African American Vernacular English

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AAVE (Ebonics)
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African American Vernacular English (AAVE), known colloquially as Ebonics, also called Black English, Black Vernacular or Black English Vernacular, is a dialect and ethnolect of American English. Similar in certain pronunciational respects to common southern U.S. English, the dialect is spoken by many African Americans in the United States. AAVE shares many characteristics with various pidgin and creole English dialects spoken by blacks worldwide. AAVE also has grammatical origins in, and pronunciational characteristics in common with, various West African languages.

The term Ebonics, which is a portmanteau of ebony and phonics, has been suggested as an alternative name for this dialect. However, 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, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. The term was not widely known until the late 1990s, when it became a controversial topic in the United States, mainly over its linguistic status.

American linguistics scholar Noam Chomsky relates that the reason this vernacular is so well researched is that the U.S. Government hired linguists to research what was called "black vernacular". The purpose of the study was to determine whether there was a correlation between speaking, or not speaking, "black vernacular" and test scores. No correlation was discovered.


History and social context

AAVE has its roots in the trans-Atlantic African slave trade. Distinctive patterns of language usage among African slaves and, later, African Americans arose out of the need for multicultural populations of African captives to communicate among themselves, and with their captors, in a hostile and alien environment. Crammed together in holding pens on the West African coast and chained together during the Middle Passage, these captives, many of them already multi-lingual speakers of dialects of Wolof, Twi, Hausa, Yoruba, Dogon, Akan, Kimbundu, Bambara and other languages, developed pidgins — simplified mixtures of two or more languages. Over time in the Americas, some of these pidgins became fully developed creole languages. Significant numbers of African Americans still speak some of these creole languages, notably Gullah on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.

As a language is used by isolated and diverging groups of people, the language itself becomes isolated and divergent. Pronunciational aspects of AAVE are based, in part, on the Southern American English variety, an influence that no doubt was reciprocal as the dialects diverged. The traits of AAVE that separate it from standard English include grammatical structures traceable to West African languages; changes in pronunciation along definable patterns, many of which are found in Creole and pidgin dialects of other populations of West African descent (but which also emerge in English pidgin dialects uninfluenced by West African languages, such as Newfoundland English); distinctive slang; and differences in the use of tenses. AAVE also has a substantial vocabulary little understood beyond the African American community, and has contributed several words with African origins now in common use in SAE: "gumbo", "goober", "yam", "banjo", "bogus" — and even some slang expressions, such as "hip" and "hep cat".

It is common for an oppressed people (such as African slaves in the Americas) to develop a radically different dialect from that of their oppressors. Such a departure from majority language usage is, of course, a natural consequence of cultural differences. However, sociologists, linguists and psychologists believe that such divergent language development is often a kind of passive resistance to subjugation, oppression or cultural aggression. Language becomes a means of self-differentiation that helps forge group identity, solidarity and ethnic pride. In the case of African Americans, AAVE has survived and thrived through the centuries also as a result of group societal marginalization — through segregation, discrimination and often self-imposed social separation.

Most speakers of AAVE are bidialectical in that they command Standard American English (SAE) to varying degrees in addition to AAVE. African Americans who speak AAVE exclusively are most commonly southern and rural, or those with working-class roots. Generally speaking, the higher the socioeconomic status of one's custodial parents, the higher the level of formal education attained, and the greater the socialization with speakers of SAE or other dialects, the less likely one is to speak AAVE, or to speak it exclusively. Most African Americans, however, regardless of socioeconomic status, educational background, or geographic region, use some form of AAVE at least occasionally in informal and intra-ethnic communication. This process of selective language usage, based on social context, is called code switching. Some phrases in AAVE have entered popular American culture, and these may be employed contextually by speakers belonging to diverse ethnic groups.

Because of white supremacist beliefs, racism and prevailing cultural biases, whites commonly believed the aberrant English of African slaves was due to inferior intellect. Such prejudices persist today. AAVE often is perceived by members of broader American society as an indicator of inferior intelligence or low educational attainment. Further, like many other creole dialects, AAVE sometimes has been called "lazy" or "bad" English. A similar perception exists with regard to SAE in Britain and other English speaking nations. Such appraisals also may be due in part to AAVE's substitution of aspect for tense in some cases and certain grammatical and phonological reductions. Some challenge whether AAVE should be considered a dialect at all. However, among linguists there is no such controversy.

