Practice English Speaking&Listening with: The Linguistics of AAVE

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A couple thousand years ago, the Ancient Greeks decided that all the languages besides Ancient

Greek sounded likebarbarbarbar,” so they started calling the people who spoke

thembarbarians.” Or, at least, thats the popular story about where the word comes

from, theres actually similar words in Latin in Sanskrit, so the word probably goes

all the way back to PIE, but the point is the Greeks really did refer to everyone who

didnt speak Greek asbarbaros,” and they really did think of them as barbarians.

After all, from their perspective Ancient Greek just sounded right, and all the other

languages sounded weird and wrong, and if they couldnt see that then it must be because

theyre stupid, smelly uncivilized barbarians. Youd think that after all this time we

would have figured out that people who speak differently then you do arent doing it

justcause theyre dumb, that whatever people are raised with winds up sounding correct

to them and that no ones language or dialect is inherently better or worse than anyone

elses, but no. Two and a half thousand years later we are still struggling with this

basic concept, and in my own country theres one way of speaking in particular that people

could really stand to actually learn a little about. I mean, there are loads of different

ways people speak in the US, but theres one that people dont usually even think

of as a legitimate accent or dialect, instead instead they just call itslangat best

orbroken Englishat worst. What I am referring to has been called many different

things over the years, but the standard term among linguists, and what Ill be using

for the rest of the video, isAfrican American Vernacular English,” orAAVE.”

No matter where you live in the US, whether its the West Coast or the East Coast or

Chicago or the Deep South, black people often have a way of speaking thats very different

from . . . white . . . people. hm. um, black people have a different way of speaking from

white people? Now you cant see the white one. Black people have a different way of

speaking from white, Eh, you still cant really see them. Black people have uh…?

That just looks weird. Uh . . . Imma be honest, I have no idea how I should illustrate this.

OK, you know what? I give up. From now on, black people and AAVE are purple while white

people and General American English are pink. By the way, “General American English

is a dialect of English which is very close to what Im speaking right now, its the

one that people tend to use most in professional settings in the US.

Something I want to clarify is that not all black people speak AAVE. In fact, its actually

incredibly common for black people to speak both AAVE and General American English, making

them, well, theyre not bilingual since AAVE isnt a separate language, but, is

bi-dialectal a word? Oh cool, it is!

So yeah, not only that but it AAVE varies a fair amount from region to region and even

from person to person, but, at the same time, a black person from Los Angeles will frequently

sound way more similar to a black person from Chicago or New York than to a white person

from LA. Why is this? Well, there are two main theories about where AAVE comes from.

The older of the two theories is that AAVE diverged from early modern English just like

American and British English. Whenever different groups of people stop talking to each other,

they inevitably start speaking differently. Sometimes they dont talk because theyre

two far away from each other, which is how the different dialects of Latin became more

and more different until we wound up with French and Spanish and the rest. But it can

just as easily happen for other reasons, just so long as people are talking to other people

in their group way more than everyone else, and even though the Slaves who were brought

over from Africa would have had to learn English at first, they would have definitely been

talking with each other much more than with white people, a situation which continued

even after slavery ended all the way up until . . . well, its still kinda that way actually.

Over time, this could have easily lead to the divergence of AAVE and General American

English. AAVE was concentrated in the Southern US for most of its history, since up until

the 20th century thats where almost all black people lived, but during an event called

the Great migration from around 1910 to 1970 millions of African Americans started moving

to the North, and they took their dialect with them.

The other theory about where AAVE comes from says that it didnt just diverge from General

American English over time, but that it started out very different from the English that white

people spoke. When the African Slaves who were brought to the US got there, they wouldnt

have spoken English at first, initially they would have spoken Umbundu or Beti or Yoruba

or Edo or Hausa or Izon or Ful or Igbo or, um, wow there are a lot of language in this

region. Anyway, the theory says that these languages mixed together with English when

they got to the US, creating a sort of hybrid language that, over many generations, became

more and more influenced by and similar too the English that white people spoke.

