Traveling across the United States, it’s common to encounter different regional accents. But if you have a southern drawl or a Bostonian accent, chances are you’ll still be understood by someone from another state.
What if something you said lands you in jail because you were misunderstood though? Or you weren’t offered a job because the way you spoke was perceived as “uneducated”? For people who speak African American English, these are realities they commonly face.
African American English (AAE) is a dialect of Standard English that’s spoken by some African Americans, most commonly in urban areas. It’s also referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Black English, Black English Vernacular, and Ebonics, although this last term can be seen as derogatory and is no longer used by linguists.
In American culture, AAE is often stigmatized as “bad English” or “broken English.” Many people believe that speakers of this dialect are just speaking standard English incorrectly or that it’s some trivial Gen Z slang. However, AAE is a fully-developed and logical dialect that has its own grammatical rules, pronunciation, and vocabulary. To use those incorrectly would be to speak AAE incorrectly.
There are a few theories on the origin of the language, and some are more credible than others. The most commonly agreed-upon theory is that AAE has always been an English dialect that diverged from other dialects used at the time. The second is that AAE is a Creole language, a language formed by the exposure and mixing of two distinct languages, with vocabulary largely taken from standard English combined with elements of West-African grammar.
English is the most spoken language in the world, and there are many varieties and dialects that have developed over time. While these dialects are generally similar, AAE differs from Standard English in many aspects, including pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.
An example of differences in pronunciation can be seen by the stress placed on a different syllable of a word. For example, the stress of the words police or guitar might be placed on the first syllable of the word instead of the second. Additionally, it’s common to not pronounce the final “g” in a word that ends with “-ing.” In writing, it’s often shown with an apostrophe to denote the missing letter: nothin’ or searchin’ are two examples.
One of the most interesting aspects of AAE is that it follows a specific set of grammar rules, and to deviate from them is considered incorrect. For example, the different uses of the verb “be.” The conjugations “is” and “are” are often dropped in the present tense. For example, you might hear, you crazy (instead of “you are crazy”). But for habitual actions, “be” is used without any conjugation. For example, it be like that sometimes (instead of “it is like that sometimes”).
Another difference is the acceptance of double negation. In standard English, only one word in a sentence can be negative. AAE allows for multiple words to take the negative form. For example, I don’t never have no problems includes three words in their negative form (don’t, never, and no).
Even though African American English is recognized academically as a unique dialect, it’s not always accepted in mainstream America. And for that reason, it’s necessary to recognize the challenges that speakers of AAE face.
This can range from minor misunderstandings to outright discrimination and prejudice because of how they speak. Unfortunately, these kinds of “misunderstandings” are prevalent in institutions that are supposed to provide help rather than harm, such as the legal system, education, and medicine.
Because all court proceedings are recorded, we can find well-documented instances of when AAE speakers were misunderstood, intentionally or not. This can sometimes lead to harmful outcomes.
The job of a court stenographer is to accurately record what lawyers, judges, and witnesses say. They certify these transcripts and then enter them into the legal record. These are then used by jurors when determining a verdict and in any future appeals process.
To work in the legal system, stenographers must be certified with at least 95% accuracy. However, a 2019 study called into question this accuracy when transcribing the statements of AAE speakers. Twenty-seven court-certified stenographers were asked to transcribe recordings of people speaking in African American English, and the results were, frankly, shocking.
The stenographers only achieved 59.5% accuracy, a huge difference from their certified accuracy rate of 95%. You can see more about the results of this study in the infographic below.
While this was only a study using recorded voices, not actual court cases, the implications are real and can affect people’s rights to a fair trial.
After someone is arrested, they have the right to request a lawyer, which is stated by the police when they read the Miranda warning. Any statements you make after requesting a lawyer are inadmissible. But when Warren Demesme said “Why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dog?”, he was denied this right.
In AAE, “dog” refers to a male person, usually a friend. However, it was argued that what Demesme was asking for was unclear and was perhaps asking for a “lawyer dog,” and not an actual person who could represent him.
Another example is when a Black woman said, “He finna shoot me.” In a written dissent, it was claimed that this phrase could have been referring to the past, when in reality, “finna” means fixing to, or going to, which refers to the future.