In the late 1990s, the formal recognition of AAVE as a distinct dialect and its proposed use as an educational tool, as Ebonics, to help African American students become more fluent in SAE became a controversial subject in the United States.

AAVE as a Creole

When European slavers arrived in Africa to abduct slaves, they found that the African languages exhibited very little mixing. Dillard (1972) attributes to slave ship Captain William Smith:

As for the languages of Gambia, they are so many and so different, that the Natives, on either Side of the River, cannot understand each other.… [T]he safest Way is to trade with the different Nations, on either Side of the River, and having some of every Sort on board, there will be no more Likelihood of their succeeding in a Plot, than of finishing the Tower of Babel.

Some slaveowners often acquired a preference for slaves from a particular tribe. In cases of consigned cargoes, language mixing aboard ship was sometimes minimal. There is evidence that many enslaved Africans, in fact, continued to use fairly intact native languages until almost 1700, when Wolof became the basis of a sort of intermediary pidgin among Africans. It is Wolof that comes to the fore in tracing the African roots of AAVE.

By 1715, the African pidgin was widely enough known to make its way into Daniel Defoe's novels, in particular, The Life of Colonel Jacque. Cotton Mather claimed to have been very familiar with his slaves' speech. He knew enough to affirm that one of his slaves was from the Coromantee tribe. Mather's imitative writing showed features present in many creoles and even in modern day AAVE.

By the time of the American Revolution, African American creoles had not quite established themselves to the point of mutual intelligibility among varieties. Dillard (1972) references a recollection of "slave language" toward the latter part of the eighteenth century:

Kay, massa, you just leave me, me sit here, great fish jump up into da canoe, here he be, massa, fine fish, massa; me den very grad; den me sit very still, until another great fish jump into de canoe; but me fall asleep, massa, and no wake 'til you come…

It wasn't until the time of the Civil War that the language of the slaves became familiar to a large number of educated whites. The abolitionist papers before the war form a rich corpus of examples of plantation creole. Thomas Wentworth Higginson published a book titled Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870). In the book, he details many features of his soldiers' language. In particular, this book contains the first reference to the distinction between stressed BÍN and unstressed bin.

After emancipation, some freed slaves traveled to West Africa, taking their creole with them. In certain African tribal groups, such as those in east Cameroon, there are varieties of Black English that show strong resemblances to the creole dialects in the U.S. documented during this time period. The languages have remained relatively the same due to the homogeneity within tribal groups. As a result, they can act as windows into a past state of creole English.

Educational issues

Proponents of various bills across the country, notably a resolution from the Oakland, California school board on December 18, 1996, desired to have Ebonics officially declared a language or dialect. At its last meeting, the lame duck Oakland school board unanimously passed the resolution before stepping down from their positions to the newly elected board, who held different political views. The new board modified the resolution and then effectively dropped it. Had the measure remained in force, it would have affected funding and education related issues.

The Oakland resolution declared Ebonics was not English, asserting that the speech of African American children belonged to "West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems". Proponents of Ebonics instruction in public education believe that their proposals have been distorted by political debate and misunderstood by the general public. The belief underlying Ebonics education is that African American students would perform better in school and more easily learn standard American English, if textbooks and teachers acknowledged that AAVE was not a substandard version of standard American English, but a legitimate speech variety with its own grammatical rules and pronunciational norms.

For African American students whose primary language was Ebonics, the Oakland resolution mandated some instruction in that language. Teachers were encouraged to recognize that the errors in standard American English that their students made were not the result of lack of intelligence or effort, but due instead to the fact that the language which they normally use is grammatically different from SAE. Rather than teaching standard English by proscribing non-standard usage, the idea was to teach standard English to Ebonics speaking students by showing them how to translate expressions from AAVE to standard American English.

Framers of the Oakland resolution recognized that, when teaching anyone a language or dialect with which they are unfamiliar, it is important to differentiate between understanding and pronunciation. For instance, if a child reads "He passed by both of them" as "he pass by bowf uh dem", a teacher must determine whether the child is saying "passed" or "pass", since they are homonyms in AAVE phonology. Appropriate remedial strategies in such a case would be different from effective strategies in the case of an SE speaker who read "passed" as "pass".

