10 Things To Know About African American Language
By Renée Blake, Kimberley Baxter
African descendants in the U.S. have been speaking varieties of English, today known as African American Language (AAL), for many centuries. While not all Black people speak AAL, many do. Think you know all there is to know about the language? Think again! Read on for what you should know about AAL.
1. The V in AAVE stands for vernacular.
African American Vernacular English (AAVE) references the language being used in more casual settings. However, as time progressed, language scholars realized that AAVE is spoken in a variety of settings—including more informally at home and in more formal spaces like the office.
Since the 1960s, when linguists began describing this language in great detail, it has gone through many name changes based on the social and political times in which it exists. Names have included: African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Afro-American English, Black Vernacular English, Black English Vernacular, Black English, Black Language, Spoken Soul, Black Street Speech, Black Folk Speech, Black Dialect, Black Communications, all the way back to American Negro English, Nonstandard Negro English, and Negro Dialect. Today, it is more widely referred to as African American English (AAE). For language scholars, American Language (AAL) is often preferred as a cover term for the languages spoken by the many different people comprising Black communities, or to acknowledge its autonomy as a language.
In the 1970s, psychologist Robert Williams misnamed the language Ebonics, a combination of the words Ebony and phonics, or black sound, which is still in popular use today. The problem with the name Ebonics is that AAL is more than just a sound system—it’s a full language system.
2. African American English is a dialect of English.
Like all other dialects of English, with their own histories of how they came to be, African American English (AAE) is a systematic and complete language that operates under a set of rules—and while AAE differs from other dialects of English, there are many overlaps, as seen in the diagram below.
AAE isn’t a broken free-for-all language in which anything goes; it has its own set of grammatical rules that can be violated. When people attempt to mock AAE and how it sounds, they often don't have a grasp of the grammar or syntax of the language, which makes it very easy to spot someone who doesn’t actually speak, respect, or understand the language.
3. “He be dreaming” and “He is dreaming” mean two different things in African American English.
Before we jump into the grammar of AAE, we'll need to define a few terms:
Habitual Be: This verb refers to a regular occurrence—as in, “that dog be sleeping.”
Tense: The is in he is dreaming is an example of present tense. It tells you that something is happening in the present. In the case of he was dreaming, the was tells you that something happened in the past. When the verb to be is used in this way (“is, was, are, were,” etc.) we call it the copula.
Aspect: In language, aspect tells you how something happens. For example, he be dreaming does not mean “he is dreaming”; rather, it means “he tends to dream,” or maybe even “he dreams often.” It does not tell us that he is dreaming right now, but that he dreams regularly.
People who mock AAE typically latch onto Habitual Be as “proof” that AAE doesn’t make sense, but what is actually happening is that they are failing to separate Tense (he is dreaming) from Aspect (he be dreaming) because White Mainstream American English does not allow the verb to be to indicate Aspect without the addition of other things like adverbs or adjectives.
In other words, where African American English allows “He be dreaming,” White Mainstream American English would have to say “He tends to dream,“ “He dreams often,” or “He dreams from time to time.”
4. African American English is not a monolith or a stereotype.
In April 2018, Cephas Williams, founder of 56 Black Men and Drummer Boy Studios, created the visual campaign, “I Am Not My Stereotype,” with the goal of challenging negative singular clichés about Black men. Along these lines, AAE, and more broadly AAL, is not simply a language by which to negatively judge its speakers; it is a language that derives from a historical past of contact between multiple language speakers. It varies across age, ethnicity, class, and gender. There is more than one AAE.
Most of the time when we think about variation in language, we think about where people live and the different words used: pop vs. soda vs. Coke. Other times, we might be talking about accents, which leads us to talk about one group sounding different to another group. The way someone speaks AAL in North Carolina is not identical to how people speak in New York, and neither of those is identical to how people speak in California. Thus, AAL is not a monolith; its use, its sound, and even how words are put together can vary from place to place. For instance, AAL speakers in the South may say “fixin’ to,” whereas in the North, they would say “gonna” or “bout to.”
5. Black American Sign Language (ASL) is real.
Like Black hearing children, Black Deaf children have generally grown up in Black communities that experience de facto segregation. Black ASL developed in Black Deaf schools and continues to thrive across Black Deaf communities across the United States, in spite of social and educational integration, and hence, greater use of mainstream ASL in Black communities. While sign language is different to spoken language, Black ASL and AAL do have shared facial and hand gestures.
