Reference Entry

African American Vernacular English

James Sellman

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
African American Vernacular English

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African American Vernacular English, or Black English, is fundamentally a spoken language. In fact, it is several distinct dialects, encompassing the vernacular speech of blacks in the United States, the Caribbean, Britain, and elsewhere. Each of these black vernacular languages emerged within a particular racial and cultural context. Most significantly, the roots of African American Vernacular English lie in the experience of slavery and in the cultural collision between a multitude of African languages and an English-speaking dominant culture. This essay focuses on the spoken English of blacks in the United States, which has been the subject of increased attention and occasional controversy since the 1960s.African American Vernacular English is not substandard English, it is nonstandard English. Grounded in an oral tradition and subject to continuous innovation, it is not easily codified or reduced to formal rules. Yet as linguist William Labov made clear in a groundbreaking series of essays during the mid-1960s and early 1970s—in particular, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular (1972)—African American Vernacular English has its own linguistic structure and its own rules of usage. Linguist Geneva Smitherman explained in Talkin and Testifyin (1986) that the “main structural components” of African American Vernacular English are “based on African language rules.” She noted a number of rules of usage that are shared by West African languages and African American Vernacular English, includingrepetition of noun subject with pronoun: my father, he work there;same form of noun for singular and plural: one boy; five boy;same verb form for all subjects: I know; you know; he know; we know; they know.The best known characteristic of African American Vernacular English is its treatment of the verb to be, especially the lack of verb conjugation in the present tense—I be, you be, he be, we be, they be.In addition, some African Americans retained more substantial elements of African languages into the twentieth century. This was true of the Gullah dialect of the Sea Islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coast, an area distinguished by its black majority and relative isolation. But in The Origin of American Black English (1996), Traute Ewers concluded on the basis of quantitative linguistic analysis of blacks' use of the verb to be that African American Vernacular English probably did not originate in the Gullah or any other Creole language. What remains unclear are the actual processes by which African American Vernacular English did take form.In part, however, African American Vernacular English would appear to reflect a case of cultural diffusion among African slaves speaking many different tongues trapped within a predominantly English-speaking culture. Thus some African expressions filtered into the usage of the majority culture. For example, the term jook (or juke)—as in Jook Joint or juke box—derives from the juke or joog of the Gullah dialect. Juke, in turn, derives from West African words such as the Wolof dzug or the Bambara dzugu, which mean wicked or unsavory. Thus, jook was an apt description of the wild and raucous jook joints, rural Southern roadhouses where African Americans gathered to listen to music, dance, drink, and have a good time.When African Americans first arrived in the Americas, they were slaves under the power of white owners who, to further their control, often tried to prevent slaves' use of African speech by intermixing slaves who spoke different languages and by insisting on the use of English. Not surprisingly, then, what distinguishes African American Vernacular English is not its maintenance of African languages but rather its distinctive adaptation of English. Yet African American Vernacular English is more than the linguistic adjustments made by African individuals newly introduced into Anglo-American culture.One of the constant and determinative qualities of African American Vernacular English, from the days of slavery to the present, is its oppositional nature. From the first, African Americans confronted the reality of white power and the need to avoid or subvert white domination. Slaveholders and other whites, constantly fearful of Slave Rebellions, maintained ongoing surveillance of the African American population, attempting to prevent unauthorized gatherings of blacks and listening in on slave conversations.Anthropologist James Scott has noted that slaves circumvented this scrutiny by using “linguistic codes, dialects, and gestures” that were “opaque to the masters and mistresses.” African American Vernacular English continues to reflect these power realities and sharply delineates those who are within and those who lie without the group boundaries. In black slang of the mid-twentieth century, whites were ofays, pig latin for “foes.” As linguist Roger D. Abrahams observed, many African Americans believe that “Black English has been maintained … because whites cannot understand it.”African American Vernacular English also took shape as a critique of white society, although its protest was of necessity indirect. In the early twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston noted that the language patterns of African Americans “were characterized by indirect, veiled social comment and criticism, a technique appropriately described as hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick.” More recently, comedian Richard Pryor remarked, “Niggers just have a way of telling you stuff and not telling you stuff. Martians would have a difficult time with Niggers. They be translating words, saying a whole lot of things underneath you, all around you.” Similarly, linguist Claudia Mitchell-Kernan found that “some element of indirection” was the key feature of signifying, a large class of verbal interplay that was important in shaping African American vernacular.African American Vernacular English is further distinguished by the richness of its argot. Black slang is inventive, continually creating new words and phrases. During the 1930s, for example, a person who was attuned to