Pedagogical techniques similar to those used to teach English to speakers of foreign languages appear to hold promise for speakers of AAVE. Baratz and Stewart (1969) developed a strategy that introduced AAVE speakers to reading using "dialect readers"—sets of text nearer to the child's dialect than SE text. This helps the child focus on translating symbols on paper into words without worrying about learning a new language at the same time. Simpkins, Holt, and Simpkins (1977) developed a comprehensive set of dialect readers, called bridge readers, which included the same content in three different dialects: AAVE, a bridge version, which was closer to SE without being prohibitively formal, and a Standard English version. The bridge program showed very promising results, but in the end was not widely adopted for various political and social reasons which impacted the refusal of school systems to recognize AAVE as a dialect of English. Even in the face of considerable linguistic and pedagogical evidence, opinions on Ebonics still run the gamut, from its deserving official language status in the United States, to its being dismissed as "bad English".

Teaching children whose first language is AAVE poses problems beyond simply what techniques to add to the pedagogy, and the Oakland approach has support among some educational theorists. Unfortunately, as occurred in the Oakland Ebonics controversy, such pedagogical approaches give rise to controversial educational and political disputes which often evidence strong racial and cultural biases. Despite the clear linguistic evidence, the American public and policymakers remain divided over whether to even recognize AAVE as a legitimate dialect of English.

Grammatical features

Template:IPA notice

Phonological features

  • Reduction of certain diphthong forms to monophthongs, in particular, to and to . For example, "boy" pronounced as "boh".
  • Pronunciation of the dental fricatives voiceless dental fricative (as in SE thing) and voiced dental fricative (as in SE then) changes depending on position in a word. Word-initially, they become the alveolar stops and and elsewhere they become the labiodental fricatives and . Examples: then is pronounced den , smooth is pronounced smoov , thin is pronounced tin , and tooth is pronounced toof . This contrasts with West African-based English Creoles and pidgins where instead of the SE "th" occurs regardless of placement, e.g., "brudda" for "brother." The rule for AAVE can be expressed in standard phonological rule notation:
  1. <math>\begin{bmatrix}

- & \mbox{sonorant} \\ + & \mbox{consonantal} \\ + & \mbox{continuant} \\ + & \mbox{dental} \\ \end{bmatrix} \to \begin{bmatrix} - & \mbox{continuant} \\ - & \mbox{dental} \\ + & \mbox{alveolar} \\ \end{bmatrix} \quad / \quad \# \_\_\_<math>

  1. <math>

\begin{bmatrix} - & \mbox{sonorant} \\ + & \mbox{consonantal} \\ + & \mbox{continuant} \\ + & \mbox{dental} \\ \end{bmatrix} \to \begin{bmatrix} - & \mbox{dental} \\ + & \mbox{labiodental} \\ \end{bmatrix} \quad / \quad \_\_\_ <math>

  • AAVE is non-rhotic, so the alveolar approximant is usually dropped if not followed by a vowel. However, intervocalic may also be dropped e.g. "story" realized as "sto'y" i.e. .
  • Realization of final ng , the velar nasal, as the alveolar nasal in function morphemes and content morphemes with two syllables like -ing, e.g. "tripping" as "trippin". This change does not occur in one-syllable content morphemes, that is sing is sing and not sin , but singing is singin wedding can be weddin , morning is often mornin , something is somethin , nothing is nuthin .
  • More generally, reduction of vocally homogeneous final consonant clusters. That is, test becomes tes (they are both voiceless), hand becomes han (they are both voiced), but pant is unchanged, as it contains both a voiced and an voiceless consonant in the cluster (Rickford, 1997).
  • In certain cases, transposition of adjacent consonants, particularly when the first is . For instance "ask" realized as "aks" or "gasp" as "gaps".
  • Pronunciation of and both as before nasal consonants, making pen and pin homonyms.
  • Pronunciation of and both as before 'l', making feel and fill homonyms.
  • Dropping of /t/ at the end of contractions i.e. the pronunciation of don't and ain't as and .
  • Dropping of word initial /d/, /b/, and /g/ in tense-aspect markers i.e. the pronunciation of don't like own.
  • Lowering of to or before causing pronunciations such as theng/thang for thing, thenk/thank for think, reng/rang for ring etc.

Aspect marking

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 be expressed only using adverbs such as usually. It is disputed whether the use of the verb "to be" to indicate a habitual status or action in AAVE has its roots in various West African languages.

