If I were to tell you that I’m always schlepping from downtown, some of you might know what I mean. Others would squint their eyes, ask me, “What?” and I’d clarify, “Oh, yeah. It’s, like, Yiddish for ‘I’m always traveling from downtown.’”
Meanwhile, if I were to tell you that “I be traveling from downtown,” most of you would probably infer that I am poor and uneducated. Some may remark that I should speak proper English.
The only difference systematically between the first and the second analogy is that the second is an example of African American Vernacular English.
African American Vernacular English, otherwise known AAVE or Ebonics, is considered a language or dialect primarily spoken by African Americans in the United States. It has traces of Southern American English (which makes a lot of sense historically), but it is not recognized, appreciated, or even welcomed in our cultural systems.
I know there is a lot in the world right now about race, privilege, and discriminating structures. It is valuable that we amplify Black voices, listen with open ears, and reflect and correct how our privilege oppresses others.
I am a White, English educator with a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s in Literacy. I have taught in the Public Education School System, and I’m certified as a Literacy Coach for grades K-12. Recently, I have worked in digital and printed publishing, doing everything from proofreading to developing manuscripts for adult clients. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the way we consider speech matters.
If you speak AAVE, or do life with someone who speaks AAVE, you know that this dialect is not treated equally as others.
For example, a common characteristic of AAVE is the double negative—something that many Romantic languages like Spanish and Italian still utilize for emphasis, as do Southern Americans. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, while in South Carolina, “She don’t go here no more.” And often, when I’ve heard it, I’ve watched White people nod in understanding, or laugh and joke about someone being a Southern belle.
However, if I were to tell you that a Black person spoke these words (“She don’t go here no more”), you may not likely think them to be so charming. You might consider the speaker to be uneducated or even unsafe. You might make discriminatory assumptions on their upbringing or lack of communication skills.
But the opposite couldn’t be truer since AAVE is a complex and systemized dialect. Speakers of AAVE even practice an additional tense; it is called the habitual ‘be.’ An example can include the sentence, “She be working.” This sentence is actually an intentionally communicated phrase. The speaker of AAVE did not forget or fail to conjugate the auxiliary verb.
For you see, the habitual ‘be’ means implies a consistency or frequency to the action. So if I were to say to someone, “She be working,” I am saying, “She is always working” or “She’s usually working.” I mean something different than “She is working.”
This, however, is not recognized in our Standard English because they are Black. We negate the presence of this tense, we fail to seek understanding, and we ask speakers of AAVE to communicate the “White way.”
Perceptions of AAVE Speakers
Other characteristics of AAVE include word order, verb inflections, and slang. But mostly every dialect includes such variations, so what’s the difference? The answer is that we have not as a social structure given permission for the Black community to use theirs. Whether or not we may consciously realize it, we can be racist in our understanding of language without ever saying the ‘n’ word.
We don’t think that speakers of New Orleans English are unintelligent. We don’t question the socioeconomic status of someone who uses Yiddish vocab. We don’t ask someone with a Wisconsin accent to speak properly.
But when a Black person drops the ‘r’ in the non-rhotic pattern of AAVE and says ‘ca’ instead of ‘car,’ we think this person never learned to speak accurately or lives a lower-income lifestyle. Even though Southern American English and British English drop the ‘r’ in non-rhotic patterns as well.
The reality is that in America, White English is the correct English. AAVE is not likely to be accepted by the courts, standardized tests, or job applications. Rarely will you see Black politicians, actors, or athletes use AAVE in professional interviews. And if they do, they are wildly criticized for the way they spoke, rather than the ideas or talents they spoke about. And it doesn’t help, either, that many visual mediums such film or television feature AAVE when the speakers are in a gang, criminal, or drug-centered storyline.
The Truth about Code-Switching
Unfortunately, speakers of AAVE are also required to code-switch into Standard American English if they want to be perceived as literate. For those who may not know, code-switching is the knowledge and talent to switch into another dialect, depending on his/her audience.
The cool part about code-switching is that all of us do it to some extent. The way I speak to my grandparents differs from the way that I speak to my friends. The slang I used in my text messages differs from the sentences I use in emails. I can assess who I am speaking to and adjust my speech so that I am perceived a certain way by a particular person.
The problem is, is that when it comes to speakers of AAVE, code-switching is not just a matter of formality. It’s a lifestyle. Something they must adapt to and skillfully use if they hope to make it in a White-speech world. Unfortunately, we don’t acknowledge it, teach about it in our classrooms, or explain that there are people who reject AAVE. And because of this, many grow up to believe that their speech is inferior, not realizing that they actually participate in a beautifully sophisticated dialect.
I learned about AAVE in my professional studies and absorbed its revelation. I have tried to implement best practices in my classroom or bring it up if the discussion warrants it. And I realize that I am a White woman discussing a subject that we should actually be listening to Black linguists talk about.
So I’d like to introduce some resources for further independent study: John McWhorter’s book Talking Back, Talking Black, Chandra Arthur’s TedTalk “The Cost of Code Switching,” and practically anything by linguist John R. Rickford.
Right now, we are seeing the importance of sharing information so that we can do better. But if there’s anything that has stuck with me over the past couple of weeks, is that’s it’s not enough to not be racist. We must be actively anti-racist, and advocating on behalf of AAVE is a part of this activism.
We must fully acknowledge the racist limitations we have put on speakers of AAVE. We must consistently consider the purposes of speech, the elegance of various dialects, and how our privilege creates language barriers. This knowledge is not just for the linguists in grad school—it is for every one of us that interacts with AAVE speakers.
I am continuing to study semantics, syntax, and how language changes over time. But I’m just beginning to discover what this looks like in terms of activism. So for now, I’ll leave you with a historical fun fact.
A White mathematician, hundreds of years ago, decided that English should not have double negatives because it didn’t make sense in math. But language is not mathematics, and there is no one right answer—despite how uncomfortable it may be for some to consider. Therefore, if someone systematically uses a double negative for emphasis, and they have communicated that emphasis, they are a proper speaker of English.
Featured image by Sam Balye