African American Vernacular English

Term Paper, 2009

15 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. History

3. Features
3.1 Phonology
3.1.1 Vowel system
3.1.2 Consonant system
3.1.3 Stress
3.2 Grammar
3.2.1 Time reference
3.2.2 Negation
3.2.3 Other grammatical features
3.3 Vocabulary

4. Summary

5. Sources

6. Abbreviations

1. Introduction

The majority of the US-citizens of African ancestry speak a characteristic variety of English that has been referred to by several names. It has variously been called Non-Standard Negro English, Negro Dialect[1], Black English Vernacular, Black English, African American English, African American Vernacular English, Ebonics, etc. In this paper, I will use the term African American Vernacular English, abbreviated AAVE, because it is the term most current among linguists today. The term “vernacular” refers to the everyday language spoken by a speech community, often a non-standard variety.[2]

No other variety inside the United States has been studied as much as AAVE. During the last fourty years, many works have been released concerning this topic. This paper is an overview of AAVE. It starts with the historical backgrounds of the variety by discussing the major theories concerning its origin. The main part of this paper deals with AAVE’s linguistic features in comparison to Standard American English. The features are subdivided into the sub-chapters phonology, grammar and vocabulary. A summary forms the final chapter of this paper.

2. History

There are three major theories about the origin of African American Vernacular English and the reasons why it differs from Standard American English as well as other varieties of English. The first theory is that AAVE is descended from a creole, which derived from an English-based pidgin itself.[3]

Those who support the creolist hypothesis maintain that the creole upon which AAVE is based was fairly widespread in the antebellum South. They observe that this creole was not unique to the mainland South but rather shows a number of similarities to well-known English-based creoles of the African diaspora such as Krio, spoken today in Sierra Leone along the coast of West Africa, as well as English-based creoles of the Caribbean such as the creoles of Barbados and Jamaica. Its vestiges in the United States are still found today in GULLAH, more popularly called “Geechee,” the creole still spoken by a small number of African Americans in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. It is maintained that this creole was fairly widespread among the descendants of Africans on Southern plantations but was not spoken to any extent by whites.[4]

Judith Rodby (1992) outlines the possible development of AAVE as follows:

The roots of contemporary BEV[5] are found in the seventeenth-century slave trade. Historically, slave owners had organized the slaves’ social universe so that it was difficult for them to communicate. The Ibo, Hausa, Yoruba, Mandingo, and Wolof tribes, for example, lived together even though they spoke languages that were only minimally mutually intelligible. These slaves who did not speak the same language and did not have the opportunity to learn English developed a pidgin language to communicate with each other and with whites. Gradually, the pidgin became creolized; it was regularized, expanded, and passed from one generation to another as a mother tongue. Slave creole was based largely on the syntax of West African languages and the lexicon of English and was the historical antecedent of comtemporary Black English.[6]

Over time, through language contact with surrounding dialects, this creole was modified in a process referred to as decreolization to become more like other varieties of English.[7]

“What speaks for a creole origin is above all the rich and varied aspect[8] system of AAVE, as well as the existence of more African loanwords in AAVE than was previously thought.”[9]

The alternative theory is that AAVE is an English dialect based on the varieties that the slaves picked up from white speakers. This one is called the dialectologist theory or the Anglicist hypothesis[10] and “[s]cholars who support the dialectologist position see AAVE as a dialect of English, based on the dialects that the black slaves picked up from their white masters and especially from white farm employees. There is plenty of linguistic and historical evidence[11] to support this view.”[12]

The third and last theory says that AAVE is derived from West African languages. Its supporters often use the term “Ebonics”[13] instead of AAVE. This “...theory is not accepted by professional linguists but it has had some important political[14] consequences”[15], therefore, it is at least supposed to be mentioned in this paper.


[1] Ralph W. Fasold / Walt Wolfram: “Some Linguistic Features of Negro Dialect”, in: Paul Stoller [editor], Black American English. Its Background and Its Usage in the Schools and in Literature, Dell, New York 1975, pp. 49-88.

[2] Tottie (2002), p. 218.

[3] Tottie (2002), p. 227.

[4] Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1998), p.175.

[5] BEV, i.e. Black English Vernacular, meaning AAVE.

[6] Judith Rodby: “A Polyphony of Voices: The Dialectics of Linguistic Diversity and Unity in the Twentieth-Century United States”, in: Michael D. Linn [editor], Handbook of Dialects and Language Variation [2. edition], Academic Press, San Diego 1998, pp. 447-474, p.464.

[7] Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1998), p.175.

[8] “Aspect is often contrasted with tense to make useful distinctions. Tense situates an event in time, as in Bruce ran, in which the running took place at some past time before the sentence was uttered. Aspect, on the other hand, refers to duration, completion or habitual occurrence. The progressive or durative aspect is expressed on the verb running (as in Bruce is running), in which the running activity is durative, indicating continuing action, or that the activity is in progress” (Green (2002), p. 45).

[9] Tottie (2002), p. 227.

[10] Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1998), p.175.

[11] For the linguistic material see: Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1998), pp.176-177.

[12] Tottie (2002), p. 227.

[13] Ebonics = Ebony + Phonics.

[14] On December 18, 1996, the Oakland, California school board passed a controversial resolution recognizing the legitimacy of Ebonics as a language. The resolution set off a maelstrom of media criticism and ignited a hotly discussed national debate (

[15] Tottie (2002), p. 227.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


African American Vernacular English
University of Duisburg-Essen
Language and Interaction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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471 KB
African, American, Vernacular, English, Language, Linguistik, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics, Black, Slang
Quote paper
Ismail Durgut (Author), 2009, African American Vernacular English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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