The Disrespect of African American Vernacular English

Sophie Bond - Writer

African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also previously known as Ebonics, is a variety of English that has come into focus within the past 60 years, but there is a debate as to how it originated. There are two theories, Anglicist and Creolist, which give possible ideas for how it came about. The Anglicist hypothesis suggests that AAVE is a dialect that was acquired by African slaves on southern plantations from British ‘owners’, whereas, the creolist hypothesis suggests that AAVE is a language that originated as a creole. A creole begins as a pidgin, which is a very restricted form of language comprised of the bare minimum that is required to communicate. It uses very simple grammar and often arises when two individuals from different languages don’t have a language in common to communicate. This then becomes a creole when two speakers of pidgin use it as the main language with their children. The creole becomes a more complex form of the pidgin because it needs to be sufficient enough for everyday use. In this case, one of the African dialects was mixed with English to create the vernacular. John Baugh (1999) highlights that slave descendants were not allowed to maintain their ancestral languages, so AAVE is the vernacular they used instead.

I assume you are wondering: what are the defining characteristics of AAVE? There are features that you will be familiar with; you may even use some of them. One feature to do with the pronunciation is when a word begins with a ‘th’, so a [ɵ], it is replaced with a ‘d’, a [d] sound. For example, ‘that’ becomes ‘dat’. In addition, there is also the deletion of verbal copula (verbs) in sentences, for example, ‘he ø working’ rather than ‘he is working’. These features tend to have connotations of laziness because of the dropping of certain parts but it is merely a feature of the vernacular. Another feature of AAVE is the use of ‘ain’t’ as a negative marker. This is definitely one that I have used and has often been picked up on and described as being ‘chavvy’. If I am honest, I didn’t even realise this was particular to AAVE until I studied it, yet it seems to have this stigma of sounding uneducated which is completely unjustified – it is just another way of saying ‘am not’ or ‘didn’t’. In AAVE, it is particularly used in place of ‘didn’t’, for example, ‘I ain’t do nothing’. Here we see the dreaded double negative, which for some reason is rejected by many individuals, yet it is regularly used and perfectly understood in AAVE. Finally, there is also the use of the habitual aspect marker ‘be’ in sentences such as ‘he be walking’. This suggests that it is a regular thing this person does without saying if it is currently occurring.

There have been debates as to whether AAVE should be allowed to be used in schools by children. Baugh (2012:305) states that Oakland school in California in 1996 declared that Ebonics is a language used by its 28,000 African American students, giving the vernacular the status of a language which raised it status above a dialect. This gained a large amount of attention on the controversial subject as to whether it is a language and whether it should be encouraged in schools considering many promote Standard English instead. More recently, William Brennan (2018) wrote an article on speech pathologist Julie Washington and her attempts to gain respect for AAVE. She recalls an anecdote from the beginning of her career where she was reading a story with a little girl who had a strong AAVE dialect. The little girl was reading the story, which was written in Standard English and converting it into her own dialect. For example, she said ‘“is you my mama? I ain’t none a yo’ mama!”’. Washington states that the girl’s translation of the book is a hard thing to do, especially at a young age, and her use of code-switching is complex. Brennan (2018) states that this convinced her that this dialect was playing a ‘significant and unrecognised’ role in children’s reading achievements. This implies AAVE users are so familiar with this vernacular that they think and read in it too, suggesting it is embedded into their day to day lives thus making them understand things easier in the variety. Just because someone learns easier in the language and dialect they have been brought up on, shouldn’t mean that they have to lose marks for using a variety rather than the standard form. I mean, either way, they are learning the exact same material, just using different varieties to speak about it.

Ultimately, African American Vernacular English is used by many (but not all) African American people, which is embedded into their daily lives through the way they think, read and speak, and therefore shouldn’t be disregarded as a language or dialect.. It should not have this negative stigma attached to it, just like UK accents shouldn’t be disregarded just because it isn’t seen as prestigious as the standard. Despite any preconceived bias you may have about the vernacular and the way it sounds, a negative opinion is misplaced and we shouldn't hold this form of English in less regard then we do any other.

Baugh, J. (2012) Ebonics and its Controversy. In: Finegan, E. and Rickford, J. Language in the USA: Themes for the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brennan, W. (2018). Julie Washington’s Quest to Get Schools to Respect African-American English. The Atlantic, [online] (April 2018). Available at: [Accessed 30 Mar. 2019].
Photo Credit - Dmitry Ratushny -


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