Pidgins, Creoles, and the Beginning of Black English 

         In the last instalment, the theme was about change that occurs when 2 languages are in close contact, e.g., Quebecois French and Canadian English. The topic this month is what can happen when several languages co-exist. This typically happens during wartime but also happened when men from various lands were brought to the American South to be slaves. The first ’to-be’ Black English words were undoubtedly brought to the new world on slave ships in the Creole languages used by the Slaves.


          Since they did not have a language in common, they created a common pidgin language, drawing words from the languages each of them knew. There were words from the home islands of the slaves and the slave captains: creoles of Jamaica, Guyana, Sierra Leone and others. The slavers probably spoke Gullah, also a creole language, spoken on the islands off Georgia and South Carolina. It was an English-based creole designed to enable trade in Africa by American and British slavers. 

         A pidgin is a simple hybrid language used as a means of communication by such a group. It had only rudimentary grammar and little common vocabulary. The first recording of this English pidgin was made a year before the Mayflower arrived in America. 

‘’Umh, umh, me no strawmere fight Engis mon. Engis mon got two hed… If me cut off one hed, he got nodon.” 

         Do you think this fact contravenes the widespread teaching that ‘Black English” is just bad grammar … or lazy English? Remember that the slaves had no contact, either when they first arrived or until slavery ended. And, they had very minimal exposure to Standard English in the century after slavery ended. This was mainly because of segregation. 

         The pidgin language spoken by the slaves became creole language, (a stable natural language derived from a pidgin at a fairly sudden point in time.)  A pidgin becomes a Creole when it has gained a fully developed vocabulary and a system of grammar.  It will have also been acquired by children as a native language. 

         Because of the low status of Creole peoples, their languages have been regarded as “degenerate”, or at least “rudimentary” dialects of politically dominant languages

(e.g. Black English). Linguists, however, have realized that creole languages are in no way inferior to other languages. Because of this the phrase “Black English” has been replaced by other terms that don’t have a negative connotation. These include:        

         A.) Ebonics (ebon-, Indicating ‘black’ and -ics, indicating ‘phonics’ or ‘sounds’)

         B.) the preferred, AAVE (African American Vernacular English) 

( Vernacular language is the way you talk in relaxed company — friends and family, and when enjoying Informal activities.) 

         It was a 3-step process of language change that resulted in AAVE: 

Pidginization -> Creolization -> AAVE 

         Consider a population of speakers who do not speak a common language, who have to communicate with, for example, slavers and their masters. Both groups were using or had used creole languages, some English-based and some Africa-based.

Once they get to the new world, they work together to accomplish tasks, have families, and need to express more than they could with only what their native language could provide. They invent a simplified sentence structure to share information, feelings, requests, (and orders). They learn new words and expressions from the members of their communities. They are now speaking an English-based creole language. 

         As the years go by, some of the slaves have daily contact with speakers of Standard English: for example, house slaves. Their language begins to approach the standard in the community, still a creole but closer to the speech of Georgia and South Carolina citizens. This level is more prestigious and called ‘the acrolect’. The ‘basilect’ , spoken by the slaves, will diminish, the more they are exposed to it. Basically, new vocabulary and grammar are learned by all concerned and AAVE moves more and more toward Standard English and Standard English gains some interesting and colourful vocabulary. 

         Finally, before moving on to AAVE, here are some examples of words brought into English during slavery: 

         ‘safari’                                  from Swahili

         ‘homeboy’                            from Xhosa

         ‘honkie’                                from Wolof (slang for ‘white’, literally, ‘pink’)

         ‘palaver’                               from Portuguese (meaning ’talk’)

         ‘pickaninny’                         Mediterranean origin (meaning ‘child’)

         ‘savvy’                                 Mediterranean origin (meaning (‘know how’) 

         The similarities of contemporary English-Based pidgin and creole languages to English can be found on both sides of the Atlantic today: The following all translate as “They are going there to eat rice.”: 

Sierra Leone:                                       “Dem dey go for go it res.”

Ghana and Nigeria                               “Dem dey go chop rais.”

Cameroon                                            “Der dey go for go chop rice.”

Gullah                                                  "Dem duh gwine fuh eat rice.” 

         Notice that the vocabulary can be interpreted pretty easily with English meanings. The grammar, however, is not so easy. You can recognize the lexical items that are verbs, but not the tenses they are. Does “go” translate as ‘go’, ’to go’, going to’, or ‘going to go’ in each sentence? This shows the almost complete absence of variant verb forms in Pidgin and Creole languages.  

