Introduction to American 'Black English'
'Black English' is commonly featured in popular music, is often
stereotyped in television serials and popular film, and is abundantly
present in 'reality' media and on the internet. Yet what is 'Black
English'? Who speaks it? When do they speak it? What stereotypical or
caricatured associations does it often have? What is the reality?
Black English (or, African-American Vernacular English, or the
African-American Variety of English [AAVE], or Black English
Variant [BEV], or 'Ebonics' [derived from 'Black English
phonetics']) is recognized as a distinct sub-language with its own
syntactical structure. BE is based on West African grammatical patterns
with superimposed English vocabulary (thus forming a "pidgin"). Black
English is derived from (and thus in part reflects) the 'central
African-American cultural experience'; it is a social dialect of the
Related to the study of Black English is the linguistic relationships
between Black Americans and other U.S. racial and ethnic groups. What
terms can be used by whom, and when; how are such relationships continuing
- Black English is not spoken by all Blacks, or at least not by all
Blacks all the time (cf. "code-switching" between BE and standard,
"educated" English). As depicted in American Tongues,
there may be 'expectations' by some in the black community for all blacks
to use Black English to not 'appear to be something they are not' [e.g.
- Black English is not a 'corrupted form' of SAE; while like any
language it is continually evolving, it has standard syntactic rules.
- Certain features of BE may be employed, at least in part, also by
non-Blacks, as words, phrases and forms of speech cross over into SAE, or
white rappers expand traditionally 'black' art forms to a more general
- BE is basically Southern regional in stereotype,
but not regionally confined (cf. northern urban variants), nor confined to
Blacks-only within the South (cf. Southern white use).
- BE differs between rural and urban locations, according to the need
for vocabulary, environmental references, and pressure of social
- BE often functions as an "in-group lingo" to denote group
(cf. American Tongues and suburban black father), or "fool
Whitey." Even where it is not the intention, BE often cannot be
easily understood by SAE speakers (see Lexical
Differences Between BE and SAE and Judge Calls Rap a Foreign
Language, as well as the excerpt
[YouTube] from the TV series Weeds).
- BE tends to be highly figurative, metaphorical, rhythmic, and
often melodic, reflecting various aspects of the Black American oral
tradition (see excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King's 28 August 1963
'I Have a Dream' speech [WAV] at
the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (cf. Barack Obama's 04
November 2008 Victory Speech
[MP3]), vs. 'Talking the Blues').
- BE differs substantially from the speech patterns of SAE (see How Black and White Styles of Communication
Differ [PPT]), and misunderstanding or even conflict can emerge
as a consequence of this difference. As with any other 'different'
language form ['hillbilly' for example] the differences are often
Ebonics' or the 2010 'viral' Antoine Dodson 'Bed
Intruder' clip (and one of its parodic
versions) [all via YouTube]
- BE is increasingly being encountered in literature and
drama as 'authentic' speech of Black American history
(see examples of Black English in American
literature by Alice
James Baldwin and
- Urban variants of BE, which have their own distinctive jargons
(highly male-oriented, dismissive of females, concerned about
violence, crime and poverty, etc.) are also prominent in contemporary
rap music (cf. Ice Cube's How to Survive in
Purpose of US-1 Handling of BE/BEV/AAVE
- Recognition of certain features as referring to BE or other aspects
of Black American culture and not merely "substandard" (cf. John
Steinbeck's Of Mice
and Men, for example) while recognizing that some aspects of BE have
been absorbed by SAE.
- Recognition of two commonly-employed stereotypes:
- poor economic class, often rural, mostly Southern; although
also urban 'inner city' throughout the country;
- or, quite the opposite, to indicate "Black cultural pride," in
which case the stereotype is usually urban rather than rural, northern
rather than southern, and not "poor" or "uneducated." 'Code-switching'
would be characteristic of this group.
- Recognition of "loaded" terms and cultural sensitivities of
Black Americans to certain expressions, particularly the "n-word"
WHAS television news clip on the 'N-word' (Louisville, Kentucky)
[YouTube] (although see also A Finnish
Student's Encounter With 'Nigga' in Los Angeles).
- Recognition of the distinctive discourse style of BE compared with
SAE, and how this can be problematic for communication between those who
are not aware of the other speech style.
- Recognition of the different ethnic stereotyping of BE speakers
compared to the ethnic German, Spanish, or Yiddish influences, among
Black vs White Cultural History and Recent Linguistic 'Progression'
- Slave-history pattern: Whites as masters, bosses, superiors;
blacks as slaves, servants...
- In the slavery and post-slavery years, conformity, or at
least apparent conformity, were necessary for survival;
- All aspects of "blackness" were de-emphasized during this
period; straightened hair, "yellow" skin favored
- Black Equality movement in the 1960s. With "survival"
assured, "Blackness" is now emphasized for cultural and political
identity: Afro hairdos, dashikis, and open usage of "Black
- The 'Ebonics' controversy from 1996 onwards, and examples of
prevailing non-Black attitudes toward BE (see Howard Stern's 'Ebonics' Interview [MP3] with
D.H. Hughley and this excerpt
from the 1980s film Airplane on
'Jive' Talk (see also the actress Barbara
Billingsley on the background of her 'jive' talk) [all via YouTube],
'Delta Airlines Ebonics' spoof 'advertisement'
- Certain aspects of BE now increasingly being adopted by corporate
American for advertising purposes, or reflected in white 'hip' speech.
Budweiser"Wassup" Commercial [YouTube] and 'Grannies' followup
[YouTube], plus 'Axing' A Few Questions
About Black Vernacular).
Black/White Racial Reference Terms ("loaded," pejorative,
- Negroid, Negro, "nigger," colored, Black, Afro-American, African-American, (more recently even
"African African-Americans") and the PC term 'people of color'
- 'Coons, spades, jungle bunnies,
Mau-maus, Rastus & Liza,
- Also sensitivity to 'false cognates' such as 'tar baby' (folkloristic) and 'niggardly' (from Norwegian), and recently
even with terms like 'articulate' (cf. Barack Obama, 2007)
Examples of Terms for Blacks, Used Only by Blacks
- blood, boot, member
- Oreo, color-struck
- Tom. Uncle Tom, Uncle Thomas. Dr.
Thomas. Aunt Thomasina (Uncle Tom's Cabin)
- Sam (Little Black Sambo)
Examples of Black terms for Whites
Examples of Terms Blacks Find Offensive; often used by whites in
- "boy" (cf. Dodge Challenger ad with Southern 'Sheriff'), "gal"
- you people, you folks...
- you're as good as we are ....
- plus white use of first names to address unfamiliar black people
Terms Referring to Food and Drink
- brew, pluck, "Q" (barbeque, "ribs" only...)
- chitlins (chitterlings), greens...
- grits (generically for "food," as well as hominy
Terms Referring to Clothes and Dress
- rags, glad rags ("Glad Rag Doll..."
[Johnnie Ray, 1953, YouTube])
- threads (cf "threadbare")
- clean (dressed up)
- strides, kicks (shoes in general)
- Amen corner, show some sign, bear witness
- 'dead' (non-responsive people in church services:
"Dem sho 'nuff sum de'd folks ober at dat dere church ...")
- that's all she wrote
- what's your bag
- down home (We goin' down home next year)
- like to (almost do something) "Momma like to drop the baby..."
- shuckin' and jivin', to jive someone, "jive talk," to "psych out"
US-1 References Index
US-1 Class Schedule
Last Updated 06 April 2013