The immeasurable contribution of African American English to world language use
Many have probably noticed the language young people use on social media, which at first seems like English, but upon closer examination a different sentence structure and vocabulary is revealed. However, it is not commonly known that much of this language use originates from a dialect that is centuries old.
When scrolling on X (formerly Twitter) or TikTok, it is quite common to see sentences that look something like this:
(1) It okay. (That’s okay.)
(2) She smile and wave. (She smiles and waves.)
(3) Whew, chile! (Oh boy!)
It is apparent from these sentences that this is not quite the standard English language: the first sample sentence is missing the verb is , the second sentence has a subject-predicate disagreement and in the third sentence the word child is spelled as chile. All these traits are characteristic of the language used on social media and many people indeed attribute these features to youth slang. However, all the aforementioned specific features originate from African American English.
What is African American English?
African American English (African American Language, African American Vernacular English or Ebonics) is a dialect of English spoken by the majority of black people in the United States. The history of the language goes back to the 17th century, when human trafficking brought the first African slaves to North America.
African American English or AAE is very similar to standard English, and for the most part the two languages are mutually intelligible. However, AAE also has many unique features that are not found in standard English.
Despite the long research, the history of the development of AAE has not been accurately established since very few examples of oral speech of the time have survived. Researchers of AAE are divided into two schools: some believe that the distinctive features of the language come from early English variants spoken by the white colonisers at the time. The second school argues that the grammatical features of AAE originate from West African languages.
AAE has influenced the use of language throughout the world: the already common word cool in the sense of ‘awesome’, ‘fierce’, but also ‘calm’, comes from the jazz culture of the 1940s, which was dominated by black Americans. It is believed that the word was first used in this meaning by the black saxophonist Lester Young. Cool was used to refer to both intriguing creative works, and a calm and undisturbed mindset.
In many ways, AAE is associated with youth slang, and while this aspect is also important in the language, AAE is not just a youth language: the elements inherent in the language are used by African Americans of all ages.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that AAE has had a huge impact on the language used on the internet. A study in the United States found that most of the new words that went viral on US Twitter in 2013 and 2014 came from AAE. People’s social media accounts often also show the use of language in which the characteristics of AAE can be recognised.
Lexical and semantic features
African American English is rich in its unique vocabulary. For example, pot liquor refers to the liquid that remains in the pot after the vegetables are cooked, and saditty indicates a black person who behaves arrogantly and tries to imitate white people.
In addition, there are a number of words in AAE that have the same spelling as in standard English, but a different meaning. For example, the expression to send means literally ‘to send’ in standard English, but in AAE it also has the meaning ‘to touch deeply’, ‘to fascinate’. Nowadays, this expression can be encountered on social media, for example, in the sentence This video is sending me (This video fascinates me).
Education and culture portal Education First compiled a list of 2022 slang words in its blog post, which also included send. This again shows that often, AAE expressions are considered slang of the modern era. However, the word send in its second meaning appeared in African American literature already in the last century. In Langston Hughes’ 1961 story collection The Best of Simple, Joyce speaks of touching piano music:
The way that man plays ‘Stardust’ sends me. I swear it do. Sends me. Sends me!
At the beginning of the post, we gave the example phrase Whew, chile!, which indicates shock, relief or humour. Chile is the African American spelling of the word child. Namely, it is characteristic of the language variant to lose the last consonant from the consonant compound at the end of the word. It also occurs, for example, in the words just → jus and kind → kin.
In addition, a phenomenon characteristic to AAE is the replacement of the digraph /th/ with the phoneme /d/. So it is common to write, for example, dey instead of they, and dis instead of this.
Syntactic and morphological features
African American English also stands out for its sentence structure, which is different from standard English. For example, there is a double negation in AAE, the use of which is often condemned by speakers of standard English. When in standard English one would normally say I don’t do anything , then in AAE it would sound like I don’t do nothing, that is, the negative sentence part occurs twice.
In addition, the absence of the verb ‘to be’ is common in AAE – phrases such ashe is dead andshe is young would sound in AAE like he dead and she young.
In AAE, the suffix of the third person singular is often lost. For example, a standard language sentence She smiles and waves in AAE would sound like She smile and wave. The loss of the possessive form is also typical: instead of the standard their car and girl’s bag, they car and girl bag can be heard in AAE.
The tenses of African American English are also slightly different from those of the formal English language. For example, in AAE, the auxiliary verb done indicates the termination of the activity – if a standard English speaker would simply say ‘I missed the bus’, then AAE speaker would add the auxiliary verb done: I donemissed the bus.
Russell and John Rickford, who wrote a monograph on African American English, gave an example of an experiment with the tenses. A group of white and black Americans were presented with the sentenceShe been married, where been is emphasised. Most of the white participants thought that the woman in the sentence had once been married, but no longer is. However, the black people who participated in the experiment figured that the woman is still married. According to the tenses used in AAE, the sentence means that the woman married some time ago and is still married.
Over the centuries, the use of African American English has been condemned in schools, workplaces and in the general public sphere. Therefore, it is understandable why many African Americans are unhappy with the features of their dialect being used by non-black people. African American blogger Kara McAndrew writes that while African Americans are being discriminated against for using their mother tongue, white people can use AAE to look trendy and edgy, while they can also ‘turn it off’ any minute it becomes inconvenient or useless for them.
Researchers of AAE emphasise that this language is not bad English, but a separate language system with specific grammatical and lexical patterns. Many of the elements that are criticised in AAE and considered a sign of poor education are standard and commonplace in other languages. For example, the present tense of the verb ‘to be’ is absent in Russian and Arabic, and multiple negation is common in French. No grammatical construct is inherently wrong or ludicrous – rather, attitudes and prejudices determine the attitudes towards language use.
Should people who are not black stop using expressions from African American English? At the moment, it seems to be up to everyone’s own moral compass to decide. However, it is certainly good to be aware that African American English is not incorrect speaking or online slang, but a separate language system with a long history.
Dinerstein, J. (1998). ‘Lester Young and the Birth of Cool.’ G. D. Caponi (toim). Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’ and Slam-dunking, 239–276. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.
Green, L. (2002). African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hughes, L. (1961). The Best of Simple. New York: Hill and Wang.
Major, C. (1994). Juba to Jive: The Dictionary of African-American Slang. New York: Penguin.
Rickford, J. R., Rickford, R. J. (2000). Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Smitherman, G. (1994). Black Talk: Words and Phrases from The Hood to The Amen Corner. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.