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AAVE and Language Colonialism

Writer: Harry Zhao

Editor: Laila Michel

Graphic Designer: Hannah Bugeja

AAVE stands for African-American Vernacular English - more commonly known as "ghetto English", "Ebonics", or maybe even "Black English". It is the dialect associated with black English speakers, with distinct characteristics that separate it from standard, formal English. From AAVE we get words like "ain't", "wanna", and “tryna”, as well as popular slangs like "lit" and “it’s the ___ for me.” Speakers of AAVE have a recognisable accent, seen in words such as "dat'' and "nothin” and may also use a different syntax when speaking. For example, using double negation ("I don't have nothing.") or uisng the verb "be" as an auxiliary in sentences: "She be working hard."

From a historical perspective, AAVE was a product of colonialism. When American colonists brought African people to the colonies as slaves, the Africans had to learn to speak English - the language of their masters, in order to communicate with the colonisers, but also amongst themselves, as many people spoke different and unrelated African languages, and the only way of communication was through English. As a result, AAVE emerged from the settlers' dialects that mixed English features of the African languages that the slaves originally spoke. As such, AAVE has deep ties with the history of African-American identity, and is a linguistic reminder of imperialism and colonialism in America.

For quite some time, AAVE lacked representation in books, films and many forms of media. This was due to the white-centred media industry for most of history, but also the notion that AAVE was not considered a "proper" way of speaking or using English; so even black creators opted to use a more formal register of English when producing media.

However, by the 20th century, POC creators in the media started embracing and incorporating the AAVE dialect into their works. This was part of the larger Harlem Renaissance, which saw the vitalisation of African-American culture in all forms. AAVE was popularised across the USA by the music of the movement: jazz, blues, and spirituals, which were sung in AAVE. Famous musicians of the time include Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, whose songs brought AAVE to musical prevalence at the time.

Louis Armstrong

In terms of literature, Langston Hughes, a famous writer born during the Harlem Renaissance, used AAVE and elements of blues music in his poetry to express his cultural identity and experiences, which can be seen in his poems such as "Mother to Son" and "Dream Boogie". More recently, Sharon G. Flake used AAVE for her narrative voice in her debut novel "The Skin I'm In" (first published in 1998) to explore black identity and pride.

Following the advancements of technology and social media, AAVE has seeped into internet lingo as well. Phrases such as "spilling tea", "throwing shade", "chile, anyways", "snatched", "periodt" and many more were originally used by black communities (often LGBTQ+), and have been now integrated into the language of our generation. With the rise of AAVE today, it has sparked controversy around linguistic identity and appropriation.

AAVE was considered as a "lower", "uneducated" or even "incorrect" dialect of English. This misconception is partly due to linguistic descriptivism, where people only regard one way of speaking as acceptable, and consider all other dialects to be wrong. In this case, AAVE is seen as incorrect because of the ways it has diverged from standard American English, and thus has a lower social status. As a result, AAVE has been discouraged in social settings such as in classrooms, in the workplace, in administration and in public discourse. Speakers of AAVE and many other dialects are influenced to believe that their dialect or accent - and by extension, their identity - is not respectable enough to be used publicly. These speakers must choose to suppress their linguistic heritage in order for society to listen to them.

With the recent trend of non-POC using AAVE phrases in their language, an issue rises about the appropriation of AAVE. Some may argue that this is a form of cultural appropriation - using words of black origin without appreciating or understanding its origins and nuances. Others think that the popularisation of AAVE by non-POC reveals racial inequality, as POC using AAVE is considered "improper", while non-POC using AAVE is instead considered a catchy trend. From a less critical stance, some may say that the incorporation of AAVE is a step towards multiculturalism, or that it is a tip-of-the-hat to the POC communities.

In conclusion, AAVE is a linguistic testimony to the history and cultural identity of African-Americans and the impact of colonialism and elitism. From its mixed origins, to its status during the Harlem Renaissance and its current prevalence in mainstream, online language, the role of AAVE in our media reflects the complicated nature of African-American identity in an America with colonial roots.




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