“Why is Ebonics broken English but English is not broken German? Why is Ebonics a dialect of English if English is not a dialect of Latin?” ― (Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist)
African American Vernacular English (AAVE), otherwise known as Vernacular Black English by sociolinguists, or Ebonics outside the academic world, is a language spoken by a large number of African Americans in the United States. Despite typically having a negative connotation in white-centric culture as being a substandard of English and a demonstrator of poor education and bad grammar, the reality surrounding Ebonics couldn’t be further removed from these presumptions.
Should we be using the word “Ebonics”?
In 1973, a group of black scholars coined the term ‘Ebonics’ as a portmanteau of the words ‘ebony’ (black) and ‘phonics’ (sounds) and was intended to serve as an alternative to the outdated term ‘Nonstandard Negro English’. The term ‘Ebonics’ refers to an English dialect language variation spoken by millions of African Americans in the United States. However, some consider that, at best, the term ‘Ebonics’ is now an antiquated word which no longer serves to convey the same meaning with the same connotation as it once did. With the passing of time, the use of the term ‘Ebonics’ has become a pejorative term used to discredit and dismiss the unique language characteristics of someone’s speech as being ‘slang’ or ‘improper’; an attitude traditionally coupled with the false racist beliefs that the BEM community (black and ethnic minority) is ‘uneducable’ and ‘unintelligent’. As such, in this article, ‘Ebonics’ will be here on out referred to as AAVE, a term used to describe the language by linguists.
What even is AAVE? What does it look like?
Just as British English (and any other variation of a language) is governed by a set of rules, so too is AAVE determined by its own set of established grammar conventions. Like any other language, not following these set conventions leads to misunderstanding in AAVE and, as such, from the get-go, we should dispel the myth that AAVE as a language system is ungrammatical and substandard in nature. In fact, we should be generally looking to remove any dichotomous thinking that variations of English are either good or bad.
The following are just some examples of AAVE language features:
(1). Omission of the verbal copula ‘be’.
Despite its somewhat overly academic-sounding name, this simply means to skip on the use of the word ‘be’ in sentences when, in some cases, it serves no purpose. For example, “Tom sick” (“Tom is sick”). Whilst some may see this as ‘lazy’ grammar, this linguistic feature can also be found in languages such as Russian, Mandarin and Arabic.
(2). The habitual aspect marker/ The habitual ‘be’.
This refers to the AAVE use of ‘be’ to mark habitual actions (regarding what someone/ something usually does) without stating whether it is happening at the moment of speech. For example, “he be workin’” (“he is usually working”).
(3). Negative concord/ Double negatives.
Whilst being a feature that is traditionally frowned upon in English (I’m sure most of us have been told at some point that two negatives make a positive), double negatives were actually widely used in early variations of English and were often used in Shakespearean works. What’s more, this linguistic feature is commonplace in the grammar systems of most western European languages. An example in AAVE would be, “she don’ wan’ nothin’” (“she doesn’t want anything”)
(4). Simplification of constant clusters.
Consonant clusters are when words, or a series of words, have two or more consonants presented together. Think ‘friend’, ‘tests’, or ‘first girl’. Consonant reduction sees that the final consonant in a cluster is not pronounced. Therefore, ‘first girl’ could be pronounced as ‘firs’girl’. In AAVE, this can be seen through the common pronunciation of “tes’” (test) and “han’” (hand). Regarding verbs, there is often little distinction between ‘passed’ and ‘past’ as both, according to this phonetic style, would be pronounced as “pass’”. (For further information on the phonetics of AAVE, see source #1)
(5). Semantic bleaching.
Many words, either through overuse or simply due to different cultural perspectives, lose their potency. In AAVE, many words that may be considered to be obscenities in other dialects are used without the same connotation. (See the following video for an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VXQltHSkyY -warning: contains words and references that those outside of AAVE may find offensive).
Note: this blog focuses mainly on the grammatical features of AAVE. The additional inclusion of both the vocabulary and phonic variations would stand outside of the scope of this article. To find out more about these variations, see source #2
Where did it all start?
Unfortunately, just like many other languages with curious beginnings, the short answer is that no one is really very sure. Whilst there is no general consensus regarding the linguistic origins of AAVE, it is mostly understood that the language system was born in the American south through a long period of slavery and was disseminated throughout the United States as a result of the systematic segregation of slaves from others who spoke the same language. As a result of the historical racism in the US and the covering of tracks and loss of documentation by many in higher positions, we are not left with any concrete evidence as to the linguistic origins of AAVE. Rather, we are presented with the following hypotheses:
There are those who take an Anglo-centric perspective and find that most AAVE vocabulary stems from English roots. They believe that the evident AAVE variations in phonetics and grammar may have come from nonstandard dialects of English which had been adopted by African slaves who had close direct contact with English servants and other workers. According to this theory, West African slaves learnt English from these English workers on plantations in the southern states (Georgia, South Carolina) and, subsequently, developed a pidgin (a simplified form of a language) which expanded through the US with the process of creolization.
There are also those who place the origins of AAVE in West African languages. They believe that features like consonant reduction, dropping the ‘th’ and the general structuring of sentences are all characteristics adopted from West African languages. This can also be seen in other West African variations of English in countries like Nigeria and Ghana. The theory goes that slaves who arrived at the plantations had limited access to grammatical English structures. As such, they applied the rules of universal grammar (general grammar rules which apply to almost all languages) and the grammar rules from their West African languages, to English to develop what later became known as AAVE.
Language is at the core of any culture. Therefore, AAVE provides us with a vital tool for reflecting on the history of African American culture in the US. My hope is that this article has served to give a small insight into the reality of AAVE, that is, that it is neither ungrammatical nor substandard in comparison to other variations of English. Rather, it is a valid language system, still spoken by millions today, that provides rich and diverse cultural aspects to the ever-growing multiculturalism of the US.
About Christian Copeland
Graduate Degree in Modern Languages and Translation (French/Spanish) from Cardiff University, UK. Studied in UNIGE, Geneva, Switzerland and Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain. English teacher, translator and proofreader in the French and Spanish to English combinations.
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