Editor’s Note: The following series, “Language and Culture in New Orleans,” is a week-long series curated by Lucien Mensah as part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.
This curation of articles was created to recognize the deep ties with AAVE and Black culture into the mainstream and point out the linguistic influence within New Orleans and bring recognition to it. AAVE, or African American Vernacular English, is a dialect of American English molded by Black people’s experiences during slavery, as various communities of Africans were brought to the Americas. As AAVE terms become popular online, many non-black people use and appropriate these terms with little knowledge about where they are from or what they mean to their native speech community. As each article this week is presented, readers are encouraged to think about their vocabulary and whether AAVE is actively used – and are you aware of the words you’re using that might be “slang”?
According to linguists at The University of Hawaii, AAVE grew during “processes of second language acquisition” among slaves. “West Africans newly arrived on plantations would have limited access to English grammatical models because the number of native speakers was so small (just a few indentured servants on each plantation).” This highlights how crucial it was for survival and allows us to understand the origins that can perpetuate the interpretations of AAVE today.
Linguist Geoffrey Pullam wrote that most speakers of standard English think AAVE is “just a badly spoken version of their language, marred by a lot of ignorant mistakes in grammar and pronunciation” used by “an ignorant urban underclass.” This assumption is incorrect but perpetuated in many modern linguistics courses about New Orleans dialect (the categorization of upper-class New Orleans dialect, lower-class New Orleans dialect, and Black New Orleans dialect is a clear-cut sample of that). As we move into the modern-day, we continue to see how AAVE is popularized due to the mainstream of hip-hop. Still, the original ownership of AAVE is continuously ignored as aspects of the dialect move into a higher prestige.
bell hooks emphasizes the importance of AAVE as “a counter-hegemonic speech.” She writes that rap music is a space “where black vernacular speech . . . invites mainstream culture to listen — to hear — and, to some extent, be transformed”. AAVE has a hold a substantial, necessary cultural space for this speech community. bell hooks is wary of non-black people who will and have appropriated AAVE, as social media obscures AAVE’s context and remains culturally incompetent. Thus, many white internet users believe that words that genuinely belong to AAVE are just “internet slang” and completely erases a rich history of people and the oppression that they have faced.
There is danger in not understanding the cultural and historical significance of the words you use, and those who have been historically hurt and thrown under the bus. Black people and creators have had their knowledge and ways of speaking to survive stolen from them for clout, for fame, without an ounce of credit. With that in mind, this curation seeks to not only remind the readers of the rich linguistic community around them but to inspire change where the “norms” are not taken as truth but questioned, challenged, and changed.
Babbel.com, and Lesson Nine GmbH. “Is It Cultural Appropriation To Use Drag Slang And AAVE?” Babbel Magazine, www.babbel.com/en/magazine/cultural-appropriation-drag-slang-aave.
“History of the English Language at the U of S.” RSS, words.usask.ca/helus/2020/01/21/linguistic-appropriation-aave/.
Shakeri, Sima. “These Were 2018’s Hottest Slang Words – But Should You Use Them?” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Canada, 31 Dec. 2018, www.huffingtonpost.ca/2018/12/30/2018-slang-words-appropriation_a_23629985/.
Team, Feminuity. “Using Black Vernacular English (BVE) as a Non-Black Person Isn’t ‘Woke’ If You Don’t Understand the History.” Feminuity, Feminuity, 10 Feb. 2020, www.feminuity.org/blog/using-bve-as-a-non-black-person-is-appropriation.