6. African American Language is more than just words.
AAL also includes gestures, body language, intonation, and other cultural cues that add another layer of richness to the things AAL speakers communicate to one another, as seen in the 2014 Key & Peele skit above on then-President Barack Obama’s use of the Black handshake. Many expressions and gestures used by Black people in the United States have been made into popular GIFs and memes, as was the case for Kalin Elisa, whom Essence.com deemed one of “The Most Unforgettable Viral Moments of Black Twitter in 2018” for what’s known as “the squat and squint.”
7. On one hand, African American Language is loved, appreciated, and appropriated by the mainstream.
African American cultural expression has extended into hip hop discourse and music, and is one of the largest exports of U.S. culture. Look at youth around the world, and the impact of African American culture on dance, dress, hairstyles, and language is obvious. Its pervasiveness is found in popular GIFs and memes of Black people’s gestures or reactions, from the look on Annalise Keating’s (Viola Davis’s) face before she grabs her purse to leave in How to Get Away with Murder to Kalin Elisa’s viral “squat and squint” Twitter meme.
The overuse of these expressions in the mainstream by those who are not Black is now referred to as “digital blackface,” in which racial stereotyping of Black bodies is used or “put on” to express one’s emotions. There is also the appropriation of AAL terms and phrases such as bae, on fleek, and it’s the ___ for me, oftentimes used and incorporated into dialects of English other than AAL with no acknowledgement of their origins.
8. On the other hand, African American Language is used as a proxy for racism against Black people.
In spite of its cultural popularity—and despite the fact that it is a language that is systematic and rule-governed in its own right—AAL has been used as a proxy for discrimination against its speakers everywhere from the classroom to the job and housing markets. AAL speakers who speak their language are “articulate” in their language. When one speaks of a small group of African Americans as being articulate while speaking White Mainstream American English, it belies the fact that AAL speakers have and continue to be accomplished and make great contributions.
9. Where the N-word is concerned, communicative competency in African American Language matters.
Put simply, when someone is a speaker of a language, they are said to have communicative competence in that language. Communicative competence consists of two parts: The first is linguistic competence, which means that a speaker knows the parts of a language and how to put them together. The second is performance, which basically means that the speaker of a language also knows how to use the language in terms of who should speak it, to whom, and in what situations.
Just because someone knows or learns the linguistic structure of AAL doesn’t mean that they know how to use it appropriately. Historically, the N-word pronounced with a hard r is marked as a pronunciation by someone outside of the community who is being antagonistic. However, putting an a at the end of the N-word does not allow just anyone to be able to say it.
10. When we talk about African American Language, we often don’t consider the other related languages spoken by Black people.
Gullah, or “Geechee,” is English-Lexified (meaning that its words come from English), and is spoken along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. Louisiana Creole is French-Lexified and spoken in, as one might guess, Louisiana. These languages, like AAE, originated during the enslavement of Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries. Gullah and Louisiana Creole are considered Creole languages similar to Atlantic Creoles such as Jamaican Patwa, Antiguan Creole, and Haitian Creole that are a mixture of European and African languages, with influences from Indigenous languages as well. Today, Gullah and Louisiana Creole are endangered, with younger-generation speakers using it less and less as time goes on.
Want to learn more about African American Language?
AAL has been researched for more than 50 years. To learn more, check out the Emmy-winning Talking Black in America, as well as Signing Black in America, at TalkingBlackinAmerica.org. Informative books include: Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English by John R. Rickford and Russell J. Rickford; Linguistics in the Pursuit of Justice by John Baugh; Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. by H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman; Hiphop Literacies by Elaine Richardson; and Linguistics Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity and Pedagogy by April Baker-Bell.
About the Authors
Kimberley Baxter (she/her/hers) is a Ph.D. student in NYU’s linguistics department. She has earned two master’s degrees—one specializing in forensic linguistics at Hofstra University and the other in sociolinguistics at the University of Essex—and studied Spanish at North Carolina A&T State University. Her advisor is Professor Renée Blake, and her current linguistic interests are regional syntactic variation in African American English, and syntax in Jamaican Patwa, Gullah, and other English-Lexified Atlantic Creoles.
Renée Blake is an associate professor in the departments of linguistics and social and cultural analysis at New York University and a founding member of the Center for the Study of Africa and the African Diaspora at NYU. She served as an associate producer on the Emmy Award-winning Talking Black in America. She also is the co-founder of the United Solutions Consultancy Group committed to equity, inclusion, and belonging. Fun fact: She's a mean salsa dancer!
A version of this story ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2023.