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What is AAE?

AAE stands for African American English, and you might sometimes see it written as AAVE, or African American Vernacular (vernacular = everyday speech) English.

Watch the PSA below, which was created by students of Renee Blake’s African American English class in the Spring of 2008. See what they have to say. Unfortunately the website referenced at the end is no longer available. Pretend it says africanamericanenglish.com.

Classifying AAE concretely as a language or dialect is also a tough question, because there’s no real concrete answer. It’s safe to simply refer to AAE as a complete variety of English, and one that is systematic and rule-based. AAE is a not just a collection of words or ‘slang,’ and it’s not quite the same thing as Ebonics.* It has its own grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and social rules for usage.

Not everybody who speaks AAE is African American, but many are, and similarly not all African Americans speak AAE, but many do.

Historically, and in the present day AAE is an extremely negatively stigmatized variety of English, and this is because of its association with the marginalized status of many of its speakers. Many negative or racist attitudes towards African Americans are often deflected into the characterization of the language and the way people talk.

AAE is sometimes referred to as ‘backwards,’ or ‘stupid,’ or ‘bad english,’ when in reality it is merely different and just as complex and valid of a language as Japanese or Latin.

The idea that language and social identity are intertwined it not necessarily always a bad thing though. One of the reasons that African American English has survived for so long even with its stigmatized place in mainstream American society is the feeling of inclusiveness or ‘in-group’ status that speaking a non-standard language can provide. It brings speakers together as much as it sets them apart from the mainstream, and perhaps most importantly it implies a sense of shared history and cultural roots.

*Ebonics (ebony + phonics, ‘black sounds’) is a bit of an outdated term that was originally invented by black scholars to refer to the languages of people of African ancestry. It has since picked up many negative social connotations, notably in the 1996 Oakland School Board controversy over a program that concerned recognizing dialect differences in the classroom. For a quick outline of the details of the case, click here.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2010 8:10 pm

    This website looks great, and I must ask: What does it mean for a “speech variety” to be “rule-based”?

    To make an analogy, perhaps one of the most rule-based varieties of music is classical. It is a genre with written-down instructions, and it is associated with Whites.

    On the other hand, while jazz could be said to have its own conventions, its magic stems from improvisation, not from rules. It is a genre associated with Blacks.

    Of course, this is overly simplistic. We can appreciate both Coltrane and Beethoven, for instance, as great mixers of systematicity with spontaneity, of convention with irreverence.

    So yes, AAE is as valid as Latin, but do these “speech varieties” and their “rules” have any existence beyond someone saying so? Do we have to follow rules to be legitimate?

    • Robert permalink
      February 4, 2011 4:42 am

      Hey everybody!

      First of all: great website! It provided me with profound information about AA(V)E. 🙂

      “Do we have to follow rules to be legitimate?”

      Definitely no I think. A language always is a fluent construct of improvisation and spontaneousity. But: rules are required to distinguish one language from an other, or one dialect from a standard variety or an other dialect. For example, I’m from Germany and in order to understand the differences between e.g. Northern Inland American English and AAE certain linguistic rules (or “distinctive features”) have to be statuated. Reality itself differs A LOT from what linguists say though. Linguistics can be nothing more than an attempt (even though mostly a good one) to describe the current (and with current I mean the very time of observation) status of a language/variety. Just think about Creoles which, in my opinion, can never be described in their completness as there are so many varieties and subcategories.

      By the act of speaking itself everbody forms his/her language. Think about neologisms: aren’t they part of your language if you (and possibly a few other persons) actively use them? I do think so.

      Greetings from Germany, Robert

    • kelsblaize permalink
      March 27, 2012 11:48 pm

      To be rule-based means that AAE, as a dialect, has certain rules that make it understandable to those who speak it. For example, whereas Mainstream English does not have a way of stating things that happen habitually, AAE does with what scholars term the “habitual be” (example: “She be busy.” meaning that she is constantly busy). Being rule-based does not say anything about what you do or not do, and doesn’t have anything to do with being mainstream or not in society. It is just a descriptor of all languages that function consistently in the real world for a group of speakers.

      In other words, AAE is rule-governed through its own right and not through the rules created for it by some outside other. No one can place the rules on it that were not created by the speakers and used regularly by them. These rules allow it to function as a system and as a language, even if they are not written down anywhere. They are things such as the grammar used, the sounds of the language, the meanings behind words, etc.

