Black on White

AAVE – African American Vernacular English

According to  is the variety formerly known as Black English Vernacular or Vernacular Black English among sociolinguists, and commonly called Ebonics outside the academic community. While some features of AAVE are apparently unique to this variety, in its structure it also shows many commonalties with other varieties including a number of standard and nonstandard English varieties spoken in the US and the Caribbean. AAVE has been at the heart of several public debates and the analysis of this variety has also sparked and sustained debates among sociolinguists.

It is extremely difficult to say how many people speak AAVE because it is not clear what exactly this would mean. Some speakers may use some distinctive aspects of phonology (pronunciation) and lexis (vocabulary) but none of the grammatical features associated with the variety. Many sociolinguists would reserve the term AAVE for varieties which are marked by the occurrence of certain distinctive grammatical features some of which are discussed below. Even so it may still be difficult to say with any exactitude how many AAVE speakers there are since such grammatical features occur variably, that is, in alternation with standard features. Such variability in the speech both of groups and individuals reflects the complex social attitudes surrounding AAVE and other nonstandard varieties of English and it was this variability which initially attracted the attention of sociolinguists such as William Labov.

The history of AAVE and its genetic affiliation, by which we mean what language varieties it is related to, are also a matter of controversy. Some scholars contend that AAVE developed out of the contact between speakers of West African languages and speakers of vernacular English varieties. According to such a view, West Africans learnt English on plantations in the southern Coastal States (Georgia, South Carolina, etc.) from a very small number of native speakers (the indentured laborers). Some suggest that this led to the development of a rudimentary pidgin which was later expanded through a process of creolization. See more here.


The book The Story of English (1986) by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil and William Cran, shows some aspects about the Black on White: the influences of Africa in The United States over time, and emphasizes that after the Civil War, Civil Rights became an issue. Jim Crow laws were established to abridge the rights of blacks (1876-1965). These laws led to segregation and a “separated but equal” education. Blacks who didn’t believe in these laws were considered “uppity”.

People started talking about civil rights, and the word black replaced the words negro, nigger, and colored. Black history, black studies, black theatre and black power became issues. Sit-ins, blood brothers, soul and nitty gritty became indispensable English words. Another some words: “funky fresh” means excellent; “crib” is your house;  “maxing (out)” means relaxing and “jonesing something” means to want it really badly (from the expression “keeping up with the Joneses”). The best talker of a gang was known as “the prince” and this inspired the name for the sit com “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”.

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