African American Vernacular English/Introduction

What is AAVE? Is it a language, is it a dialect, or is it just English spoken badly. To linguists, it's obviously not the last of those, and the first distinction is not really important. It's a spoken system of communication with a clearly defined set of rules, grammatical and phonological, and a generally accepted vocabulary.


This book uses a great deal of linguistic terminology. Though a linguistic background is thus helpful, and we recommend reviewing the Linguistics Wikibook, it is not required. We will try to provide explanations of the terms, and also to illustrate the principles through examples.

In discussing African American Vernacular English, we will look at the language on its own terms, and compare it both to common rules in most English dialects, and to Mainstream American English. The following acronyms will thus be helpful to your understanding of the test.

  • AAVE: African American Vernacular English: the subject of this book.
  • MAE: Mainstream American English, the prestige variety of English also known as "General American," or "Radio English": spoken by most white Americans in the Nothern and Eastern United states.
  • GE: General English: features which are common across many or most varieties of English, including both prestigious varieties such as MAE, Estuary English, and BBC English, and "low-class" and regional varieties, including AAVE, Cockney, Newfoundland English, and Southern (white) American English.


There are several hypotheses about the origins of AAVE. Of these the most important are:

  1. Creolization and decreolization
  2. African development
  3. Irish or Ulster Scots substratum


Historically, the most commonly accepted hypothesis for the origins of AAVE has been the creolization hypothesis.

African SubstratumEdit

A recent alternative is that AAVE borrowed features not common to MAE from African languages.

Irish or Ulster Scots substratumEdit

Many have proposed that AAE, which shares a large number of features with Irish English, Ulster Scots and the southern Appalachian English which descended from it, or occasionally other English dialects, may have borrowed features from these languages.

This hypothesis was once popular among linguists, though with the beginning of serious study of both AAVE and creoles, linguists have observed that many features of AAVE are quite common cross-linguistically.


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