Black Vernacular English Essay

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African-American Vernacular English can be described as an assortment of American English that is mostly used by urban-working class and mostly bi-dialectical middle-class black Americans. The language is also commonly known as Black Vernacular English or Black English. In some cases, particularly outside the academic community, it is referred to as Ebonics given its distinctive features and similarities with other non-standard English varieties. The similarities with other varieties are evident when compared to various standard and non-standard English languages that are commonly used in the United States and the Caribbean. In the past few years, African-American Vernacular English has been the subject of various public debates and attracted considerable attention among sociolinguists. This paper examines the development of this language, its distinctive features, cultural context, and socio-economic implications of the use of African-American Vernacular English.

Roots of African-American Vernacular English

The history and origin of African-American Vernacular English and other varieties associated with it has been an issue of increased controversy (Sidnell, n.d.). However, the roots of this language were undoubtedly established in the rural South whereas its 20th Century development as a socio-cultural variety is strongly linked to its use in non-Southern urban regions. In essence, the emergence of urban Black English is a by-product of the Great Migration through which African-Americans migrated from the rural South to large metropolitan regions of the North in the 20th Century. However, the democratic migration is not an adequate explanation for the cultural movement through which urban centers became the modern norm for African-American Vernacular English.

In the early 1900s, nearly 90% of African-Americans in the United States lived in the South whereas 75% of them lived in communities with less than 2,500 (Wolfram, n.d.). A dramatic redistribution or migration of African-Americans took place in the period between World War 1 through to the Second World War and beyond. This redistribution was characterized by movement of African-Americans from rural South for cities in the North. By 1970, even though 47% of Black Americans lived outside the South whereas 77% of them lived in urban centers. This large invasion of African-Americans in urban areas contributed to intense racial isolation that was accompanied with social and cultural implications. These implications in turn lead to the development of a social environment that was favorable to the maintenance of ethno-linguistic differences. The maintenance of ethno-linguistic differences by African-Americans in turn acted as the basis for the emergence and development of African-American Vernacular English.

Nonetheless, there are other theories that have been used to demonstrate the roots or origin of African-American Vernacular English. One of these theories is the belief that this language emerged from at least one slave creoles through the trans-Atlantic African slave trade. In this case, the development of Black English was fueled by the need for African slaves to communicate among themselves and with their masters. However, the contribution of these languages to contemporary African-American Vernacular English is very minimal. This implies that African-American Vernacular English was developed on the basis of transplant dialect communities from Southern rural speakers who migrated to non-Southern areas.

Distinctive Features of African-American Vernacular English

African-American Vernacular English has distinctive features that make it unique or difference from other variables. One of the most notable differences in this language is verb phrase, which mainly entails the use of aspect, mood, and tense. Verb phrase in this language entails copula or auxiliary absence for contractible forms of are and is. Copula or auxiliary absence in the verb phrase of Black English is similar to some Southern white rural vernacular varieties of English. The second feature about verb phrase in this language is the invariant be or non-finite be, which is considered as the most salient grammatical characteristic of African-American Vernacular English. The other aspects of verb phrase in this language include the use of completive done, combination of be and done in sentences, emphasized use of been, and inclusion of specialized auxiliaries.

The second distinctive feature of African-American Vernacular English is related to the development of negation. In this language, a single negative proposition may be indicated both within the verb phrase as well as on post-verbal indefinites. While this is not different from most of the existing vernacular dialects in English, the inclusion of negative concord is quite distinctive. Third, African-American Vernacular English is also characterized by the lack of inflectional -- s on plurals and possessives (Wolfram, n.d.). This tendency by Black Americans is very rare among other vernaculars of American English. Verbs in African-American Vernacular English are always used without any ending as there are various ways of marking negation.

