Dr. John Baugh, Stanford University
Return to:African American English Index
There are two main hypotheses about the origin of African American Vernacular English or AAVE. The Dialectologist Hypothesis, a prevailing view in the 1940s, concentrates on the English origins of AAVE, to the exclusion of African influence.
The Creole Hypothesis, on the other hand, maintains that modern AAVE is the result of a creole derived from English and various West African Languages. (A creole is a language derived from other languages that becomes the primary language of the people who speak it.) Slaves who spoke many different West African languages were often thrown together during their passage to the New World. To be able to communicate in some fashion they developed a pidgin* by applying English and some West African vocabulary to the familiar grammar rules of their native tongue. This pidgin was passed onto future generations. As it became the primary language of its speakers, it was classified as a creole. Over the years AAVE has gone through the process of decreolization - a change in the creole that makes it more like the standard language of an area.
*A pidgin is language composed of two or more languages created for the purpose of communication, usually around trade centers, between people who do not speak a common language. It is never a person's primary language.
Source: Bryan McLucas (Edited)
African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), known less precisely as Black Vernacular, Black English Vernacular (BEV), Black Vernacular English (BVE), or colloquially Ebonics (a controversial term), is the variety (dialect, ethnolect and sociolect) of English natively spoken by most working- and middle-classAfrican Americans and some Black Canadians, particularly in urban communities. Having its own unique accent, grammar, and vocabulary features, African-American Vernacular English is employed by middle-class African Americans as the more informal and casual end of a sociolinguistic continuum; on the formal end of this continuum, middle-class African Americans switch to more standard English grammar and vocabulary, usually while retaining elements of the nonstandard accent.
As with most African-American English, African-American Vernacular English shares a large portion of its grammar and phonology with the rural dialects of the Southern United States, and especially older Southern American English, due to historical connections to the region. Mainstream linguists maintain that the parallels between African-American Vernacular English and West African and English-basedcreole languages are real but minor, with African-American Vernacular English genealogically still falling under the English language, demonstrably tracing back to the diverse nonstandard dialects of early English settlers in the Southern United States. However, a minority of linguists argue that the vernacular shares so many characteristics with African creole languages spoken around the world that it could have originated as its own English-based creole or semi-creole language, distinct from the English language.
While it is clear that there is a strong relationship between AAVE and earlier Southern U.S. dialects, the origins of AAVE are still a matter of debate.
One theory is that AAVE arose from one or more slave creole languages that arose from the Atlantic slave trade and the need for African captives, who spoke many different languages, to communicate among themselves and with their captors. According to this theory, these captives first developed what are called pidgins, simplified mixtures of languages. Since pidgins form from close contact between speakers of different languages, the slave trade would have been exactly such a situation. Dillard quotes, for example, slave ship Captain William Smith describing the sheer diversity of mutually unintelligible languages just in Gambia. By 1715, an African pidgin had made its way into novels by Daniel Defoe, in particular, The Life of Colonel Jacque. In 1721, Cotton Mather conducted the first attempt at recording the speech of slaves in his interviews regarding the practice of smallpox inoculation. By the time of the American Revolution, varieties among slave creoles were not quite mutually intelligible. Dillard quotes a recollection of "slave language" toward the latter part of the 18th 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...." Not until the time of the American Civil War did the language of the slaves become familiar to a large number of educated whites. The abolitionist papers before the war form a rich corpus of examples of plantation creole. In Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870), Thomas Wentworth Higginson detailed many features of his black soldiers' language.
Another theory, the presiding one in the linguistics community, however, is that AAVE did not originate from English-based creole languages that "decreolized" back into a dialect of English; rather, most linguists maintain, AAVE has always been a dialect of English. In the early 2000s, Shana Poplack provided corpus-based evidence—evidence from a body of writing—from isolated enclaves in Samaná and Nova Scotia peopled by descendants of migrations of early AAVE-speaking groups (see Samaná English) that suggests that the grammar of early AAVE was closer to that of contemporary British dialects than modern urban AAVE is to other current American dialects, suggesting that the modern language is a result of divergence from mainstream varieties, rather than the result of decreolization from a widespread American creole.
Linguist John McWhorter maintains that the contribution of West African languages to AAVE is minimal. In an interview on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, Dr. McWhorter characterized AAVE as a "hybrid of regional dialects of Great Britain that slaves in America were exposed to because they often worked alongside the indentured servants who spoke those dialects..." According to Dr. McWhorter, virtually all linguists who have carefully studied the origins of AAVE "agree that the West African connection is quite minor."
