Chapter 5: African American English and the communities it influences
5.2.1 An examination of the competing discourse of African American Vernacular English and standard English (argument from experience)
English 102, September 2020
I ain’t een gotta say nothing. All I gotta do is hit em wit dat look and dey already know what it is. Dey’ll pull up and it go down, on sight, and that’s on life.
How hard was it to read the above sentences? Did your mind immediately criticize the sentences? Was it because it didn’t sound grammatically “correct” or was it because the spelling was “different?” Perhaps a combination of the two and/or something else? Well, the sentences above are an example of African American Vernacular English.
African American English, or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), take your pick on what you want to call it, but what is African American English? In my experience, it is a language. A language just like Spanish, French, Latin, English, Chinese, Emojis, and the countless other languages that make up our world today. When I want to communicate with someone, this is a tool that I can use to get that done. In my experience, this is also a language that everyone uses (whether you are African American or not) and a lot of people are unaware of it. I believe that African American Vernacular English is what people who have not learned the language refer to as “slang.” That “slang” is derived from its own set of rules that the language comes with, again, just like every other language. Everyone uses this “slang” because it is expressive, fun to use, hip or current, and has multiple uses in multiple situations. It creates a sense of liveliness and let’s admit it, learning the current “slang” term makes people, both old and young, feel cool and included.
In my experience, I have grown up relatively confused about this language. I was able to use it with my friends, but if I tried to use the same language to communicate with my teachers and people from different communities (often white) I was told that I was wrong or that I had to correct myself. It often felt like I was lying to a part of myself or had two different identities. Looking back at these experiences, it often felt like I was “code-switching.” This is something that basically means a switch in the way you communicate to accommodate the people around you. This was something that I got good at doing and I am still good at doing, but it does not come without a price. Being someone who has learned to “code-switch” for as long as I can remember, there was an overlap that happened. At one point, I found myself using the language that was accepted by my white friends around my black friends, and vice versa. The consequence of this is that I grew up often hearing that I “talk too white to be black,” and I “talk too black to be white.” To make things more interesting, I started to date white women and up until recently, I was afraid of mixing my friends and family with white women that I was dating because my two ways of “code-switching” were about to be in the same place for the first time.
The interesting thing about African American Vernacular English is that it seems to be socially unacceptable if it is being used in a place that is considered more formal or professional. Adapting to standard English gives you a better shot of being hired. Maintaining a calm composure increases your chances of being hired, instead of showing how excited you are to even get an interview or how much you enjoy the conversation with the potential employer. To use AAVE in just the few settings that I have provided immediately casts judgment on the person using it, which is often an African American. The user is automatically viewed as less intelligent, educated, and unprofessional. However, people who are bilingual (AAVE not being one of the languages) are more free to flow in and out of both languages. Looking at a workplace example again, let’s look at two different people. Person “A” speaks two languages, French and English. French is their primary language, but they have adapted well to the English language. Person “B” has the exact same thing going on, yet their primary language is AAVE, and their secondary language is standard English. Person “A” is engaged in a group conversation and is, for the most part, speaking in English. Every now and then, the person says something in French (this is no big deal. It is as common as someone who speaks Spanish and English, or Spanglish). The people in the group who are unfamiliar with French will miss what person “A” is saying exactly, but they essentially get the gist. Furthermore, people in the group may think to themselves or even lightheartedly say out loud “I have no idea what you just said.” In my experience, I often find myself wondering what the meaning behind the French words (or any other language that I do not know) were. Looking at person “B” in the same situation, the same reaction may happen, but there is always a slight assumption that person “B” is not as intelligent as they lead others to believe. Sometimes, it leads to the internal question of the people around person “B” “how did this person get here?” There is no desire to learn what that word or expression meant.
Now, going back to the personal story I shared earlier about my white girlfriend and Black friends and family, can you guess how that turned out? I found myself switching how I talk to accommodate both parties, but with a lot of overlap at times and there were some occasions where my girlfriend tried to “correct” me. As my girlfriend and I were driving away I asked her how she was doing. Her response was that she was doing well and that she really likes everyone that she met. However, she also mentioned that it was hard to understand what we were saying. She mentioned that often it felt like she only got five words out of a twenty-word sentence. As she surrounded herself with my friends and family a few more times, the result stayed the same. “I hardly understand what you guys are saying” is what I would usually hear. That was an eye-opening moment for me because I realized that there was an underlying tone that was questioning the intelligence of my friends and family. Furthermore, she never expressed a desire to learn more about what was being said. She never asked me what some of the words that were being used meant, because from her perspective, why would she have to? AAVE isn’t a real language, right? AAVE is so close, yet so different from standard English automatically makes AAVE “wrong” because standard English is “right.”
What is it about AAVE that is sometimes deemed unacceptable? Who decided it was unacceptable? What caused it to be held to a lesser value than other languages? Why does it seem that AAVE is only accepted as a form of entertainment, such as the music industry? How does something so colorful and unique, something that everyone uses (or tries to use) in a casual setting, receive a negative connotation? If you ask me, I think it has a lot to do with history and the fact that this language was created by African Americans, a group of people who have been deemed as lesser than for four hundred years now. Everything that African Americans created was either destroyed or taken away. From businesses to families and everything in between. African Americans created their own language through spoken word, songs, music, dance, etc., and it was all claimed by white people. I believe that, in order to really uncover the negative connotations associated with AAVE, we will have to dive further into its origins and how things were like during the period the language was created. This is something I hope to uncover as we get further into the semester.