African American Vernacular English: A New Dialect of the English Language

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2012

18 Pages, Grade: A


African American Vernacular English has been a topic of much debate over the past few decades. The questions being raised are over whether or not AAVE is simply a form of apathetic English used by African Americans, or if the type of speech is a recognizable dialect of the English language. Half of the spectrum attributes AAVE to be a form of slang used by African Americans who are simply too lazy or too disconnect with the constructs of educated American society to bother with Standard English. While the other half believes AAVE is not only a distinguishable variant of the English language, but it should also be labeled as a full dialect of the English language.[1] The research provided will not only attempt to shed new light on the topic of debate but it was also provide substantial reasoning’s behind why African American Vernacular English is a true dialect of the English language.

In order to better understand the concepts surrounding the AAVE dialect debate, a more thorough understanding of the origins behind AAVE is required. The term “African American Vernacular English” is the current definition accepted throughout the world of academia and linguistics. The various labels for AAVE have been dramatically altered over the course of time through progressive research and study. The development of the term started with Negro Dialect and transitioned into the following terms in chronological order: Substandard Negro English, Nonstandard Negro English, Black English, Vernacular Black English, Black English Vernacular, Afro-American English, Ebonics, Spoken Soul, African American Language, and of course African American Vernacular English.[2] The term for African American speech counties to evolve with the progression and understanding of AAVE as well as the research that accompanies it.

According to John Rickford, Stanford University Professor of Linguistics and academic author, linguists are divided in their thoughts about the origins of AAVE and how it came to be such a highly debated topic within global and American society. Rickford explains that, “Some [linguists] emphasize its English origins, pointing to the fact that most of the vocabulary of Ebonics is from English and that much of its pronunciation (e.g. pronouncing final -th as f) and grammar (e.g. double negatives, "I don't want none") could have come from the nonstandard dialects of English indentured servants and other workers with whom African slaves interacted.”[3] Rickford also details that, “others emphasize Ebonics' African origins, noting that West African languages often lack -th sounds and final consonant clusters, and that replacing or simplifying these occurs both in US Ebonics and in West African English varieties spoken in Nigeria and Ghana. Moreover, they argue that the distinction made between completed actions ("He done walked") and habitual actions ("We be walkin") in the Ebonics tense-aspect system reflects their prevalence in West African language systems and that this applies to other aspects of Ebonics sentence structure.”[4] Rickford concludes about the origins of AAVE, “One thing is for sure: This dynamic, distinctive variety--thoroughly intertwined with African American history and linked in many ways with African American literature, education, and social life--is one of the most extensively studied and discussed varieties of American English and it will probably continue to be so for many years to come.”[5]

There are two separate hypotheses that scholars contribute to the origins of Ebonics or AAVE. The first one is the Dialect Hypothesis; the idea that slaves from West Africa learned English incorrectly, which lead to each new generation learning this incorrect form of English as it was passed from generation to generation.[6] The second one is the Creole Hypothesis, which emerged in the late 1960’s, and has become the most accepted hypothesis of the origins of AAVE to date.[7] The hypothesis reveals that AAVE is a combination of both West African languages, which are grammatically similar to SE, and Standard English picked up through environmental interaction. The hypothesis suggests that when the slaves who spoke different languages of separate West African tribes were forced into close contact together, they developed a pidgin of English and West African to communicate. A pidgin is, “a simplified speech used for communication between people with different languages.[8] ” The hypothesis also reveals that as this pidgin became the standard for slaves, they began to pass this new form of communication down to new generations. As time passed and freed slaves became part of free American society, their direct exposure to English allowed them to shed their pidgin. AAVE is essentially the transitional language or dialect from the pidgin they used when they first arrived via the slave trade to the end result of Standard English. The direct result of AAVE is essentially the product of former African slaves, their ancestors, and new generations slowly being exposed to Standard English over time. Thus at the current day, we are left with AAVE.[9] Essentially this equates to the withering of the pidgin created from West African Slaves by new and constant exposure to Standard English, which intern results in the AAVE known to present day. The Creole Hypothesis also suggests that the AAVE known through the U.S should become nonexistent within the next few generations.

Now that the origins behind AAVE have been discussed, the focus can be directed to how AAVE came to the forefront of American society. Robert Williams can be attributed to sparking the debate over African American Vernacular English in 1973 and up through 1975. Williams held a conference in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 23, 1973 entitled Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child. At this conference Williams coined the term Ebonics -a combination of the word ebony and the word phonics, which would later be known as African American Vernacular English, and attributed this way of speech to the African slave trade.[10] Ebonics developed in West Africa throughout parts of Europe, North America, South America, and where slave were transported and sold.[11] The purpose of the conference was to bring to light the negative connotations surrounding AAVE. Williams wanted to shift society’s attention from the negative stereotypes individuals labeled AAVE speaks as, to the actuality of the dialect contained within this unfamiliar speech.[12] The conference not only provided new details on the culture of African Americans and their speech patterns, but it also laid the foundational groundwork for the 1997 nation-wide debate in Oakland, California.

Following the 1973 conference Williams published the book entitled Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks, which was a groundbreaking piece during its time. The book essentially transformed Williams’ conference into a published reference. Williams stated that the book was centered around, “linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendant of African origin. It includes the various idioms, patois, argots, idiolects, and social dialects of black people.”[13] Williams publishing of his work on Ebonics would not only shed new light to an unfamiliar topic, during this time, but it would also give way to new and objective arguments about the origins of Ebonics and African American Vernacular English.


[1] For strong points on different views of the subject, see Mufwene, John Rickford, Guy Bailey, and John Baugh 154.

[2] It should be noted that not all scholars use the term AAVE, some use altered uses. For more details on the history of the term for African American spoken word, see Wolfram(2002) Preface 1.

[3] This section was taken direct from a brochure Rickford created for the Linguistic Society of America. The brochure was created to provide a reference on the history of AAVE from its conception to current day. For more on AAVE origins and to view the entire brochure, see Rickford (2005) 1-2.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] For deeper analysis on the Dialect Hypothesis, see Mufwene 154-156.

[7] The Creole Hypothesis or some from close to it is the widely accepted hypothesis, see Wolfram (2002) 13-14.

[8] For full definition of pidgin, see Merriam-Webster 938.

[9] For deeper analysis on the Creole Hypothesis, see Mufwene 154-156.

[10] For more on Williams’ conference, see Baugh 16.

[11] For more information on the slave trade, see Baugh 16.

[12] See Rickford (2005) 1-2.

[13] Additional information on William’s book and 1973 conference see Williams.

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African American Vernacular English: A New Dialect of the English Language
University of New Hampshire
English 550 - Graduate Studies in English Language
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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african, american, vernacular, english, dialect, language
Quote paper
Patrick Tretina (Author), 2012, African American Vernacular English: A New Dialect of the English Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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