Both theories are probably true to an extent. AAVE is mostly English, but it also clearly

has at least some influence from African languages. In fact, there are a few words that General

American has picked up from AAVE that originate in Africa, like bogus, hip and cool. Exactly

how much influence came from which source at AAVEs birth is still an ongoing debate

in linguistics. Now Ive spent the majority of the video

so far talking about AAVE but I have yet to actually talk about what it sounds like or

what makes it different from General American English. Youve probably actually heard

it before, but a lot of people just assume that its just a series of mistakes and

miss-pronunciations when its actually just as rule-based and internally consistent as

General American. Phonologically, a couple big differences are

that in AAVE the THthandthsounds changed tot,” “f” “d

orvdepending on the context, and also consonant clusters that have a stop sound

as their second sound are often simplified, with the stop sound being dropped. So, “both

of us think that they well find the desk therewould become something along the

lines ofbouf of us tink dat well fin duh des der.” There are other differences

depending on the region, but those two are among the most widespread and I think the

most noticeable. But what people tend to notice way more then

differences in pronunciation in AAVE are its differences in grammar. AAVE will often sound

like its just dropping words all the time, but it does so in a very consistent pattern.

In General American English we have a habit of contracting words, for instance making

she is the oneintoshes the one.” But there are some circumstances where we

cant contract things, like we cant makeI dont think she isintoI dont

think shes.” Well, as a general rule of thumb, wherever General American can contract,

AAVE can delete. “she is the onebecomesshe duh one,” butI dont think

she iscant becomeI don tink she.” Another difference people tend to pick up

on is the fact that AAVE treats double negatives differently. In General AmericanI dont

have nonemeans that you do have some, but in AAVE it would mean that you dont

have any. In AAVE, multiple negatives reinforce each other, while in General American they

cancel each other out. I think its worth noting that all of the

things Ive talked about so far in AAVE arent unique to AAVE. Dropping linking

verbs happens all the time in languages besides English, like 我饿 meansI am hungry

in Chinese but there are only two words, it literally translates toI hungry,” and

the first part of the Muslim declaration of faith, “la ilaha illa allahword-for-word

translates tono god but Godbut meansthere is no god but god.” As for the

double negative thing, multiple negatives reinforcing each other actually used to be

the norm in English. Shakespeare and Chaucer would regularly say things likeNor never

none shall mistress be of it, save I aloneorHe nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde"

. . . um, well, it means something likehe never yet had no vileness said.” Unless

youre willing to say that everyone who speaks Chinese or Arabic as well as Shakespeare

and Chaucer are all doing it wrong, it doesnt make any sense to say that AAVE is wrong either.

But, Ive saved my favorite part for last. Most of what Ive talked about so far has

been about how AAVE simplifies things, reducing the number of possible sounds, shortening

consonant clusters, dropping words. But the AAVE tense system is arguably much more complicated

than that of General American English. When speakers of AAVE say things likehe be

workinpeople who dont speak AAVE often assume that this means the same thing ashe

is workinand theyre just not conjugating the verb. Buthe be workinis actually

a usage of whats called thehabitual be,” and it actually means something along

the lines ofhe works sometimesorhe is in the habit of workingorhe has

a job,” its a bit hard to translate, actually. Sohe be workincould actually

easily be true even if the person youre talking about happens to be at home right

now. Its an entire tense that just doesnt exist in other dialects of English! This is

probably my favorite example of how people are very quick to just write off others as

doing it wrong, but when we actually listen to each other and take a closer look at what

were saying we find that what looked at first like a simple error is actually just

another tool people use to express themselves, one we might not even have.

Linguistics often doesnt have much in the way of practical application. It can feel

a little like philosophy at times, interesting but not immediately relevant to much. But

the biggest practical lesson we can learn from linguistics is that everybodys speech

is just as rich and complicated and logical as our own, even if it doesnt look that

way at first, and that when some peoples speech is labeled correct while others

are labeled incorrect, its usually just because the people who speakcorrectly

also happen to be the ones making the rules. So when you hear someone say something that

sounds wrong to you, before you correct them, maybe take a moment to ask yourself if, instead

of a mistake, it might just be a different way of getting your ideas across that youd

never heard of before. In my experience, the world starts to look a lot more interesting

that way. Catch you guys in my next video!

The Description of The Linguistics of AAVE