African American Vernacular English (AAVE)

AAVE Defined

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) encompasses several labels including Ebonics, Black English, African American English, Black Vernacular, Black English Vernacular and Black Vernacular English, all of which describe the English that is primarily, but not exclusively, associated with the speech of African Americans. Many linguists use the label “African American English” (AAE), but the addition of the term ‘vernacular’ (meaning “common everyday language”) is gaining favor, since the word distinguishes it from the formal English spoken by many African Americans.

Linguists estimate that AAVE is spoken by 80-90% of African Americans, at least in some settings. Those who speak AAVE are described as “bidialectal”, meaning they slip easily in and out of AAVE and Standard American English (SAE) dialect, and the extent of its use is regulated by circumstances such as communication partner, environment, or topic. In addition, researchers at the University of Michigan found that most AAVE speakers use it in less than one third of their speech events.

Furthermore, AAVE is occasionally spoken by members of other racial and ethnic groups; these people are considered to be part of the AAVE “speech community”.

Clinical Implications

Though linguists now agree that AAVE is not 'broken' English, or slang, the debate regarding its classification as a dialect or language is ongoing, and both positions have different educational and social implications. On the one hand, if AAVE is classified as a dialect, the differences between AAVE and SAE may not be significant enough to explain the difficulties many AAVE speakers encounter in English classes. In this case, we would need to look for other factors that may be associated with these difficulties, such as educational practices and teacher attitudes towards AAVE and the students who speak it. According to Redd (2005) teachers' attitudes regarding AAVE present a "common obstacle, with far-reaching consequences." Furthermore, research has shown that a teacher's attitude about a student's speech is the "most powerful factor in determining the teacher's expectations" for any given student.


On the other hand, if we decide that AAVE is a distinct language then we must address the linguistic interference that may be hampering a student’s ability to communicate. This may mean making ELL support services available, in addition to changing teacher and student’s perceptions of AAVE.

A culturally competent clinician should keep the following in mind: Not all who are labled African American self-identify as African American.

AAVE: Difference vs. Disorder

When working with any population that communicates via a non-mainstream language, there is an inherent risk of misdiagnosis. This likelihood is increased by the lack of standardized tests with sound normative data for measuring language proficiency in a non-mainstream language or dialect. In particular, when standardized measures are based on normative data from the mainstream language population, their results may misinterpret language or dialectical differences as a disorder (i.e. tests have low specificity) and language disorder can be incorrectly attributed to a language or dialectical difference (i.e. tests have low sensitivity).

 

In either case, research has shown that African American children are particularly vulnerable to this misinterpretation. According to Holly Craig, researcher, associate professor, and director of the Communicative Disorders Clinic at the University of Michigan, this is “because about a third of African American English features have the potential to delete grammatical forms, when you use standard English as your comparison, it's easy to misunderstand that this child is simply using a dialect appropriately”. 

When working with AAVE speakers, a culturally competent clinician must keep the following considerations in mind:

  • Current standardized tests do not have the specificity and sensitivity to accurately assess the speech and language of AAVE speakers.
  • Clinicians must utilize alternative methods to assess AAVE speakers. Alternative components include: language sampling, local norms, ethnographic interview, observation, dynamic assessment and criterion–referenced measures.

    For more information regarding the appropriate assessment of culturally or linguistically diverse clients, readers are advised to refer to the following webpage: Bilingual Assessment

    AAVE Characteristics

    AAVE is spoken with nearly uniform pronunciation across the United States. Linguists suggest that this may be due to two primary factors: 1) migrations of African Americans out of the Southern U.S. and, 2) persistent racial segregation.

    The primary traits that distinguish AAVE from SAE include:

    • Predictable pronunciation changes along defined patterns
    • Unique vocabulary
    • The manner in which tenses are used

    Following is a summary of the major distinctive phonological, lexical, and morphosyntactical characteristics associated with AAVE. A comprehensive description of AAVE.

