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African American Vernacular English

written by Jack Sidnell




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African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is the variety formerly known as Black English Vernacular or Vernacular Black English among sociolinguists, and commonly called Ebonics outside the academic community. While some features of AAVE are apparently unique to this variety, in its structure it also shows many commonalties with other varieties including a number of standard and nonstandard English varieties spoken in the US and the Caribbean. AAVE has been at the heart of several public debates and the analysis of this variety has also sparked and sustained debates among sociolinguists.

It is extremely difficult to say how many people speak AAVE because it is not clear what exactly this would mean. Some speakers may use some distinctive aspects of phonology (pronunciation) and lexis (vocabulary) but none of the grammatical features associated with the variety. Many sociolinguists would reserve the term AAVE for varieties which are marked by the occurrence of certain distinctive grammatical features some of which are discussed below. Even so it may still be difficult to say with any exactitude how many AAVE speakers there are since such grammatical features occur variably, that is, in alternation with standard features. Such variability in the speech both of groups and individuals reflects the complex social attitudes surrounding AAVE and other nonstandard varieties of English and it was this variability which initially attracted the attention of sociolinguists such as William Labov.

The history of AAVE and its genetic affiliation, by which we mean what language varieties it is related to, are also a matter of controversy. Some scholars contend that AAVE developed out of the contact between speakers of West African languages and speakers of vernacular English varieties. According to such a view, West Africans learnt English on plantations in the southern Coastal States (Georgia, South Carolina, etc.) from a very small number of native speakers (the indentured laborers). Some suggest that this led to the development of a rudimentary pidgin which was later expanded through a process of creolization.

Others who advocate a contact scenario for the development of AAVE suggest that the contact language (an early creole-like AAVE) developed through processes of second language acquisition. According to such a view West Africans newly arrived on plantations would have limited access to English grammatical models because the number of native speakers was so small (just a few indentured servants on each plantation). In such a situation a community of second language learners might graft what English vocabulary that could be garnered from transient encounters onto the few grammatical patterns which are common to the languages of West Africa. What linguists refer to as universal grammar (the law-like rules and tendencies which apply to all natural human language) would have played a significant role in such processes as well. This kind of thing seems to have taken place in the Caribbean and may also have happened in some places, at some times in the United States. For instance Gullah or Sea Islands Creole spoken in the Coastal Islands of South Carolina and Georgia seems to have formed in this way.

A number of scholars do not accept such a scenario. These researchers argue that the demographic conditions in the US and the Caribbean (where restructured creole languages are widely spoken) were really quite different and that the conditions necessary for the emergence of a fully fledged creole language were never met in the US. These scholars have shown on a number of occasions that what look like distinctive features of AAVE today actually have a precedent in various varieties of English spoken in Great Britain and the Southern United States. It seems reasonable to suggest that both views are partially correct and that AAVE developed to some extent through restructuring while it also inherited many of its today distinctive features from older varieties of English which were once widely spoken.

As mentioned above AAVE is a matter of some public controversy as was seen most recently in the debate over the Ebonics ruling by the Oakland School Board. More than anything this debate made it clear to sociolinguists that they had failed in one of their primary objectives -- to educate the public and to disseminate the results of over twenty-five years of intense research. Unfortunately, many public policy makers and sections of the public hold on to mistaken and prejudiced understandings of what AAVE is and what it says about the people who speak it. This matter is compounded by the fact that, with the AAVE-speaking community, attitudes towards the language are complex and equivocal. Many AAVE speakers contrast the variety with something they refer to as "Talking Proper". At the same time these same speakers may also express clearly positive attitudes towards AAVE on other occasions and may also remark on the inappropriateness of using standard English in certain situations. While the situation in this case is made more extreme by the context of racial and ethnic conflict, inequality and prejudice in the United States, it is not unique. Such ambivalent and multivalent attitudes towards nonstandard varieties of a language have been documented for a great many communities around the world and in the United States.


BACK TO TOP              SOUNDS              GRAMMAR 


AAVE does not have a vocabulary separate from other varieties of English. However AAVE speakers do use some words which are not found in other varieties and furthermore use some English words in ways that differ from the standard dialects.

A number of words used in standard English may also have their origin in AAVE or at least in the West African languages that contributed to AAVE's development. These include:

banana  (Mandingo)
yam  (Mandingo)
okra  (Akan)
gumbo  (Western Bantu)

A discussion of AAVE vocabulary might proceed by noting that words can be seen to be composed of a form (a sound signal) and a meaning. In some cases both the form and the meaning are taken from West African sources. In other case the form is from English but the meaning appears to be derived from West African sources. Some cases are ambiguous and seem to involve what the late Fredric Cassidy called a multiple etymology (the form can be traced to more than one language -- e.g. "cat" below).

West African Form + West African Meaning:

bogus  'fake/fraudulent' cf. Hausa boko, or boko-boko 'deceit, fraud'.

hep, hip  'well informed, up-to-date' cf. Wolof hepi, hipi 'to open one's eyes, be aware of what is going on'.

