OPINION: The Language of Black Culture: AAVE is not “stan language” or “bad english”


Elle Love

African American Vernacular English, a significant aspect of Black culture, is often misrepresented and appropriated on the internet. Illustration by Mars Nevada/The Gateway.

If you’re a regular social media user of any platform, specifically TikTok, you may have seen phrases like “Whew chile” and words like “thicc,” “snatched,” or “woke.” However, a controversial TikTok video by “Kombucha Girl” Brittany Tomlinson raised eyebrows for linking “black slang” to internet culture as a whole.

The video ignited an internet-wide conversation about the appropriation and use of African American Vernacular English, commonly known as AAVE.

“The Nicki Minaj thing, ‘The big boobs? Chile, anyway,’ that’s a meme, obviously,” Tomlinson said (where? To who?). “So, when someone is quoting that or when someone says ‘period,’ ‘sis,’ ‘snatch,’ all that, it’s very much like internet culture. Like stan twitter. Stan culture has its own language.”

Twitter users responded to Tomlinson’s video negatively. “AAVE is not stan culture or stan twitter language. It’s AAVE. Real black people talk like this in their real lives. It’s not a persona for some white teens to put on the internet,” said one Twitter user.

Another user said in a separate tweet, “AAVE comes from a collective ancestral experience. We were and still are made fun of when we use it and are labeled as ‘uneducated’ but when white people use it then it becomes trendy and cool and ‘gen z language’ we’re the only ones that suffer from the use of it.”

Tomlinson apologized on Twitter for not educating herself on AAVE and took the video down, but it sparked a conversation across social media platforms on if the use of AAVE by white influencers can be considered appropriation.

AAVE, more popularly known as “black slang” or Black English (BE), is a dialect of English spoken primarily, but not exclusively, by African Americans with different grammatical structure than Standardized English (SE). Although it was formerly recognized as a dialect before officially becoming its own set of language, it is not common knowledge according to British-American linguist, Geoffrey K. Pullum in a research thesis.

In a 5 question poll on The Gateway’s Instagram story on Aug. 17, 29 out of 53 people said they didn’t know what the abbreviation AAVE stood for. However, 31 out of 41 people voted “yes” when asked if they considered AAVE to be part of a dialect or language.

UNO Black Studies Professor John Jackson also agreed that the dialect has become more socially acceptable due to the marketable value in popular culture from social circles.

“The language that came with R&B and Hip Hop is African American Vernacular English, and so that permeates through all of these cultures and ethnicities worldwide,” Jackson said.

UNO English Professor Frank Bramlett, Ph. D., agreed. He said historically, blues and rock n’ roll bands like the Rolling Stones have used AAVE in their lyrics. One example is the band’s 1971 track, “You Gotta Move” where it lifts its lyrics from an old African American Spiritual: “You gotta move, you gotta move, child,/ Oh, when the Lord gets ready,/ You gotta move.”

“Now with social media, we see that African American people have the platform to claim their own cultural creations and they have the ability to call people out when those folks are borrowing inappropriately,” Bramlett said.

Even though AAVE has been popularized thanks to two of the most universal music genres, Hip Hop and R&B, it was previously negatively connotated as “bad English,” “ghetto talk” or called a “blaccent” because language determinism argues that it doesn’t follow the rules of standardized English.

In another question on The Gateway’s Instagram poll, 37 out of 45 people voted yes when asked if they have ever been corrected in school for using “incorrect or improper language.”

Jackson said he knows colleagues who use AAVE frequently, but switch to Standardized English when in a public setting.

“I’m an English teacher who has to regulate how I speak AAVE regularly. If I speak it in an academic setting, people may question my credibility” Jackson said.

Bramlett says the stigmatization of AAVE can be traced back to the issue of racism in the United States.

“In sociolinguistics, we would often say when people have a prejudice against a language system, what they really have is a prejudice against people who are speaking it,” Bramlett said.

However, the grammar of AAVE is not “incorrect” or “improper,” but instead has grammatical rules that set it apart from standardized English. This includes the use of double negatives found commonly in major languages like Spanish and French, according to University of Pennsylvania professor Taylor Jones in his blog.

AAVE has set patterns. It has rules and structures to it, and that was the argument for opening it up in public schools at the time. They wanted others to know there was a structure to this, Jackson said.

“The language determinism of AAVE contributes to perception of low intelligence or academic prowess,” Jackson said. There’s a need to establish structure and anything that you want to be considered as valid or anything you want to validate in the eyes of society, especially in a society where language, creations, and the contributions of a particular culture is always seen as subpar,” Jackson said.

Even though there are historically racist implications behind the stigmatization of AAVE, there are also nonblack people that grew up around the usage of the language, which can bring up the question of authenticity. Who gets to decide who can use AAVE?

“How do you police that?” Jackson asked. “Just because somebody knows how to use it, I can’t tell how someone talks because of the people they hang around versus how they are trying to use it to maintain or gain some type of credibility.”

When rapper Eminem releases his rap music, using African American English in his lyrics, is that an authentic usage of African American English? Bramlett ponders this question.

“Some people say yes, some people say no, but the larger question of folks growing up in the community and speaking African American English because it’s the language that they heard, that’s very common in the United States,” Bramlett said.

One participant from The Gateway story poll said sometimes the rules of appropriation are unclear. They mentioned both their family members use a similar southern dialect while being around friends who also use it in an urban setting.

So how can you appreciate AAVE without appropriating it?

Bramlett said if students are interested in learning more, they can sign up for AAVE Linguistics offered on-campus in the spring along with classes in Black studies to learn more about Black history and literature. He added that learning about culture in college can provide an academic perspective

“You learn to ask thoughtful questions and your professor will give you thoughtful answers. Normally it’s a safe space where can risk asking questions that you normally wouldn’t ask out of the classroom for meaningful dialog,” Bramlett said.

As a Black person, I can’t police anyone using a certain language because I am not an expert in who grew up around African American English and who didn’t. For those who didn’t, it is appreciated as a Black person that you learn the historical impact of AAVE as an official language and NOT a language created by “stan twitter.”

However, if you are a nonblack person who uses AAVE, it does not give you the universal pass to use the n-word in any context.