the latest developments in Jazz was termed a hep cat or a hepster. By the mid-1940s, hepster had given way to hipster, and a decade later, black hipsters had become cats and had coined a derisive term for white hangers-on to the jazz life, hippies, which was later appropriated by white culture and put to a very different use. Roger Abrahams noted that one explanation for the rapid turnover in black slang was this constant white borrowing or raiding. African American Vernacular English reveals sharp spatial as well as temporal variations. Abrahams observed that the same ritual of competitive insults that was termed jiving in mid-1960s Philadelphia was to an older generation jitterbugging or “bugging,” and on the West Coast was called shucking.During the 1930s and 1940s, black slang was known as jive, and jazz musicians were among the most inventive sources for the jive lexicon. In 1938 band leader Cab Calloway published the Hepster's Dictionary, which the New York Public Library long employed as its official reference work on jive. Tenor saxophonist Lester Young, whose lyrical playing had a profound influence on the shape of jazz improvisation, showed an equally fertile mind for language. He gave singer Billie Holiday her nickname, Lady Day. To Young, heroin addicts were needle dancers, and anything depressing or downbeat was von Hangman. His general term for whites was grey boys; African Americans were oxford greys. When he encountered bigoted or racist attitudes, he would remark, “I feel a draft.” Although many of Young's expressions gained currency in the 1930s and 1940s, none continue in use today.Besides having a characteristic grammar and a changing vocabulary, African American Vernacular English is marked by its distinctive approach to rhythm. In contemporary America, the most important shapers of African American Vernacular English are Hip-Hop, culture, and Music. Rap, in particular, exemplifies the close links between African American language and rhythm. But the rhythmic qualities of African American Vernacular English long antedate the hip-hop beat; the root or source of this distinctive rhythmic approach lies in the cultures of West Africa. In America this influence has been particularly evident in the black church and African American conventions of phrasing and delivery in preaching, praying, and singing. Since the 1960s, a number of African American comedians, including Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy, acquainted a larger white audience not only with African American expressions but also with the distinctive rhythms of black humor.These comics drew upon a rich tradition of black male street talk that shares much with stand-up comedy, including an expectation of playing to an audience and an emphasis on fast-paced and humorous verbal repartee. A distinctive rhythmic quality can be seen in such African American folk traditions as toasts, which are often rhymed as well as metrically ordered verbal performances, or the Dozens. The dozens is a competitive exchange of insults directed toward the participants' mothers and occasionally toward other members of the opponents' families. Historian Lawrence Levine noted that the dozens serves two large purposes—it sharpens verbal skills, and it tests self-discipline.The dozens, Levine argued, emerged “at a time when black Americans were especially subject to insults and assaults upon their dignity to which they could not safely respond,” and it served to hone “the ability to control emotions and anger; an ability which was often necessary for survival.” Levine also suggested that if, during the late twentieth century, the dozens “has become more exclusively a vehicle for adolescents and juveniles,” this shift might reflect the “expansion of opportunities for black adults to express their discontent in a variety of ways.” The dozens might someday come to resemble the nursery rhymes of the white population, which once conveyed significant political commentary, but now amuse toddlers.Since the 1960s, African American Vernacular English has existed on three different levels: as an aspect of black American culture; as a topic of voluminous research by linguists, educators, and other academics; and as a controversial public policy issue. The policy aspect of African American Vernacular English was made prominent in the heated 1996 debate over the proposed teaching of ebonics, or African American Vernacular English, in the Oakland, California, public schools. This conflict pitted advocates of African American Vernacular English, and those favoring multicultural approaches in general, against those who insisted upon Standard English as a necessary source of cultural homogeneity.In the end, the Oakland school system chose not to mandate African American Vernacular English as part of its curriculum and conceded that the primary role of public schools is to teach Standard English. At the same time, the Oakland controversy served as a reminder that at least some African Americans harbor doubts as to whether the public schools truly understand and respect the linguistic backgrounds of all their students.In any case, formal instruction is unlikely to have much impact on black vernacular speech. Several more significant factors sustain a distinct African American vernacular. First, it offers a positive source of identity and pride to many African Americans. Second, it grows out of underlying cultural and political realities that over the past generation have not greatly changed. African American Vernacular English will continue to have a functional role as long as there are racially based differences in power and access to the benefits of American society. Above all, the continued vitality of African American Vernacular English seems assured by the emergence since 1980 of rap music and hip-hop culture. As long as African Americans continue to live in their own communities; attend their own churches; seek out their own forms of music, entertainment, and recreation; and value the expressiveness of their own linguistic voice, African American Vernacular English is certain to endure.See also Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean; Slavery in the United States.

Reference Entry.  2001 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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