Celebrate Black History Month: Talking While Black

When my husband and I first started dating he often made comments about how I was like two different people. When he first said it, I looked at him like he had three heads. I literally, had no idea what he was talking about. He then explained that when I talked to him, my word choices, phrases and even inflection sounded completely different then how I spoke with my other friends and family. He said it was like how someone who speaks English as their second language sounds differently when they revert to their native tongue to have a conversation.

Once he gave me more insights on what he was seeing, I knew immediately what I was doing. I was code-switching and using AAVE. It was so subconscious that I hadn’t even realized I was doing it. Even though we were dating, merely by him not being a Black person, I was treating how I interacted with him differently than I did other people in my life.

What is AAVE and Codeswitching?

AAVE (African American Vernacular English), BVE (Black Vernacular English - the V and E have been often swapped around), also known as Ebonics (though Ebonics is not a term used by linguists as it has often been used to mock Black speakers), is a dialect of English that is spoken by some Black Americans and Canadians. It has its own unique grammar, vocabulary and accent features that are used mostly in informal settings. This should not be confused with Patois, which is spoken in the Caribbean, a linguistic language that merges more elements of West African, Spanish, English and French together (many Black Americans fluidly can understand patois, myself included).

AAVE has some distinctive pronunciation and vocabulary that has some similarities to dialects spoken in the American south. However, AAVE is not just southern and it is believed that AAVE may have developed as West African slaves learned to speak English when they came to the Americas. It is also further believed that some universal grammar rules may have further influenced this as those early speakers may have taken some common structures in West African language to English, though some scholars disagree with this concept. AAVE does not have a set vocabulary but there are many words that are used that are not found or are used differently than standard English. For example, “bet” in standard English - a bet can mean to risk something or wager against some future event. In AAVE “bet” can mean "good/Ok" or "prove it"; the meaning being dependent on the context. Another example of AAVE would be “n’mean" or "nah mean” which means "know what I mean". AAVE commonly drops letters or mashes together words. It’s this commonality of patois and AAVE that makes understanding patois easier for those who use AAVE. Example of this is “Wah Gwaan” which, if you imagine a person with a Jamaican accent saying it very slowly, you can hear “What’s Going” on. Now not all patois is as easy as that but as you can see there are some similarities.

AAVE, being a dialect of Black people, is unfortunately tied to racist conceptions about Black people. AAVE is often seen as “improper English” and it's speakers as uncultured, ignorant, and uneducated, which speaks more to America’s history with Black people than the dialect. This has led to a lot of controversy on if it is acceptable English or not. In 1996, Oakland Unified School district fought to declare AAVE as a second language that would allow them to utilize funds that are usually earmarked for bilingual education students. Still, even now there is a debate about if it should be allowed to be spoken in schools. This of course led to deep mocking of AAVE.

This leads to many Black professionals doing something called Code-Switching. My favorite example of Code Switching is one of Barack Obama in 2012 which was later made into a spoof by Key & Peele. Black people, especially in settings in which they are interacting with people outside of the Black community, will often change their style of speech, appearance, behavior and ways they express themselves in that, by making these adjustments, it will give them better treatment and acceptance. For Black people, this adjustment gives the perceptions of professionalism, distances them from stereotypes, and shows adaptability that may be crucial to find employment or acceptance in White dominated spaces. This falls under the banner that some in the Black community call “respectability politics” as there is an ongoing debate about if doing this psychological and social realignment hurts Black people, overall.

This conformity can be met with hostility from within the Black community. As a girl, when I was still learning to code-switch I would accidentally from time to time fall back into standard English in casual conversations with Black friends. I would usually then be immediately called out and would often result in me being accused of rejecting my Blackness in the hopes that I could be seen more favorably by White people. This of course was not the case, but the mere perception of that accusation would make me furious, as it implied, I was essentially rejecting myself. It also implied to my friends that, by not embracing that conformity, I was essentially saying they were not taking personal responsibility for their own upward mobility, even though there is no conformity that can get a Black person beyond systematic racism and this expectation is not placed on other racial groups.

Once could actually argue that when AAVE is adopted by individuals outside of the Black community that is more socially acceptable. With the increase of social media AAVE and many of the words that come from gay and drag culture have been put into our lexicon of words and adopted by other groups. This is not an unnatural process as we have often borrowed words and phrases from other cultural and ethnic groups. The issue is that institutional racism and homophobia remain while people in more socially acceptable groups can find success and monetize their usage of AAVE to their benefit.

So…What’s Good

Due to cultural appropriation and ongoing research that is lending itself to the idea that code-switching may be more harmful than helpful, there is a push to stop insisting that Black children learn how to do it.  The idea is that rejecting how you naturally speak and act is deeply harmful and leads to internalized anti-Blackness in some individuals. This has led to some schools relaxing the need to push students to speak in standard English. However, most code switching back to natural speech is usually unintentional, one can quickly fall out of code-switch language in high stress or fearful environments. Also, there are times when it can be used to say something in plain sight or to share ideas or thoughts without large conversation. An example of this would be “What’s Good” - depending on the inflection and context it could be a question on how one is feeling to indicating you are ready for fisticuffs. Even I have relaxed how often I code-switch and no longer do so when speaking to my husband.

The main takeaway I want to share is that there is nothing invalid or wrong about AAVE. It is a dialect like many other dialects that are used across the United States. Furthermore, if you opt to use AAVE that you are equally focused on ensuring that that those who use AAVE because that is how they speak are not mistreated or discriminated against for using it. So, next time when you hear Black people using AAVE, focus more on what they are trying to express and less on how they are expressing it. Also do me one favor: if you do learn a new word or phrase, try not to kill it; I’m getting older and, like new music, new words are getting harder to learn.

To Learn More

African American English A Linguistic Introduction, book cover
Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English, book cover