African American Vernacular English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

31 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The origins of AAVE

3. AAVE – a separate system?

4. AAVE in education

5. Afrocentric schools

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The subject of this paper is the variety African American Vernacular English (AAVE) formerly known as Black English Vernacular among linguists and often called Ebonics in the media. I will use the term AAVE throughout this paper.

AAVE is a variant of English that shows some unique features no other variant of English shares. Aside there is a huge amount of commonalities between AAVE and Standard English (SE) and English vernaculars. Most of the commonalities AAVE shares with non-standard variants of the south of the United States. But even Caribbean languages resemble AAVE; a fact that has led to discussions about the origins of AAVE and its status. There are two theories in competition: the dialectal hypothesis and the Creole hypothesis. The discussion is not only linguistically interesting but also of political importance. This will be discussed in the first two chapters of this paper.

It is very difficult to say how many people speak AAVE. There may be speakers who use AAVE pronunciation and vocabulary but none of the grammatical features. Others may use other distinctive aspects of the variant. Linguists generally use the term AAVE for those variants that show certain distinctive grammatical features like copula deletion, losing of third person singular –s or double negation. Since these grammatical features occur variably - that means in alternation with features of Standard English - it remains difficult to say how many people speak AAVE. This variability shows the complex social attitudes that surround AAVE. Among other things that is why it has attracted the attention of many sociolinguists and has been the main focus of several public discussions.

Ten years ago a resolution passed by the Oakland School Board hit the headlines. In comparison to their white contemporaries black children come off badly in school. As a result the members of the School Board claimed that AAVE should be officially recognized “as the predominantly primary language of African-American students”.

The hope was that black students would do better in school when thought would be given to their language and their origins. The resolution led to public controversy. The problems of the education of black students and approaches that have been made to improve the children’s situation are discussed in chapter 4.

The major problem of AAVE probably is its reputation in public. Many people, including public policy makers, have a wrong idea of what AAVE is. They think it is poor or wrong English and condemn speakers of AAVE. This also led to a complex attitude towards AAVE among the community of AAVE speakers. Many Blacks contrast their vernacular to “proper English” and evaluate their language by doing so. At the same time the usage of AAVE is very important for them and reflects their identity as a member of the Black community. Especially among young Blacks this ambiguity causes difficulties.

An institution that tries to help those children and to offer them good education is the Afrocentric School. Over the last years numerous Afrocentric schools have been set up all over the United States. There are many advocates of this idea. But there are also a lot of critical voices. A major concern concerning the Afrocentric idea is the separation that results from it. There are opponents of the idea that claim that Afrocentric schools promote a wrong sense of pride and racism among young Blacks. The Afrocentric school system is discussed in the last chapter of this paper.

A recent topic that won’t be touched in this paper is that of the divergence of AAVE and SE. Many linguists think that AAVE diverges; that means that is becoming more and more different from white English vernaculars. According to experts a reason for this development is the increasing residential segregation in American cities. Also approaches like Afrocentric schools are often blamed for further divergence of AAVE and SE. It is feared that they will even worsen the situation of black students. William Labov for example says that there is “the need for a cross-cultural, cross-linguistic program, […] this means an integration of black lower class youth with black middle class youth as well as integration of black and white youth”. (Labov 1995)

2. The origins of AAVE

An important question to ask is where the language of black Americans comes from and how it developed. Robbins Burling gives an answer to this in his book English in Black and White. According to him there are two major views on that topic that have been in competition. The first one is called the dialectal hypothesis; also known as the Anglicist hypothesis. It is based upon the observation that the dialects of divided social groups tend to diverge. Since language is not a static system the speakers of a speech community have to keep in touch with each other. Otherwise their dialects draw apart. The most prominent example is the difference between British English and American English. This is only one of many examples where dialectal divergence resulted from geographical separation. In fact it is geographical variation we think of first when we talk about dialects states Burling.

