What Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE)?

High school friends in corridor

Getty Images/Hill Street Studios

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a variety of American English spoken by many African Americans. It has been called by many other names that are sometimes offensive, including African American English, Black English, Black English vernacular, ebonics, negro dialect, nonstandard negro English, Black talk, Blaccent, or Blackcent.

AAVE originated in the plantations of the American South, where African people were enslaved to work, and it shares a number of phonological and grammatical features with southern dialects of American English.

Many African Americans are bi-dialectal in AAVE and Standard American English. Several concepts are related to this complex topic, including:

Examples and Observations

"In line with evolving trends within the larger community, linguists use 'African American English' instead of 'Black English' (or even older terms like 'Non-Standard Negro English') for the English of African Americans, a continuum of varieties ranging from the most mainstream or standard speech (like Bryant Gumbel's, virtually indistinguishable from the formal speech of white and other Americans), to the most vernacular or non-mainstream variety. It was to focus on this latter variety that Labov (1972) first started referring to it as 'Black English vernacular.' African American Vernacular English is simply the most recent variety of that term, the one most widely used among linguists..."
"The term 'Ebonics,' which was first coined in 1973 by a 'group of Black scholars...from ebony (black) and phonics (sound, the study of sound) (R. Williams, 1975)...is regarded by many if not most linguists as very similar if not identical to AAVE in terms of the features and varieties it designates."

(Rickford, "African American Vernacular English")

"[C]ontributing to the evolution of American English was the migration of Blacks from the South after the Civil War to urban areas of the north. They took their southern speech patterns with them, including all of the linguistic forms that had been incorporated into the grammatical structure of speech among slaves. Unlike most white immigrants to urban centers, who eventually adopted local dialects, Blacks generally remained isolated in impoverished ghettos and as a result, retained their dialect. This physical isolation contributed to linguistic isolation and the maintenance of African American vernacular English (AAVE). The retention of unique linguistic forms, racism, and educational apartheid have since led to numerous misconceptions of this dialect."

(Baugh, "Out of the Mouths of Slaves: African American Language and Educational Malpractice")

The Two Components of AAVE

"It is proposed that AAVE consists of two distinct components: the General English [GE] component, which is similar to the grammar of OAD [Other American Dialects], and the African American [AA] component. These two components are not tightly integrated with each other, but follow internal patterns of strict co-occurrence... The AA component is not a complete grammar, but a subset of grammatical and lexical forms that are used in combination with much but not all of the grammatical inventory of GE."

(Labov, "Coexistent Systems in African-American English")

Origin of AAVE

"On one level, the origin of African American English in the USA will always be a matter of speculation. Written records are sporadic and incomplete, and open to interpretation; demographic information about language use is also selective and largely anecdotal. Furthermore, great variation was exhibited in the speech of Africans when they were first brought to the 'New World' and to colonial America, as indicated in references to Black speech in slave advertisements and court records (Brasch, 1981). It is also indisputable that English-lexifier Creole languages developed and continue to flourish in the African diaspora—from coastal West Africa to coastal North America—and that the middle passage for some Africans brought to colonial America included exposure to these creoles (Kay and Cary, 1995; Rickford, 1997, 1999; Winford, 1997). Beyond these acknowledgments, however, the origin and status of early African American speech has been and continues to be vigorously disputed."

(Wolfram, "The Development of African American English")


  • Baugh, John. "Out of the Mouths of Slaves: African American Language and Educational Malpractice". University of Texas, 1999.
  • Labov, William. “Coexistent Systems in African-American English.” "The Structure of African-American English", edited by Salikoko S. Mufwene, et al., Routledge, 1998, pp. 110–153.
  • Rickford, John Russell. "African American Vernacular English: Features, Evolution, Educational Implications". Blackwell, 2011.
  • Wolfram, Walt, and Erik R. Thomas. "The Development of African American English". 1st ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE)?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/african-american-vernacular-english-aave-1689045. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, July 31). What Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE)? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-vernacular-english-aave-1689045 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE)?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-vernacular-english-aave-1689045 (accessed March 23, 2023).