English Form + West African Meaning:

cat  'a friend, a fellow, etc.' cf. Wolof -kat (a suffix denoting a person)

cool  'calm, controlled' cf. Mandingo suma 'slow' (literally 'cool')

dig  'to understand, appreciate, pay attention' cf. Wolof deg, dega 'to understand, appreciate'

bad  'really good'

In West African languages and Caribbean creoles a word meaning 'bad' is often used to mean 'good' or 'alot/intense'. For instance, in Guyanese Creole mi laik am bad, yu noo means 'I like him alot'. Dalby mentions Mandingo (Bambara) a nyinata jaw-ke 'She's very pretty.' (literally 'She is beautiful bad.'); cf. also Krio ( a creole language spoken in West Africa) mi gud baad.

Loan Translations:

Another interesting set of vocabulary items are called loan translations or "calques". In such cases a complex idea is expressed in some West African language by a combination of two words. In AAVE these African words appear to have been directly translated and the same concept is expressed by the combination of the equivalent English items

bad-eye  'nasty look', cf. Mandingo, nyE-jugu 'hateful glance' (lit. 'bad-eye')

big-eye  'greedy', cf. Ibo. anya uku 'covetous' (literally 'big-eye').

Any discussion of AAVE vocabulary must take note of the many recent innovations which occur in this variety and which tend to spread rapidly to other varieties of English. Most recent innovations are not enduring. These lexical items give regionally and generationally restricted varieties of AAVE their particular texture.


BACK TO TOP           BACKGROUND               GRAMMAR 


AAVE and standard English pronunciation are sometimes quite different. People frequently attach significance to such differences in pronunciation or accent and as such the study of phonology (the systematic a patterning of sounds in language) is an important part of sociolinguistics. It should be noted that phonology has nothing to do with spelling. The way something is spelt is often not a good indication of the way it "should be", or much less is, pronounced.


Clusters at the ends of words:

When two consonants appear at the end of a word (for instance the st in test), they are often reduced: the final t is deleted. This happens, to some extent, in every variety of English including standard ones. In AAVE the consonant cluster is reduced variably (i.e. it does not happen every time) and systematically.

Sociolinguists have shown that the frequency of reduction can be expressed by a rule which takes account of a number of interacting facts. Crucially, the frequency of reduction depends on the environment in which the sound occurs. The following two factors, among others, have been found to affect the frequency of reduction in consonant clusters

If the next word starts with a consonant, it is more likely to reduce than if the next word starts with a vowel. For example, reduction is more likely to occur in west side (becoming wes side) than in west end.

A final t or d is more likely to be deleted if it is not part of the past tense -ed than if it is. (The past tense -ed suffix is pronounced as t or d or Id in English depending on the preceding sound.) For example, reduction is more likely to occur in John ran fast (becoming John ran fas) than in John passed the teacher in his car.

The th sounds:

The written symbol th can represent two different sounds in English: both an "unvoiced" sound as in thought, thin and think, and a "voiced" sound as in the, they and that. In AAVE the pronunciation of this sound depends on where in a word it is found.

At the beginning of a word, the voiced sound (e.g. in that) is regularly pronounced as d so 'the', 'they' and 'that' are pronounced as de, dey and dat. AAVE shares this feature with many other nonstandard dialects, including those of the East Coast of United States and Canada. Less common in AAVE is the pronunciation of the unvoiced sound as t. Thus 'thin' can become tin but rarely does. This however is a very common feature of Caribbean creoles in which 'think' is regularly pronounced as tink, etc. When the th sound is followed by r, it is possible in AAVE to pronounce the th as f as in froat for 'throat'.

Within a word, the unvoiced sound as in nothing, author or ether is often pronounced as f. Thus AAVE speakers will sometimes say nufn 'nothing' and ahfuh 'author'. The voiced sound, within a word, may be pronounced v. So 'brother' becomes bruvah, etc.

At the end of a word, th is often pronounced f in AAVE. For instance 'Ruth' is pronounced Ruf; 'south' is pronounced souf. When the preceding sound is a nasal (e.g. n or m) the th is often pronounced as t as in tent for 'tenth'; mont for 'month'.

The sounds l and r:

When they do not occur at the beginning of a word l and r often undergo a process known as "vocalization" and are pronounced as uh. This is most apparent in a post-vocalic position (after a vowel). For instance 'steal', 'sister', 'nickel' become steauh, sistuh, nickuh. In some varieties of AAVE (e.g. in the Southern US), r is not pronounced after the vowels o and u. The words door and doe, four and foe, and sure and show can be pronounced alike.


Nasalized vowels:

When a nasal (n or m) follows a vowel, AAVE speakers sometimes delete the nasal consonant and nasalize the vowel. This nasalization is written with a tilde ( ~ ) above the vowel. So 'man' becomes .

Nasals consonants and front vowels:

In many varieties of English, including standard varieties, the vowels i in pin and e in pen sound different in all words. In AAVE, these sounds are merged before a nasal (like n or m). So in AAVE pin and pen are pronounced with the same vowel. Most Southern US varieties of English merge these vowels too, so this is only a distinctive feature of AAVE in the northern United States.


