Exploring Black Languages, a quick look at AAVE (African American Vernacular English)

By Temi Oyenuga

Surely, you’ve heard of the words ‘bae’… ‘lit’… ‘trippin’, ‘what’s good’.

In your music, on social media, or maybe just in everyday conversation.

But have you ever stopped to wonder where these words actually come from?

The renowned lingo forms part of a language called AAVE.

For those who don’t know, AAVE is short for ‘African American Vernacular English’ and is a language created by African Americans. This language also falls within a body of work known as ‘Ebonics’- “Ebony” deriving from the word ‘Black’ and “phonics” derives from the word ‘sound’. ‘

According to Mr. Williams, the definition of Ebonics is:

…the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represents the communicative compentencee of the West African, Caribbean, and United States idioms, patois, argots, ideolects, and social forces of black people…Ebonics derives its form from ebony(black) and phonics(sound, study of sound) and refers to the study of the language of black people in all its cultural uniqueness. 

AAVE is part of the long history of Black languages; it is a system of sounds, words and sentence structures with strong African semantics. So when speakers know AAE, they know a system of sounds, word and sentence structure, meaning and structural organization of vocabulary items and other information.

Try out these AAVE sentences!

“Stay”

(1) Live, abide in a place. (2) To frequent a place. (3) To engage in activity frequently. (4) To be in some emotional state on most occasions. (5) Stay being used in the habitual

(1) I stay on New Orleans Street.

=   I live on New Orleans Street.

(2) She stay in that bathroom.

=   She’s always in the bathroom.

 (3) She stay running.

=   She’s always running.

(4) He stay in the air.

=   He’s a frequent flyer; he travels by airplane regularly.

(5) He stay angry.

=   He’s always angry.

“Be”

(1) To be in a continuing state.

“He be mad.”

“Girl, he be talkin’ all the time.”

“It be like, looking all funny and stuff any time I put ‘em in the dryer”

AAVE has pervaded much of popular mainstream culture and, like many other attributes of Black culture, it is rarely ever credited for its origins.

AAVE + Its Origins

Black languages came out of the experience of enslaved African and their descendents in the Diaspora.

West Africans – who were enslaved in the Americas – were forced to understand English on plantations. Newly enslaved West Africans would have limited access to learn to speak English and there were laws in place that forbade them from being taught to read English. There were also policies and laws in place, which ensured that enslaved Africans were not allowed to speak in their mother tongue.

The roots of this African American language further lie in the resistance to the above oppression.

The resistance movement is where enslaved African American created a coded way in which they spoke that relied on the grammatical understanding they had from Africa. It also relied on other techniques like using negative words to describe positive things so the white slave owners would not be able to understand them when they spoke to each other. Thus, AAVE was a speech created as a communication system by Black people unintelligible to speakers of the dominant white class.

The shared Black experience has resulted in common language practices in the African Diaspora. AAVE is just one of many examples of this.

Black speech has historically been mislabelled by mainstream White culture as broken forms of English or “slang”. However, these misconceptions are wrong and steeped heavily in negative, racist and colonialists views around “Blackness”.

AAVE is not “slang”.

AAVE is a language distinguished from English’s traditional grammatical and phonetic structure. It is steeped in the richness of Black culture and has strong ancestral roots.

And strong influences too.

Words like ‘bae’, which were originally concentrated in the Black South, had spread through much of the urban areas in the Midwest, before eventually spreading across the country to the Northeast and the West, too.

Well, why is this relevant?

Linguistic Appropriation of AAVE

Simple. Language appropriation.

Language appropriation is when a non-Black person, company or brand steals a language preserved uniquely for one ethnic group and strips it entirely of its context.

Many words and phrases, originating from AAVE have made their way into the local vernacular with words like ‘bae’ and ‘lit’ being used commonly by our White and non- Black counterparts.

And no, this is not “appreciation”.

A lot of times, AAVE will go mainstream without people ever knowing where the language actually comes from.

As Black cultural expressions function as symbols of Black identity and solidarity, White and Non-Black people’s imitation of AAVE dilutes the heritage and cultural significance of this language.

Additionally, AAVE is a dialect that is typically deemed as an unacceptable way of speaking but becomes perceived as ‘trendy’ and ‘cool’ once White people imitate the language.

White people can also use AAVE when it benefits them (e.g. in urban spaces) and dispose of it when it is no longer convenient.

Even mass media groups capitalise off of AAVE and play a major role in the process of appropriation.

Language policing + Code switching

However, many Black folks who genuinely speak this way do not have the privilege of switching between two dialects. Instead, we, as Black people, are often looked down upon and seen as “uneducated” or “informal” for using AAVE.

It is very common for Black people to sometimes internalise these beliefs, which leads to conflicts within ourselves about our identity. It also causes us to code switch; this is when Black people switch their mode of communication to adapt to the setting they are in. Code switching is commonly seen in professional settings and is viewed as a necessary tool for survival in these spaces.

Let me explain to you why code switching is bad.

First, it causes Black people to develop a negative bias towards their own language.

Black people may also, consciously or subconsciously, display feelings of cultural shame around their language. These behaviours reinforce anti-blackness and perpetrate the idea that “whiteness” is supreme and ultimately the standard.

As Black people, many of us are most comfortable when using AAVE in any setting. 

Many of us can still recall instances in own lives where we have shielded away from using our language? 

Maybe at school or at work? 

Instances where you’ve adapted your mode of speech to appear “better” or “smarter”?

But think for a minute.

And assess… What ideas am I reinforcing when I do this?

As Black people, it is difficult for us to challenge these negative assumptions on AAVE because we are conditioned within a white supremacist society to internalise racism and demonise our language and culture.

But, listen.

AAVE is a legitimate language and should be recognised as such.

So, don’t be pressed y’all about any misconceptions around AAVE.

Be proud of your language, rock it, and embrace it!

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