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Why is AAVE so Controversial?

In today's digital playground, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is blowing up, thanks to Gen Z influencers and Black entertainers who shape online culture with their viral memes and TikTok moves. However, beyond the surface allure of this linguistic trend lies a complex dynamic.  Historically, Black folks speaking AAVE have been labeled as "ghetto" or "uneducated" in formal, white-dominated spaces. Yet, online, AAVE's has found a whole new audience, embraced and celebrated by non-Black individuals—especially the younger crowd—jumping on the bandwagon, peppering their socials with AAVE flair. This shift in perception hasn't escaped the notice of some Black AAVE speakers, who voice concerns about appropriation and misrepresentation of their language. They're not feeling the appropriation and misrepresentation of their language, pointing out that while it might be trendy for non-Black folks to sprinkle AAVE into their online lingo, they often miss the mark on its cultural significance and backstory. And let's face it, when they fumble, they risk coming off as clueless or downright disrespectful to Black communities.

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What is African American Vernacular English (AAVE)?

Formerly known as Ebonics, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is the spicy blend of linguistic heritage shaped by the trials, triumphs and cultural identity of Black Americans. Emerging from a blend of African linguistic influences, regional dialects, and societal factors such as slavery and segregation, AAVE has evolved as a distinct form of English spoken not only in African American communities but also across Black Canadian, British, and Caribbean circles, thanks to the global influence of Black culture. 

Its linguistic features, including unique grammar structures, vocabulary choices, and pronunciation patterns, set it apart from Standard American English (SAE). One notable characteristic is its tendency to drop final consonants in words, giving words a smooth, laid-back vibe. For instance, in AAVE, "hand" may be pronounced as "han'," and "good" as "goo'." Additionally, AAVE often employs unique verb conjugations, such as "He be working" instead of "He is working," and features specific vocabulary choices like "finna" for "going to" or "fixing to."

These linguistic features, along with distinctive intonation patterns, create a vibrant and dynamic dialect that reflects the cultural identity and linguistic creativity of African American communities. Despite being subject to misconceptions and stigmatization, AAVE is recognized by linguists as a legitimate and valuable linguistic variety, deserving of study and appreciation for its contribution to the rich tapestry of American English.

What are the Origins of AAVE?

Historians trace the origins of AAVE to three main influences. Firstly, there is the impact of English, evidenced by the vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar patterns that align with nonstandard dialects of English spoken by various communities in early America, including indentured servants and other workers who interacted with African slaves. This influence suggests that AAVE has roots in the linguistic interactions between African and English speakers during the era of slavery.

Secondly, AAVE bears traces of its African origins, particularly from West African languages. Linguistic features such as the absence of certain sounds and structures in these languages suggests AAVE has a direct connection to African linguistic roots. The retention of distinct grammatical features, such as the differentiation between completed and habitual actions, also reflects prevalent patterns found in West African language systems. 

  • bogus  'fake/fraudulent' cf. Hausa boko, or boko-boko 'deceit, fraud'.

  • hep, hip  'well informed, up-to-date' cf. Wolof hepi, hipi 'to open one's eyes, be aware of what is going on'.

  • English Form + West African Meaning:

  • cat  'a friend, a fellow, etc.' cf. Wolof -kat (a suffix denoting a person)

  • cool  'calm, controlled' cf. Mandingo suma 'slow' (literally 'cool')

  • dig  'to understand, appreciate, pay attention' cf. Wolof deg, dega 'to understand, appreciate'

  • bad  'really good'

Another significant influence on AAVE is the connection to Caribbean Creole English varieties. Scholars note parallels between AAVE and Caribbean Creole English, such as the frequent omission of "is" and "are" and the dropping of certain word-initial consonants in tense-aspect markers. This suggests a potential influence from the high proportions of Creole-speaking slaves imported from the Caribbean during the earliest periods of settlement in America. The linguistic similarities between AAVE and Caribbean Creole English varieties imply a shared history of language contact and evolution within African diasporic communities in the Americas.

Overall, these three influences—English, African languages, and Caribbean Creole English—have shaped AAVE into a distinctive and dynamic variety of American English, deeply rooted in the history and culture of African American communities.

