African American Vernacular English/Printable version

African American Vernacular English

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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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African American Vernacular English (AAVE), differs from standard Mainstream American English (MAE) pronunciation in a number of ways. These mostly involve reductions in consonant clusters, as well as the alteration of the dental fricatives: ð and θ ("th"); and the velar nasal: ŋ.

Sound ChangesEdit

TH sounds: ð and θEdit

The dental fricatives: ð as in thy, and θ as in thigh, are cross-linguistically uncommon, and in many dialects of English (not just AAVE), they become alveolar/dental plosives "d" and "t", labio-dental fricatives (v and f) or both. In AAVE, they can become either, and the change depends on the context.

  1. At the start of a word, they become plosives, therefore
  • ð becomes d so that "the" is pronounced "da"
/ð/ ---> /d/ so that /ðʌ/ ---> /dʌ/
  • θ becomes a t so that "thin" is pronounced "tin."
/θ/ ---> /t/ so that /θɪn/ ---> /tɪn/

Velar nasal: "ng"Edit

AAVE does not have the velar nasal /ŋ/ (ng) found in MAE, instead, it becomes /n/, a feature is also found in some southern American English dialects.

/ŋ/ (represented as <ng>) is pronounced /n/ (<n>) so that talking (IPA /tɔːkiŋ/) becomes talkin', or /tɔːkin/

Consonant cluster reductionEdit

Final consonant clustersEdit

English has a large number of word-final consonant clusters, these can be divided into three types. Note that for the present time, we are not including consonant clusters formed by plurals and past tense, as AAVE has different rules for those.

  • 1. Unvoiced consonant clusters
    • sp
    • st
    • sk
    • ft
    • pt
  • 2. Voiced consonant clusters
    • nd
    • ld
    • rb
    • rd
  • 3 Mixed consonant clusters
    • mp
    • nt
    • nk
    • lt
    • rp
    • rt
    • rk

All English dialects have already begun the process of cluster reduction, (notice the pronunciation of "thumb" and "thing", "talk") however AAVE takes it further. In normal circumstances, all final consonant clusters of the first two types are reduced, with the second letter not being pronounced. In the third kind, with mixed clusters, the final consonant is pronounced.


  • test ---> tes' /test/--->/tes/
  • tend ---> ten' /tend/--->/ten/


  • tent ---> tent (no change)


In AAVE, morphological markers are retained, even if they result in word final clusters


The plural marker in AAVE is pronounced, even if it forms a word-final cluster. Therefore

  • pest ---> pes' /pest/ ---> /pes/


  • pets ---> pets (no change)

Past tenseEdit

The past tense marker is also retained compare

  • past ---> pas' /pæst/ ---> /pæs/
  • passed ---> passed /pæst/ ---> /pæst/ (no change)


Initial consonant clustersEdit

MAE has a number of initial consonant clusters containing three sounds. In this clusters, the first letter is always /s/ (MAE has a few loanwords from Yiddish which start with an "sh" sound, but AAVE does not have these words) the final letter is always /r/, and the middle letter is always an unvoiced plosive: /p/, /t/, or /k/.

  • spring
  • string
  • screen

In AAVE, the consonant cluster "str" is reduced to "sr", however "spr" and "skr" are pronounced in full.

Final REdit

Er- Is pronounced as [ʌ]. Like Holler is pronounced as Holluh

<oor>, Or,Our, <ure>- The r or re isn't pronounced so it sounds like doe, foe, shoe, and yo.

A- [ʌ], like, I have uh dolla.

Words such as talking and partner are pronounced like pawtna and tawkin


"Why study AAVE?"
That, in its many variations, is the question most frequently asked of linguists who research and teach the subject, and students who take the class.

To be fair, a similar question is asked of most subjects in linguistics, by individuals who don't see the value; but with AAVE, the question takes on another, more troubling form. The question is often accompanies by commentary, observations about why AAVE is not a "real" language, and complaints about political correctness gone mad.

AAVE is, of course a real language, or more specifically, a dialect of the English language, with a long history, distinct grammar, and associated culture. Complaints about political correctness, generally the issue of AAVE as a medium of education, will be discussed below. Though the question generally betrays an underlying prejudice, the question is valid as any of linguists. And so we will answer the question at face value.

