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*Ebonics (ebony + phonics, ‘black sounds’) is a bit of an outdated term that was originally invented by black scholars to refer to the languages of people of African ancestry.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.