What is African American Vernacular English and should it be integrated into the Educational System?
The United States is characterized by a notedly broad linguistic diversity. One part of this diversity in American English has always been at the center of scholarly research and publications - African-American Vernacular English (in the following also referred to as AAVE). It is one of the most influential varieties of English that is spoken across the US. This paper will shortly present the most distinctive featuring AAVE. Further, the main differences between AAVE and Standard American English, which can be largely found in grammar, phonology and semantics will be explained. Historically, discussions and hypotheses about AAVE, as well as the scorching criticism it received in recent attempts to implement it into the curriculum will also be included. Having elaborated on that, the question arises whether AAVE should be integrated into the educational system these days.
Although African-American Vernacular English has been chosen as the standard term in linguistics it is important to note that there are many labels referring to AAVE. It is also known as African American English, Black English Vernacular, Black Vernacular English, Black Vernacular, Black English or Ebonics (derived from the words “ebony” and “phonics”). These terms are most common amongst linguists today and all refer to the same variety. AAVE is a language variety that is mostly spoken by “native-born African Americans residing primarily in working class areas of large cities […]” (Edwards, 2006, p. 297) and has its origins in the southern states of the U.S. (ibd.). Varieties spoken by lower social and ethnic groups are often highly stigmatized as well as negatively connoted, as they are considered as less grammatical and less expressive by Standard American English speakers (c.f. Ahn, 2017, p.19).
In the following, some of the most substantial grammatical, phonological as well as semantic characteristics of AAVE will be exemplified. Due to the limited scope of this paper, however, these properties will not be commented on in detail. Nevertheless, it is of importance to note that AAVE shares characteristics with other American dialects as well as British English dialects.
AAVE features a great number of grammatical differences from standard American English.
According to Edwards (2006, p. 297), one major characteristic of AAVE is the elision of the suffix -s “to indicate third person agreement in the present tense of verbs or the marking of plurals or possessive nouns”. Examples are “I seen how he try to get a job” (third person), “[…] These kids, these orphanage kid …” (plural) and “Every day… I normally see my cousin, or go my uncle or somebody house” (possessive). Also very common is the absence of all forms of the copula be as in “Yeah, he all right” (ibd.: 297). Regarding time and tenses, the last example also indicates the closeness of AAE to Southern American English. This refers to the use of done to stress a completed action, as in “He done did it” for Standard English (SE) “He has already done it” (c.f. Rickford, 1999, p. 6).
Negation in AAVE holds a prominent position within the grammatical features. Speakers use the expression ain ’ t as a generalized negator. Ain ’ t can substitute “am not”, “is not”, “are not”, “has not”, “have not” and “did not”. It is possible to use ain ’ t in both sentences: “He ain ’ t here” and “He ain ’ t do it”, although ain ’ t signifies “is not” in the first example and “did not” in the second. Beside this, AAVE has a feature called double or multiple negation, which means that there are two or more words that express negation but do not cause a change in meaning. In a related fashion, nothing and no are used instead of the standard forms anything or any, as in “I ain ’ t got no car” for “I don ’ t have a car”. Further, ain ’ t is often pronounced as ain ’. (c.f. Rickford, 1999, p. 8)
The last example of negation leads over to the first one of phonological features of AAVE. One very interesting characteristic is the final consonant cluster reduction as in firs ’ time (SE: first time) or col ’ weather (SE: cold weather). However, it is important to note that the consonant reduction is less likely to occur when if the following word begins with a vowel. Another feature is the absence of interdental fricatives: when in word-initial position /d/ is used for /ð/ (as in dese for these), in word-medial position /v/ is used for /ð/ (as in brover for brother) and in word- final position /f/ is used for /θ/ (as in mouf for mouth) (c.f. Bailey and Thomas, 2013, p. 87).
Apart from pronunciation, there are also meanings of words or word constructions distinguishing AAVE from standard American English, which leads to the semantics part of this paper. Examples of linguistic-cultural idoms that are used in intra group conversations are: sista/brotha for any African American, the shit for the best, bad for awesome or dawg for a close friend (c.f. Washington 2007). Some terms were even implemented into the mainstream American English, such as cool or hip.
Now, after having shed some light on some of the most typical features of African-American Vernacular English, one must investigate whether the above-mentioned features display a state of underdevelopment compared to Standard English and whether those features should be determined as deficient.
Without any doubt, one can say that in the United States of America, English is the standard language today. It is used as written and spoken language in media, such as newspapers television and radio, as well as business, politics and science. Further, it serves as a basis for teaching the English language all over the world and holds an overall more prestigious position than AAVE. Thus, it is crucial that people who speak a different variety learn standard form of English (e.g. to increase labor mobility). Some authors even go so far as to say “[…] if you speak black English there’s no way you’re going to survive […] [or] to get a job that you really want.” (Lippi-Green, 1997). If teachers accepted AAVE as a communication medium, the gap in society would be carried into the classroom and probably create separation between SAE and AAVE speakers.
