African American Vernacular English in global pop culture

July 6, 2015 2:00 pm

“African American Vernacular English is not standard English with mistakes”. (Geoffrey Pullum, 1999)

Most of us might have heard words such as “swag”, “thug” and “dolla” while listening to the most recent pop tracks on the radio. If so, one has definitely heard artists saying something like: “I ain´t got no money”. For an English grammar police, the latter sentence probably sounds like Standard English with mistakes. However, Geoffrey Pullum argued in his academic study conducted in 1999, that this is not the case. He states that African American Vernacular English is neither slang nor a dialect. His argument is based on an incident which occurred in a small town high school in Oakland, in the United States, where the school board decided to recognise African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a dialect and accepted its use in all classroom activities. Pullum has gathered the most distinctive grammar rules of the AAVE. One example is double negation. Standard English I haven´t ever seen anything like it corresponds to AAVE I ain´t never seen nothin´like it. Obviously, double negation does not belong to Standard English grammar, but it is definitely an important feature of the AAVE dialect.
Thus, it is almost impossible NOT to come across the AAVE dialect in our everyday lives. If you do not listen to the radio at home or in your car, you might enter a restaurant or a grocery store, especially in the United States, and instantly hear “yea, got my swag on”, from the background. And yes that is the Soulja Boy´s one hit wonder from a few years back. Hence, the Billboard top 100 hit list is full of pop lyrics, inspired by AAVE vocabulary and also culture, which is closely linked to it. This kind of culture very often includes themes such as money (normally quite a lot of it), cars (the bigger, the better), women (will not put the accurate term here but I bet you can guess) and sex. Due to these rather vulgar topics, it was quite hard to find proper lyrics to analyse for this article. Thank God, for Nelly, a St. Louise based RnB and rap artist, who wrote a song about love, with AAVE inspired features. In these lyrics he uses a typical AAVE word for girl, “shawty”. Also shortening words is typical of AAVE speakers. For example, instead of about, Nelly uses a word ´bout and “going to be” is replaced with gon´ be. Does this sound familiar?

I was thinking ’bout her, thinking ’bout me
Thinking ’bout us, what we gon’ be
Open my eyes yeah, it was only just a dream.

My lover, my life, my shawty, my wife
She left me, I’m tied
Cause I knew that it just ain’t right

(Nelly – Just a Dream)


Rebecca S. Wheeler (ed.) The Workings of Language, Westport CT: Praeger, 1999.

Nelly – Just a Dream


Written by Maria Seppa, study visitor at TermCoord and master student in University of Luxembourg

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