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AFRICAN-AMERICAN VERNACULAR ENGLISH Short form AAVE; also African-American English, Afro-American English, Afro-American, (American) Black English, black English, Black English Vernacular (BEV), Ebonics. Terms in SOCIOLINGUISTICS for English as used by a majority of US citizens of Black African background, consisting of a range of socially stratified urban and rural dialects. The most non-standard varieties are used by poor blacks with limited education, who have restricted social contact beyond their native communities. Standard varieties are influenced by regional norms: black standard English in the South is different from the African-American standard in the North, and each in turn reflects colloquial usage among educated whites in the same areas. Considerable style-shifting occurs between blacks talking to non-blacks and especially on less formal occasions when blacks prefer to use vernacular speech among themselves. The corresponding variation is pervasive, occurring with phonology, intonation, morphology, syntax, African-American slang, idioms, and ritualized verbal confrontations.


American BLACK ENGLISH was born of slavery between the late 16c and mid-19c, and followed black migration from the southern states to racially isolated ghettos throughout the US. According to J. L. Dillard (Black English, 1972), some 80% of black Americans speak the vernacular, and he and several other commentators stress its African origins. The pidginization and creolization that resulted from slavery linger on the tongues of Americans of African descent. Slave labour in the South gave birth to diverse linguistic norms; former indentured servants from all parts of the British Isles, who often became overseers on plantations, variously influenced the foundations of AAVE. See GULLAH. First the industrial revolution then the Civil War disrupted slavery and promoted African-American migration within the US, as a result of which slave dialects were transplanted from Southern plantations to the factories of the North and Midwest. When ‘smokestack’ industries grew, so too did urban employment for blacks, but racial segregation, rigorous in the South, was maintained in various forms throughout the entire US, and has not yet come to an end.


(1) Like the English of the Southern states in general, AAVE is non-rhotic: ‘ca’ for car, ‘pahty’ for party. Comparably, /l/ is absent in word-final consonant clusters with labials (‘hep’ for help, ‘sef’ for self), and both /r/ and /l/ are absent in such usages as ‘We comin’ for We're coming and ‘We be here’ for We'll be here. (2) A syllabic /n/ commonly replaces /ŋ/ in -ing forms: ‘comin’ and ‘runnin’ for coming and running. (3) Word-final consonant clusters are reduced: ‘des’ for desk, ‘tes’ for test, ‘col’ for cold. (4) Past-tense endings are also absent in such clusters: ‘look’ for looked, ‘talk’ for talked. (5) Word-initial /d/ often takes the place of /ð/, as in ‘dat day’ for that day and ‘dis house’ for this house. (6) Word-final /f/ often replaces /ɵ/, as in ‘boof’ for booth and ‘souf’ for south. (7) There is often heavy initial stress in disyllabic words: pólice for políce, défine for defíne.


(1) Multiple negation is common, as with many non-standard English dialects: No way no girl can't wear no platform shoes to no amusement park There is no way that any girl can wear platform shoes to an amusement park. (2) Existential it replaces there: It ain't no food here There is no food here. (3) Inflected forms such as plural, possessive, and singular -s and past -ed are variably omitted (as illustrated for pronunciation, points 3 and 4, above): He got three cent; That's my brother book; She like new clothes; They talk (= talked) all night. (4) Some inversion occurs with questions: What it is?, How you are? (5) Auxiliary do can replace be in a negative statement: It don't all be her fault It isn't always her fault. (6) Auxiliary be is often used to indicate habitual occurrence: They be fightin They are always fighting, He be laughin He laughs all the time. (7) Stressed been conveys long-standing events with remote pasts: I been see dat movie I saw that movie long ago; She been had dat hat She has had that hat for some time. (8) Intention is sometimes expressed by the particle a: I'm a shoot you I'm going to shoot you: compare Appalachian English I'm a gonna for ‘I am going to’. (9) Aspectual usage with steady occurs before progressive verbs or with heavy stress in sentence-final position; greater emphasis occurs when sentences conclude with steady: We be steady rappin, We steady be rappin, We be rappin stéady We are always talking; They steady be high, They be steady high, They be high stéady They are always intoxicated (from drugs or alcohol). In such cases, steady indicates that the activity is persistent, consistent, and intense. (10) Come sometimes functions as a semiauxiliary: He come tellin me some story He told me a lie; They come comin in here like they own de place They came in here like they owned the place. (11) Adverbial use of like to meaning ‘almost’: I like to die(d) I almost died; He like to hit his head on that branch He almost hit his head on that branch.


