia, or at any other point when speaking with a person who doesn’t understand our dialect. We do it so that they can understand us or feel comfortable, as described in the video above.

To me, AAVE is comprised of friendly, comforting and familial Black colloquialisms. AAVE feels like your mother’s bosom pressing up against the back of your head as she’s braiding On the basketball court or sharing in community with friends, AAVE is an ever-evolving, intimate and unifying aspect of communication in Black American life.

Author Headshot
Justine Stephens
A New Yorker by birth and at heart, Justine Stephens is a musician, community organizer and occasional visual artist. After her jazz debut feature in the award-winning 2011 short film Kuvuka Daraja, she has given more than 70 world premieres of contemporary classical and jazz music. Justine is proud to have contributed to the growth and development of American Ballet Theatre, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, and more arts institutions and companies. She enjoys yoga, cooking and daydreaming of being back in Mexico City, where she succeeded in only speaking Spanish for a week last summer. Justine is currently based in Boston.
A New Yorker by birth and at heart, Justine Stephens is a musician, community organizer and occasional visual artist. After her jazz debut feature in the award-winning 2011 short film Kuvuka Daraja, she has given more than 70 world premieres of contemporary classical and jazz music. Justine is proud to have contributed to the growth and development of American Ballet Theatre, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, and more arts institutions and companies. She enjoys yoga, cooking and daydreaming of being back in Mexico City, where she succeeded in only speaking Spanish for a week last summer. Justine is currently based in Boston.

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