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Steve Harvey on Ebonics

May 4, 2010

(Warning: This clip contains potentially offensive language)

In his skit about an “Ebonics dictionary”, Steve Harvey makes fun of the constant transformation and variation in African American English.  In the opening line of this clip Harvey says, “If you do have a dictionary, it better be in pencil.” There is truth in his joke. African American English has a long history stretching back to American slavery. The African American oral tradition has an even deeper history with roots in African nations. But AAE continually evolves, which may result in generational differences. Also, words from the AAE lexicon are often adopted into the Standard American English (SAE) lexicon with similar or completely altered meanings. Sometimes these words are then dropped from the African American vocabulary, or are no longer strictly associated with African Americans or AAE. For example, chill out, threads, all that, main squeeze, you go, high-five, homeboy, and got game originated from AAE and are used by many people who are not in the African American community.

The linguistic resourcefulness of the African American community is evidenced by the fact that as AAE lexical items or words are appropriated into the SAE lexicon, new words are often created to replace the old.

Harvey then moves on to make fun of the potential miscommunications between AAE and SAE by parodying “ign’ant” black criminals. Harvey might give the impression that only uneducated African Americans that use AAE.  Use of AAE, however, spans all levels of education and class status. AAE is also used in other communities with close ties to the African American community. Harvey’s humor stereotypes and makes assumptions, but one might ask what is comedy without exaggeration and mockery?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2010 4:15 pm

    Exaggeration and mockery are the essence of caricature. It’s a funny skit, and Harvey’s opening line is a good one! An alternative to the pencil is the option of more paper: dictionaries get bigger and bigger to accommodate the constant changes in meaning and usage. Online it’s a lot easier to track and change these data through corpora and websites that aggregate real-time language.

    Related to your very interesting post is this paper by Geoffrey Pullum: Language that dare not speak its name.

  2. Ayeska permalink*
    May 6, 2010 2:27 am

    I love how Steve Harvey’s skit itself is performed in African American English, like when he says “ign’nant”, “fitna”, “floo’ “… I don’t even think he’s aware that he’s doing this!

  3. Louisa permalink
    May 13, 2010 1:24 pm

    I saw this video as well. I was going to post on it too. I like it and I think he brings a great humor to AAE. Within this humor he gives an appreciation to some great aspects of AAE. AAE’s ever changing slang is such a large part of culture as a whole.

  4. Zeke permalink
    May 13, 2010 1:54 pm

    I don’t think Steve Harvey claims that AAE is something essentially of ignorance. He doesn’t say that AAE is inherently crude or ignorant. If anything, he says it’s complex. What I think he’s really getting at in his hold-up scene is the fact that many Americans lacking education have access only to AAE. As an educated person, he can code switch and recognizes the thought processes of both the white person and the criminal. They only fail to understand each other out of ignorance.

  5. Lizzy Sell permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:41 pm

    I agree with Ayeska in that Steve Harvey is utilizing AAE while also parodying it. I think this is common among most speakers, who often perceive what they actually say as something else, perhaps to associate with a different group or identity. Furthermore, I think what Harvey’s most interesting commentary touches on is the disparity between what SAE believe and understand as being “proper” English and what they themselves are actually utilizing. SAE speakers use AAE words, and are constantly adding them to their lexicon, yet, as Harvey points out, do not understand when AAE is being spoken. It seems that SAE speakers are content with borrowing words and phrases and claiming them as their own, yet do not take the time to understand where these words and phrases have come from. Although Harvey was incredibly exaggerated with his impersonation of the AAE criminal, I think there is something in what he says. It is a new concept that AAE is a legitimate dialect with rules and a phonological system, yet there is a stigma still attached that was evident in what looks like the 90’s when Harvey was performing this. It seems that not much has progressed in popular knowledge of AAE, and although AAE is seen as a legitimate dialect, this clip accounts for common situations today. Harvey talks about the lack of the African American’s education, but I would argue that the White education is lacking in a profound way as well.

  6. Joelle Blackstock permalink
    April 13, 2011 11:06 pm

    African American english fits so well with black comedy. I think that on stage, a black comedian can say anything and do anything. The stage is where the black comedian is in charge. It is the place where only the real is allowed in. It seems as if only african american english could hold up that stage because African American english relays the real of African American identity. Steve Harvey is using AAE to send a message that is interpreted best in AAE. Only through AAE can the joke come across to this audience.

    I think it is interesting because when non-African Americans seem to use AAE, it comes across as if they are making fun of black language. While when Steve Harvey uses black english to do a skit on black english, to me, it is not AAE that is being made fun of but non-African Americans who can not understand it is being made fun of. Then when Steve does use standard American english in his skit to express a white reaction to a hold up, he is making fun of standard english and whites who use it at the same time.

    Therefore, it is extraordinary how even in Steve Harvey’s skit where he is using AAE to talk about AAE, it is not AAE that the joke is about. He is making a social commentary about how it seems that blacks and whites speak different languages. Thus African American English can be seen as a social commentary as well.

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