Some vowels like those in night and my or about and cow are called "diphthongs". This means that when the vowel is pronounced, the tongue starts at one place in the mouth and moves as the vowel is being pronounced. In AAVE the vowel in 'night' or in 'my' is often not a diphthong. So when pronouncing the words with this diphthong, AAVE speakers (and speakers of Southern varieties as well) do not move the tongue to the front top position. So 'my' is pronounced ma as in he's over at ma sister's house.


AAVE s from some other varieties in the placement of stress in a word. So, where words like police, hotel and July are pronounced with stress on the last syllable in standard English, in AAVE they may have stress placed on the first syllable so that you get po-lice, ho-tel and Ju-ly.





The verb "be"

Standard English uses a conjugated be verb (called a copula) in a number of different sentences. (This may occur as is, 's, are, 're, etc.) In AAVE this verb is often not included. The frequency of inclusion has been shown to depend on a variety of factors. Here are some examples:

  In future sentences with gonna or gon (see below):

I don't care what he say, you __ gon laugh. long as i's kids around he's gon play rough or however they're playing.

  Before verbs with the -ing or -in ending(progressive):

I tell him to be quiet because he don't know what he __ talking about.

I mean, he may say something's out of place but he __ cleaning up behind it and you can't get mad at him.

  Before adjectives and expressions of location:

He __ all right.

And Alvin, he __ kind of big, you know?

She __ at home. The club __ on one corner, the Bock is on the other.

  Before nouns (or phrases with nouns)

He __ the one who had to go try to pick up the peacock.

I say, you __ the one jumping up to leave, not me.


Standard English varieties mark grammatical agreement between the subject and predicate in the present tense. If the subject is third person singular (he, she, it or the name of a person or object), an -s appears at the end of a regular verb. (e.g. John walks to the store). In AAVE the verb is rarely marked in this way. When regular verbs occur with such -s marking, they often carry special emphasis. Standard English also has agreement in a number of irregular and frequently used verbs such as has vs have and is vs are and was vs were. In AAVE these distinctions are not always made.

Tense and aspect

The verb in AAVE is often used without any ending. As is the case with the English creoles, there are some separate words that come before the verb which show when or how something happens. These are called "tense/aspect markers".

Past tense:

Past tense may be conveyed by the surrounding discourse (with the help of adverbials such as, for example, "last night", "three years ago", "back in them days", etc., or by the use of conjunctions which convey a sequence of actions (e.g. "then"), or by the use of an ending as in standard English. The frequency with which the -ed ending occurs depends on a number of factors including the sounds which follow it.

Some past events are conveyed by placing been before the verb. Speakers of standard English may mistake this for the standard English "present perfect" with the "have" or "has" deleted. However the AAVE sentence with been is in fact quite different from the standard English present perfect. This can be seen by comparing two sentences such as the following:

Standard English present perfect: He has been married.

AAVE been: He been married.

In the standard English sentence the implication is that he is now no longer married. However, in the AAVE sentence the implication is quite the opposite: he is still married.

Sentences equivalent to standard English perfects such as discussed above may be conveyed by the use of done in AAVE. For example the standard sentence "He has eaten his dinner" can be expressed as He done eat his dinner.


Future events and those that have not yet occurred are marked by gon or gonna (see above).

Events in progress:

Besides using the verb with the ending -ing or -in to convey that an event is in progress, AAVE has a number of other words which add particular nuances. For instance, if the activity is vigorous and intentional, the sentence may include the word steady. The item steady can be used to mark actions that occur consistently or persistently, as in Ricky Bell be steady steppin in them number nines.

Events that occur habitually or repeatedly are often marked by be in AAVE as in She be working all the time.


AAVE has a number of ways of marking negation. Like a number of other varieties of English, AAVE uses ain't to negate the verb in a simple sentence. In common with other nonstandard dialects of English, AAVE uses ain't in standard English sentences which use "haven't". For example standard "I haven't seen him." is equivalent to AAVE I ain't seen him. Unlike most other nonstandard varieties of English, AAVE speakers also sometimes use ain't for standard "didn't" as in the following examples

I ain't step on no line.

I said, "I ain't run the stop sign," and he said, "you ran it!"

I ain't believe you that day, man.

As the first sentence above shows, AAVE also allows negation to be marked in more that one position in the sentence (so called double or multiple negation). In this respect, AAVE resembles French and a number of other Romance languages and also a number of English creoles. Certain kinds of nouns actually require negative marking in negative sentences. In so far as the negation must be expressed with indefinite nouns (e.g. "anything", "anyone" etc.), this is a form of agreement marking. (e.g. I ain't see nothing).

AAVE also has a special negative construction which linguists call "negative inversion". An example from Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon follows:

Pilate they remembered as a pretty woods-wild girl "that couldn't nobody put shoes on."

In this example (in the part in italics), a negative auxiliary (couldn't) is moved in front of the subject (nobody). Some other examples illustrate this:

Ain't nobody talkin' to you!

Can't nobody beat 'em

Can't nobody say nothin' to dem peoples!

Don' nobody say nothing after that. (Ledbetter, born 1861)

Wasn't nobody in there but me an' him. (Isom Moseley, born 1856)