Is it Black English, Afro-American English, African American Vernacular English (AAVE),
or what? Confusion about what to call this dialect is understandable; its name has changed frequently in both the linguistic literature and popular discourse. But upon closer examination, we can see that its nomenclature has evolved logically—in keeping, for the most part, with changes in how African Americans have referred to themselves and in turn been referred to by others.
From the 1700s well into the 1960s, the most widely accepted formal term for Americans of African descent was Negro,
a word derived from the Spanish and Portuguese term for “black.” An alternative, colored,
was also in use but often carried a hint of disdain when used by the white population. Another alternative, person of color,
was not the neutral term it is today. Although it includes a much broader swath of persons who are not white or of European descent, the term was conspicuously present in early state laws that mandated extraordinarily harsh treatment of slaves, especially those who attempted to run away. Ultimately, Negro
emerged as the preferred designation for the people of African descent and was used frequently by such notable figures in African American cultural history and the civil rights movement as W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr. Using the same word to name the dialect spoken by many African Americans was only logical.
During the 1960s, for example, studies of the dialect referred to Negro speech
or Negro American dialect
or Negro English,
as in Walt Wolfram’s 1969 book, A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech.
However, some members of the designated community had felt for some time that the term Negro was uncomfortably associated with a long history of slavery, prejudice, and persecution. Perhaps they realized as well that it was too easily transformed in the mouths of the unenlightened into the hated and deeply offensive n-word
The term black
had also been in use to designate people and things African American—often, however, accompanied by offensive connotations. But with growing militancy within the civil rights movement during the mid and late 1960s, black,
as in black power, black pride,
and black people,
became increasingly popular. By the 1970s, major linguistic studies—from scholars like William Stewart, William Labov, John L. Dillard, and Geneva Smitherman—while often exhibiting strong differences of opinion about the nature and origins of the dialect, referred to it as Black English.
To counter the impression that Black English (and Black English exclusively) was spoken by all African Americans, some linguists inserted the term vernacular
to indicate that the dialect thrived primarily in certain rural and urban communities. We thus had the designations Black English Vernacular (BEV)
and Black Vernacular English (BVE).
In addition, it became increasingly clear that many of its speakers were in fact bidialectal—fluent in both standard English and Black English and able to “code-switch”—to shift from one form of English to another, appropriately accommodating different settings, occasions, and audiences.
During the 1980s, many Americans sought to display pride in their immigrant origins. Linguistically, this brought about a brief period of short-form hyphenated designations, like Italo-Americans and Greco-Americans. This was particularly significant for those who could now call themselves Afro-Americans,
abandoning terminology that focused on skin color in favor of terminology reflecting one’s geographical or ethnic heritage. However, although there were a few books on Afro-American writing and folk arts in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was little use of this hyphenated form in linguistic studies.
The next change in popular nomenclature continued the reference to geography and ethnicity. The more complete, somehow less awkward African American,
found first in the literature of the mid-19th century, has not only been revived but has become, since the early 2000s, the designation of choice in referring to the people. In turn, African American English,
and its abbreviation AAE,
as well as African American Vernacular English (AAVE),
have been seized upon as appropriate names by linguists currently exploring and analyzing the dialect—its origins, its history, and its current characteristics.
But there is a terminological outlier that has gained some favor with the general public. The word Ebonics,
a conflation of ebony
is another name for the dialect but not for the people who speak it. The word was coined in 1973 by Robert Williams, a social psychologist who sought a name that did not evoke, overtly or covertly, the concept of “nonstandard” English. It did not come to the attention of the general public, however, until 1996, when the Oakland, California, school board was mistakenly thought to be promoting the teaching
of Black English—Ebonics—in the schools. In reality, the board merely wanted teachers to be able to use examples
of the dialect that their students already knew and spoke in order to show and teach them the contrasting equivalents in standard English, much as one would teach English as a second language. Since then, the term Ebonics has been employed primarily, but not exclusively, in discussions of teaching.
Ultimately, the public decides what words it will use. So while African American Vernacular English
is the term of choice for linguists, and Ebonics
can sometimes be found in the public’s vocabulary, for the general population, Black English,
short and easy to say, remains far and away the most popular term for this dialect.