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African American Vernacular English

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a dialect of American Standard English spoken by many black Americans. Sociolinguists call it Black English Vernacular or Vernacular Black English. Among the non-academic community AAVE is known as Ebonics. African American Vernacular English is now a subject of much debate regarding its affiliations to other languages, the number of people who speak the language and its history.

While AAVE has some unique features, it also has features common to many American English dialects spoken in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The pronunciation of AAVE is similar to the English spoken by African Americans as well as non-African Americans in Southern America. Many believe the grammatical structure of AAVE resembles that of Creole. Some go further and believe AAVE to be a Creole language. Some linguists believe that African American Vernacular English resembles the speech of people in West Africa, whence most African Americans came. Words of African origin like, gumbo, goober, yam, and banjo, and slang expressions such as cool, hip and hep cat came to Standard American English from AAVE.

The name Ebonics was given to AAVE when some educators in 1996 wanted to use the language to teach black children. This step raised a controversy since Ebonics often carries a negative connotation.

It is difficult to estimate the number of AAVE speakers as it is still to be precisely defined. Notwithstanding attempts, it has not been possible to identify distinctive features of the language.

History of African American Vernacular English

To explain its historical development, some scholars use the ‘contact theory’. According to them, AAVE developed out of contact with speakers of West African languages and the few native speakers on American plantations. This led to the development of a pidgin language, which through a process of creolization developed into AAVE.

Other advocates of ‘contact theory’ suggest that African American Vernacular English developed through the process of second language acquisition. Since there were very few speakers of the native language on the plantations, occasions to speak were also very few. Whatever English could be learnt in those rare interactions with the speakers of the language were absorbed into their West African languages. The universal rules applicable to all human languages would also have significantly aided such processes. Similar processes, it appears, have also been at work in other places.

Those who dispute such a development argue that the demographic conditions in the US and the Caribbean were quite different. The U.S. never had conditions necessary for the development of Creole language. They showed that the supposed distinctive features of AAVE have their origins in now extinct varieties of English once spoken in Great Britain and the Southern United States. It seems that African American Vernacular English may have developed by contact as well as by inheriting features from older and extinct varieties of English.

AAVE suffers from the same prejudices which non-standard languages all over the world suffer. In case of African American Vernacular English the racial bias against the speakers further compounds the problem. Obviously, the scholars have failed to educate the public.

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