African American Vernacular English

[ af-ri-kuhnuh-mer-i-kuhn ver-nak-yuh-ler ing-glish ]

  1. a dialect of American English characterized by pronunciations, syntactic structures, and vocabulary associated with and used by some North American Black people and exhibiting a wide variety and range of forms varying in the extent to which they differ from Standard American English. Abbreviation: AAVE

Origin of African American Vernacular English

First recorded in 1990–95
  • Also called Af·ri·can A·mer·i·can Engl·ish; Af·ri·can A·mer·i·can Lan·guage [lang-gwij], /ˈlæŋ gwɪdʒ/, Af·ro-A·mer·i·can Eng·lish [af-roh-uh-mer-i-kuhn ing-glish]. /ˌæf roʊ əˈmɛr ɪ kən ˈɪŋ glɪʃ/.
  • Also called Black Eng·lish Ver·nac·u·lar; Black Ver·nac·u·lar Eng·lish [blakver-nak-yuh-ler ing-glish] /ˈblæk vərˈnæk yə lər ˈɪŋ glɪʃ/ .

word story For African American Vernacular English

Is it Black English, Ebonics, Afro-American English, African American Vernacular English, 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.” During the 1960s, 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.
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, J. L. Dillard, and Geneva Smitherman—while often exhibiting strong differences of opinion about the nature and origins of the dialect, all referred to it as Black English. To counter the impression that Black English was spoken by all African Americans and the assumption that African Americans spoke Black English exclusively, some linguists inserted the term vernacular to indicate that this was a robust independent language associated with specific communities and used primarily in informal speech. We thus had the designations Black English Vernacular (BEV) and Black Vernacular English (BVE). Furthermore, many of its speakers were known to be bidialectal—fluent in both Standard American English (SAE) and Black Vernacular English (BVE) and able to “code-switch”—to shift from one form of English to another, appropriately accommodating different settings, occasions, and audiences.
The next change in popular nomenclature elevated geographic and ethnic heritage over reference to skin color. 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 people. In turn, African American English , and its abbreviation AAE, as well as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and African American Language (AAL), have been seized upon as appropriate names by linguists now exploring and analyzing the dialect—its origins, its history, and its current characteristics.
Thus far we have neglected the terminological outlier Ebonics, a conflation of ebony and phonics, 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 Ebonics in the schools. In reality, the board merely wanted teachers to be able to use examples of the dialect that many of 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. Editorial articles and political cartoons misunderstood or misrepresented the school board policy, and the mocked and maligned idea of “teaching Black slang” was tied to the term Ebonics, which subsequently declined in use.
While popular for some time, the simple and easily understood designation Black English is not entirely accurate. It does not account for geographical distribution: AAVE is a North American dialect spoken primarily in the United States. The term Black English isn’t good at differentiating the language of African Americans from other varieties of English spoken by Black people globally. Black English is also too exclusive in connecting this dialect and the Black community. African American Vernacular English is not spoken by every African American, nor is it the only language spoken by African Americans.
Currently, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a term once known only in the social sciences, is widely used. As its familiarity has increased outside of academia, it is also being replaced in some academic circles by African American Language (AAL). Ultimately, the public decides what words it will use—language, and the way we talk about it, is constantly evolving.

Words Nearby African American Vernacular English Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023

British Dictionary definitions for African-American Vernacular English

African-American Vernacular English

  1. a dialect of English typically spoken by working-class African-Americans: Abbreviation: AAVE Also called: ebonics

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012