The Rules? of African American Language

I’m ‘a get my eat on!
Is the above sentence following any grammatical rules? 

I’ve been thinking recently about the way we black folks speak.  Some of us don’t speak the same english as those who speak that other english.  Our english is particular to us.  Does that make it “sub-standard”?
I recently posted an article that explains a bit about a type of black American english that was spoken by the Gullah people of the Sea Islands of South Carolina.  It was determined that the language they spoke was a creole language, with a combination of West African pidgin english, West African indigenous languages, standard english, and french.   Because the people of the Sea Islands were isolated from the mainland for centuries, they were able to maintainand their creole language since the days of slavery when they first developed it.  What stands out to me is the brilliance of those who created this language in the midst of the trauma of slavery.

As the Gullah/Geechee people were integrated into the mainstream, they were socialized to see their language as a broken down, ignorant version of standard english and were discouraged from speaking it.   They were forced to speak standard english in school and in many cases, and over time, this beautiful creole language, which has been a testament of our identity has slowly disappeared–sadly, it’s being eradicated, a part of our black history that will never be known again.

Since black people have been in the Americas, we have gone through too much to mention concerning our identity.  We don’t always understand the truth of who we are.  We have accepted propaganda to a large degree that we are a broken, pathos filled people.  We don’t trust or believe in ourselves.  We believe that somehow, we just ain’t quite right.

Thankfully, this negative self concept can be changed, if we put in the necessary work.  It’s a life long and worthwhile endeavor to deconstruct and deprogram all of the centuries of negative propaganda that has been forced on us.  It’s hard work but the emotional freedom is worth every minute one spends doing the work–each victory translates into more freedom as a human being.  I get to have self respect as I live my life.  That’s pretty cool, IMHO.

There is a sister, Dr. Lisa J. Green  is busy doing this hard work on the academic level.  She’s Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts,  Amherst, and Director of the Center for the Study of African American Language, and has done extensive research on so-called “black english” also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE)  aka Ebonics or black slang.   She has written a couple of books on this subject entitled, Language and the African American Child, and African American English, a Linguistic Introduction .  She also lectures and does presentations.

We tend to think of our black language as just a broken down version of standard english, which others have based on our profound ignorance, our utter inability to get it right, or our inherent penchant for butchering the language.  But what Dr. Green has found is that AAVE actually has its own closely followed grammatical rules which do not follow Standard english rules.  Imagine that!

What Dr. Lisa J Green describes in the above presentation is the grammatical rules of AAVE are different from those of Standard English, and are more closely related to West African and black Creole language structures that the enslaved Africans brought with them and imposed upon the new European languages they were forced to learn.  Far fetched, hunh?

Black folks have held on to many of our “Africanisms“, and the language structure of AAVE is an example of that.  Interestingly, everywhere this type of black creole language structuring happens, no matter which European language this phenomenon is superimposed, the black people are ridiculed for being ignorant because of our speech patterns, and we are stigmatized for simply being our African selves.

In this article I wanted to highlight, once again, our coping mechanisms despite the hardships we deal with.  Even though we may have difficulty believing that we are genius people, our disbelief doesn’t negate the truth of the statement.  We simply are genius. We prove it time and time again.

24 Comments Add yours

  1. Reggie says:

    I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, but I actually live in a suburb of Charleston, South Carolina called Summerville. I live approx. 25 miles from downtown Charleston.

    The Gullah/Geechee presence is prevalent here in the Lowcountry. Their restaurants are here and there and it’s not uncommon to see them downtown on Market Street peddling their wares. They weave some of the most beautiful grass baskets you’ve ever seen. They’re beautiful and very expensive.

    In this area it’s damned near impossible to go a week without hearing the Gullah/Geechee dialect.

    1. Anna Renee says:

      No, you haven’t told me! How cool! So do you know any Gullah words? Have you heard of Queen Quet, who’s the keeper of the Gullah culture?

  2. Reggie says:

    Nah I don’t know any Gullah words, but that accent is unmistakeable. And no, I’m not familiar with Queen Quet.

  3. Melzie says:

    Anna Renee, this is a very informative post. My maternal lineage has been traced back to Beaufort, SC which is surrounded by the islands you’ve written about. The crazy thing is that I’ve vacationed there many times (Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach) but it wasn’t until recently that I knew of my fam origin. There’s a Gullah festival each year, I need to get back down there for that.

    We also learned our lineage loosely tracks back to a school started in Aiken SC to educate freed slaves back in 1866. We are a culturally rich, knowledgeable and talented people…if only we would embrace it and each other.

    You’ve reminded me that I have some research to do :-).

