Hip-hop, Beatboxing, B-boying, Jazz, Blues, R&B and Soul; these are some of the most mainstream cultures in our world today. Music and culture deriving from these general categories are countless in even Korean society. Where did it all come from, though? A quick search will yield this result: African American culture. Black America’s burning soul and rhythm can be found interlaced within the fabrics of modern society, and behind all this, an accent plays an enormous role. It is known as African-American Vernacular English.
As lingua franca, English is used by people of all kinds throughout the world. The English we learn in Korea is strictly standardized and is often just a tool that is tested and utilized. Though English may simply seem like a medium that connects the world, each accent within it has its way of influencing the world. The Argus introduces African-American Vernacular English, to give readers a taste of how English accents each hold a tremendous amount of identity.
The origin of AAVE
There are two theories of its origin. By some, this dialect is said to have originated from the “creole” once spoken by the ancestors of its current speakers-the Africans who were forcibly settled into American society as slaves. The transatlantic slave trade brought enslaved people of various central and western African origins to the Americas. They originally had no means of communicating with one another and mixed their various tongues with English creating a creole language, distinct from English. It then subsequently went through decreolization to become what is known as AAVE today.
The dialect is also traced back to the diverse dialects of the early English settlers in the Southern United States. Not all settlers in the early years of the U.S. were of English origin, and even the English settlers spoke different accents. Their accents coalesced to form what we know as American English today. Some subsets of this English are the rural dialects of Southern America, with which AAVE shares much of is characteristics today.
What sets it apart
Roy Myung, a twenty-two-year-old Korean American who grew up using the dialect, explains, “To me, just as British English and American English are different, Ebonics is set apart. Ebonics is a combination of the word ‘ebony’ and ‘phonetics.’” When heard, the dialect is distinct with its different intonations, different vowel and consonant pronunciations, and grammatical characteristics not commonly found in Standard English. Slang also arises from the group of people who speak with this accent. Myung says, “People misconstrue Ebonics as black slang, but that is not true. Black slang is a part of Ebonics that is created by the community that speaks it. Some examples that really blew up are words like: ‘bae,’ ‘squad,’ ‘salty,’ and ‘on fleek.’” Some English-speaking subcultures actively embrace the new words created by AAVE speakers, often incorporating the words into the vocabulary of the general English-speaking population.
“The African-American Vernacular English is not something easily imitated,” according to Park Soo-yeon, a junior at Ewha Womans University who grew up exposed to the dialect. “It is part of the African American culture that is deeply rooted in history. When the mainstream media tries to emulate the language, they often cannot unless they actually grew up in a black environment.” It is representative of the culture entailing the hundreds of years of African American slavery and the century of segregation that followed. This divide between the general American public and African American society gave room for the colorful dialect to prosper. “The dialect is tied to the community of African Americans. It is a social symbolism. When spoken, it allows the speakers to relate to one another,” Myung says. The accent is also selectively utilized. “It comes out naturally, I believe, but people do learn to adapt a more conventional manner of speaking for the sake of dealing with other kinds of people,” clarifies Park. Reasons underlying this vary, but according to Park, “The mainstream and general public follows a set of social rules that subconsciously associate blackness with a subordinate class and lower intelligence. Black people are also subconsciously aware of this, so they follow convention in order to avoid conflict, potential discrimination and condescension in public life. However, the general public also views the culture created within Black communities, such as rap, as something exclusive and unique, hence their effort of emulation.”
Look at the English we learn today then look at AAVE. This is just the accent of one subset of the English-speaking population, and it encompasses so much culture and history. Further, the distinctive features of AAVE, in particular, are not only the differences in speech, but the sense of community and belonging it provides. The Argus hopes that the readers take the chance to imagine the special traits of other English accents as they continue to go about their English studies and realize that “English ain’t just a tool,” but also the door to a world of culture.
By Park Chang-hwan
Staff Reporter of Theory & Critique Section