         AASE and AAVE 

         AAVE is the native dialect of the vast majority of working - and middle-class Africans. It is used in casual, intimate, and informal settings. AAVE is itself the substrate* for AASE, African-American Standard English. AASE is very similar to AAVE. It is used for more formal, careful, and public settings. It has Standard English vocabulary and grammar retains elements of AAVE like intonation, rhythm. Most middle-class African Americans are bi-dialectal, between this dialect and AAVE.  They learn AASE in school and can codeswitch easily. Some of the AAVE features in this dialect appear in some white standard dialects of English. More will be said about this later. 

*(In linguistics, strate is a language that influences, or is influenced by another through contact. A substrate is a language that has lower power or prestige than another, while a superstrate is the language that has higher power or prestige.

Stratum (linguistics) - Wikipedia 

            Now, what does AAVE look like? A reminder before we start: African Pidgin and Creole languages took most of their vocabulary from their target language, English, and much of their sound systems, grammar, and word forms from their substrates, African languages. The English dialect they borrowed was not British or educated Standard American English but that of the sailors who manned the slave ships that went to Africa. 

         Popular opinion usually regards creole languages as degenerate languages. Because of their prejudice, they become extinct because they are stigmatized. They are now, however considered by linguists, living languages. Today, creolization is widely thought to be the leading influence on the evolution of AAVE. The creole, believed to have the most influence, is Gullah: ‘Sea Island Creole English’ the language spoken by the Gullah people (a.k.a. the “Geechees” who live Ain South Carolina, Georgia,  and northmost Florida. These include urban Charleston, Savannah, and Florida low country). These people are mostly descendants of enslaved Africans from the 1800s. 

         The following is a (partly) Gullah song, popular during the 60s and 70s.

You may be old enough to remember the folksong based on an African-American Spiritual, “Kumbaya”. If you don’t, ask someone that was a ‘Peacenik’ during the Civil rights era. If you can’t find someone, I’ll sing it for you. (LOL) 

Kum by h’yuh

“Kum by h’yuh my Lawd,  kum by h’yuh (x3)

O Lord,  kum by h’yuh

Someone’s sleeping Lawd,  kum by h’yuh (3x)

O Lord,  kum by h’yuh”

(“Singing, dreaming, crying, laughing, etc.) 

AAVE Examples 

          All the examples here are grammatical in Black English. They are regular, i.e., they are rule-governed and systematic. (They are not random errors!)  AAVE speakers regularly produce sentences without verbal tense markers as in : “John trippin” and “They  allright” i.e., ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘are’, and ‘were’ are omitted. However, they don’t omit ‘am’. They would say “Ahm walkin”, not “I walking”. 

         There are more tenses and aspects of verbs in AAVE than in Standard English. This does not mean that the meaning of all of these expressions cannot be distinguished, only that some will take a lot more words to mean the same thing: 

Phases/Tenses of AAVE. 

                                               Phase                          Example                                         

                           Pre-Recent                        I been brought it.                                     

PAST                  Recent                               I done buy it.* 

                            Pre-Present                       I did buy it 

                           Past Inceptive                   I do buy it..



PRESENT                                                          I be buying it.



                          Immediate                            I’m a-buy it. 

FUTURE            Post-Immediate                 I’m a-gonna buy it. 

                         Indefinite Future                  I gonna buy it.          



* Been and done  can be added here to emphasize the completed nature of the action. 

‘He been done work’ means “He finished the work a long time ago”.

‘He done been work’ means “Until recently, he worked for a long period of time”.



         AAVE often provides the means to give distinctions that are not easy to make in standard English without being ‘wordy’. 

         In addition to tense, aspect can also be expressed more succinctly in AAVE than in Standard English: 

AAVE Grammatical Aspects



 Aspect                                 Example                     Standard English Meaning                                

Habitual/Continuative       He be working.         He frequently works on Tuesdays.


Intensified Habitual            He stay working.        He is always working. 

Intensified Continuative     He steady working.   He keeps on working.

Not Habitual                  


Perfect Progressive             He been working.      He has been working. 

Irrealis                                  He finna* go to work. He is about to go to work.                                    .


* “is fixing to”        




 Ain’t :  (only became stigmatized in Standard English in the 19th century)  In AAVE it can replace don’t, doesn’t, didn’t, am not, isn’t, aren’t, haven’t and hadn’t) 

Double Negation e.g. "I didn’t go nowhere" (Double negation is common in most languages of the world, e.g., French. It NEVER means “positive”. It is simply an agreement feature. 

Negative Displacement: In AAVE, an indefinite pronoun such as nobody or nothing can be inverted with the negative verb for emphasis: 

Don’t nobody know nothing.

Ain’t nothing going on. 

AAVE Vocabulary 

Here are a few phrases and expressions to get the flavour of AAVE vocabulary, but it is best to read some Black Literature. A list of good books is listed below.

