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African American Vernacular English

(Redirected from Black English Vernacular)

African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), also called Ebonics, Black English, or Black English Vernacular (BEV) is a dialect of American English. Strictly speaking, there is some controversy in the larger community about whether it should be considered a dialect, but this is based on difference of opinion about what it means to be a dialect. Among working linguists there is no such controversy. Similar to common Southern US English, the dialect is spoken in many African-American communities in the United States, especially in urban areas. It has its origins in the culture of enslaved Americans and also has roots in England.

The term Ebonics, which is a portmanteau word of ebony and phonics, has been suggested as an alternative name for this dialect, but that name is not widely used in linguistic literature, although it enjoys considerable common use, as a result of the controversy surrounding it (see below). Robert L. Williams, a linguistics professor at Washington University created the term Ebonics in 1973, then detailed it in his 1975 book, . It gained fame following the decision of the school board of Oakland, California to declare Ebonics a unique language or dialect.



As a language develops, its use by isolated and diverging groups of people also becomes isolated and divergent. AAVE is largely based on the Southern American English variety, an influence that has no doubt been reciprocal as the dialects diverged. The traits of AAVE which separate it from standard English include changes in pronunciation along definable patterns, distinctive slang, as well as differences in the use of tenses.

Sociologists, linguists and psychologists generally believe that it is common for oppressed people (as, for example, African slaves in the Americas) to adopt a radically different dialect from their oppressors. This is done to subtly rebel against the oppressor and his culture, and to differentiate themselves, as well as to foster pride among their community. Slaveholders generally considered the changes in speech to be due to inferior intelligence.

Most speakers of AAVE are bidialectical in that they command Standard American English (SAE) to some degree in addition to AAVE, code-switching between using SAE forms and AAVE forms depending on social context.

In the late 1990s, the formal use AAVE in education became a controversial subject in the U.S.. See: Ebonics.

Grammatical features

While it is true that AAVE eschews much of the inflectional morphology of SAE, that in and of itself is insufficient to demonstrate inferiority, as Modern English has a drastically simplified morphology compared to Old English. Furthermore, there are unique aspects that help make AAVE as complete as any other dialect, and in fact AAVE has some grammatical forms that require circumlocutions in SAE.

Aspect marking with be

The most distinguishing feature of AAVE is the use of forms of be to mark aspect in verb phrases. The use or lack of a form of be can indicate whether or not the performance of the verb is of a habitual nature. In SAE, this can only be expressed using adverbs such as usually.

  • The invariant use of be is used to describe a habitual action. For example He be eating rice (= "he eats rice regularly/frequently/habitually") versus He eating rice (= "he is eating rice right now"). This may be derived from creole dialects which use does be similarly, common in Gullah, Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados. The word steady can also be added as an intensifier to form the present intensive habitual progressive. Example: He be steady preaching (="He is often/habitually/usually preaching in an intensive, sustained manner").
  • A non-stressed been indicates the present perfect progressive. Example: He been talking to her (="He has been talking to her").
  • Stressed been is used as a marker indicating that the action was begun at some subjectively defined point in the past. Example: She BEEN had that house (="She's had that house for a long time and still has it"); this is called the present perfect progressive with remote inception. Speakers of standard American English often misinterpret this tense, believing that, in our example, the woman no longer has that house but used to have it.
  • Be done is used as a tense marker to indicate the conditional perfect, a future in the hypothetical past. Example: Soon, he be done fixing the leak (="Soon, he will have fixed the leak")
  • The present progressive drops the form of be. This is likely because the be form would otherwise indicate habitual aspect. Example: He running (="He is running"). This elimination of the verb occurs in precisely the situations where contractions are legal in standard English.

Note: sometimes AAVE-distinctive uses of the word been are spelled bin. Although the British English pronunciation of been differs from that of bin, they are pronounced the same both in SAE and AAVE.


In addition, negatives are formed differently from standard American English:

  • Multiple negations (e.g. I didn't go nowhere) are common in AAVE, but considered unacceptable in SAE (see double negative)
  • If the subject is indefinite (e.g. nobody instead of Sally or he), it can be inverted with the negative qualifier (turning Nobody knows the answer to Don't nobody know the answer, also adding multiple negation). This emphasizes the negative, and is not interrogative, as it would be in SAE.

Other grammatical characteristics

Some of these characteristics, notably double negatives and the use of been for "has been", are also characteristic of general colloquial American English.

Linguist William Labov carried out and published the first thorough grammatical study of African American Vernacular English in 1965.

  • Present tense verbs are uninflected for person: there is no -s ending in the present tense third person singular. Example: She write poetry (="She writes poetry")
  • There is no -s ending indicating possession—the genitive relies on adjacency. This is similar to many creole dialects throughout the Caribbean Sea. Example: my baby mama (="my baby's mama")
  • The word it denotes the existence of something, equivalent to Standard English there in "there is", or "there are". Examples It's a doughnut in the cabinet (="There's a doughnut in the cabinet") and It is no spoon (="There is no spoon").
  • Altered clause order in questions: She tryin' to act white. She think who the hell she is? (="She's trying to act white. Who the hell does she think she is?")

See also

External links

Last updated: 12-20-2004 09:57:55