Stereotypes Associated with AAVE

Stereotypes associated with AAVE are deeply rooted in historical biases and systemic racism. One prevalent stereotype is the notion that AAVE speakers are lazy, uneducated, or criminal, reflecting broader stereotypes imposed on the Black community throughout American history. This stereotype not only unfairly characterizes Black individuals but also marginalizes their language and cultural practices. Additionally, AAVE is often appropriated by non-Black individuals, particularly celebrities and influencers, who use it to enhance their image of being "cool" or "funny." This appropriation not only disregards the origins and significance of AAVE within the Black community but also perpetuates a harmful narrative that exploits Black culture for personal gain without giving credit or support back to the community. 

Kahlil Greene, a prominent advocate and educator, highlights the issue of non-Black individuals profiting from Black culture without acknowledging its origins or contributing to its preservation. This exploitation further exacerbates the erasure of Black innovators and creatives, perpetuating a cycle of cultural appropriation and exploitation that undermines the contributions and experiences of the Black community.

Some AAVE words that are common in pop culture:

  • Lit: Exciting, amazing, or cool.

  • Fam: Short for "family" or close friends.

  • Flex: To show off or boast about something.

  • Dope: Excellent or impressive.

  • Slay: To do something exceptionally well or look fabulous while doing it.

  • Woke: Being aware of social issues, especially related to racism and injustice.

  • Bruh: A term used to address a close friend or express disbelief.

  • Bet: Agreement or affirmation, similar to "okay" or "sure."

  • Finesse: To skillfully maneuver or handle a situation.

  • Bae: Term of endearment for a significant other or loved one.

  • Glow up: To undergo a positive transformation, especially in appearance or success.

  • Ghost: To leave suddenly or without saying goodbye.

  • Throw shade: To subtly insult or criticize someone.

In another perspective on Ebonics, the Oakland proposal to incorporate children's home dialect to aid in teaching standard English received significant support from linguists. 

How Black Individuals Feel About Non-Blacks Using AAVE

Black individuals often experience a mix of pride and concern when non-Blacks use AAVE. It isn't just speech; it's a representation of Black culture's rich heritage, shaped by history, resilience, and creativity. So when non-Blacks use AAVE, it can evoke pride in recognizing Black culture. However, many emphasize the importance of code-switching, showcasing cultural competency by navigating different linguistic registers. This involves knowing when to use standard English, especially in professional settings, while comfortably switching to AAVE in informal or familiar environments. Even in the infamous Ebonics controversy, the goal of the Oakland proposal was to incorporate children's home dialect, AAVE in this case, to aid in teaching standard English. This approach received significant support from linguists particularly because the need and skill of code-switching was so prevalent.  

Nevertheless, frustration arises when non-Black individuals appropriate AAVE without understanding its cultural significance. As AAVE gains popularity through social media and entertainment, there's a risk of misrepresentation or dilution, perpetuating stereotypes about Black speech and culture.

Dave Chappelle's comedy reflects this nuanced approach to language. He says explicitly in an interview on Actors Studio,

"Every Black American is bilingual. All of them. We speak street vernacular and we speak 'job interview'."

He describes this code-switching skill, emphasizing the importance of context in language use. This also highlights the need for non-Black individuals to approach the use of AAVE with respect, understanding, and an acknowledgment of its cultural significance.

In embracing the diversity of dialects like AAVE, we acknowledge the unique histories and experiences of different cultural groups, fostering a deeper appreciation for the complexities of language. Every dialect carries a wealth of tradition, identity, and belonging that deserves recognition and respect. As we navigate the digital landscape, let's remember that our words hold power, shaping perceptions and attitudes.

Let's strive to use language in a way that uplifts and celebrates the richness of all dialects, inviting others to approach unfamiliar linguistic expressions with curiosity and empathy. Next time you hear a hype word you’re not sure of its origin, find out, question and use it appropriately, whether in your speech or your marketing. By doing so, we cultivate more connected and compassionate communities with less stereotyping and division. Reach out today to discuss how to ensure you’re using the right language in your multicultural marketing materials.


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