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Black English is being misidentified as internet slang, speakers say

Black English is being misidentified as internet slang, speakers say
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One of the toughest transitions Kyla Jenée Lacey endured in her life was when her family moved from diverse Chicago to Winter Springs, Fla., a predominantly White city about 30 minutes north of Orlando.

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At 9 years old, for the first time in her life, Lacey realized what it meant to be a racial minority in America. From then on, she was one of only a few Black students in her classes, she said, and her skin color became a barrier to fitting in. She felt like the token Black girl — and she quickly realized that speaking African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to her White classmates would only make people question her intelligence.

“For me, it was a lot of survival involved in my socialization because I didn’t feel accepted by other Black kids, and I didn’t feel accepted by White kids,” she said.

But outside the confines of school, Black language was her haven. Like bilingual kids, she bounced between AAVE and standard English. When she was at home speaking AAVE, she didn’t have to impress anyone; she felt most herself and connected to her heritage, she said.

AAVE, also known as African American English (AAE), African American Language (AAL), Black English or Ebonics, is a style of English often spoken in Black American households. Linguists are unsure of how Black English came about, but they believe it might have originated from West African or Creole languages. Much like these speech forms, AAVE serves as communication among people with a common culture.

According to deandre miles-hercules, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the language was created by enslaved Black people living in the South who were separated from their native countries and tongues. As Black Americans moved north and west during the Great Migration, they took the language with them, and each region created slightly different versions of Black English over time.

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For Lacey, it was only when she attended school at the University of Central Florida in the early 2000s, surrounded by all-Black roommates and more Black people, that she began to dispel the notion that her humanity would never be as validated as that of her White counterparts. She no longer had to blend in or prove herself to people who would look down on her for speaking AAVE, she said.

So when she started seeing non-Black people disrespecting AAVE in virtual spaces more recently, she was pressed. It annoyed her, for example, to see subtitles added to broadcast news magazines when Black interviewees spoke coherently. She also hated how the language had been weaponized online by non-Black people to imply an aggressive tone, and how nonnative AAVE speakers sometimes mispronounced Black English words because they’d only seen them typed on a screen.

“I know that words have different meanings to different groups,” she said. “You can’t take Black people’s very ingrained language, an absolute staple of Black language, and say, because there’s confusion on Twitter, we’re not allowed to use our words.”

As Generation Z influencers and Black entertainers continue to shape the internet landscape, from viral memes to TikTok dances, AAVE has shown up in more online spaces. But some Black AAVE speakers believe that the language has been incorrectly chalked up as new vocabulary started by young people — and they’ve been calling out non-Black people for glorifying internet stars who butcher the speech and lack understanding of the language’s cultural significance.

Language unravels the evolution of a speaker’s history, geography and culture, miles-hercules said. As AAVE lands into the laps of people who didn’t grow up speaking it, those who try and fail to use it properly can be viewed as ignorant by Black communities. At worst, they’re perceived as appropriating Black culture and perpetuating racism as they take on Black speech without assuming Black Americans’ struggle, speakers say.

Amoura Monroe, a 20-year-old living in Los Angeles, contends that a big part of the problem comes when the language is wrongly attributed to Gen Z lingo, stan culture or internet slang.

For example, “Gen Z Hospital,” a skit from “Saturday Night Live,” was meant to poke fun at how young people spoke. But as Monroe and other Twitter users noted, many of the words, such as “tea” and “pressed,” were actually derived from AAVE. (NBCUniversal didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

“It strips away the importance,” Monroe said of using AAVE for comedy. “Black people do get ridiculed for it. … They get made fun of, and people stereotype us for speaking that way.”

Words such as “slay,” “period,” “extra” and “cap” take on slightly different meanings in the context of AAVE, which many nonnative speakers are unable to fully grasp, Monroe added.

Monroe said she’s also been bothered by celebrities who try to speak AAVE. These non-Black people speak it as a form of entertainment, “giving them a Black caricature in a way, kind of like a minstrel show,” Monroe said. Meanwhile, she added, Black people are denigrated and told they’re speaking improperly when using it.

Recently, song lyrics including AAVE have been at the center of debate. In June, a social media firestorm led singer-songwriter Lizzo to change lyrics in her song “Grrrls” after disability advocates pointed out that a word in its original version, “spaz,” is considered an ableist slur. The word has been used to disparage disabled people who experience spasms, including those with cerebral palsy or spinal muscular atrophy.

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Then, in August, Beyoncé announced she would remove the same word from “Heated,” a song on her latest album, “Renaissance.”

Some speakers of AAVE defended the Black artists, saying that the word has another meaning — to go wild — and that its use in “Grrrls” and “Heated” wasn’t meant to offend.

“Lizzo let WHITE people bully her out of using AAVE in her song,” a fan tweeted. “Black people have been using ‘spazz’ for decades and it has nothing to do with making fun of disabled people.”

Others disagreed: “The word is a slur. Let it go and let some compassion for people who have been harmed by that word in instead,” a Black autistic person wrote.

Dilemmas such as Lizzo’s and Beyoncé’s reveal the conflicts that have arisen as AAVE becomes more mainstream in pop culture, particularly through song lyrics and social media posts.

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AAVE speakers have also criticized what they see as the hypocrisy of non-Black people on the internet who police the language’s use while profiting from various aspects of Black life.

According to Jamaal Muwwakkil, also a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara, non-Black people often gain social capital when they use Black language and culture: “When we think about social media and entertainment, the economic capital that people get from the … appropriation of Black language, fashion and so on, is in many ways a replacement for the loss of economic capital … from our literal bodies in chattel slavery.”

Black speakers point to the memeification of Sweet Brown — who famously said “Ain’t nobody got time for that” in a 2012 Oklahoma City television news story — as evidence of how the use of Black language can elevate a person’s social status. The viral clip led to Brown’s multiple TV appearances and movie role.

However, Muwwakkil said, without the historical and cultural context known by native speakers, AAE is vulnerable to distortion online.

Is there a D.C. dialect? It’s a topic locals are pretty ‘cised’ to discuss

The terminology used to describe Black English is also controversial. Muwwakkil frowns upon the use of the term AAVE and prefers African American English, because he believes the speech and gestures are not a different language, vernacular or dialect.

He also takes issue with the term code switching, or changing between two languages, which he says is disproportionately applied to Black people and implies that African American English has less legitimacy compared with standard English. Everyone changes the way they speak based on their relationship with the person and the setting in which they’re conversing, he said, and the different ways of speaking should be equally acceptable, a concept called “code meshing.”

Several years removed from her high school days, Lacey said she still switches between Black English to standard English to avoid being discriminated against, although she wishes she didn’t feel the need to.

But she also sees refusing to speak it around White people as a form of gatekeeping, she said: “AAVE is the closest thing we have to a cultural secret.”

Despite what some Black speakers see as the misuse and scrutiny of the language, they believe it will continue to thrive as a bastion for Black culture — and it will keep evolving in the way Black people see fit.

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As Muwwakkil put it: “There will never be a way to stop being the creative force that’s always been a part of Black language and culture.”







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