Respecting AAVE: The Value of a Wider English
Known to most through popular culture, most prominently in hip-hop, rap and R&B, AAVE—or Ebonics, if one prefers—is a set of grammatical constructions and sound systems that characterizes the variety of English natively spoken, particularly in urban communities, by most working and middle-class African Americans. One can distinguish AAVE through its phonetics, which include a dropped “r,” making “your” sound like “yo” or a substitution of “ch” for “th,” wherein “with” becomes “wich,” tendencies that compel many to dismiss it as crude “slang.” However, AAVE is not a simplified version of English; on the contrary, it contains many complex grammatical structures that makes it a fascinating dialect of English which deserves far more academic recognition.
Despite linguistics showing us that certain languages or dialects, regardless of repute, aren’t intrinsically superior to others, we have a tendency to enforce the opposite. In China, for instance, the Cantonese dialect is widely considered less formal and intellectual than Standard Beijing Mandarin. The latter, being rooted in political doctrine, is apparently more “traditional,” despite the fact that Cantonese has earlier origins and preserves many of the archaic sounds found in ancient Chinese that Mandarin does not. On the other side of the world, the overwhelming response to creole languages has been to dismiss them as “funny sounding and Barbarian” for the impression that they give of failing to match one of the component languages. Analysis on the relationship between power and language could fill libraries, and in the U.S., such a dynamic appears to be at play when we assume AAVE is a slang-y, broken form of English.
AAVE serves as a great example of why we shouldn’t consider the standard form of a language and its widespread usage as synonymous with correctness. The nuances in AAVE and the way speakers convey meaning is often lost upon non-speakers. The use of double negatives—“I don’t have nothing”—, for example, often receives a finger wagging in English class. In Standard English, this statement is equivalent to “I don’t have anything"—the two negatives canceling each other out. In AAVE, however, a double negative functions as a reaffirmation that modifies the phrase “I don’t have anything.” Reaffirmations, like “very” in English or the phrase “no [verb] nada,” which is itself a double negative in Spanish, work similarly and are considered proper grammatical structure.
Another nuance of the language can be illustrated in the phrase “she be singing.” There is a misconception that AAVE speakers merely fail to conjugate the verb “be'' across all tenses, with no added meaning. In actuality, the phrase doesn’t necessarily mean the subject acts in present tense: “she is singing” in Standard English, but rather that she sings habitually. In one experiment, for instance, children were shown drawings of Elmo eating cookies while Cookie Monster looked on. Both Black and White subjects agreed that “Elmo is eating cookies,” but the Black children added that “Cookie Monster be eating cookies.” This nuance of a habitual “be” doesn’t exist as a verb tense in Standard English: “he be swimmin,” for example, translates most closely to “he regularly swims.”
These, of course, merely comprise a sampler—there are so many more complexities to dissect, from the counter-expectational “done” to a plural perfect “had”. As Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University states, “no group of human beings [ends] up using something that isn’t full, systematic, and nuanced speech.” In the event that a martian came down to research English and happened to land down in South Central Los Angeles versus Scarsdale, New York, he explains, “It would not occur to them that the language people were using in [the former] was somehow…uninteresting or simple compared to the languages they had taken down in Seoul, Korea, or Paris, France.”
None of this should be taken to mean that grammar rules as a whole ought to be dismissed—the existence of other complex dialects doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules. In fact, linguistic rules are the very thing that qualifies AAVE as a dialect in its own right, and an AAVE speaker, as with speakers of any dialect, can identify when those rules are being violated. The difficulty occurs when the rules of one variant of English clash with those of another, particularly in academic and professional settings.
For those who naturally fall into AAVE when surrounded by family and friends, it becomes necessary to subconsciously switch to Standard English in order to sound more professional or polished in the appropriate spheres. This practice of code switching, wherein a speaker toggles between multiple language in different contexts, becomes a theme in Angie Thomas’ critically acclaimed novel The Hate U Give as the protagonist, 16-year-old Starr Carter, grapples with consciously downplaying elements of her black identity and speaking patterns in order to assimilate to the culture of her predominantly white private school.
It’s not that schools should stop teaching formal grammar—god knows it’s done a world of good for our essays and SAT scores. But that’s just it; we need to recognize that while Standard English is appropriate in specific settings, it isn’t necessarily “correct” for those with a wider English repertoire, and students should be made aware of this during grammar education. Furthermore, English classes at all age levels should explore the vast body of literature that features AAVE and encourage speakers to express themselves that way in personal writing. In a time when racial inequality is finally at the center of the country’s collective consciousness, academic institutions can reshape how we understand and respond to natural linguistic differences.
My perspective is limited to academic sources and others’ accounts; I don’t have the personal experience of someone who code switches in and out of AAVE, nor do I know whether what I’ve described is relatable to Lawrentians. I speak only as someone with an intellectual interest in linguistics and, of course, a general interest in a fairer world. In that light, I would encourage each and every one of us to consider our preconceptions, and in the case of AAVE in particular, help promote new voices in attaining the respect they deserve.