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African American vernacular English

The United States is home to a wide range of dialects.

One of them is African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Like any other dialect, it comes with its own vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation rules, and some of those features are actually shared with other dialects and languages. Here are a few examples:

— R-lessness in words like poor and sore, which is also typical of British, Boston, and New York City English

— TH as d sound, which also occurs in Boston and New York City: that – dat, them – dem

— Highly stigmatized aks instead of ask: coming from Old English ascian, aks was an accepted form until 1600 and used in both Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the first complete English translation of the Bible, the Coverdale Bible: Axe and it shall be given.

— Omission of is/are: she happy, they hungry, as in American Sign Language, Chinese, and Japanese

— Habitual be: She be workin’ in the bookstore. (= she always works there) vs. She workin’ in the bookstore. (= she is working there right now)

— Ain’t was widespread as a proper contraction until the early 19th century and is still widely used in North America and Britain, despite being highly stigmatized

— Double negatives: Ain’t nobody here. Spanish and French also use double negatives, and so did Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Although AAVE is perfectly systematic, it is stigmatized as broken English and is associated with poor education.

Therefore, many African Americans grow up switching between AAEV and Standard American English (SAE).

Just think about how Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey would appear if they spoke AAVE instead of SAE in public.

Ironically, SAE, too, is a dialect — but of the white population. So which dialect is worthy of being used in schools, politics, workplaces, and the media ultimately depends on a country’s dominant group.

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