But there are other reasons that can be responsible for divergence. Burling is sure that the social isolation of Blacks in the United States is of great importance. The dialectal hypothesis he says “nicely accounts […] for some facts of non-standard English” (Burling 1973). Multiple negation and double modals for example come directly from ancient traditions, the Elizabethan times in this case. On the one hand AAVE inherited forms from those ancient traditions; on the other hand it departed from them by being very innovative. This is a typical development when two dialects diverge. They keep some old characteristics and introduce some new. In the case of AAVE one example is the losing of the third person singular –s. according to the dialectal hypothesis one should look upon AAVE as a dialect of English like any other. So did many dialectologists of the mid-twentieth century and claimed that AAVE can be traced back to the same origins as earlier American dialects of English, namely the English of Great Britain. That’s where the name Anglicist hypothesis comes from. Its supporters assumed that the slaves simply learned the different varieties of English spoken by their white masters. However, in the mid 70s even those who were quite approved of the dialectal view recognized that there may be more to it. Burling puts it that way:

“Some forms of the New World English show signs of rather different historical process. The English of Jamaica and of the other English-speaking islands of the Caribbean is so divergent from the English of Britain or of the American mainland that it suggests a sharper break with tradition.”

A new theory was introduced: The Creole hypothesis. When Europeans and Africans first met they had no common language. Still there was a need to communicate. To take this hurdle they used a very simplified form of English – Pidgin English. Within this pidgin regular patterns developed and the Blacks soon did not only use it to communicate with the white people but also within their black community. As a result it didn’t take long until there were the first black native speakers of this language. A language like that, used in daily life and spoken as a native language, we call a Creole.

Creoles can, for instance, be found in Jamaica and some other Caribbean islands. In the United States it is agreed that there is at least one form of Creole English which is called Gullah. It is spoken at the coastal area of South Carolina and the small islands that lie just off shore. In particular it is the geographical isolation that helped this Creole to survive. The influence of Standard English in this area is very small.

Gullah and the Creole of Jamaica generally were seen as set apart from SE and its dialects; including the less divergent dialect of most black Americans. In other words the Creole languages have derived from pidgin languages that have developed from earlier English and African languages. The Creole hypothesis claimed that AAVE has developed from the Creoles, too, and went through the process of decreolization afterwards.

The question is which of the two hypotheses is true. Should AAVE be regarded as an ordinary dialect, following the dialectal hypothesis, or, according to the Creole hypothesis, as a follow of a Creole? The evidence shows that the answer isn’t that clear.

On the one hand many characteristics of AAVE demonstrate how close the dialect is to Standard English. In addition there are several “transitional dialects” that link AAVE and SE. Non-standard white dialects partly show characteristics of AAVE and in the south even the language of many whites shows many of the same features as AAVE. Burling states that dialects grade into one another imperceptibly and therefore it is useless to search for sharp boundaries.

On the other hand there are demonstrable links between AAVE and the more deviant Creole languages Gullah and even Jamaican. We can find many similarities concerning pronunciation and grammar: Gullah speakers, like speakers of AAVE, tend to avoid final consonants and drop them. Final and postvocalic r does virtually not exist. Gullah: wawd (word), masa (master). Moreover final consonants are simplified. Final d and t for instance are deleted from mind, hand, and first. Jamaican English is even more divergent: th has merged with other sounds: wif (with); bof (both); as is common with AAVE: tri (three); dem (them). Final and preconsonantal r is completely lost: kya (care), wok (work), liida (leader).

One could say that in terms of pronunciation Gullah and Jamaican can be seen as extreme forms of AAVE. The results are very similar concerning grammar. The Creoles seem to carry further the grammatical tendencies shown by AAVE. For example inflected forms of be which can be contracted in SE and are often deleted in AAVE are practically not existing in the Creoles. Moreover multiple negation is a common characteristic in AAVE and the Creoles. Gullah: I cant stand no quilt. Jamaican: Im wi niida iit naar gi wi non. (He will neither eat it nor give us any) The Creoles use the double modals quite freely, just like AAVE.

