An Introdutcion to AAVE

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An Introduction to AAVE

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is the variety formerly known as Black
English Vernacular, commonly called Ebonics outside the academic community.
While some features of AAVE are apparently unique to this variety, it also shows
many similarities with other varieties including a number of standard and non-
standard English varieties spoken in the US and the Caribbean. AAVE has been at the
heart of several public debates and the analysis of this variety has also sparked and sustained debates among socio-linguists.It is very difficult to say how many people speak AAVE because there is no clear definition of what AVVE is and what isn’t. Some speakers may use some distinctive aspects of phonology (pronunciation) and lexis (vocabulary), but none of the grammatical features associated with the variety. So to use the term AAVE one must be able to recognise certain distinctive grammatical features that mark the varieties.
And even then it may still be difficult to say how many AAVE speakers there are since such grammatical features occur in great variability. Such variability in the speech both of groups and individuals reflects the complex social attitudes surrounding AAVE, which initially attracted the attention of researchers and other people in the academic community.

The history of AAVE and what language varieties it is related to are also a matter of controversy. One theory is that AAVE developed out of the contact between speakers of West African languages and speakers of vernacular English varieties. According to this theory, West Africans would have learnt English on plantations in the southern Coastal States (Georgia, South Carolina, etc.) from a very small number of native speakers. Some suggest that this led to the development of a rudimentary “pidgin” which was later expanded through a process of creolization.

Other theories suggest that the contact language (an early creole-like AAVE) developed through processes of second language acquisition. This would mean that the West Africans, who newly had arrived on plantations and had limited access to English grammatical models because the number of native speakers was so small (just a few indentured servants on each plantation), in such a situation might graft what English vocabulary that could be garnered from encounters onto the few grammatical patterns which are common to the languages of West Africa. The so called universal grammar (rules and tendencies which apply to all natural human language) would have played a significant role in such processes. This kind process has even taken place in the Caribbean and is one of the most likely scenarios in the development of AVEE. Accents spoken in the Coastal Islands of South Carolina and Georgia are very
likely to have been formed this way.

A number of scholars do not accept such a scenario. These researchers argue that the demographic conditions in the US and the Caribbean (where restructured creole languages are widely spoken) were quite different and that the conditions necessary for the emergence of a fully-fledged Creole language were never met in the US. A number of occasions have been shown where what look like distinctive features of AAVE today actually had a precedent in various varieties of English spoken in Great Britain and the Southern United States. It seems reasonable to suggest that both views are partially correct and that AAVE developed to some extent through restructuring while also it’s today distinctive features is a mixture of many older varieties of English which were once widely spoken.

As mentioned above AAVE is a matter of some public controversy as was seen most
recently in the debate over the Ebonics ruling by the Oakland School Board which led to a debate suggesting having AAVE taught as a separate language throughout the US. More than anything this debate made it clear that the public and many public policy makers and sections of the public unfortunately still keep on to mistaken and having prejudiced understandings of what AAVE is and what it says about the people who speak it. This matter is compounded by the fact that in the AAVE-speaking community, attitudes towards the language are complex and equivocal. Many AAVE speakers refer the to opposite of their variety as "Talking Proper". At the same time these same speakers often also express clearly positive attitudes towards AAVE on other occasions and often also remark on the inappropriateness of using standard English in certain situations. The speakers of the AAVE varieties have often been asumed to be black Americans, or African Americans, and indeed most of them are.

But there as mentioned before there are obvious problems with defining a language

racially, including:

·Not all black Americans speak these varieties
·Some non-black Americans speak them (sometimes natively)

While the situation in this case is made more extreme by the context of racial and ethnic conflict, inequality and prejudice in the United States, it is not unique. Such ambivalent attitudes towards non-standard varieties of a language have been documented for a great many communities around the world and in the United States.

Today AAVE’s status is in a very shaky situation.On one hand, also influenced by the increasing interest in black and urban culture, AAVE has received public recognition and is now not anymore seen as just a “slang” only used by people in the black community, but has risen to the status of an own variety of the English language. As mentioned before, discussions are in progress about making AAVE a language for itself.
But on the other hand, there are reasonable doubts about the validity of AAAVE as a language, as the gap between a language and a variety of a language seems very hard to close, especially in a segregated country as the US.

Sources Cited

Title: The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children
Editors: Theresa Perry (Editor) Lisa D. Delpit (Editor)
Publisher: Rethinking Schools, Limited
Pub. Date: April 1998

Title: The Timetable of African-American History
Author: Sharon Harley
Publisher Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: December 1995


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