What is AAVE?

What is AAVE?

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated May 10, 2022

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is spoken by many African Americans in the United States. 

AAVE has a rich history and thanks to social media, it has spread across the globe. In this article, we’ll answer “what is AAVE?” with a bit of history, linguistics, politics and a few examples.

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Origins of AAVE

To answer the question, “what exactly is AAVE?” it’s important to understand the historical and linguistic background of its usage. 

The origin of AAVE is still debated but there are two basic theories:

  • The dialect hypothesis. Enslaved Africans in British colonies in the US American South acquired English from their oppressors. This theory generally excludes African influence on AAVE.
  • The creole hypothesis. Modern AAVE is the result of a creole derived from English and various West African languages. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a creole is “a mother tongue formed from the contact of two languages” at an early stage.

Creole languages are stable, natural languages bound by systematic grammar that develops from mixing two languages into a new one. 

There are many examples of creole languages that resulted from the African diaspora: Haitian creole, Jamaican creole, Louisiana creole, Guyanese creole, and more. Linguists draw grammatic parallels between West African languages and AAVE to support the creole theory.

In the mid-twentieth century, the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural southern United States to urban areas such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles carried AAVE across the country. It also created the opportunity for AAVE to develop distinct regional differences.

What is AAVE language?

So what is AAVE? Is it slang, a language or a dialect? 

This debate is deeply rooted in politics and race in the United States. 

The systematic grammar patterns of AAVE have been scientifically studied and verified for the past 50 years. What is most important is not whether it is classified as a language or dialect, but whether it is recognized as valid. 

Politics, Prejudice and Race

AAVE has long been subject to prejudice. It has been highly stigmatized as “broken” or “incorrect” English. 

One study shows that hiring managers attempt to identify race based on spoken English and choose White candidates who speak standard English.

The Los Angeles Times reports that in the US education system, African American students are overrepresented in programs for academically deficient students and underrepresented in gifted programs. 

The Oakland Unified School District officially recognized AAVE as a valid language in 1996 in an effort to destigmatize the majority of their student population. 

Can I use AAVE?

AAVE is rooted in a proud African American culture and heritage. Also, it’s recognizably cool. Much of the world’s English slang is derived from AAVE.

That said, if you’re not from the African American community – especially White Americans – you don’t experience the stigma and prejudice related to this speech. Emulating AAVE in this context can be seen as cultural appropriation. 

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AAVE examples

Beyond politics and history, perhaps you’re familiar with some American slang phrases that come from AAVE vocabulary such as:

  • Finna – about to (do something)
  • Hood – neighborhood
  • Paper – money
  • Hella – very

To show the consistency of AAVE, let’s take a look at some examples of real and systematic grammar.

GrammarAAVEStandard English
Double negativeAin’t nobody said that.
Didn’t nobody want to help clean.
Nobody said that.
Nobody wanted to help clean.
Omitted “be”He funny.
You gon’ get paid for that.
Who that?
She right here.
He is funny.
You are going to get paid for that.
Who is that?
She’s right here
Habitual “be”I be workin’.
She be spendin’ her money.
I’m often working/I work a lot.
She often spends her money.
Present perfect, Stressed “been”She been ready.She has been ready for a while.
Third-person singular absenceHe don’t work there.
She walk to school.
He doesn’t work there.
She walks to school.

AAVE has unique pronunciation. Here are some examples.

PronunciationAAVEStandard English
th → d /dat/
/dem/
that
them
Dropped /r//doe/
/foe/
/sho/
/fo’eva/
door
four
sure
forever
Metathesis/ax/
/libary/
ask
library
ng → n/walkin’/
/goin’/
walking
going

The case against judging language

We mentioned it’s not important to say whether AAVE is a dialect vs. a language. That’s because this question has colonial roots

Modern linguists are descriptive (describing language usage) rather than prescriptive (describing how language should be used). 

The “father of modern linguistics” Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar points out that all languages that follow linguistic constraints (like those shown above) are natural and acceptable.


AAVE is 100% valid

AAVE is a valid form of speech formed in African American communities. It is important to validate AAVE and undo the generations of stigma associated with its use.

If you’re coming from outside the African American community, be aware of AAVE cultural roots and the prejudice that African Americans face, sometimes daily, as a result of these linguistically natural speech patterns. 

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.