Black Vernacular English: How the Slave Trade Influenced Language

Black Vernacular English (BVE), also known as Afro-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Ebonics, is a variety of the English Language. It is most commonly seen as a dialect spoken in certain parts of the United States with large African influence, as well as areas of the UK such as East London in the form of Multicultural London English (MLE). A dialect refers to a variant which has distinctive lexical and syntactical differences from Standard English spoken in a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent, as well as having phonological alterations from the RP ‘norm’. As I will later analyse, BVE certainly differs from Standard English in these ways, and can therefore be classed as a dialect.

The English arrived in America in 1620, taking with them thousands of Africans who were to be used as slaves. They favoured inhabitants of Western Africa probably due to geographical convenience, as it was desirable to minimise the time that the Africans were packed into ships where many died of starvation and thirst. The black slaves worked in the American plantations, particularly in southern states such as Georgia and South Carolina where there was an abundance of crops such as cotton and sugar, as well as Caribbean islands such as Barbados. The leading theory behind the rise of BVE asserts that African slaves who spoke the same language were kept apart to prevent slave revolts, meaning that English was often the slaves’ only common language. Rather than speaking Standard American English, the slaves would use a language that incorporated both English and West African linguistic features. I find this very believable, as concentrated linguistic variation is still common in Africa with over 300 languages spoken in Nigeria alone.

A creole is a linguistically simple means of communication, hence making it perfect for the job of allowing thousands of slaves to speak to one another with ease. They originate as pidgins, that is, a marginal language created by people who need to communicate but have no common language (in this case, the slave owners and the slaves). When later generations learn a pidgin as their main language, it becomes a creole. The lexical, syntactical and phonological features of creoles make them easy to learn and use. In this case, the African creole is distinct through its use of reduplication, which helps to extend its limited vocabulary. For example, “ile” refers to a “hill,” while “ileile” describes a choppy sea. Similarly, reiterated words are used to intensify meanings and create an emphasis. That is to say, “smal” describes an object as “small,” whilst “smalsmal” labels it “very small.”

Further increasing the simplicity of Afro-American creole, there are no plural forms, so context is relied upon to convey pluralisation. However, Atlantic varieties of creole employ the fragment “dem” immediately after a noun to indicate that there is more than one of it. Returning to African creole, third person singular pronouns are not marked for gender; the pronoun “i” covers all of the third person pronouns; “he,” “she” and “it”. Again, verbs are not marked for tense, instead auxiliaries such as “did” or “been,” along with creole words such as “baibai” (indicating something is happening in the future) and “pinish” (indicating that something has happened in the past) helped speakers express when an action took place. The main grammatical feature of African creole that is still present today in Multicultural London English is multiple negation, which is one of those features that prescriptivists tell you to avoid at all costs because it doesn’t technically make sense. Personally, I think the reason why one should avoid using them is because it leads people to think you are uneducated, and can lead to discrimination in a situation such as applying for a job, highlighting the negative connotations of BVE (which I will discuss later in this essay).

Afro-American creole also has multiple distinct phonological features, such as the simplification of consonant clusters at the end of words, so that “asked” would become /aːst/. The /θ/ phoneme is not produced at all, and is instead replaced by /t/ or /f/ sounds. This is the first known instance of “-th fronting”, a stigmatic form which is commonly seen today in MLE, as well as cockney. Finally, /r/ is deleted in intervocalic and final positions, so words such as “hearing” would be pronounced as /hiːjɪŋ/.

Today, Black Vernacular English is an anti-language. That is to say, it is used as a challenge to the authority of society’s accepted channels of communication, spoken by those who are on the edges of society, both legally and financially. Sara Thorne argued that “the use of an alternative to the accepted standard reinforces group identity and emphasises that the users are outsiders”. This causes people who don’t necessarily come from a background of working class black Americans to downwardly converge and mirror the speech of those who do. George Yule labeled certain features of AAVE as stigmatized “bad language.” He argues that “although AAE speakers continue to experience the effects of discrimination, their social dialect often has covert prestige among younger speakers in other social groups, particularly with regard to popular music, and certain features of AAE may be used in expressions of social identity by many who are not African American.

In terms of its distinct features, modern day BVE/MLE is not too dissimilar from the Afro-American creole spoken in the 17th century, although the language has clearly developed. Speakers have created countless words, as well as adopting many more from places as diverse as Africa, the USA, the West Indies and South Asia. A large proportion of their created/adopted vocabulary falls into the lexical set of crime, weapons and violence. This is due to the criminal nature of a large proportion of BVE speakers and therefore a need to invent words that would not be understood by the police (or the ‘feds’ if you speak with an MLE accent) who drive around in “bully vans” (police vans) that MLE speakers might want to “shank” (knife). Words of address are also different from those that you would expect to find in Standard English, with speakers commonly referring to one another as “bruv” or “fam”. Finally, the lexical set of territory has been manipulated, meaning that your “ends” or “turf” describes where you live within a city. Rap music is also believed to have a large effect in making the accent more desirable for youths.

MLE is said to be the “voice of young London,” and the increasing number of immigrants (especially in East London) have greatly influenced the way in which people talk. A distinct phonological feature of the MLE accent, unlike its East London predecessor (cockney) is that speakers do not drop the ‘h’ when in word initial position. However, stigmatization is present in –th fronting. MLE users favour monopthongal vowel sounds, producing the majority of these from the back of the mouth, near the alveolar ridge. Syntactical stigmatization is also frequent in Multicultural London English in the form of double negation and the non-use of inflections. The copula verb is also omitted, so a simple sentence such as “she is attractive” would become “she attractive,” or “she peng”, if I were to use the appropriate lexis.

To conclude this essay, Black Vernacular English has grown significantly since its birth around the 17th century. However, whilst its linguistic complexity has improved, its connotations have not. That is to say, we still associate the dialect with working class black American/English descendants of slavery, and it is seemingly obvious why we do so. Nearly all speakers of BVE are of a working class background, meaning that we associate the accent with poor education and upbringing and a lack of intelligence. Personally, I believe that if a number of BVE speakers were to suddenly gain positions of importance such as BBC newsreaders or politicians, the prestige of the dialect would dramatically increase.  However, this is unlikely to happen as multiple studies have proven that BVE speakers are actively segregated against because, as Shirley Russell suggested, “the prescriptivist attitude towards both Jamaican Creole and Black English speakers is that they use English sloppily”.

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