In connection to this, Bernstein’s “deficit hypothesis” can be mentioned. This hypothesis was formed in the 1960s and postulated that working-class children had linguistic deficiencies in comparison to middle and upper-class children, suggesting a limitation of their cognitive capacity and hence, their achievements in school. This theory was especially applied to African American, which lead to numerous special needs programs directed to increase linguistic proficiency. However, these campaigns flopped (c.f. Deficit Hypothesis, n.d.). As this theory has been criticized a lot and refused by other linguists, a group of them led by William Labov favored the “difference hypothesis”. This theory stated that AAVE has a completely different structure than upper or middle-class English, which, however, does not mean that it is worth anything less concerning communicative purposes (c.f. Labov, 2010). These findings may have somehow influenced the following example.
In 1996, a decision by the Oakland (CA) school board to allow AAVE as a legitimate form of English equivalent to Standard English stirred a nation-wide debate and received a storm of criticism, yet, the reason was a sequence of misunderstandings due to ill-informed journalists. Some of the misconceptions were: The Schoolboard wanted teachers to teach AAVE and they had given up on teaching Standard English. Rather, the Oakland school board’s ruling was meant to stop unfairly punishing kids whose first instinct was to speak the way they were taught to at home (c.f. McIntyre, 2017). However, the resolution was repealed shortly after being introduced.
Nevertheless, there are also some positive aspects accompanying a possible integration of AAVE into schools. First, the act of implementing it in class would show respect for the history and language of the black community. This again could lead to a greater confidence especially in young AAVE speakers.
Further, the use of AAVE would improve the overall communication between teachers and AAVE speaking students, which could prevent respective students from not participating in class, as well as possible result in improved motivation and learning. The abovementioned language barriers would be lowered.
The last aspect applies the idea itself. The integration of AAVE in the classroom would be the first step to an increased approval of the language variety and could possibly kick off a knockon effect with other schools joining in. Thus, schools could make a tremendous contribution to Ebonics enjoying a higher acceptance throughout the nation.
Every person uses his or her individual idiom, displaying to some extent his or her origin, social level and gender. Language is a vivid medium. People incorporate their identity through their language. One aspect, that is impossible to convey through mere description of examples is the actual way skilled AAVE speakers use all the features together. Therefore, AAVE is also referred to as “Spoken Soul” (c.f. Rickford, 1999, p. 12). However, this is not only the case with AAVE. The “Received Pronunciation” for instance is a prestigious accent, having its bloom in the beginning of the twentieth century and was strongly connected with high education and an upper social level. People used it to distribute themselves from the poor and uneducated, who rather spoke regional accents (Lohr, 1992). It becomes clear that language, regardless of social status defines not only who we are as an individual human being, but also how others perceive us, at least to a certain extent.
To come to conclusion, it has become clear that AAVE and the use of Ebonics still provides a basis for active discussions. From the past until today, it had to endure a lot of ignorant and unfair criticism from ill-informed observers. Eventually, it is society itself that would have to change fundamentally and lay down its negative prepossession about AAVE for it to be accepted as a dialect rather than something deficient. However, this would be very hard to achieve, if not impossible, which could be quite distressing. After all, there is one version of English that is determined as “standard” and for that reason, access to the standard language in schools is necessary. If AAVE was taught in school, teachers would have to know how to effectively teach reading and writing to students whose culture and language differ from that of the school. They would have to understand how and why students decide to add another language form to their repertoire. Inevitably, each speaker will make his or her own decision about what to say in any context, but schools should recognize the legitimacy of AAVE as a “language for their students”. Thus, they should teach those students to recognize when and how to switch between AAVE and American English as appropriate.
Ahn, H. (2017). Attitudes to World Englishes: Implications for Teaching English in South Korea. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Bailey, G., Thomas, R. (2013). Some Aspects of African- American Vernacular English Phonology. In African-American English Structure, History and Use (pp. 85-108) Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor and Francis.
Deficit Hypothesis. (n.d.). Retrieved June 13, 2017, from https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/counseling-psychology/counseling- theories/deficit-hypothesis/ Edwards, W. (2006). African American Vernacular. In The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia (pp. 297-298). Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.
Labov, W. (2010). Language in the inner city: studies in the Black English vernacular (pp. 36- 64). Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.
Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States (pp. 176-202). London: Routledge.
Lohr, S. (1992, August 22). The Accent Gap. Retrieved June 13, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/23/magazine/on-language-the-accent-gap.html
McIntyre, A. (2017, May 18). Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Language, Literature and Humanities. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from https://www.angl.hu- berlin.de/department/staff-faculty/other/mcintyre/unterrichtsmaterialien/
Rickford, J. (1999). African-American Vernacular English. Malden, MA Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 3 - 14.
Washington, A. (2007). Bad Words Gone Good: Semantic Reanalysis in African American English. Hampton University. Last Access: 14.06.2017 from http://d- scholarship.pitt.edu/7129/1/WashingtonAR2010.pdf