    1. Anna Renee says:

      Isn’t that something? You’re a Gullah Geechee girl! Those people were North America’s maroons! They lived in isolation in those Sea Islands for decades after slavery and survived quite nicely, until THEY came and messed errrthang up!
      Imagine if some brute was to come into your home and snatch you away, and put you with other people who spoke another language and you were left to survive.

      This is a very simplistic analogy, but our black ancestors were so brutalized! Taken from their land and placed in another land to work–with no pay! And on top of it all, with people who don’t speak their language!
      What do the Gullah people do? They create a NEW language! Using each others words! This to me is absolutely amazing!

  4. James McCoy says:

    Trying all of our lives to be like white folks seems to have forced many of us to discard what has brought many of us a mighty long way! Excellent post!

    1. Anna Renee says:

      In the video above, Dr. Lisa Green asks the question that has been asked about us black folks:
      Why do we continue to speak this black english–this AAVE? Then she answers her question: part of the reason is because of identity. It’s a part of our culture.

      The old guy in the video of the gullah people said that he can speak both languages but still have problems with standard english.
      I like what the old lady says though: “They ridiculed us for speaking our gullah language, but the language we speak is our language! They don’t ridicule the Japanese–they don’t speak english! They don’t ridicule the French–they don’t speak english! But they ridicule us Gullah for speaking our language! Our language is our language!”

  5. lin says:

    Hey, Sista West-siiiiiide:

    Methinks in some cases it IS ‘sub-standard,’ and in others it’s just Different. Notice I tend to use ‘methinks’? I do that quite often. It’s from very Shakespeare-eques, from the Elizabethean period, and it amuses me. It doesn’t sound very ‘black’, does it? And that’s my point. We embrace many difference tongues, and a plethora of communication techniques, and while some are specific to a people, a region, or one’s amount of education, etc, most are in some ways, valid, as long as we can understand the speaker’s communication skill.

    My father was from VA, and a more country-talking man you’d never meet. Said things all ass-backwards, would pronounce common words in his OWN uniquely country-azz way, which was often mad embarrassing! Trust. Example: the word ‘fish,’ he pronounced as “FEEESH.” He was known to say “years” when most folks said “EARS!”… I could go on & on. But, after he passed, I discovered a crazy thing. A LOT of what he said or how he pronounced it was actually more English-sounding (as in British) than American-speak. So, either someone TAUGHT him to speak that way, or those words and rhythms were inducted into his mindset as a youth (perhaps by a southern white teacher of English descent?).

    Somewhere on the boat my ancestors traveled on to get here, or wherever they originally landed, certain speech patterns, dialects, accents and pronounications were DIFFERENT than what we know and accept as today’s English.

    Doesn’t make something right or wrong, so much as it makes it historic. Smell me?


    1. Anna Renee says:

      Brother, when you say “Methinks”, your flavor is all over that thing! Shakespeare ain’t got nothing on you, even if he said it first!

      It’s because we are natural wordsmiths and language is in our blood! In all the countries of Africa, the number of languages black people speak is mind boggling! And we just don’t stop!
      My husband is from Nigeria, and he speaks his own Igbo language, their own pidgin english, their own version of standard british english, and now he’s quite fluent in African American English–the slang phrases we use and he’s able to keep up even when the language keeps morphing and new words and phrases are added!

      It’s a beautiful, strange thing to listen to a Nigerian speak African American slang with their accents!

      Strangely, he refuses to learn to speak standard white American english! I listen to him on the phone talking to his bank and certain white folks can’t understand his thick accent. I tell him he needs to try to reduce his accent and he says they need to try to understand him!! We Black Folks Is Jus a mess!!!
      But when I played my Spanish tapes, his ears perked up trying to learn, and he loves throwing around the few words in Chinese that he knows–have Chinese people tripping! He loves that!

      He must feel an identity thing which makes him resist learning standard white american english! I kinda like that about him, somehow!! 😉

    2. Anna Renee says:

      My Louisiana folks were the same way! I was embarassed a little by their pronounciations, but I got over it when I got older.

      I know a Yoruba man who add an “h” sound before certain words that begin with a vowel like ears–he pronounce it “hears”. But interestingly, he drop the “h” sound of other words that start with an “h”!! We Americans drop the h sound in the word honest, but Nigerians pronounce that h sound in honest!

      And Jamaican people do this too, because I’ve heard it in alot of reggae music I listen to. In addition to that, Jamaicans will add an extra letter to some words so that they pronounce the word “can” “cyan”–but even this has a rule because certain other words starting with the letter “c” this is not done with!
      It’s all so complex and beautiful.

      Your Dad was a wordsmith, boo!

