The History of African American Vernacular Language

The History of African American Vernacular Language


The African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is also known as Ebonics which can merelybe defined as “black speech.” It is coined through blending the words ebony (black) and phonics (sounds). This is a term that was formulated in 1973 by African American scholars who did not like the negative terminologies such as “Nonstandard negro English” which had been used since the 1960s. One may argue that the African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has become popular mostly in the 21st century due to the music industry. However, the language has been in use for numerous years, and it is now that the language is gaining a bit of popularity. Most people, however, view it as bad English and the incorrect use of grammar. This paper aims to look at the history and the origin of AAVE and how the language developed over the years to what it is now.

Origin of AAVE

The history of African American Vernacular English has had controversies among linguists with various theories resurfacing as to the origin and the development of the language. The two theorists that hold the most weight when it comes to the roots of this language is the Anglist hypothesis and the creole theory. The two approaches are different in their explanations,but they both give definite explanationsin the origin and the development of this language. Linguists and dialectologists like Rickford have over the years argued on the topic of how the dialect came to existence,and it is through such debates that the theories were formulated. It is therefore paramount to look at both theories carefully to gain an understanding of the dialects.


The Creole Theory

The Creole Theory is a theory which is Rockford’s position when it comes to the origin of the AAVE. A creole is a linguistic that is originates from other languages, and it befits the primary language for the people who speak it. This theory explains that the language is resultant from, a creolized form of English which was spoken on American farms by the African slaves. This dialect was somehow correlated to the creolized forms of English which are articulated in Jamaica and other parts Trinidad, Guyana, and Barbados (Rickford, & Rickford, 2000).

For a creole to be created, a pidgin is first created which is a form of pseudo language which is developed with the primary purpose of allowing different groups with different languages to communicate. During the slave trade era, the slaves spoke many different languages from West Africa, and they had to find a way to communicate with each other. They, therefore, applied English and some of the West African vocabulary using simple grammar in their native tongues. This form of communication was a pidgin (Rickford, & Rickford, 2000). Pidgins are often narrow, specialized and may be termed as not being grammatical. The pidgin can develop into a functional language through the next generation who grow up learning the language from an early stage. The final product is what is known as a creole. This is what happened with the slaves as they passed on their form of communication to their children thus creating Ebonics as a language they could communicate in (Rickford, & Rickford, 2000). This theory further explains that the creole went through a process of decreolization which means some of the features in the language were replaced with features from the English language as the slaves migrated and learned the English language more.


The Anglicist Theory

The Anglicist theory is considered to compete with the Creole theory. This theory, however, is supported by dialectologists like Hans Kurath and was introduced in the mid-twentieth century. It was the theory that was mostly supported until the mid-1960s when other theories began to emerge. According to the Anglicist hypothesis (Rickford, 2006), the African American Vernacular English development was similar to the language of other immigrants develop. According to the theory, when the slaves were transported from Africa to the United States initially, they spoke different languages (Rickford, 2006). However, as they were exposed to English, they began learning the language.  As the slaves had offsprings, their nativelanguages were less preserved. This explanation is seen today with immigrants whose children can barely speak their parent’s native language which means their children will not be exposed to the language at all (Rickford, 2006). Through this form of exposure and several generations, the slaves’ native languages faded away and were replaced by the regional dialect that the slaves were exposed to at the time which was mostly European American dialects of English as some slaves were also sold to the British.

This theory is supported by many and tends to refute the Creole theory. This is because this theory gives an explanation that seems to be more reasonable in explaining how the AAVE was formed. When the slaves came, they were in close contact with their white owners. However, the law at the time prohibited the whites from teaching them the language properly (Rickford, 2006). This is the reason as to why the language sounds like “broken English” and improper grammar.


The Distinct Features of AAVE

While both theories may have some facts that are believable, there are distinct features which explain the language and show the uniqueness it holds. The features shown however are only a fracture of the language. The AAVE is very diverse,and the features do not explain the entire dialect. There are several verbal markers which are unique. When it comes to the present tense, the verb is not marked,and the same verb can be used to serve all persons. There is also often the absence of the third person. For instance, ‘he do. She run to the market’. In Standard English (‘he does. She runs to the market’). There is also alack of copula when it comes to present tense such as ‘she walking too fast’ (Rickford, & Rickford, 2000). Which in Standard English would be ‘She is walking too fast.’ The copula is also deleted when a condition permanent for instance, ‘she my mother’ which in standard English would be ‘she is my mother.’

When it comes to the past tense the African American English combines done and the verb form of a word. For instance; ‘that’s the first time she done told me that’; which means, ‘that’s the first time she has told me that.’ Still when speaking in the past tense the language uses been as an equivalent of has been in Standard English for instance, ‘my son been ill’ which means, ‘my son has been ill.’ The future, on the other hand, be is used as will be for instance, ‘she be getting home late’ which means, ‘she will be getting home late’(Rickford, & Rickford, 2000).




The language also has syntactic and morphosyntactic markers which include negation, genitive and dative markers. When it comes to negation, multiple negators can be used in the same sentence for instance ‘Ain’t nothing she can’t do’ which means ‘there isn’t anything she can’t do.’ When it comes to genitive marking, the possessive -‘s marker used in AAVE is nonexistent for instance, ‘That’s my mama kitchen’ which means ‘That is my mother’s kitchen’ (Rickford, & Rickford, 2000). The dative markers in this language include the dative pronoun himself which is a masculine third person pronoun used in the place of himself as is in the Standard English. Other features that are considered paramount in the African American Vernacular Language are the phonological markers, for instance, an unstressed syllable is deleted from either the initial or the middle syllables such as ‘bout’ to mean about and ‘gov’meant’to mean government. Another phonological marker would be the initial change of [th] where the voiced fricatives of the initial [th] becomes [d] as follows those-[douz]; these- [diz] (Rickford, & Rickford, 2000).

In conclusion, it is evident that the origin of the African American Vernacular English was from the slaves. When they were brought to America, they were unable to communicate since they were from different West Africa regions. Eventually, they found ways to communicate and various theories explain how this was made possible. The slaves could have combined their native languages with English to create a creole, or they could have indirectly learned English from their white owners even though they were not allowed to teach them proper English. Either way, the language has evolved, or the dialect has been adopted mostly by African Americans.




Rickford, J. R. (2006). The Anglicist/Creolist quest for the roots of AAVE: Historical overview and new evidence from the copula. Studies in contact linguistics: Essays in honor of Glenn G. Gilbert. Bern & New York: Peter Lang.

Rickford, J. R., & Rickford, R. J. (2000). Spoken soul: The story of black English (p. 267). New York: Wiley.


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