(1) Such terms as goober (peanut), yam (sweet potato), tote (to carry), and buckra (white man) trace their history to West Africa, as do the grammatical functions of habitual be and aspectual steady (above). (2) Several ingroup terms are used to refer to intimates or to other African Americans in general. For example, homeboy was coined by convicts who served prison terms with other ‘boys from home’: that is, other convicts from the same neighbourhood. The bond between homeboys is stronger than that between other brothers or bloods (other blacks) who have had no relationship prior to imprisonment. This term moved from prisons to the black communities where most (ex)convicts live(d). Homies is the plural form and homegirl the feminine equivalent of homeboy. (3) Pejorative ethnic terms for whites include honkie and whitey for all whites, and redneck and peckerwood for poor and/or rural and/or Southern whites, especially such overt racists as members of the Ku Klux Klan.


(1) Established slang includes significant changes in the senses and applications of words: bad is used to mean ‘good’ (Hey, that's a bad car, man!); cool and hot are used with equal intensity to mean ‘very good’ (That car is real cool/hot); crib, usually associated with infants, can mean any home, apartment, or place where one lives, including a federal housing project; short and ride can refer to an automobile: Homeboy be steady driving that short/ride. (2) Everyday idioms include: stepped-to (subject to a physical advance by an opponent before a possible exchange of blows), as in So I said, ‘What's up?’ and I got stepped-to; upside the head (against the head), as in He got hit upside the head; ashy, in reference to a dry skin condition that appears as a slight discoloration: His skin always be so ashy. (3) Many expressions used in AAVE have ‘crossed over’ into mainstream colloquial AMERICAN ENGLISH: hip or hep, referring to someone who is very knowledgeable about popular (especially inner-city African-American) culture; dude as a generic reference for any male: That dude be crazy.


Many kinds of African-American speech acts go back to African oral traditions: the dozens verbal insults towards an opponent's mother; rapping a voluble, rhythmic eloquence that includes both the language of seduction and the lyrics of popular music; shucking, jiving deceiving whites through verbal trickery without their knowledge; sounding engaging in verbal duels. The ‘men and women of words’ who embody these traditions are common in most black communities; preachers, poets, musicians, and political radicals tend to be consummate practitioners of a rhetoric derived from Africa and often influenced by the Bible. Although men are perceived as dominating these traditions, women have played a significant role in the oral traditions of African America. Such music as Negro spirituals and jazz, as well as dance, poetry, rap, and even elaborate handshakes have substantially ‘crossed over’ and become part of popular culture in the US and elsewhere.

Literary AAVE

The implementation of AAVE in AmE literature is comparable to that of literary Cockney in England. J. L. Dillard (Black English, 1972) observed that the earliest literary renditions appeared before 1790: ‘Attestation (recorded literary examples) from Crèvecoeur, Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, the court records of Salem, Massachusetts, and several other sources may be found before the 1790's—and all without any recourse to fictional sources. The wealth of material after that date is simply astonishing. There is, in fact, a very great deal of pre-Civil War literary Negro dialect’. Contemporary African-American writers, including Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Richard Wright, have provided literary versions of Black English that continue to have an impact on broader interpretations of English usage and American literature.


African-American varieties of English vary considerably, tending to reflect the social background and personal aspirations of individual speakers as well as the social circumstances in which different dialects thrive. The historical evidence confirms a combination of African, English, Scots, and Irish influences that have evolved through complex processes of pidginization and creolization.


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