What 'AAVE' Means & Why White People Shouldn't Use It So Flippantly

Photo: Raul Mellado Ortiz / Shutterstock
two Black women talking

For years, people have brought to light that some slang words that are used on an everyday basis originate from African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. And when used incorrectly, it can be harmful and disrespectful for the Black community.

But what exactly is AAVE and how is it harmful for non-Black people to say it? Here is a look behind the origin, and why white people shouldn’t use these terms anymore.

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What does AAVE mean?

AAVE stands for African American Vernacular English, and BVE stands for Black Vernacular English (not all Black people who use AAVE identify as African American).

AAVE is a form of speech that evolved within the Black community that distinguishes itself from standard English due to its creative grammatical structure, pronunciation, and vocabulary.

The language was the origin point of many slang terms, but the language isn't all slang. It's a combination of dialects across the country that many Black communities use to communicate with each other.

According to the Urban Dictionary, AAVE is "a uniquely American creation that has been transformed over the course of many decades. It's a thoroughly developed muscle of a resilient, disenfranchised people."

Popular AAVE Phrases

  • Lit: Used when something is good or will become good.
  • Woke: A political term of African American origin, and refers to a perceived awareness of social justice issues and racial justice. Derives from the AAVE expression “stay woke.”
  • Ratchet: Originating as a word used to refer to a woman who was sleeping with a married man, it has gained popularity when referring to someone who is “ghetto.”
  • Sis: made popular with Black LBGT+ individuals, it derives from the word “sister” and is used to show familiarity with the other.
  • Basic: Used to describe a woman who likes mainstream trends such as products and music.
  • On fleek: Popularized by Vine, "on fleek" refers to something that is perfectly styled.
  • Twerk/Nae Nae: Dances that originated with Black culture. Twerking involves mostly women squatting while shaking their rear ends. Nae Nae involves placing one's arm in the air and swaying from side to side.
  • Yas/Yas Queen: Originating with Black individuals in the LGBT+ community, it is used as an exclamation.
  • Bye, Felicia: Originating from the movie “Friday,” it is a phrase to get someone out of your face.

Grammatically, the language has some rules. For example, there is an optional tense system that is different from the standard English past tense (i.e., the -ed at the end of a verb).

For example, let's use the action of buying something.

The past tense in AAVE would consist of "I been bought it," "I done bought it," "I did buy it," and "I do buy it." The present tense would be "I be buying it." The future tenses would consist of "I'ma buy it," "I'ma gonna buy it," and "I gonna buy it."

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Origin Of AAVE

It is said that AAVE shares similar features with Southern American English, but it was born out of slavery in the United States.

Many believe the language developed in the plantations of the American South, where African people were enslaved. The language seemed to share phonological and grammatical features with southern dialects.

According to Language Jones, there are two competing hypotheses about the linguistic origins of AAVE as the history of the U.S. has obscured the origins. These two hypotheses are Creole Origin Hypothesis and Dialect Divergence Hypothesis.

Creole Origin Hypothesis

The Creole Origin Hypothesis came from the contact between English speakers and speakers of other languages.

This “led to the formation of a Creole language with an English superstrate but strong pan-African grammatical influences — meaning lots and lots of English words, but still a distinct language from English."

Dialect Divergence Hypothesis

The Dialect Divergence Hypothesis comes from the idea that AAVE is a sister dialect of Southern American English that started diverging in the 1700s and 1800s.

According to Urban Dictionary, the language is "recently related to the Appalachian English dialect and Cajun Vernacular English, it also contains West African grammatical structures and pronunciations originating from black African slaves in the American South."

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Why White People Using AAVE is Problematic

When white people use terms that are part of AAVE, it erases the history behind it. Most of the time, it’s misused or overly emphasized.

When a white person uses AAVE, such as “lit” or “bae,” it’s seen as trendy and funny. But when those words are said by a Black person, it’s seen as “improper” and “not smart.”

In "Using Black Vernacular English (BVE) as a Non-Black Person Isn’t 'Woke' if You Don't Understand the History," Anisha Phillips explains, “When white and other non-Black people use this terminology to gain social relevance, we are often able to turn it on and off when necessary. We can perform traditionally Black expressions, without having to face the societal and institutional oppression Black people often experience because of them.”

Another piece by Tylah Silva explains, “White people aren’t banned from using AAVE either, but knowing the cultural significance is very important in the process of not erasing it. Acknowledging that the language is not slang, and using it in the right context is what it boils down to.

Because when white people only use AAVE to be funny or sound aggressive, they are inadvertently stereotyping African Americans as a joke or violent people. The quick evolution, however, that AAVE takes when white people effectively downgrade the language as slang goes to show how ingenuitive African Americans are.”

Just like with other forms of cultural appropriation in mainstream media, if you criticize a Black person for using AAVE but encourage or even find humor in it when a non-Black person talks in AAVE, that’s when it becomes an issue.

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Isabell Tenorio is a writer, former contributor to YourTango, and an opinions editor for The Pine Log. Her work covers astrology, pop culture, and relationships.