African American Vernacular English - Origins and Features

Pre-University Paper, 2011

19 Pages


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. What is AAVE?
2.1. Who speaks AAVE?

3. The origins of AAVE
3.1. The Afrocentric view
3.2. The Eurocentric view
3.3. The Creolist view

4. The Oakland school Board proposal

5. Features of AAVE
5.1. Phonological features
5.2. Grammatical features
5.2.1. Tense and aspect Optional past-tense marking Obligatory aspect marking Markers of tense, mood and aspect Semantic features Negation
5.3. Lexicon of AAVE

6. Conclusion

7. List of references


I would like to thank all the people who helped me to make this paper. The list includes TKO student Zoulikha El Bouchtati, who printed this paper for me. This paper was completed during my 3rd semester on TKO Mechelen, and I am especially thankful to the excellent facilities of the school and their efficient, supportive staff: Liesbeth Piessens and Vera Lapeere and the other staff members at TKO Mechelen.

1. Introduction

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is the variety formerly known as Black English Vernacular or Vernacular Black English among sociolinguists. It is also called Ebonics outside the academic community. While some features of AAVE are apparently unique to this variety, in its structure it also shows many similarities with other varieties including a number ofstandard and nonstandard English varieties spoken in the US. AAVE has been the subject of several public debates. The analysis of this variety has caused a lot of discussion among sociolinguists and also among the American people.

AAVE is a language that I hear every day through the music I hear and the Internet I use. This was the main reason that I chose to learn more about AAVE. Many people think AAVE is the same as Standard American English but this is not true.

In this paper I will investigate whether AAVE is a dialect or a slang. And also the origins of AAVE and the featuresof AAVE (Phonological-, grammatical and lexical features) and the social and educational context of AAVE will be explained more in this paper.

Through many research in the library of the university of Antwerp and the library of the university of Leuven but also through many research on the internet I was able to collect and investigate this subject. With the great help of my teacher Mvr. Piessens I was able to make this paper.

2. What is AAVE?

“AAVE is a nonstandard form of American English Characteristically spoken by African Americans in the United States of America”(Miller, G. (2010) (online))

There is a difference between Ebonics and AAVE; Ebonics is the language that slaves and people who where directly imported from Africa used, this language used a lot of slang features. The difference is that Ebonics is the precursor of AAVE; AAVE arose after Ebonics and is more distinguished and is more developed than Ebonics.

AAVE gained public attention on 16 December 1996, When the Oakland (California) school board approved a resolution that would recognize AAVE as a primary language in the USA. This resolution to the school Board resolution will be explained later in this paper.

The reactions in the USA to the school Board resolution were very negative. Many sociolinguists as well as the American people were not pleased with this resolution. On the Internet many people expressed their anger against this resolution. The main reason was that many people thought that AAVE would be taught in the classroom. But this was not true. The school board’s plan was to have special programs for teachers to get to know AAVE better, so they could help African American students with learning Standard American English. These students had a lot of problems because of the differences between Standard American English and AAVE. You could conclude that the idea of the Oakland school Board was to use the vernacular[1] to teach the Standard.

When we read that Linguists have approved a proposal and that they support this proposal, we should ask what the main task is of a linguist?

A linguist is someone who studies the sounds, words and grammar of languages and dialects. The following three principles of the goal of linguists will make you understand more why they approved this proposition.

“The first principle of the science of linguists is that linguists need to describe how people talk”. This means that they don’t have the right to judge a language on how it needs to be used, they only need to describe it. “the second principle is that all languages, if they have enough speakers, have dialects”. And the last principle is that ‘all languages and dialects are systematic and rule-governed”.

Now , knowing these principles we can understand why many linguists describe AAVE as a dialect and not as a slang. The main definition of a dialect is A regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, especially a variety of speech differing from the standard literary language or speech pattern of the culture in which it exists” ( Houghton Mifflin Company. (2009) The American heritage; dictionary of the English language,[online] Available: [17 Dec 2010] )

AAVE can be identified by the definition of a dialect.

Linguists (not all linguists) were pleased by the resolution of The Oakland School Board. At the annual meeting of Linguistic Society of America, a resolution was approved describing AAVE as “systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties”. They also agreed that the proposition was “linguistically and pedagogically sound”.

We can conclude that AAVE is not a slang but a dialect, even if we see that AAVE has some slang words such as chillin (“relaxing”) and homey (“close friend”).

The manner in which AAVE differs from Standard English is highly ordered: this means that AAVE has a grammatical structure, specific word usage and a phonology that is distinguished. If we analyze AAVE we will understand the complex rules that African American speakers follow effortlessly and unconsciously in their daily lives. (Rickford, 1999: 320-322)

2.1. Who speaks AAVE?

Nobody uses all the rules of AAVE at once (grammar and pronunciation), most people who speak AAVE use a sort of mixture of AAVE and Standard American English.

Most speakers are African Americans, however not all African Americans speak AAVE. Here we make a distinction between AAVE and Ebonics. Ebonics is the Old English spoken during the 1800’s and 1900’s, it is the language that slaves spoke. There were many slang words in this slang used. AAVE is a dialect that is mostly spoken by African Americans, it is a developed dialect with many rules on the grammatical- phonological and lexical parts.

Most speakers of the African American community are among the working-class. This due to the fact that people still see AAVE as a language that is not very appropriate to use in higher classes. It is more a street language, that is why it is mostly spoken among adolescents.It is much used in the informal contexts (e.g. a conversation on the streets). In the writing language many use Standard American English, this is more accepted by the community, because SAE has a more formal status.

Social networks also influence who speaks AAVE. Higher class people such as doctors and lawyers speak Standard American English (in social environment) more than laborers and the unemployed.

The sense of community is an explanation for the evolution of AAVE. Many African Americans did not belong to the community of the white people (they did not have contact with white people) and were driven into ghettos. They used AAVE to create a community. That is why many working-class speakers (and adolescents) use AAVE. Because AAVE would identify them with a community in which they lived, namely the African American community.

Some slang features of AAVE were used in other varieties of English especially the Southern White dialects. Many slaves worked in southern America, There was a heavy concentration of African Americans (slaves). But these features were slang because it was the early development of the AAVE language. Expressions like “givin five” and “whassup?” were (and are now) so much used in the American culture that many people don’t realize they originated in the African American community (Rickford, 1999: 323-324).


[1] Vernacular means a language that people speak that is not an official language. It the tongue that people use to express their selves.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


African American Vernacular English - Origins and Features
Antwerp Local School
Last year of High School
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ISBN (Book)
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african, american, vernacular, english
Quote paper
Haider Madhloum (Author), 2011, African American Vernacular English - Origins and Features , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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