Many pronunciation features distinctly set AAVE apart from other forms of American English (particularly, General American). John McWhorter argues that what truly unites all AAVE accents is a uniquely wide-ranging intonation pattern or "melody", which characterizes even the most "neutral" or light African-American accent. A handful of multisyllabic words in AAVE differ from General American in their stress placement so that, for example, police, guitar and Detroit are pronounced with initial stress instead of ultimate stress. The following are phonological differences in AAVE vowel and consonant sounds.
|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|English diaphoneme||AAVE phoneme||Example words|
|[æ~ɛː~ɛə]||act, pal, trap|
|[ɛː~ɛə~eə]||ham, land, yeah|
|[a~ä~ɑ]||blah, bother, father,|
lot, top, wasp
|[ɒ(ɔ)~ɔ(ʊ)]||all, dog, bought,|
loss, saw, taught
|[ɛ~eə]||dress, met, bread|
|[ə]||about, syrup, arena|
|[ɪ~iə]||hit, skim, tip|
|[ɪ~ɪ̈~ə]||island, gamut, wasted|
|[i]||beam, chic, fleet|
|[ʌ~ɜ]||bus, flood, what|
|[ʊ~ɵ~ø̞]||book, put, should|
|[ʊu~u]||food, glue, new|
|[äː~äe~aː]||prize, slide, tie|
|[äɪ]||price, slice, tyke|
|[æɔ~æə]||now, ouch, scout|
|[eɪ~ɛɪ]||lake, paid, rein|
|[oɪ]||boy, choice, moist|
|[ʌʊ~ɔʊ]||goat, oh, show|
|barn, car, heart|
|bare, bear, there|
|[ɝː~ɚː]||burn, first, herd|
|better, martyr, doctor|
|fear, peer, tier|
|hoarse, horse, poor|
score, tour, war
|cure, Europe, pure|
- African American Vowel Shift: AAVE accents have traditionally resisted the cot-caught merger spreading nationwide, with LOT pronounced [ä] and THOUGHT traditionally pronounced [ɒɔ], though now often [ɒ~ɔə]. Early 2000s research has shown that this resistance may continue to be reinforced by the fronting of LOT, linked through a chain shift of vowels to the raising of the TRAP, DRESS, and perhaps KIT vowels. This chain shift is called the "African American Shift".
- Reduction of certain diphthong forms to monophthongs, in particular, the PRIZE vowel /aɪ/ is monophthongized to [aː] except before voiceless consonants (this is also found in most white Southern dialects). The vowel sound in CHOICE (/ɔɪ/ in General American) is also monophthongized, especially before /l/, making boil indistinguishable from ball.
- Pin–pen merger: Before nasal consonants (/m/, /n/, and /ŋ/), DRESS/ɛ/ and KIT/ɪ/ are both pronounced like [ɪ~ɪə], making pen and pinhomophones. This is also present in other dialects, particularly of the South.
- The distinction between the KIT/ɪ/ and FLEECE/iː/ vowels before liquid consonants is frequently reduced or absent, making feel and fill homophones (fill–feel merger). and also merge, making poor and pour homophones (cure–force merger).
- Word-final devoicing of /b/, /d/, and /ɡ/, whereby, for example, cub sounds similar to cup, though these words may retain the longer vowel pronunciations that typically precede voiced consonants.
- AAVE speakers may not use the fricatives[θ] (the th in "thin") and [ð] (the th of "th'en") that are present in standard varieties of English. The phoneme's position in a word determine its exact sound.
- Word-initially, is normally the same as in other English dialects (so thin is [θɪn]); in other situations, it may move forward in the mouth, going from dental (with the tongue near the top teeth) to labiodental (with the lower lip near the top teeth).
- Word-initially, is [ð~d] (so this may be [dɪs]). In other situations, /ð/ may move forward in the mouth, much like the aforementioned behavior of /θ/.
- Realization of final ng/ŋ/, the velar nasal, as the alveolar nasal[n] in functionmorphemes and content morphemes with two or more syllables like -ing, e.g. tripping is pronounced as trippin. This change does not occur in one-syllable content morphemes such as sing, which is [sɪŋ] and not *[sɪn]. However, singing is [sɪŋɪn]. Other examples include wedding → [wɛɾɪn], morning → [mɔɹnɪn], nothing → [ˈnʌfɪn]. Realization of /ŋ/ as [n] in these contexts is commonly found in many other English dialects.