Another experimental study sought to identify the effect of both race and dialect on juror opinions. The study concluded that jurors had a more negative evaluation of AAE speakers, often considering them to be less educated and less professional. These overall negative impressions can influence the juror’s decision and potentially lead to unfavorable verdicts. And while this was only a study, it’s not hard to extend the results to real-world events.
In a justice system that’s already overwhelmed and has disproportionately impacted more African Americans, it’s hard to determine how and when equality will be reached. As John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University, wrote, “race relations in America will never truly budge until ‘equality under the law’ is more than a quaint phrase. But equality is, of course, impossible if the black people grappling with courts and imprisonment are routinely misunderstood.”
It’s no secret that there’s a large Black-white achievement gap in education. While there are many factors that play into this, language is a prominent one. There have been a few attempts to bring AAE into the classroom and use it as a way to help close this gap. However, each one has been faced with criticism and ridicule.
In the 1970s, linguists created the Bridge series, a curriculum that begins by using AAE and then slowly introduces elements of standard English. In early tests, the curriculum showed success. Students using this curriculum gained more reading skills than their counterparts who were taught with a curriculum entirely in standard English. Despite its early success, the publishers immediately pulled the series after parents protested.
Similarly, in 1996, the Oakland School Board passed a resolution that would allow AAE into the classroom as an acceptable form of speech. The backlash was so severe that the resolution was abandoned and the discussion of including AAE in the classroom has been all but abandoned.
Another instance where lack of communication causes a gap is in medical care. A comprehensive study found that 55% of African Americans distrust the US healthcare system. There are a variety of factors that can be attributed to this, but an important one is the communication (or lack thereof) between doctors and patients.
Dr. Lisa A. Cooper, director of The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, found in her research that doctors generally have worse communication with black patients than white ones. When doctors were treating black patients, they tended to dominate the conversation, talking “at” rather than talking “with.” Cooper stated, “African American patients get to ask fewer questions, they get less opportunity to explain themselves or to offer their opinions or their preferences.”
In a 2018 study conducted in Oakland, California, when Black patients were treated by Black doctors, there was more conversation which led to shared decision-making, better perception of treatment, and better adherence to the treatment plan. Here, it’s important to note that only 5% of physicians in the United States are black.
So what’s being done about all of this? One of the biggest steps to getting AAE respected as a true dialect is the creation of an African American English dictionary.The Oxford University Press and Harvard University are teaming up to create the very first Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE).
Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Languages at Oxford University Press acknowledged that the ODAAE aims to “create a powerful tool for a new generation of researchers, students, and scholars to build a more accurate picture of how African American life has influenced how we speak, and therefore who we are.”
Every entry in the dictionary will include a meaning, pronunciation, spelling, and quoted examples from real-world examples. Publishing this work is meant to highlight the contributions of African Americans to the speech that everyday people use in the United States.
Funded by grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations, the Oxford Dictionary of African American English won’t be released until 2025 at the earliest. However, it is a step forward to the recognition and acceptance of AAE.
It’s an unfortunate, yet true, reality that most speakers of African American English are stigmatized and perceived as uneducated or don’t know how to speak “English” properly. Instead of being criticized, speakers of AAE should be acknowledged for their achievements.
One aspect that’s rarely acknowledged is the ability of many AAE speakers to code-switch based on whom they’re speaking with.
This is an incredible skill that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Dr. Walter Edwards, professor of linguistics at Wayne State University in Michigan said that “Black Americans are the most linguistically sophisticated Americans because they can code-switch – alternate between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation – and style-shift with amazing facility. This ability displays sociolinguistic competence and verbal nimbleness.”
It happens every day with many African-Americans who must adapt their speech depending on if they are at home, at school, at a job, or a store. While this is a skill that should be celebrated, it should also be recognized that it’s a skill forced upon AAE speakers because of a lack of understanding by the general population. They must adapt their speech in order to avoid prejudices and be fully understood.
Although we’re seeing small steps to promote the understanding of AAE, there’s still a long way to go. There’s a lot of naivety surrounding the language and, like most racial stereotypes, it will be difficult to overcome. But a little bit of knowledge about AAE, or any language for that matter, can go a long way as far as acceptance is concerned. Learning even a little bit about the rules and structure of AAE shows that it’s not “bad English” and that people who speak it deserve a fair representation in public spaces.