African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is not a recent concept but it has been a recent hot topic in the media. There are already misconceptions surrounding AAVE, but the idea that words like “lit,” “simp,” or “periodt” are new “internet slang” adds even more to these misconceptions. AAVE is one of the numerous aspects of Black culture that are misinformed or just not taught, so many people do not know what it is, where it comes from, and what the problem of using it (or misusing it) is.
African American Vernacular English or AAVE is a dialect of English started in the southern states of the United States by enslaved Africans beginning in the 17th century, according to The Oxford Handbook of African American Language. Scholars consider there to be multiple potential origins of AAVE. Some consider it to be derived from the British English of the enslaved Africans’ white owners. Others consider it to be derived from Creole spoken by West Africans, known to some of the enslaved Africans, mixed with English. Regardless, they are all connected in the American south. AAVE spread and evolved as Black people moved across the United States throughout history. It became a part of Black American culture and was passed through generations.
Linguists consider AAVE to have certain grammar rules, vocabulary, tones, and pronunciations. For example, the use of the word ‘be’ is used differently in AAVE than in standard English but it is not used randomly.
According to linguist and Stanford professor John Rickford, “Many members of the public seem to have heard, too, that Ebonics speakers use an invariant ‘be’ in their speech (as in ‘They be goin to school every day’); however, this ‘be’ is not simply equivalent to ‘is’ or ‘are.’ Invariant ‘be’ refers to actions that occur regularly or habitually rather than on just one occasion.”
The history of AAVE is important in emphasizing the legitimacy of it as a dialect, as it has been and still is considered “slang” or “improper.” Marguerite Rigoglioso wrote for Stanford news on Rickford’s thoughts about the discrimation and racism that was inflicted on Rachel Jeantel during the summer of 2013 trial of George Zimmerman and the killing of the Black, 17 year old boy, Trayvon Martin. Jeantel was a friend of Martin and was on the phone with Martin before and at the time of his death. Jeantel spoke AAVE during her testimony. Because of this, she was misunderstood and considered unreliable by the court and others who do not understand AAVE.
“‘African Americans on the jury – especially fluent AAVE speakers – would have understood Jeantel, and the presence of even one such juror could have helped the others to understand what she was saying,” Rickford said.
“But the defense did a good job of making sure there were no African American jurors in this trial,’” Rigoglioso wrote.
That is one example of how speaking AAVE has caused prejudice in the lives of Black Americans.
The origins of AAVE and the discrimination Black Americans have recieved for speaking it is why it is considered problematic that non-Black people profit from appropriating it. Non-Black singers, rappers, actors, social media stars and more have been accused of using AAVE to gain fame, as it makes them seem ‘cool’ or ‘funny.’ These people are often defended by those who claim they grew up around people who use AAVE, they are from New York, or by simply not seeing an issue. The problem with this is it ignores the history behind AAVE and does not give credit to the Black Americans it originated from.
Kahlil Greene, a popular social media educator and Yale graduate, made videos discussing the history of AAVE, the problematic uses of it by non-Black people, and why the Black community often “gate-keeps” it and other aspects of Black culture.
“Black people in America, specifically, have been racialized on the idea that we are inherently lazy, poor, uneducated, or criminal. Not all people of color are stereotyped in this way, and thus our use of AAVE has been stigmatized as sloppy, unprofessional or ignorant. And that is simply not the case for non-Black people who are seen as funny, sensational, or cool when they use it,” Greene said.
Greene further talked about the issues that arise when these non-Black creators profit off of Black culture like using a ‘Blaccent,’ recreating Black creators work such as Tik Tok dances, and creating a Black caricature but do not credit or give back to the Black community that originated it.
“When you inform yourself about Black American history, and you look at gatekeeping in context, you will find that the imitation of Black culture by non-Black people has more often led to erasure and exploitation than inclusion and reciprocation,” Greene said.
“In countless cases, Black innovators and creatives are smudged out for the sake of rewarding non-Black performers of our culture to the point that if I even point out that one of these celebrities is using Black culture, that I get looked at as if I’m irrational even though I am 100% right,” Greene said.
Misconceptions of AAVE and people who do not understand the importance of it and its history will always exist as long as there continues to be no education on the subject. In 1996, the Oakland California school board passed a resolution that acknowledged the use of AAVE amongst its over half population of Black students and a plan to utilize it to aid the students with their struggle of learning standard English.
According to Alexander Russo for The Grade, Oakland’s decision was supported by linguists and practices of using children’s home dialect to help them learn standard English which has been successful in the past. Despite this, Oakland’s resolution was disapproved of by average people, celebrities, and media publications. This included Black people as well, like Jesse Jackson and Maya Angelou. Most of the opposition was based on opinions rooted in racism or misinformation. Oakland carried out the resolution but did it under a different name for less media attention. This was the last time a large-scale attempt was made to incorporate AAVE into teaching standard English in schools.
Education is a key factor missing in the conversation surrounding AAVE, as it is in many other aspects of Black culture that are undermined or misunderstood.
Schools would need to be involved in order to allow the decades of research done by linguists on AAVE to become common knowledge. Until then, change can start with educating oneself on the matter and staying woke on the history of AAVE.