Yet the Creoles use some modals that can’t be found in any other language. Nevertheless it is unlikely that all the similarities of AAVE and the Creoles arose by chance. That supports the Creole hypothesis.

However, it is also possible that Standard English is the language that has changed and has left all the other dialects with the same old forms says Burling. Double negation and double modals for example are as old as English and did not enter the languages as a result of creolization. It was rather Standard English that changed and departed from old traditions. According to Burling this evidence minimizes the importance of creolization in the development of AAVE and emphasizes its continuity with earlier British dialects.

It seems that there is evidence for both hypotheses. AAVE is too similar to other English non-standard dialects to be called a Creole. At the same time it has too much in common with Creoles like Gullah and Jamaican to class it as a mere dialect of Standard English. AAVE definitely is influenced by the Creole languages but also Standard English has had a long and persistent influence. Burling calls it a “mutual borrowing among all our dialects” that determined the present dialects of English.

Burling even mentions the possibility that Creoles have had an influence on Standard English. Evidence may be certain words in modern SE that demonstrably derived from African languages. Prominent examples are okay, uh-uh and uh-huh (the grunts meaning no and yes). Burling even speculates that African influences could have touched the pronunciation and grammar of the white south.

To sum it up it can be said that there are too many influences from both directions, Creoles and SE, to answer the question from the beginning in a satisfactory way.

Recently new evidence emerged. Linguists investigated the language of black expatriates who have lived in isolation since they left the United States. There is a group of Black migrants that moved from Pennsylvania to the Dominican Republic in the 1820s and has lived there relatively secluded from the rest of the population. Another group are Blacks that moved to Canada in the early 1800s and their follows still live in the remote regions of Nova Scotia. These groups are so interesting for investigation because it is assumed that they have conserved the language of their ancestors. The investigation of this language showed a striking resemblance to the language of earlier European varieties of English. That argues for the Anglicist hypothesis. Still the numerable characteristics that can be traced to the contact between English and West African languages are undeniable.

It remains impossible to find a clear-cut winner in this debate. “Both sides have a point—and the truth lies somewhere in between.”(Wolfram 2004)

It should be mentioned here that the origins of AAVE also have a political importance. For many Blacks it is a key part of their black identity. Supporters of Afrocentrism for instance prefer the idea that AAVE has derived from African languages and use the Creole hypothesis to strengthen their separatist position.

3. AAVE – a separate system?

A problem that follows the discussion about the origins of AAVE is the question of classification. Is AAVE a separate system, a language of its own? Or is it a mere dialect? Many linguists dealt with this problem. One of them is Labov. He soon established that it is absurd to look at AAVE as being completely different from other English systems. In one of his articles he compares the rules of AAVE to those of other English dialects and comes to the conclusion that the majority of rules are the same. Labov claims that

“the most striking features of AAVE syntax are shared by white Southern States dialects used by white speakers: negative concord, negative inversion, lack of inversion in embedded questions, double modals and more.”(Labov et al. 1998)

Furthermore there is no difference in forming the past tense or the simple present. Differences in forming the future are very small according to Labov. Moreover AAVE uses the same set of aspects as other English systems like the progressive or the present perfect. Apart from small modifications they are used the same way. Labov gives many more examples that show that the rules of AAVE and other English dialects are very similar.

Still many linguists think that it is wrong to place AAVE on one level with all the other systems of English. Labov supposes that there are subsets of rules in AAVE which can not be integrated into other English grammars and that some of these rules are very close the grammatical core of the language. That is one reason why AAVE is set apart from other English dialects.


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African American Vernacular English
Free University of Berlin  (Englische Philologie)
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African, American, Vernacular, English
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Janna Falkenstein (Author), 2006, African American Vernacular English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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