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African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), also called Ebonics (see below), Black English, or Black English Vernacular (BEV) is a dialect of American English. Strictly speaking, there is some controversy in the larger community about whether it should be considered a dialect, but this is based on difference of opinion about what it means to be a dialect. Among working linguists there is no such controversy. Similar to common Southern US English, the dialect is spoken in many African-American communities in the United States, especially in urban areas. It has its origins in the culture of enslaved Americans and also has roots in England.

The term Ebonics, which is a portmanteau word of ebony and phonics has been suggested as an alternative name for this dialect, but that name is not widely used in linguistic literature, although it enjoys considerable common use, as a result of the controversy surrounding it (see below). Robert L. Williams, a linguistics professor at Washington University created the term Ebonics in 1973, then detailed it in his 1975 book, .

Table of contents
1 History
2 Grammatical features
3 Controversy
4 See also
5 External links


As a language develops, its use by isolated and diverging groups of people also becomes isolated and divergent. AAVE is largely based on the Southern American English variety, an influence that has no doubt been reciprocal as the dialects diverged. The traits of AAVE which separate it from standard English include changes in pronunciation along definable patterns, distinctive slang, as well as differences in the use of tenses.

Sociologists, linguists and psychologists generally believe that it is common for oppressed people (as, for example, African slaves in the Americas) to adopt a radically different dialect from their oppressors. This is done to subtly rebel against the oppressor and his culture, and to differentiate themselves, as well as to foster pride among their community. Slaveholders generally considered the changes in speech to be due to inferior intelligence.

Most speakers of AAVE are bidialectical in that they command Standard American English (SAE) to some degree in addition to AAVE, switching between using SAE forms and AAVE forms depending on social context.

Grammatical features

While it is true that AAVE eschews much of the inflectional morphology of SAE, that in and of itself is insufficient to demonstrate inferiority, as Modern English has a drastically simplified morphology compared to Old English. Furthermore, there are unique aspects that help make AAVE as complete as any other dialect, and in fact AAVE has some grammatical forms that require circumlocutions in SAE.

Aspect marking with be

The most distinguishing feature of AAVE is the use of forms of be to mark aspect in verb phrases. The use or lack of a form of be can indicate whether or not the performance of the verb is of a habitual nature. In SAE, this can only be expressed using adverbs such as usually.

Note: sometimes AAVE-distinctive uses of the word been are spelled bin. Although the British English pronunciation of been differs from that of bin, they are pronounced the same both in SAE and AAVE.


In addition, negatives are formed differently from standard American English:

Other grammatical characteristics

Some of these characteristics, notably double negatives and the use of been for "has been", are also characteristic of general colloquial American English.

Linguist William Labov carried out and published the first thorough grammatical study of African American Vernacular English in 1965.


AAVE known as ebonics was briefly a controversial topic in the United States, mainly over its linguistic status. Proponents of various bills across the country, most famously in a resolution from the Oakland, California school board on December 18 1996, desired to have Ebonics officially declared a language or dialect. (The Oakland resolution was passed unanimously by a lame-duck board in its last meeting before the installation of new members with different political views; the new board modified the resolution and then effectively dropped it.) Doing so would affect funding- and education-related issues. Other opinions on Ebonics range from it deserving official language status in the US, to it being dismissed, while many non-linguists doubt its status as a distinct language or dialect.

One of the confusing points in the controversy was that the Oakland resolution not only denied that Ebonics was English, but asserted that the speech of African-American children belonged to "West and Niger-Congo African Language Systems", demonstrating that ignorance of fundamental linguistics is not restricted to one specific political bent.

Proponents of Ebonics-education believe that their proposals have been seriously misunderstood by the general public. The belief underlying Ebonics education is that African-American students would perform better in school and more easily learn Standard American English, if textbooks and teachers acknowledged AAVE was not a substandard version of SAE but rather a speech variety with as much although different structure than standard American English. However, the same proponents have never felt this sort of special treatment to be necessary for speakers of any other dialect of English found in the USA.

Perhaps no proposal suggested actually teaching AAVE or treating it as socially prestigious as standard American English. Doing some teaching in Ebonics, however, was mandated by the Oakland resolution in two places; e.g., "imparting instruction to African-American students in their primary language" (where the specific claim had been made that the primary language was Ebonics). Rather, teachers were encouraged to accept that the errors in standard American English that their students made were not the result of lack of intelligence or lack of effort, but rather because the language that they normally use is grammatically different from that of SAE. Instead of teaching standard English not by proscribing non-standard characteristics, the idea was that standard English could be taught by showing students how to translate expressions from AAVE to standard American English.

At the very least, supporters of the Oakland proposal hoped to increase understanding among teachers about the source of SAE errors by their students, and to have teachers understand that while the speech of their students is socially non-standard, it is not linguistically inferior or less complex than standard English. For example, it showed that the dropping of the final -d or -t from past participles was not, as many educators had believed, a sign that black English avoided the simple perfect (since speakers of AAVE use irregular preterites appropriately).

See also

External links