In relation to vocabulary, Sidnell (n.d.), states that Black Vernacular English does not have a separate vocabulary from other English varieties. Nonetheless, speakers of his language use some words that are not found in other English varieties as well as certain English words in ways that vary from the standard dialects in English. Moreover, some of the words used in this language have their origin in West African languages, which influenced the development of African-American Vernacular English. Even though words are seemingly composed of a form i.e. A sound signal and a meaning in this language, their meaning may be derived from West African sources.

With regards to sounds, African-American Vernacular English has relatively different pronunciation from Standard English. Black Vernacular English speakers attach importance to these pronunciation differences or accent. The consonant cluster in this language is lessened variably and systematically while Black Vernacular English speakers occasionally delete consonant and nasalize the vowel unlike in Standard English. Thomas (2007), states that phonetic and phonological variables are adequate representation and reflections of how African-American Vernacular English is different from Standard English (p.452). These phonological and phonetic variables are characterized by different kinds of pronunciation, consonantal variables, voice quality, prosody, and differences in vowels. Therefore, these variables represent deviations from Standard English forms, which contribute to the distinctiveness of African-American Vernacular English.

Present and Past Cultural Context of the Use of this Language

Even though African-American Vernacular English is traditionally associated with Blacks, not all African-Americans know this language. The grammar of this language i.e. copula omission, negative concord, and removing final consonants needs to be learned by any individual who would like to speak the language. This implies that mastering the language does not originate from knowing American English or being of African-American descent. This is primarily because of the past and present cultural context of the use of this dialect.

The present cultural context of the use of African-American Vernacular English extends beyond regional boundaries as well as families and specific groups. The language is increasingly used in urban and metropolitan areas due to the migration of blacks from south to northern areas. Moreover, the change in the cultural context is fueled by the emergence of the bi-racial ideology, which is definitive of urban centers and the development of oppositional identity in the African-American youth culture. Similar to the past cultural context, Black Vernacular English is used as a distinctive identity and feature of African-Americans, particularly the youth. Young African-Americans in metropolitan areas use this language as a tool of distinguishing themselves and oppositional identity. For young African-Americans, the language is a tool for them to avoid acting "white." They believe that speaking Standard English is a major sign or indicator of the behaviors and beliefs of white people. Therefore, the African-American youth culture utilizes the language to support the maintenance of ethno-linguistic uniqueness.

Throughout its history, African-American English has been considered as a major social cultural variation that continues to change because of the changing social conditions. The present cultural context has involved the development of the language's literature. This process has been characterized by a long tradition of representing the speeches of African-Americans in American literature. The process has been fueled by examining how black identity is developed and its link to other characters. However, the depiction of the language in literature is usually carried out through spelling changes to demonstrate phonological differences rather than a developed spelling system.

The present cultural context of the use of African-American Vernacular English has similarities to its past cultural context with regards to ethno-linguistic distinctiveness. Actually, the development of this language is attributed to attempts by African-Americans to distinguish themselves from other varieties of Standard English. The language was developed and utilized by African-Americans during a period when they faced increased discrimination. However, according to Hinton & Pollock (2000), the past cultural context of the use of this language was characterized by regional variations (p.59). The variations in phonological characteristics occurred between middle-class African-Americans and other groups in this population.

Socio-economic Implications of Using this Language

The use of African-American Vernacular English has had considerable socio-economic implications, particularly in education as reported by scholars. As indicated by scholars and experts in the academic field, African-American children have comparatively low performance on standardized literacy activities partly because of deficient patterns in speech and language (Harris & Schroeder, 2013, p. 194). The characteristics of Black Vernacular Language interfere…

Sources Used in Document:


Fisher, D. & Lapp, D. (2013, May). Learning to Talk Like the Test: Guiding Speakers of African

American Vernacular English. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(8), 634-648.

Harris, Y.R. & Schroeder, V.M. (2013, January 24). Language Deficits or Differences: What We

Know about African-American Vernacular English in the 21st Century. International Education Studies, 6(4), 194-204.

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