  6. Val says:

    Also I think that some of the language that we have used was a way for us to communicate without Whites knowing what we were saying, code if you will. That’s why I’ve always respected Black English as it was a mechanism that helped us survive.

    1. Anna Renee says:

      That’s most definitely true! Especially during slavery times! We needed to speak in code to plan escapes and other such things, like killing master and what not!

      We used code by singing certain hymns that told us plans, and we used quilts as code as well. We found ways to talk, even beyond spoken words!!

      Shall I say it again? We are Genius.

  7. lin says:

    Yup, Sista. Complex is RIGHT! LOL. But definitely beautiful, too. It’s sad that we often have to mature to fully appreciate the intricate ways of our own mystery & multitudinous beauty.

    Also, now that you mention it, methinks my upstairs neighbors might well be Nigerian. ll I know for sure is that it’s African. I can detect the sounds inherent in certain African tongues. Like when I HEAR it, I know if something is Swahili. They speak in a strange-sounding dialect. It’s either Igbo, or perhaps a close-cousin of it. They way they communicate w/ each other is almost in a kind of pig-latin/ fractured english code that seems as if it’s a private ‘just us’ thing.

    Language fascinates me, and I have my people(s) to blame for it. After the way they spoke stopped being amusing, or confusing, & after it ceased to be embarrassing, it sorta became intriguing to me, because I KNOW there’s a history and a reason for it. So while I once saw it as ig’nit, in reality, the ignorance was really my own, back then.

    And yeah our Jamaican brethren are also remarkable w/ the things they do w/ speech, like their patois curses, & the way they drop their h’s. One of my longest laughs in high school history was hearing a Jamaican brotha speak on one of the more hellion-type Sista’s whose name was ‘HELEN Jones.’

    He said: “Ah mon! Dat ‘ELLEN Jones! She’s a MONSTA!”

    I thought I’d die from laughing at that ish!

    Anyway, here’s another lingo fo ya:

    Upendo Ni Umoja!

    (Love Is Unity!)


    1. Anna Renee says:

      Of all the black accents I’ve heard, the Jamaican accent and pronunciation is the most beautiful!! A Jamaican man speaking in my ear could steal me away from my husband! Just kidding!! Don’t tell him I said that.

      With Nigerian folks, there are about 5 or 6 native languages they speak. Also they speak pidgin english which is spoken overall. So Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa people can speak to each other in the pidgin english.

      Then there is the standard british/African english, which is not like standard american english–we can understand it, but we can hear how it flows differently, it’s more formal than American english. Where they would say something like “please enter this house” we would say, “please come in to the house” and like that.

  8. Johnny says:

    I believe anyone can do the things THEY themselves need to do to accomplish any and every goal that a person could think of. Falling for the old ways of doing things and believing this is the only way that there is just doesn’t work in todays world.

    Those who make it are free thinkers who challenge the status quo and do the hard work that it takes to be successful.

  9. Love this post. I think in general we as a people value the spoken word highly and it is a sign of intelligence among us to be creative with it. I think that is one of the reasons hip hop is so powerful (whether we like the actual messages or not). And I think that is why so many of our dialects are so beautiful.

    It doesn’t mean you should not learn the “standard” English. But, there is great power in appreciating what you and what others before you have created.

    1. Anna Renee says:

      We do treasure the spoken word and that is in our blood! But because we do it so differently than the dominant culture, we automatically are branded as ignorant. Because for them, their way is normative and all other ways are broken or substandard or whatever.

      1. RBB85 says:

        In the Netherlands you have a standard version of Dutch. It’s basically the dialect I speak. I’m from the most urbanized part of the Netherlands, which is were the most economic activity takes places.

        The ones who have the power will always regard their way of speaking as superior to other dialects. Linguistically this doesn’t make any sense, but socio-politically it does.

        In a book called the yoruba diaspora in the atlantic world one chapter is devoted to the comparison of Jamaican Patois and Surinames Sranantongo. Quite interesting, but I read it about two and half years ago already….

        1. Anna Renee says:

          Thanks so much for the link!

  10. JeffThompson says:

    This is just a twisted way to justify ghetto speak. Why do so many people want to try and help blacks by lowering their exam scores to achieve, or to discriminate against other by giving the poor black another hand up with affirmative action, or to create “hate crime” laws to further push whites closer to the back of the hypothetical bus. I am not saying this is a sign of low intelligence but it does create a barrier to assimilation. Look at the British blacks, they assimilate quite well into British society, but the Muslims are looked on with disdain because even after a couple of generations; Muslims still speak English – like Muslims.