 “Act ugly”: Behaving in a negative, unpleasant manner 

“Ain a thang”: It’s okay, everything’s fine, no problem. 

“All up in the Kool-Aid an don’t even know the flavour”: Referring to someone else’s conversation or business 

“Bees dat way”: That’s the way it is; that’s the way it goes; that’s life—accept it. 

“Can’t kill nothin, and won’t nothin die” Bad luck. Hard time. 

“Couldn’t hit you in the behind with a red apple”: Describes a person who is arrogant, and acts his he is beyond criticism or beyond reproach. 

“Dead Presidents’: Paper money, usually a lot. 

“The Dozens”: (A verbal game, talking about someone’s mother, using outlandish, highly exaggerated, sometimes sexually loaded, humorous ritualized “insults”) Examples will be presented below. 

“DWB”: Driving while black, a reference to black or Latino drivers, whose only traffic offence is their race. 

“Everybody talking bout bot Hebin ain going der”: Points to hypocrites who believe in Christianity but don’t act like Christians, e.g., white folks who profess a belief in God but practice racism.

 AAVE Literature  

Caveat: Not all the following books have been written by AAVE authors, so their language may not be written entirely in authentic AAVE: However, you can rely on the first four on the list. 

The Color Purple: Alice Walker

A Raisin in the Sun: Lorraine Hansberry

(Poetry of Langston Hughes)

His Own Where: June Jordan (the first book ever written in AAVE)

The Gold-Bug: Edgar Allen Poe

Moby Dick: Herman Melville

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Remus: Joel Chandler

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Mark Twain

In Ole Virginia: Thomas Nelson Page

The Clansman: Thomas Dixon

The Sound and the Fury: William Faulkner

Gone with the Wind: Margaret Mitchell

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston

Go Down Moses: William Faulkner

A Confederacy of Dunces


I am pretty sure that there are more different types of music created by Africans than by any other ethnic group. Consider the following, listed by Wikipedia:

  • Gospel
  • Ragtime
  • Jazz
  • Blues
  • Jazz-Rock Fusion
  • Disco
  • Rhythm and Blues
  • Funk
  • Hip Hop 

Many vocabulary items have been coined by the AAVe community to describe this music: cool, jive, hip, heavy, etc, 


         Wikipedia describes this game as an African American custom where 2 competitors, usually males, go head to head in a competition of comedic trash talk. They take turns insulting each other and their mothers until one cannot come up with a comeback. The game originated in slavery times when violence among slaves was a property crime with potential draconian consequences. Verbal sparring is a substitute for physical fighting. It is usually light-hearted but sometimes escalates to real tension.

         The verbal interchange is also called ’signifying’, intended to defuse conflict. It is a contest of personal power, wit, self-control, verbal ability, mental agility and mental toughness. Defeat can be humiliating; but a skilled contender, win or lose, may gain respect.

         “Yo’mama’ is a common rejoinder, used as a response to any objectionable rejoinder in AAVE. The speaker’s mammas think this is amusing and are proud of the son that has used it. It ends the battle and means their son is the winner of the game because no one was able to up the game with a better response.

         The term “The Dozens” refers to the devaluing of slaves on the auction block, who, after back-breaking toil, were no longer capable of hard labor. These slaves we’re often sold by the dozen. 

The following, are some of the winning responses: 

  • Yo mamma’s so fat, when she hauls ass she gotta take two trips.
  • That’s why yo mama is so dumb: She was filling out a job application and it said “Sign here.” And she put “Aquarius”.
  • That’s why yo mama’s so bald-headed. Every time she gets in the shower, she gets brain-washed.
  • Yo mamma’s so fat that when she sits on a quarter, she gets 2 dimes and a nickel.
  • Yo mama is so old that when she reads the Bible, she reminisces.
  • You so ugly, you went into a haunted house and came out with a job application. 

Teaching Standard to Speakers of AAVE 

         AAVE speakers have been stereotypically associated with a low education and having a low social status. However, since the Civil Rights Era, linguists have demonstrated that AAVE English is a legitimate, rule-governed, and fully developed dialect of Standard English. The modern technique of teaching standard English has become similar to teaching a second language. Contrastive analysis is used. Both the phonological and syntactic features of the student’s speech can be analyzed to identify points of contrast in the two dialects. AAE can be taught as a strategy to decide which dialect to use in various situations. Which to be used when you are having fun with friends and family, and which to use in class and when the Minister comes for family dinner. This has proved much more effective than conforming to the speech around them in order to be correct. 


Fasold, Ralph: The Study of Social Dialects in American English 

Bickerton, Derek: On the Nature of the Creole Continuum 

Labov, Wm,: Language in the Inner City 

Wolfram, Walter: The Relationship of White Southern Speech to AAVE 

Smitherman, Geneva: Word from the Mother