  2. May 6, 2010 8:12 am

    So yes, AAE is as valid as Latin, but do these “speech varieties” and their “rules” have any existence beyond someone saying so? Do we have to follow rules to be legitimate?
    +1

    • Moraks permalink
      April 23, 2011 1:37 pm

      Hi everyone,

      I like to respond to the question of “rules” in AAE. What exactly does it mean for a language to be “rule-governed”? Are there languages without rules? Well, I think the answer lies in how we conceive of the rules of language. In the study of language there are what we call prescriptive rules as opposed to descriptive rules. Prescriptive rules are rules that are designed to make people speak in certain ways,they tell people how they should speak or write in accordance to some established “standard”. These rules are often very arbitrary. Arbitrary because they are not necessarily founded on any justifiable linguistic claims. Hegemonic because they originate from political attempts to make a language conform in style and structure to another language that is believed to be the “standard” tongue. Thus, what is considered grammatical or acceptable depends on historical norms that have nothing to do with logical considerations. If the rules we are talking about are the prescriptive norms that seek to conform AAE into SAE (Standard American English), then it is ok to say that AAE does not obey such rules or has no such rules.
      The goal of modern linguistic is to understand the systematicity (by that I mean the complexity and interplay of rules) of a spoken language by describing what people do verbally. Descriptive rules are the rules that are internal and intrinsic to every language. These rules account for the why and the how native speakers of a language use their language the way they do. AAE as a natural human language has all such rules. People who say that AAE has no rules are sometimes ignorant of these rules or are not patient enough to understand the aesthetics of how these rules are manipulated to produce acceptable utterances in the language. AAE is not “sloopy” English, it is not slangs, it is not the language of uneducated blacks, it is a language that is rule governed in its phonology, semantics and syntax. There is a systematic way in which AAE speakers use double negation, copula deletion, ‘r’ elision, the use of invariant ‘be’ e.t.c. I think all we need is an open mind and a listening ear to understand the systematicity of the rules of AAE.

  3. Raven permalink
    February 14, 2012 2:19 pm

    I’m black, grew up in middle-class black America, and AAE is rather disturbing and offensive in title to me and as threatening to me, in some contexts, as Maya Angelou believes. I’m not even a part of that generation (I’m 17) but I see AAE the same way as they do. Though it may be acceptable to you, your personal vernacular, it is not acceptable by success in mainstream society in many instances. And I am not a societal bird; the winds of the mainstream do not positively guide or affect my course. Yet, being black and growing up in a world that would hasten to stereotype me for my speech, I’d rather not carry the extra load. I’d really rather not give anyone another excuse to put me down. But, that’s just my opinion.
    Anyway, I’m doing a paper in which I must create an academic argument on a topic having to do with language, identity, and politics. I’m doing it on AAE and I found this site very informative. Regardless of our differing opinions, thank you for providing such a strong point for your side, I’ll be sure to represent it most effectively.

    • Latoya permalink
      June 27, 2013 1:42 pm

      One thing that is important about calling African American English (AAE) a rules-based dialect is that there exists a myth that AAE is a broken form of English that is not systematic. Broken English indicates that its speakers are trying to speak English, but are missing the mark and failing at it. This is definitely not the case with AAE. AAE is as systematic as all other dialects of English. To clarify, everyone who speaks English speaks a particular dialect of it. Everyone who speaks a particular language speaks a particular dialect of that language. Language can only be described by the dialects that make it up. No one truly speaks Standard English that we see prescribed in grammar textbooks. No one! The English taught in most English classes is an artificial construct. AAE is stigmatized, because the majority of its speakers are of African descent, specifically of the descent of Africans who were shipped to the Americas during Colonialism. As a linguist, I encounter this problem with my students of other nationalities. They sometimes come to the United States with the idea that African Americans speak an inferior form of English, and I redirect them to the truth of the matter. No dialect of English or any language is inherently superior or inferior to another. When we start putting languages and dialects into a hierarchy of superior ones and inferior ones, we start giving people unequal value.

  4. Larry permalink
    September 17, 2015 1:08 pm

    Can anybody tell me if it’s a widespread feature of AAE to replace “that” or “who” with “what,” as in “I found the kid what hit him”? Thanks!

    • April 20, 2016 5:43 pm

      I immediately knew what oonuh said. I would have said “E foun’ de won’wa hit hit’m.”
      Oonuh is a Gullah Creole word means ‘you’ . I have categoriced my dialects. I know the American English. ..and naturallyrics speak AAE Dialect so I found that the proper word for that is Bidielectual…that plus the Gullah Creole comes to 3 distinct languages I speak. I think when we look at them this way. We will be able to embrace the culture and give it the ownership it deserves.

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