Recently I delivered a presentation on African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to a group of second year IB students and it felt like studying linguistics at university for three years was actually worth it! So, I’ve decided to turn it into a lil blog post about AAVE. This article will cover the origins of African American Vernacular English, the attitudes towards AAVE as a variety, AAVE and viral internet culture and the appropriation of AAVE features by non-native speakers.
What is AAVE? Where did it come from?
African American Vernacular English is a variety of English natively spoken by some working and middle class African Americans, particularly in urban communities. It is worth noting that not all black American’s speak AAVE and not all those who speak AAVE are black. Just like any other language, AAVE is spoken by those who grow up around other AAVE speakers.
Although there are opposing linguistic theories in regards to the evolution of AAVE, there is no denying that the variety was born out of slavery. When people of different cultures and languages were torn from their homes and transported to North America, they needed a way to communicate with each other. One theory called the Creole Origin Hypothesis argues that, “the first contact between English speakers and 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” (languagejones.com).
AAVE is also sometimes referred to as “black vernacular English” or “ebonics” (however this is a term that is not favoured by linguists). For more information about the origins of AAVE, check out this short YouTube video.
What does AAVE sound like?
In terms of language families, AAVE shares are large portion of it’s grammar and phonology with the rural dialects of the US. Instead of boring you with a list of linguistic features of AAVE, I will instead reference a few videos (many of which became viral internet sensations) which feature speakers of AAVE. Here are three examples:
Other examples of AAVE features include: “he be workin” “he sleepin” “she a student” “I ain’t see nothing” “Wes’ Side” “dis/dey/dat”
Attitudes to AAVE
Although as linguists we know that AAVE is a legitimate and fully fledged variety of English, this is not how AAVE is viewed in popular culture. The layperson’s attitude to African American Vernacular English is often one of deficit. People may often refer to speakers of AAVE as ‘uneducated’ or ‘ignorant’, asserting that the variety is simply standard English with mistakes and slang added in.
Although this could be brushed off as a non-issue, we know that the stigmatisation of AAVE has serious implications for institutions and services that do not recognize AAVE as legitimate. For example, during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign trail Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid commented that Obama “could be successful thanks, in part, to his “light-skinned” appearance and speaking patterns “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”” (CNN). Evidently, Reid is suggesting that in order to be successful in politics, one must not converse in a dialect that is indicative of his or her blackness.
This prejudice towards AAVE is particularly prevalent in the courtroom, as evidenced in the 2013 trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin. You can find the fast facts of the case here. As Zimmerman has already admitted to shooting Martin, the trial was to determine whether he committed murder/manslaughter or if he was acting in self defence under the Stand Your Ground law in Florida.
The star witness for the prosecution was Rachel Jeantel, a 19-year-old black high school student and Trayvon Martin’s best friend. She was on the phone to Trayvon moments before he was approached and shot dead by Zimmerman, she was the last person to hear his voice. Evidently, her testimony was a crucial piece of evidence in the attempt to convict Zimmerman. However, this testimony was dismissed as “incomprehensible and not credible“, never being discussed or acknowledged in the 16 hours of jury deliberation. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter. The jury stated that he was acting in self-defence. Critics argue that Jeantel’s testimony being discredited played a major role in Zimmerman being found not guilty. This trial also demonstrates how speakers of AAVE can be demonized and treated as unintelligent, particularly by the media.
The linguistic discrimination Jeantel experienced from the defence attorneys, the newspapers and the public is abhorrent and unjustified. There are few things so disenfranchising as being silenced for the language that you speak.
AAVE and Viral Internet Culture
The rise of viral internet culture has seen speakers of African American Vernacular English gain traction on YouTube, Vine, in memes and on Twitter. As well as African American people gaining notoriety and references like “eyebrows on fleek” and “ain’t nobody got time for that” becoming commonplace in the vocabularies of young people, we began to see non-native speakers of AAVE starting to use features of the variety. Many of these people used AAVE to sell their brand or product, in the punchlines of their comedy sketch for example.
Take singer/rapper Iggy Azalea for example, as she was born in Sydney she is a native speaker of Australian English. When interviewed, Azalea speaks in her native Australian English (example here), however, in her Hip Hop tracks she utilises features of African American Vernacular English (example here). PhD student Christian Ilbury wrote a research paper that studied her appropriation of AAVE and found that Iggy uses zero features of the variety in interview.
Why does she choose to use features of AAVE in her music only?
Is it okay to use AAVE features if its not your native language?
Does society teach us that black culture look better on non-black people?