The Cultural Significance of AAVE

By Audrey McGovern
March 18th, 2021

African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, is a variety of English with its own unique linguistic, grammatical, and accent features spoken by Black English speakers in the United States and Canada.

AAVE can be recognized in phonological features like th-stopping (i.e. this changing to dis, that changing to dat), r-lessness (cah for car), and final consonant cluster reduction (lef’ for left). Some of the grammatical features of AAVE include a habitual be (my phone bill be high), copula absences (she smart), and multiple negations (ain’t nobody said nothing about you).

Modern linguists are generally divided on the origins of AAVE. Some language scientists argue that its roots are English-centered, pointing to the fact that most of the vocabulary of AAVE is from English. The other hypothesis held by modern linguists on the roots of AAVE suggests that the certain vernacular characteristics of AAVE are so similar to West African creole languages that AAVE could have originated as its own, “semi-creole” language, distinct from English.

Regardless of the specific language origin of AAVE, it is clear that the language variety began to develop during the first century of British colonization “in the American Chesapeake Bay area (Virginia and Maryland), and later, in the Carolinas and Georgia.” American linguist John McWhorter described AAVE as being influenced by a "hybrid of regional dialects,” with significant linguistic developments occurring in the setting of slave plantations. Today, AAVE is a culturally significant aspect of Black culture that has been influenced by various African languages, which has unfortunately been stigmatized and appropriated by nonBlack speakers for generations.

AAVE is often inaccurately framed as being unprofessional, improper, ungrammatical, or even called “broken English”. AAVE is governed by grammatical rules like any language variety, and these criticisms reflect harmful anti-Black ideas that stigmatize its speakers. Paradoxically, the qualities and features of AAVE are also widely used and appreciated for their ingenuity and value, especially in comedic online contexts. The popularity of AAVE on apps like Twitter and TikTok has started to spin the false narrative that AAVE-specific features can be attributed to “internet slang,” or certain white creators. AAVE deserves to be recognized and praised for what it is, a highly influential, grammatically correct language variety that is the direct product of Black culture and history.