African Americans have been described as citizens or residents of the United States who have origins in any of the black populations of Africa. Most African Americans are descendants of Africans who were brought over during slavery though some come from immigrants of Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. However, you know that defining African American ethnicity is much more difficult than where someone’s ancestors came from. Regardless, many linguists have studied the language of African Americans and have found similarities in the way many of African Americans speak. This language variety is typically referred to as African American English (AAE) or African American Vernacular English (AAVE). You may have heard people call it “Ebonics,” but most people do not prefer this term.
There are many language features that define AAE. One of the first is lexical items, vocabulary, or certain words that many African Americans use or first originated in AAE. Below are examples of these words. Some of these terms might be used by other language varieties now because of the substantial impact rap music has had on many speakers; however, they are still considered to be part of AAE.
“Man, I didn’t make no bread working at the restaurant tonight. I’m broke.”
“He got his bling tonight wearing all those gold chains.”
African American English also has certain phonological features, which simply means different ways of pronouncing words, which are different from other ethnic language varieties. Below is an example in AAE.
th - f
tooth aftermath mouth
toof aftermaf mouf
Many times when a word ends with a sound like “th” speakers of AAE will use an “f” sound instead.
Example: “I broke my toof because he punched me in the mouf.”
This is just one of the many phonological patterns that many AAE speakers follow, even though many do not know they are doing it systematically, just like other speakers of ethnic language varieties.
African American English has many different language structures that are different from Standard English as well. One of the grammatical features you have already learned about is third person singular –s absence (e.g., she walk_ v. she walks or he laugh_ v. he laughs). Another example of a grammatical feature of AAE is below.
He often works late.
We usually play basketball after school.
My leg hurts all the time.
He be working late.
We be playing basketball after school.
My leg be hurting.
Using “be” in these sentences means that something happens regularly or often, which is why it is called habitual “be.” AAE speakers do not use this form when they are talking about something that only happened once or does not happen a lot.
Once again, AAE speakers follow these rules and use these patterns in their speech when they are talking about something that takes place frequently.
Have you ever heard AAE speakers use this grammatical form or the pronunciation used above? Did you know what they meant, how they were used, or that they had a pattern?