    Blacks are stigmatized, thought of as ghetto, thought of with suspect, maybe even of low intelligence by some, because they talk English with what most whites see as incompetence in America. I would not even want to hire someone that talks with what I have termed a Ghetto accent.

    Tell Blacks to assimilate as other cultures and they will most likely achieve their so-called “Martin Luther King” Dream of which I as a white do not celebrate.

    What White can celebrate another culture’s accomplishments when due to social engineering the white is treated like the new “nigger”. Every government run institution celebrate Black History Month, Asian, or Hispanic week – yet the poor white of European descent cannot celebrate White History or even European history because that is not part of the “push whitey to the back of the bus” agenda.

    Blacks will never achieve superiority in numbers in America because Whites know damn well what will happen to them. When blacks outnumber whites in a work setting, they will be very discriminatory towards whites. Black bosses and supervisors will favor their black counterparts.

    Blacks do not want to achieve anything themselves, they want to only take what has been built up for generations by whites. It is the Liberal whites that gave America black civil rights, and South Africa its so-called freedom. That meant for whites stolen land, very horrendous discrimination, and very socialistic engineering by these respective governments.

    The Civil War was about States Rights, not slavery. Lincoln started on about the issue of slavery to try anything to keep Union of States together and thus Federal power. The Confederate States of America has in its Charter to abolish slavery more slowly so that the Southern Economy would not be horrifically disrupted and bankrupted.

    One other thing Black Soul Food is in reality another thing you blacks have stolen from whites, that being Southern Fried Cooking.

    No, I will never appreciate the black man or woman till they speak like the rest of Americans, stop killing so many whites, stop getting hooked on and selling drugs while getting whites hooked on the drugs they sell. Blacks will be by whites when they do not have liberal whites fighting their legitimacy for them with socially engineered programs like affirmative action and Welfare.

    Instead of the Jews, Hitler should have tried to exterminate the Negroes, society and the world would have not missed the black leeches of this world.

    1. Anna Renee says:

      If you say so, Jeff.

  11. RBB85 says:


    If you say people should speak the standardized version of the dominant language I completely agree, but the rest is just complete bullshit. I really tried hard to read it like you weren’t racist, but I didn’t succeed.

    You say British Blacks assimilate quite well into british society and further on you say I will never appreciate the black man or woman till they speak like the rest of Americans.

    Where are you from? Cause you can’t be living in two countries. So if your British shut up about the American reality. And if your American don’t make statements about British society. Just cause your white doesn’t mean your British and American at the same time.

    By the way the article isn’t even about race it’s identity and linguistics. If you, Jeff, were part of minorty wouldn’t you want to express your identity through language? Do you know well white people integrate when they become expats in Africa? They actually don’t at all, they just hang out with all the other white expats and have black nannies and housekeepers.

    Linguistically speaking the way they talk in American ghettos could just as well be the standard english in America. It’s all about power, if power were reversed you would have to assimilate and talk like the socio-economically weak do now. Do you see the problem there? Try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes before you judge them.

    You say the poor white of European descent cannot celebrate White History or even European history, but in fact isn’t everyday already White history day? It’s a question wich I don’t know the answer too, but in the Netherlands they don’t even teach us about slavery. We had history classes about second world war and the cold war and off course Dutch national history. But they forget to teach us about what we (the Dutch) did in Idonesia or in the West Indies. That’s why I can’t stand this whole being proud of being white bullshit. If I turn the television on I see white people so why do we don’t need to have a white history week here.

    In the Netherlands you have a celebration called Keti Koti, they remember the day the slaves chains were broken. Black people are underrepresented in the media, so why shouldn’t they be able to have their black history week, Keti Koti or whatever. If they weren’t underrepresented in the media maybe “they” wouldn’t need it.

    Furthermore you said if black people were the majority they would discriminate white people, but does that mean we (me being white as well) should discriminate “them . If we build society together so prejudice based on skin tone doesn’t matter, does it then really matter who is the majority and who is a minority?

    Last thing, you say they are thought of as being ghetto and stigmatized. But are there only thugs living in ghettos? Aren’t they people too? Who is actually doing the stigmatizing? Does that not mean that we should fight our own prejudices? Jeff take it personally look at yourself, don’t stigmatize be aware of your prejudices. Prejudices can help but they can also make you forget about the human aspect.

    (I don’t really want to put) Kind regards (here),


    Anna Renee,

    I’ve known about this photographer for quit some time. Just wanted to share this with you. She depicts four stereotypes of african american black females in this photoseries, based on a song by Nina Simone.

    (I have absolutely no problem putting) With Love (here),

  12. nicole says:

    Good information. We need more articles like this. …empowering and it promotes self love

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