The Soapbox: AAVE Is A Dialect, Not Fodder For Academia To Shame
So, here is a list shared by Ludacris. A, more or less, teacher’s policy of how students are to speak in class, which frankly boils down to this: OMG NO SLANG EVAAAR!
When I read it, I chuckled at the quips and raised my eyebrow at the peculiarities. Are there really students yelling, “Oh my god, Ebola!” whenever someone innocently coughs? Well, even if that type of ignorance is being perpetrated, I would expect a teacher to step in and educate the class on the how and why of it all, not ridicule. Yet, who cares when respectability politics (the oh-so-clever gunner of oppression) is at play? The list was well received by followers and immediately went viral. It was endorsed and applauded, called a demonstration of “real teaching” and the much lost “backbone” that “teachers of today do not possess”. Now, am I really surprised at this? Nope. I’m more, what’s the word? Oh yeah, annoyed-as-FUCK that there are native English speakers encouraging someone in power to openly mock students for using a dialect (and yes, it is a form of dialect) invented by a sect of African Americanism. Really sit back and think about that. The teacher disallows bruh, but not bro? This teacher has an issue with using the word chill to mean socialize by claiming chill can only be used one way (to chill something) despite the fact that the almighty dictionary demonstrates this word has multiple meanings and can be synonymous both cold or with scaring someone? The students can’t exclaim something is on fleek, but cool and wicked aren’t on the list? The students cannot draw out words for emphasis, such as boooooyyyeeeee, but like how about like vocal fry and like the total excessive use of filler words like “like”? The racial bias is clear, and the irony is not lost on me that a rapper with an ironically misspelled name endorsed this list, a list that bans the very type of creative deviation that he capitalized on. Now, I can already hear the many hands coming to snatch my wig with the following rebuttals:
- “There’s a “time and place” for everything!” I completely agree.
- “This letter isn’t racist because this teacher could be black.” It doesn’t matter! Still racist!
- “This teacher simply banning slang heard most heard on a daily basis.” It doesn’t matter! Still racist!
Let’s get something clear. English is one of the most confusing, inconsistent, and ever-evolving languages on the Western hemisphere. Why? Well, to put it as simple as possible, English is pretty much some bastardized version of western Germanic language. The result of Western German invaders mingling with the original peoples of Northern England, eventually raided by Nordic Vikings, and the Vikings who remained taught themselves the language without any access to instruction. Whenever they didn’t understand, these Vikings borrowed from their native language and improvised. This went on and on until the improvisation became the norm. Even with all of this, I’m not even close to describing English. Throw a bunch of Latin in there to pretty it up. Sprinkle it with French because the merchants need to know just enough to buy and trade. Now, put on your meticulous editing hat—if you’re unfortunate to have one—and completely revise the language five times over. Then and only then are we even close to a form of English that would be recognizable today.
In other words, English is a living language, built to be torn apart then reborn again and again. It did so when the colonies split from England. It did even more so to incorporate the many cultures that entered the land or had been there all along, and it most certainly did so when West Africans were captured, enslaved, and forced to learn this tongue without any instruction or access to reading or writing. Do you see the pattern, here? Enslaved Africans in Northern America did exactly what the Vikings had done centuries ago. They learned what they could and improvised the rest by fusing it with the grammatical patterns of their native languages, meaning that African American Vernacular English is a dialect, a deviation from Standard English that has incorporated several characteristics of various West African languages.
That’s the beauty, uniqueness, and absolute frustration that English presents. It is so malleable that it can be infused with different languages and still remain the same at its heart. The fluidity of English should be embraced, but as is the nature of systematic racism the USA—a country, mind you, whose majority speakers had purposely deviated from the Queen’s Language in order to create their own identity—the powers that be decided that it would be fitting to solidify how unwelcome those of African descent were. Thus the dehumanization, the psychological and physical abuse, and the erasure of their impact on the very country that they more than helped build.
This very much includes AAVE and White Supremacy’s much failing attempt to keep a fluid language rigid. Instead acknowledging Standard Literary English and its varying dialects (greatly impacted by class, region, culture, and more), instead we divert to a basic understanding. There’s Standard English and broken English. For Black folks, there’s those who “talk ghetto” and those who “sound white.” These two categories are taught to despise and destroy each other for a conglomerate of strange reasons that all melt into water if one takes the time to parcel it out.
That’s why I don’t disallow slang from my classroom and never will. As a writer, I am a devout believer of Zora Neale Hurstonomics. I love slang and dialect. I love how expressive it is. I love to watch words work. I love to see them expand and evolve. I love to trace our little expressions that are no longer applicable (when’s the last time you literally hung up a phone?). What I do ask from my students is to be bilingual, to know the difference between Standard English and whatever dialect they speak. Begin by expanding their vocabulary. Begin with literature and books. So if Ludacris should ever again feel compelled to post a list written by a teacher, I do hope it’s a reading list. May I suggest Invisible Man?
Carol H. Hood is a writer and professor who lives in about 3 different states while working on her novel, The Misadventures of Tip and JB Turner and her graphic novel,American Witch. Follow her snark shark ways at @carolhenny.