the ascent of aave

aave, or african american vernacular english (a.k.a. black english or ebonics) is a dialect of english most often spoken by african americans. it's often considered to be a substandard version of english, though many have argued for it to be considered a separate language or an equally accepted dialect and view its substandard status as the result of racism and prejudice.

whichever side of this great debate you fall on, you can't dispute what i saw on espn a few days ago. a couple of their shows (i can't keep them straight--i think it was sports center and baseball tonight) feature two to four men talking. the men tend to be of varied ages and races, as we'd probably expect in this day and age. but i'm fairly sure that it's only in the last few years that any commentators have been using aave on the air while sitting behind a desk and wearing suits. one of the young african american hosts especially used some of the hallmarks of aave syntax, such as the possesive 'they' as in, "they offense weak because they quarterback ain't performing." (that's a made-up example. i should have written down what he really said.)

most interesting to me, however, was the mcdonald's commercial that interrupted the show. the final tag line was, "get much love," or, "get much beef," or something. at any rate, it used 'much' to introduce a noun. i can see with with a helping verb as in, "i don't get much beef," or with another modifier as in, "get much more beef," or as the subject of a sentence: "much beef was damaged in the creation of this burger." but as a speaker of standard white english, i don't think the mcdonald's slogan is a construction i would ever use. though i haven't found it in any of the lists of aave syntactic indicators i've consulted, i have an intuition that this is a feature of aave. the only other example i can think of is from sir mix-a-lot's 90's rap, 'baby got back': "little in the middle, but she got much back."

i'm hypothesizing that the use of aave by announcers and in commercials are two sides of the same coin. the acceptability of the dialect in a formal setting (a sports commentary show) is directly linked to its economic utility in commercials. i'm deliberately avoiding saying which one causes the other, because i think that's harder to demonstrate. does the acceptance of aave from announcers prove to networks that it will get their attention in commercials? does the existence of young aave speakers with disposable income motivate advertisers to target them and thus inspire networks to hire aave speakers? consumers, programmers and advertisers are connected in a complicated circuit that i certainly don't understand. the juice that flows through it, though, is certainly money.

i'm hardly saying this is a victory for aave and its proponents. it's important not to confuse commercial viability with other kinds of acceptance. for example, there's a long way to go from sports center to an executive board meeting. but this is a great demonstration of the fact that migrations of language, up or down, are always accompanied by social and economic change. as the dollar goes, so goes the language.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

To me, the most interesting part is how the acceptance of AAVE in sports announcers and commercials is effecting my own speech. I find myself using certain AAVE features in my casual speech and sassy register. I know this is something I have recently acquired, as well. Chicken and the egg, I'm sure.

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