    Phonological Characteristics

    • Syllable-final devoicing of obstruents (e.g. “mad” sounds like “mat”)
    • Syllable-final consonant deletion (e.g., "man" becomes [mæ᷉])
    • Syllable-final glottalization (e.g., "good" becomes [gʊʔ], "sight" becomes [saɪʔ], "talk" becomes [tɔʔ])
    • Substitution of dental fricatives
      • /f/ or /t/ for /θ/ in word-medial and –final position (e.g. “author” becomes [ɔfə], “math” becomes [mæf] )
      • /d/ for /ð/ in word-initial, and /d/ or /v/ for /ð/ in word-medial and word-final position (e.g. “this” becomes [dɪs], “mother” becomes [mʌvɚ] and “bathe” becomes [beɪv])
    • Substitution of word-final /ŋ/ : replaced by /n/ in function morphemes and content morphemes with two syllables only (e.g. “tripping” is pronounced as [trɪpɪn] but “sing” does not become[sɪn])
    • Final consonant cluster reduction: deletion of second consonant in words ending with clusters 
      • /sk/, /nd/, /sp/, /ft/, /ld/, /dʒd/, /st/, /sd/, or /nt/ (e.g. “left” becomes [lɛf]; “cold” becomes [kol]; “desk” becomes [dɛs]
    • Substitution of blends
    • /str/ replaced by /skr/ (e.g. “street” becomes [skrit])
    • /ʃ r/ replaced by /str/ (e.g. “shrill” becomes [strɪl]
    • Use of metathesised forms (e.g. [aks] for “ask” or [graps] for “grasp”)
    • Deletion of liquids:
      • Consonantal /r/ is usually dropped if not followed by a vowel, (e.g. “poor” becomes [po]) or, if it’s between a consonant and a back rounded vowel (e.g.”throw” becomes [tho]) and intervocalic /r/ may also be deleted (e.g. “story” becomes [stɔ.i] )
      • /l/ is often deleted in patterns similar to /r/ and, is also impacted by cluster reduction.
    • Vowel differences
      • /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ are both pronounced as [ɪ], when they occur before nasal consonants (e.g. pen and pin become homophones). The distinction between /ɪ/ and /iː/ is frequently reduced before liquids(e.g. “feel” and “fill” become homophones).
      • /uː/ and /oʊ/ merge when they occur before /r/.
      • Lowering of /ɪ/ to /ɛ/ or /æ/ before /ŋ/ (e.g. [θɛŋ] or [θæŋ] for thing).
      • Reduction of certain diphthong forms to monophthongs, (e.g. /aɪ/ becomes /aː/, /ɔɪ/ is monophthongized, especially before /l/, making “boil” sound like ‘ball”
    • Deletion or Substitution of word-medial /z/(e.g. “isn’t” becomes [ɪdn’t] or[ɪn’t])
    • Initial consonant deletion: /w/ and /d/ are deleted in initial position for specific words (e.g. “was” becomes [əz])

    Lexical Differences

    To a great extent, AAVE shares a common lexicon with SAE, particularly vocabulary from informal and southern dialects. However, AAVE varies from SAE more than any other dialect spoken in North America. Over the years many AAVE words have become commonly used by many SAE speakers. Examples include: dig (meaning “to understand/appreciate”), jazz, tote, chill out (meaning to relax, calm down), main squeeze (referring to one's significant other), soul (referring to African American food and music), funky, and threads (meaning “clothes”), def (meaning “excellent”), phat (meaning “extremely good-looking, tasty, nice), diss (meaning “disrespect”), and jive (meaning to speak in a dishonest or misleading manner).

    AAVE also has words that either are not part of SAE, or have completely different meanings from their usage in SAE. Examples include; kitchen (refers to the curly hair at the nape of the neck), ashy (meaning “dry skin”), siditty (meaning snobbish or bourgeois), and bougie (meaning “an elitist African American”).

    Morphologic and Syntactic Characteristics

    Remote Phase Marker

    “Remote Phase Marker” is used by some linguists to refer to the aspect marked by stressed “been”. In order to distinguish stressed “been” from unstressed “been” as used in SAE, linguists often write it as “BIN”. (e.g., “She BIN running” means “She has been running for a long time” and “She been running” means “She has been running”).

    Habitual "Be"

    In SAE, the phrases "Jess be talking on the phone" and "Jess is talking on the phone" would have the same meaning. However, in AAVE, the phrase "Jess be talking on the phone" means that Jess customarily talks on the phone, but may not be doing so at the moment 

    In a study by Jackson and Green (2005), groups of white and black children were shown a picture from Sesame Street in which Cookie Monster lay sick in bed without any cookies, and Elmo stood nearby eating a cookie. When asked "who is eating cookies?" the children all pointed to Elmo. When asked "who be eating cookies?" the black AAVE speakers pointed to Cookie Monster, while the European American children pointed to Elmo. 

    Copula Deletion

    Many speakers of AAVE will sometimes delete certain forms of the copula "to be" (e.g., an AAVE speaker might say "they angry" instead of "they are angry," or "I don't know what he talking about" instead of "I don't know what he's talking about"). 

    Negation

    • Ain’t is used acceptably
    • Double or even multiple negatives within a sentence are acceptable, and are used for emphasis.

      Original Contributor: Stephanie Zienkiewicz, Winter term 2008

      Resources and References