- A marked feature of AAVE is final consonant cluster reduction. There are several phenomena that are similar but are governed by different grammatical rules. This tendency has been used by creolists to compare AAVE to West African languages since such languages do not have final clusters.
- Final consonant clusters that are homorganic (have the same place of articulation) and share the same voicing are reduced. E.g. test is pronounced [tɛs] since /t/ and /s/ are both voiceless; hand is pronounced [hæn] (or, more narrowly [hɛən]), since /n/ and /d/ are both voiced; but pant is unchanged, as it contains both a voiced and a voiceless consonant in the cluster. Note also that it is the plosive (/t/ and /d/) in these examples that is lost rather than the fricative or nasal. Speakers may carry this declustered pronunciation when pluralizing so that the plural of test is [tɛsəs] rather than [tɛsts]. The clusters /ft/, /md/, are also affected.
- More often, word-final /sp/, /st/, and /sk/ are reduced, again with the final element being deleted rather than the former.
- For younger speakers, /skr/ also occurs in words that other varieties of English have /str/ so that, for example, street is pronounced [skrit].
- Clusters ending in /s/ or /z/ exhibit variation in whether the first or second element is deleted.
- Similarly, final consonants may be deleted (although there is a great deal of variation between speakers in this regard). Most often, /t/ and /d/ are deleted. As with other dialects of English, final /t/ and /k/ may reduce to a glottal stop. Nasal consonants may be lost while nasalization of the vowel is retained (e.g., find may be pronounced [fãː]). More rarely, /s/ and /z/ may also be deleted.
- Use of metathesized forms like aks for "ask" or graps for "grasp".
- General non-rhotic behavior, in which the rhotic consonant/r/ is typically dropped when not followed by a vowel; it may also manifest as an unstressed [ə] or the lengthening of the preceding vowel. Intervocalic /r/ may also be dropped, e.g. General American story ([stɔri]) can be pronounced [stɔ.i], though this doesn't occur across morpheme boundaries./r/ may also be deleted between a consonant and a back rounded vowel, especially in words like throw, throat, and through.
- The level of AAVE rhoticity is likely somewhat correlated with the rhoticity of white speakers in a given region; in 1960s research, AAVE accents tended to be mostly non-rhotic in Detroit, whose white speakers are rhotic, but completely non-rhotic in New York City, whose white speakers are also often non-rhotic.
- /l/ is often vocalized in patterns similar to that of /r/ (though never between vowels) and, in combination with cluster simplification (see above), can make homophones of toll and toe, fault and fought, and tool and too. Homonymy may be reduced by vowel lengthening and by an off-glide [ɤ].
John McWhorter discusses an accent continuum from "a 'deep' Black English through a 'light' Black English to standard English," saying the sounds on this continuum may vary from one African American speaker to the next or even in a single speaker from one situational context to the next. McWhorter regards the following as rarer features, characteristic only of a deep Black English but which speakers of light Black English may occasionally "dip into for humorous or emotive effect":
- Lowering of /ɪ/ before /ŋ/, causing pronunciations such as [θɛŋ~θæŋ] for thing (sounding something like thang).
- Word-medially and word-finally, pronouncing /θ/ as [f] (so [mʌmf] for month and [mæɔf] for mouth), and /ð/ as [v] (so [smuːv] for smooth and [ɹævə(ɹ)] for rather. This is called th-fronting. Word-initially, is [d] (so those and doze sound nearly identical). In other words, the tongue fully touches the top teeth.
- Glide deletion (monophthongization) of all instances of , universally, resulting in [aː~äː] (so that, for example, even rice may sound like rahs.)
- Full gliding (diphthongization) of , resulting in [iə] (so that win may sound like wee-un).
- Raising and fronting of the vowel of words like strut, mud, tough, etc. to something like [ɜː~əː].
Tense and aspect
Although AAVE does not necessarily have the simple past-tense marker of other English varieties (that is, the -ed of "worked"), it does have an optional tense system with at least four aspects of the past tense and two aspects of the future tense.
|Past||Pre-recent||I been bought it|
|Recent||I done buy ita|
|Pre-present||I did buy it|
|Past Inceptive||I do buy it|
|Present||I be buying it|
|Future||Immediate||I'm a-buy it|
|Post-immediate||I'm a-gonna buy it|
|Indefinite future||I gonna buy it|
^a Syntactically, I bought it is grammatical, but done (always unstressed) is used to emphasize the completed nature of the action.
