African American Vernacular English

by | February 19, 2018 |

African American Vernacular English is also known as Black Vernacular English. For many decades now linguists have studied African American Vernacular English, and their most significant finding about this particular variety of English is that it is not a defective or inferior form of Standard English. It is variety in its own right, with its own lexicon, grammar and syntax. Please note that William Labov (University of Pennsylvania), whose quote is in the title image above, is often said to be the world’s most famous sociolinguist.

African American Vernacular English: LeBron James v. Laura Ingraham

I do not use this blog to discuss politics. However, I will comment on the remarks made last week by Fox News Commentator Laura Ingraham about the linguistic abilities of LeBron James.

Listen to her  critique of James’s “barely intelligible not to mention ungrammatical take on President Trump.”

She received widespread criticism for these remarks as being racist. She defended herself by countering: “If pro athletes and entertainers want to freelance as political pundits, then they should not be surprised when they’re called out for insulting politicians. There was no racial intent in my remarks.”

The problem is, when she conflates James’s supposedly barely intelligible English with his supposed political ignorance she is guilty of  racism even though she is – apparently? – completely unaware of it.

Language is identity. I have written this in many previous blogs. When you attack someone’s language, you attack their identity. James speaks African American Vernacular English and Ingraham does not. By attacking his language, she is attacking a high-profile identity marker of his race. Of course she thinks she’s “merely” attacking his political views. It’s the linguistic criticism that comes along with it – and which she does not address in her follow-up defense – that activates the racism.

Her voice drips with sarcasm when she speaks of his “gripping insight” and asks “must they run their mouths like that?” Her exasperation is great for the supposed grammatical lapse in Kevin Durant’s assertion to LeBron, “I feel like our country is not ran by a great coach.” What she really exposes is her own great ignorance that African American Vernacular English has quite a number of past tense forms that do not match those of Standard English.

James grew up as a member of a community and speaks according to his community’s norms. We all do. Repeat: we all do. He has no reason to alter his speaking patterns. However, I, as a linguist, do have a responsibility to point out that: i) attacking a person’s speaking norms is the equivalent of attacking the person’s identity; and ii) African Vernacular English is not sub-standard English, it is non-standard.

African American Vernacular English: Language and Linguistics on Trial

John Rickford is a well-known linguist at Stanford University and Sharese King is a linguistics graduate student at Stanford. In 2016 they published an article entitled “Language and Linguistics on Trial: Hearing Rachel Jeantel (and Other Vernacular Speakers) in the Courtroom and Beyond” in Language, the main publication of the Linguistic Society of America.

Remember Rachel Jeantel? Maybe not. But you likely remember Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012. Zimmerman went on trial and was acquitted.

Here’s the abstract to the Rickford King article: “Rachel Jeantel was the leading prosecution witness when George Zimmerman was tried for killing Trayvon Martin, but she spoke in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and her crucial testimony was dismissed as incomprehensible and not credible. The disregard for her speech in court and the media is familiar to vernacular speakers and puts Linguistics itself on trial: following Saussure, how do we dispel such ‘prejudices’ and ‘fictions’? We show that Jeantel speaks a highly systematic AAVE, with possible Caribbean influence. We also discuss voice quality and other factors that bedeviled her testimony, including dialect unfamiliarity and institutionalized racism. Finally, we suggest strategies for linguists to help vernacular speakers be better heard in courtrooms and beyond (emphasis mine).”

Here is a link to the full article: Language and Linguistics On Trial

When someone in the public sphere stigmatizes a non-standard variety as “unintelligible” I must speak up. Ingraham clearly understood what James was saying, otherwise she could not have critiqued his ideas. I have a professional responsibility to speak out and correct the view of AAVE as ignorant which too easily translates to “unintelligible” as a way to dismiss what the speaker says.

See: All My Language Blogs


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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