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African American Vernacular English

Essay 2007 10 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde


African American Vernacular English

1. Introduction

2. Linguistic Features
2.1 Shared non-standard features
2.2 Unique non-standard features

3. History

4. Sociolinguistic aspects
4.1 Prestige
4.2 Educational issues

5. Literature

1. Introduction

African American Vernacular English or AAVE, which is also variously labelled ‘African American English’, ‘Black English’, ‘Black Vernacular English’ or ‘Ebonics’, is the non-standard variety of English spoken by many African Americans, at least to some extent and in some contexts. The now very popular term Ebonics is a portmanteau of the words ‚ebony’ and ‚phonics’, created in 1973 by a group of black scholars, who disliked the term 'Nonstandard Negro English', which was in use at that time. The circumstances of the creation of the term, (which has gained considerable popularity during a huge debate in 1996, which will be discussed later), already highlights one of the main features associated with AAVE: the controversies which centre upon it, “even” – according to McCrum et al. –

“within the Black community. For some, it is an authentic means of self-expression for Black English speakers throughout America and the world. For others, who prefer the norms of Standard English, Black English represents the disadvantaged past, an obstacle to advancement, something better unlearned, denied or forgotten.”[1]

The first thorough sociolinguistic study of AAVE was carried out by William Labov in 1968. It was funded by the US Office of Education, which was interested in “the relation between social dialects and the teaching of English.”[2] The problems many Black American children had to acquire thorough reading skills was, in fact, what first brought attention to AAVE. Still scholars can’t seem to agree on what exactly AAVE is and where it comes from. Scholars on one end of the scale of opinions hold it to be very different from Standard English, even a distinct language, those on the other end claim it to be a mere product of regional and socio-economical differences between Blacks and Whites.

These two aspects will be the main points of interest in this paper. After a rough linguistic description of the dialect[3] I’m going to turn to its possible history, before finally concluding with a short outline of the main sociolinguistic aspects surrounding AAVE, including the educational problems it presents, which have, after all, been the catalyst for linguistic interest in the dialect.

2. Linguistic Features

According to Ralph W. Fasold, there are three types of features of AAVE – or of any variety of English -, that is: “(1) unmarked features, in the sense that they do not doffer from the corresponding structures in standard English, (2) non-standard features shared with other non-standard varieties, and (3) unique, also non-standard, features.”[4]

I will completely leave out the first type of features, as it would fill tomes to describe all the many grammatical and phonological, not to mention the shared lexical items. Of the second category, I will give some examples of the most striking phenomenons[5]. The third category is still being disputed by scholars: Features some of them regard as unique are labelled shared by others. In order not to get carried away, I’m going to present some examples Fasold has thoroughly investigated and, after gathering sufficient evidence, proclaimed as unique.

2.1 Shared non-standard features

A quite striking feature of AAVE is the use of the verb ‘to be’. A number of non-standard ways to apply it occur in the dialect: ain’t for isn’t (and also sometimes for didn’t which according to Fasold could even be a unique feature), as well as a lack of concordance in the finite forms of ‘to be’ in the present tense. A further feature is double negation, especially in sentences with indefinite pronouns like Ain’t nobody like her. This example is also an example for a typical change in the word-order, shifting the negated verb to the beginning of the sentence. Further features are the possibility to omit a relative pronoun which functions as a subject in the following relative clause, as for example in: Show me a nice girl ain’t have no boyfriend.

Examples for shared phonological characteristics are: mergers of vowels, so that pin = pen[6], find = fund [a], fond = fund [a], poor = Poe = door. Further, there may be non-rhoticity, especially after vowels, as well as the deletion or vocalization of postvocalic /l/. The dental fricatives may be pronounced either as /f/ or as /t/ (mouth = mouf, with = wit), the initial unvoiced dental fricative is often stopped, so that then = den.


[1] Rober McCrum, William Cran, Robert MacNeil: The story of English. London 19922, p. 209.

[2] Rickford and Rickford, Dialect Readers Revisited,, 28.12.2006, 10:58.

[3] That’s the term I’ve chosen for the time being, out of necessity and out of lack of an approved-of term.

[4] Ralph W. Fasold: The Relation between Black and white speech in the south. In: Harold B. Allen / Michael D. Linn: Dialect and language variation, p. 446-473, p. 450.

[5] I have to admit that my choice will probably be highly subjective. Still, I have to make one and I’m therefore going to present those features mentioned by most of the literature I have consulted.

[6] I want to emphasize at this point that none of the features of AAVE are obligatory. In all contexts standard versions may also be chosen, though in more formal contexts this will probably occur more often. In addition, there are variations even within AAVE, as well as different intensities of preferring AAVE forms of standard English forms.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
497 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universidad de Córdoba – Spain: Universidad de Córdoba
African American Vernacular English Sociolinguistics



Titel: African American Vernacular English