As phase auxiliary verbs, been and done must occur as the first auxiliary; when they occur as the second, they carry additional aspects:
- He been done work means "he finished work a long time ago".
- He done been work means "until recently, he worked over a long period of time".
The latter example shows one of the most distinctive features of AAVE: the use of be to indicate that performance of the verb is of a habitual nature. In most other American English dialects, this can only be expressed unambiguously by using adverbs such as usually.
This aspect-marking form of been or BIN is stressed and semantically distinct from the unstressed form: She BIN running ('She has been running for a long time') and She been running ('She has been running'). This aspect has been given several names, including perfect phase, remote past, and remote phase (this article uses the third). As shown above, been places action in the distant past. However, when been is used with stative verbs or gerund forms, been shows 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 been had this dress, meaning that the speaker has had the dress for a long time and that it isn't new.
To see the difference between the simple past and the gerund when used with been, consider the following expressions:
- I been bought her clothes means "I bought her clothes a long time ago".
- I been buying her clothes means "I've been buying her clothes for a long time".
|Aspect||Example||Standard English meaning|
|Habitual/continuative aspect||He be working Tuesdays.||He frequently (or habitually) works on Tuesdays.|
|Intensified continuative (habitual)||He stay working.||He is always working.|
|Intensified continuative (not habitual)||He steady working.||He keeps on working.|
|Perfect progressive||He been working.||He has been working.|
|Irrealis[clarification needed]||He finna go to work.||He is about to go to work.a|
- ^aFinna corresponds to "fixing to" in other varieties. it is also written fixina, fixna, fitna, and finta
In addition to these, come (which may or may not be an auxiliary) may be used to indicate speaker indignation, such as in Don't come acting like you don't know what happened and you started the whole thing ('Don't try to act as if you don't know what happened, because you started the whole thing').
Negatives are formed differently from most other varieties of English:
- Use of ain't as a general negative indicator. As in other dialects, it can be used where most other dialects would use am not, isn't, aren't, haven't, and hasn't. However, in marked contrast to other varieties of English in the US, some speakers of AAVE also use ain't instead of don't, doesn't, or didn't (e.g., I ain't know that).Ain't had its origins in common English but became increasingly stigmatized since the 19th century. See also amn't.
- Negative concord, popularly called "double negation", as in I didn't go nowhere; if the sentence is negative, all negatable forms are negated. This contrasts with standard written English conventions, which have traditionally prescribed that a double negative is considered incorrect to mean anything other than a positive (although this wasn't always so; see double negative).
- In a negative construction, an indefinite pronoun such as nobody or nothing can be inverted with the negative verb particle for emphasis (e.g., Don't nobody know the answer, Ain't nothing going on.)
While AAVE shares these with Creole languages,Howe & Walker (2000) use data from early recordings of African Nova Scotian English, Samaná English, and the recordings of former slaves to demonstrate that negation was inherited from nonstandard colonial English.
Other grammatical characteristics
- The copulabe in the present tense is often dropped, as in Russian, Hebrew, Arabic and other languages. For example: You crazy ("You're crazy") or She my sister ("She's my sister"). The phenomenon is also observed in questions: Who you? ("Who're you?") and Where you at? ("Where are you (at)?"). This has been sometimes considered a Southern U.S. regionalism, though it is most frequent in black speech. On the other hand, a stressed is cannot be dropped: Yes, she is my sister. The general rules are:
- Only the forms is and are (of which the latter is anyway often replaced by is) can be omitted; am, was, and were are not deleted.
- These forms cannot be omitted when they would be pronounced with stress in General American (whether or not the stress serves specifically to impart an emphatic sense to the verb's meaning).
- These forms cannot be omitted when the corresponding form in standard English cannot show contraction (and vice versa). For example, I don't know where he is cannot be reduced to *I don't know where he just as in standard English forms the corresponding reduction *I don't know where he's is likewise impossible. (I don't know where he at is possible, paralleling I don't know where he's at in standard English.)
- Possibly some other minor conditions apply as well.
- Verbs are uninflected for number and person: there is no -s ending in the present-tense third-person singular. Example: She write poetry ("She writes poetry"). Similarly, was is used for what in standard English are contexts for both was and were.
