Thursday, November 3, 2011

African American Vernacular English: A Language History Lesson

Controversial statement: African American Vernacular English (also known as "Ebonics") is grammatically correct.

Sentences like "She be at home," "He been married," and "Ain't nobody there" are all grammatically correct.

Here's another example of a grammatically correct English sentence: "Gewát ðá néosian syþðan niht becóm héän húses· hú hit Hring-Dene æfter béorþege gebún hæfdon·"

What the hell does that mean, right?

It's something to the tune of "He went to visit and see, when night came, the high house and how the Ring-Danes occupied it after the beer-feast." It's a couple of lines from the poem Beowulf, which was written somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. And yes, that's English. Which blows my mind, because the English I know doesn't use accents, right?

The English of so long ago is so different that we modern English speakers can't understand it without actually translating it, so people differentiate it from modern English by calling it "Old English." But make no mistake about it, modern English is a direct descendant of it.

Old English just slowly changed as people made up new slang, found different ways to communicate  things, and borrowed words and grammar from Latin, Scandinavian, and French. Over the course of a thousand years, word by word, it slowly morphed into modern English.

(For more on the origins of modern English, check the hilarious youtube series The History of English in Ten Minutes. Yeah, the whole series totals to ten minutes.)

African American Vernacular English (or AAVE) has a history too. In the early 1600s, around the year Shakespeare died, Dutch traders kidnapped a group of Africans, enslaved them and sold them to work tobacco fields in the American colonies. Having free labor turned out to make a pretty good profit, (go figure), so the kidnappings continued until 1798.

 The Africans came from all over west Africa, and they spoke different languages. In order to communicate, they adapted English as their common language. But obviously, the English speakers thought of these people as free labor instead of humans. As long as the Africans understood enough to take orders, there was no sense in teaching them the way English was spoken among the whites, or even talking to them. The Africans  had no reason to adhere to closely to standard English language. They adopted what they heard and combined it with some grammar rules from their original languages. And so, the AAVE was born.

Let's remember, the American English spoken by whites was the English of the 1600s. Remember, Shakespeare—who made up 2000 words of the English language—just died. The first major English dictionary wasn't written until 1755. Webster didn't publish his American dictionary until 1805, and he felt free enough to change spellings of words just for the fun of it that are still considered standard today. (Like changing the English spelling of "colour" to "color," "centre" to "center.") The standard American English the whites spoke and the Africans were not taught was not "standardized" in any of our modern sense of the word. The language that AAVE sprang from was still pretty different than what we think of as English, because mainstream American English had a fair share of evolving to still do.

Both AAVE and mainstream American English changed and evolved just like language always has. Brought together by geography, separated by racism, the two forms of English came into contact but also diverged in important ways. And the two groups continued to be separated until recently. That's what segregation was all about, right? "Separate but equal" and all the bullshit. Segregation by race was still legal until 1964. In terms of language evolution, fifty years isn't that much time to bring the two back together. And just because segregation ended legally didn't mean that racist whites wanted to be chummy with blacks. A lot of whites went out of their way to avoid living with blacks. (I'm looking at you, white suburbia.)

Alright, fast-forward to 2011. People often say blacks who use AAVE are too lazy to learn "proper" English and they sound ignorant. The problem with those assumptions is  the vernacular is not any less legitimate than the standard American vernacular—it too evolved word by word, grammar rule by grammar rule, over time with influence from outside sources.

Interestingly, some parts of it herald back to that earlier language of the 1600s. For example, in AAVE, ask is pronounced "ax." That's the way it was pronounced by whites back in 1600s too, but eventually the white pronunciation morphed into "ask" while blacks held on to the original pronunciation.

Also, the double negation in AAVE that outsiders love to make fun of—"Ain't nobody there," for example, which may cause a speaker of standard American English to say "So there is somebody there?"—isn't unique to AAVE. Other languages and dialects do this too, including modern French.
For example, the sentence "Ce n'est pas rien" translated word by word, says "It is not nothing." But it means "It's nothing."

The difference is in the 1800s and 1900s, white Americans had the wealth, the political power, the social power, and the literacy to write their dictionaries and their grammar books and their pronunciation guides. They had the power to standardize their personal vernacular.

*gets off soap box*

This was going to have to do something with visual novels, but this has gone on too long already. XD I'll make a part two in a few days. In the meantime, here's an adorable kissy picture I found while looking for pictures for this blog:


kgbrown said...

Fascinating article, however, as a heads-up I see one factual error that may damage your credibility. The African slave trade was not a result of large-scale kidnappings, but of Europeans purchasing slaves from African traders. When a tribe was conquered, the victors would often take the conquered as slaves, but their system was infinitely more humane than the European system, treating slaves more like family than property and generally allowing for eventual freedom. The African traders were unaware of how greatly the European system differed from theirs, and saw no problem in selling their captured to the Danish and British traders.
Wonderful article, though. Very refreshing to see language acknowledged as a fluid entity that changes over time.

Anonymous said...

Oh WOW, that was really interesting!! I didn't know they had something called AAVE at all. You enlightened me, about both that and grammar, so thank you very much. As a non-native English learner, it was fascinating to see how this language evolved gradually to become what it is today.

P.S: That picture is sooooo cuuute (^3^)

Valerie Lute said...

Sorry, I know this is an old post, but I think you got a lot of the details wrong here. It wasn't that slaves weren't "taught how to speak the way English was spoken among the whites," because actually, AAVE English is actually pretty similar to the language of white southerners of the 18th century. Southern American English today still shares a lot of the same features, such as the use of ain't and y'all, and dropping the certain constants from pronunciation. Other grammatical features of AAVE, like the habitual be, seemed to be held over from sub-Saharan African languages. The Southern American English that whites, especially poor whites, speak is still looked down upon ungrammatical because the northern United States has traditionally been more industrialized and wealthier, though you could argue that it isn't as stigmatized as AAVE.

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