Why study any language?Edit

Before we can address our reasons for studying AAVE, it is first necessary to answer that question that is so frequently asked of all linguists: Why study any language more than is absolutely necessary to, as a practical matter, get by with its speakers.

Why study AAVE?Edit

Understanding of your own dialectEdit

Appreciation of cultural historyEdit

Value for educatorsEdit

African American Vernacular English/TOC


"how are you doing?"


Generally, AAVE is similar to Mainstream American English (MAE), but some grammatical features are unique when compared to the standard. For instance, a double negative (It ain't worth nothing, Now I'm not no professor but I know what you're talking about) does not make a positive, but rather signifies emphasis. Certain prepositions/verbs, e.g. "be", "gonna"(going to) can signify aspect, leading to phrases such as "He be working" that would normally be considered off.

Is AAVE "Bad Grammar"?Edit

No. Though its rules differ from those of Standard English, they are internally consistent and one can tell if a grammatical concept is being misused. Though historically its teaching has been met with much controversy, the grammatical features are agreed not to be flaws in the speech of individual speakers.

African American Vernacular English/TOC


Verbs in AAVE are quite similar to other English dialects, however there are some differences. Most importantly:

  1. There is no conjugation for the present tense. In the Copula all forms use the third-person singular, in all other verbs, the form used for all versions except the third person singular is used.
  2. The rules for the Copula are different than in MAE, and it can sometimes be dropped.
  3. AAVE has more Aspects than MAE.


In all dialects of English, the copula "to" be is used to state location: "I'm in Boston"; and description/equivalence "I'm America," "He's a linguist."

In MAE, this is always mandatory. In AAVE, and in many other dialects of English, not to mention other languages, different rules apply.


In MAE, there are three conjugations for the present tense: am, is, are; and two for the past tense: was, were.
In AAVE, there is only one conjugation for each tense: is for the present, and was for the past.

Present TenseEdit

AAVE does not usually use the copula "to be" when making a statement in the present tense. One major exception is when used for emphasis.



Past TenseEdit

AAVE does use the copula "to be" in the past tense, however there is only one form: "was." Therefore "I was," "you was," "we was," etc.

"Is" as an auxiliaryEdit

"To be" when used as an auxiliary to form the present continuous ("He is running"), follows the same rules as when used as a copula.


Aspect in English is similar to tense. Linguistics use the term "Tense-Aspect-Modality" or TAM to describe the three rules which make up so-called verb "tenses." Generally:

  1. Tense is used to say what point in time something happened.
  2. Aspect is used to say how something happens: how often something happens, and whether it has been completed.
  3. Modality is the truth value of how likely something happened: declarative, subjunctive, conditional, imperative. However questions and negation are generally not considered part of modality.

Aspect in General EnglishEdit

English, or at least most prestige varieties of English are generally understood to have four aspects: simple, continuous, perfective, and perfective continuous, as well as three tenses (past, present, future), and a wide variety of modalities formed by modal verbs, plus the subjunctive and imperative.

In MAE, the "perfective" marker "has" has three different meanings.

  1. Done up until the present, possibly finished.
  2. Done frequently through the present, always(?) used with an adverb of time.
  3. Done once in the past, at an indefinite time.

AAVE, by contrast, has different aspects for each of these.

Aspect in AAVEEdit


"Done" in AAVE is a perfective marker, used to mean that an action has been completed.

  • He done run. = He's just run.


"Been" is used in AAVE to indicate that an action has been going on, repeatedly for awhile. In this, it is unlike the MAE auxiliary "has," which can mean it happened and continued to the present, or that it has happened frequently.

  • He been running. = He's been running frequently

Note that an adverb of time can only indicate how long something has happened, and not how often. Sentences marked with an asterisk* are ungrammatical and semantically nonsense.

  • He been running two hours. = He's been running two hours, every day.
  • *He been running every week.
  • He run every week. = He runs every week.


Bin, which is stressed, is used in a similar way as "been," however it indicates that the action was completed. Thus:

  • He been running. = He's been running, often, for a while.
  • He BIN running. = He has been running, but has stopped.

In this way, the stressed "BIN" is similar to the MAE example:

  • He was running. = Earlier, he was running.
  • He WAS running. = Earlie, he was running, but he stopped.