Syntax Name SE Meaning / Notes
He talkin'. Simple progressive He is talking.
He be eatin' rice. Habitual/continuative aspect He eats rice frequently/habitually. Better illustrated with "He be eatin' rice all day."
He be steady preachin'. Intensified continuative He is preaching in an intensive/sustained manner. He is in a preaching trance.
He bin (unstressed) talkin' to her. Perfect progressive He has been talking to her.
He BÍN had that house. Remote phase (see below) He has had that house for a long time, and still has it.
He done did it. Emphasized perfective He already did it. "He did it" is perfectly syntactically valid, but "done" is used to emphasize the completed nature of the action.
He finna [or "fittin' (fi-t&n) nuh"] leave. Immediate future He's about to leave. Finna is a contraction of "fixin' to."
I was walkin' home from school, and I had tripped and fell. Preterite narration. "Had" is used to begin a preterite narration. Usually it occurs in the first clause of the narration, and nowhere else.

Remote Phase Marker

The aspect marked by stressed BÍN has been given many names, including Perfect Phase, Remote Past, Remote Phase (Fickett 1970, Fasold and Wolfram 1970, Rickford 1999, respectively). This article uses the latter of the three.

With non-stative verbs, the role of BÍN is simple: it places the action in the distant past, or represents total completion of the action. A decent translation is adding "a long time ago" as an adverbial phrase onto the sentence. For example, She BÍN tell me that translates as, "She told me that a long time ago".

However, when BÍN is used with stative verbs, or when it is used with gerund forms, BÍN represents that the action began in the distant past and that it is continuing now. Rickford (1999) suggests that a better translation when used with stative verbs is "for a long time".

For instance, in response to "I like your new dress", one might hear Oh, I BÍN had this dress, meaning that the speaker has had the dress for a long time and that it isn't new.

To illustrate the difference between the simple past and the gerund when used with BÍN, consider the utterances:

I BÍN bought her clothes means, "I bought her clothes a long time ago".
I BÍN buyin' her clothes means, "I've been buying her clothes for a long time".


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

  • Use of ain't as a general negative indicator. It is used in place of SE "am not", "isn't", and "aren't".
  • Negation agreement, as in I didn't go nowhere, such that if the sentence is negative, all negatable forms are negated. This can be traced to West African languages, but is usually stigmatized in Standard English (although this wasn't always so; 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.

Lexical features

For the most part, AAVE uses the lexicon of SE, particularly informal and southern dialects. There are some notable differences, however. In particular, certain English words share the sound of words from West African languages, and we can see the connection.

  • bogus is derived from Hausa boko, meaning deceit or fraud.
  • cat is the suffix -kat from Wolof, which denotes a person.
  • dig comes from Wolof deg or dega, meaning "to understand/appreciate".
  • hip is derived from Wolof hepi, meaning "to be aware of what is going on".
  • honky may come from Wolof honq, meaning red or pink.

In addition to words with clearly African origins, however, AAVE has a separate vocabulary of words which have no Standard English-language equivalent, or with strikingly different meanings from their common usage in SAE. For example, there are several words in AAVE referring to white people which are not part of mainstream SAE and may be little known outside the African American community. A "gray dude" is a white male, as is a "paddy boy", the latter likely derived from "paddyroller", a corruption of "patroller", who were vigilantes who caught runaway slaves and kidnapped free blacks and made a living collecting bounties or selling them into bondage. "Ofay" is another general term for a white. "Kitchen" refers to the particularly curly or kinky hair at the nape of the neck, "siditty" means snobbish or bourgeois, and "roach-in-the-corner killers" are pointy-toed shoes.

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. Example: my mama sister (="my mama's sister")
  • 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 ain't no spoon (="There is no spoon").
  • Altered clause order in questions: She actin' all hankty (snobbish). Who duh hell she think she is? (="She's putting on airs. Who the hell does she think she is?")
  • Use of say to introduce quotations, actual or otherwise. For example, "I thought, say, 'Why don't he just rap with her?'"


  • Dillard, J. L. (1972). Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States. Random House, Inc. ISBN 0-394-71872-0.
  • Mufwene, Salikoko et al. (1998). African-American English: Structure, history and use. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-11732-1.
  • Rickford, John (December 1997). Suite for Ebony and Phonics. Discover magazine Vol. 18 No. 12.
  • Rickford, John (1999). African American Vernacular English. Blackwell Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-631-21245-0.
  • Rickford, John and Rickford, Russell (2000). Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. John Wiley. ISBN 0-471-39957-4.

See also

External links

pt:Inglês vernacular negro


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