- The genitive -'s ending may or may not be used. Genitive case is inferrable from adjacency. This is similar to many creoles throughout the Caribbean. Many language forms throughout the world use an unmarked possessive; it may here result from a simplification of grammatical structures. Example: my momma sister ("my mother's sister")
- The words it and they denote the existence of something, equivalent to standard English's there is or there are.
- Word order in questions: Why they ain't growing? ("Why aren't they growing?") and Who the hell she think she is? ("Who the hell does she think she is?") lack the inversion of most other forms of English. Because of this, there is also no need for the "auxiliary do".
- Usage of personal pronoun "them" instead of definite article "those" or "these".
AAVE shares most of its lexicon with other varieties of English, particularly that of informal and Southern dialects; for example, the relatively recent use of y'all. However, it has also been suggested that some of the vocabulary unique to AAVE has its origin in West African languages, but etymology is often difficult to trace and without a trail of recorded usage, the suggestions below cannot be considered proven. Early AAVE contributed a number of African-originated words to the American English mainstream, including gumbo,goober,yam, and banjo. AAVE has also contributed slang expressions such as cool and hip. In many cases, the postulated etymologies are not recognized by linguists or the Oxford English Dictionary, such as to dig,jazz,tote, and bad-mouth, a calque from Mandinka.
AAVE also has words that either are not part of most other American English dialects or have strikingly different meanings. For example, there are several words in AAVE referring to white people that are not part of mainstream American English; these include gray as an adjective for whites (as in gray dude), possibly from the color of Confederate uniforms; and paddy, an extension of the slang use for "Irish". "Ofay," which is pejorative, is another general term for a white person; it might derive from the Ibibio word afia, which means "light-colored", from the Yoruba word ofe, spoken in hopes of disappearing from danger, or via Pig Latin from "foe". However, most dictionaries simply say its etymology is unknown.Kitchen refers to the particularly curly or kinky hair at the nape of the neck, and siditty or seddity means "snobbish" or "bourgeois".
AAVE has also contributed various words and phrases to other varieties of English, including chill out, main squeeze, soul, funky, and threads.
Influence on other dialects
African-American Vernacular English has influenced the development of other dialects of English. The AAVE accent, New York accent, and Spanish-language accents have together yielded the sound of New York Latino English, some of whose speakers use an accent indistinguishable from an AAVE one. AAVE has also influenced certain Chicano accents and Liberian Settler English, directly derived from the AAVE of the original 16,000 African Americans who migrated to Liberia in the 1800s. In the United States, urban youth participating in hip-hop culture or marginalized as ethnic minorities, aside from Latinos, are also well-studied in adopting African-American Vernacular English, or prominent elements of it: for example, Southeast-Asian Americans embracing hip-hop identities.
Urban versus rural variations
African-American Vernacular English began as mostly rural and Southern, yet today is mostly urban and nationally widespread, and its more recent urban features are now even diffusing into rural areas. Urban AAVE alone is intensifying with the grammatical features exemplified in these sentences: "He be the best" (intensified equative be), "She be done had her baby" (resultative be done), and "They come hollerin" (indignant come). On the other hand, rural AAVE alone shows certain features too, such as: "I was a-huntin" (a-prefixing); "It riz above us" (different irregular forms); and "I want for to eat it" (for to complement). Using the word bees even in place of be to mean is or are in standard English, as in the sentence "That's the way it bees" is also one of the rarest of all deep AAVE features today, and most middle-class AAVE speakers would recognize the verb bees as part of only a deep "Southern" or "country" speaker's vocabulary.
New York City AAVE incorporates some local features of the New York accent, including its high THOUGHT vowel; meanwhile, conversely, Pittsburgh AAVE may merge this same vowel with the LOT vowel, matching the cot-caught merger of white Pittsburgh accents. AAVE accents traditionally do not have the cot-caught merger. Memphis, Atlanta, and Research Triangle AAVE incorporates the DRESS vowel raising and FACE vowel lowering associated with white Southern accents. Memphis and St. Louis AAVE is developing, since the mid-twentieth century, an iconic merger of the vowels in SQUARE and NURSE, making there sound like thurr.
Although the distinction between AAVE and General American accents is clear to most English speakers, some characteristics, notably double negatives and the omission of certain auxiliaries (see below) such as the has in has been are also characteristic of many colloquial dialects of American English, though still more likely in AAVE.