Tuesday, January 21st, 2020...6:17 pm

Linguistic Appropriation: AAVE, Hip-Hop, and Digital Culture

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Nathan Metivier

If you are below the age of thirty and/or active on social media, you are probably familiar with words like squad, woke, salty, cap, and others. You may recognize these terms as only the trendy slang of teenagers and young adults. However, most of these terms originate from African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Despite the ubiquity of these lexical items, their cultural origins remain largely unknown by the white, English-speaking communities that often use them. The widespread use of AAVE outside of its native speech community can be explained, in part, by the popularity of hip-hop music and the widespread use of social media platforms. The profound effect of digital media culture on the speech of young white people demonstrates the potential for digital media to radically alter common vernacular English. That said, the effects of digital media on English vernaculars have consequences. While the widespread use of AAVE by white speakers may appear to reflect an appreciation of African American culture or a bridge across racial tensions, the lack of recognition for the origins of culturally embedded AAVE terms and the attitudes of the white speech community — who flippantly overuse and eventually dismiss appropriated AAVE terms as “outdated” or “no longer cool” — ultimately reflect a lack of appreciation for the African American speech community’s language, culture, and art forms by the cultural hegemony.

AAVE terms are prevalent on social media platforms in today’s digital culture. In a case study, Blodgett, Green, and O’Connor show that “some genuine phonological phenomena, including a number of AAE features, are accurately reflected in orthographic variation on social media” (1123). Some of these “orthographic variations” include substituting sholl for sure, iont for I don’t, talmbout for talking about, and sumn for something. In addition, the study mentions common syntactic constructions of AAVE, such as “habitual be, future gone, and completive done” (1124). Many of these features are found in another study by Taylor Jones. Of course, AAVE has far more depth and complexity than the brief overviews in these studies can account for. Furthermore, since languages evolve, the AAVE lexicon may have shifted since either study was published. That said, both of these studies establish the presence of a widely used, orthographic variation of AAVE on social media platforms.

Given the prominent online presence of AAVE and the potential for content to reach across demographics on social media platforms, it is unsurprising that AAVE lexical items have been so widely appropriated by white speakers. Jones asserts that “as of January 2014, 87% of all American adults use the Internet, and 74% of those participate on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter” (403). The enormous popularity of hip-hop music and culture is undoubtedly intertwined with the spread of AAVE syntactic and lexical variation in white, English speaking demographics. Rap music has become the most popular genre among teens and young adults, as shown in Nielson’s 2017 U.S. Music Year-End Report which states that “for the first time ever, R&B/Hip-Hop became the most dominant genre, with seven of the top 10 most-consumed albums coming from that genre” (par. 2). Because of hip-hop’s roots in the African American community, the language of hip-hop is closely related to AAVE. Popular hip-hop artists and songs are broadcasted across the internet in the form of memes. In many cases, AAVE is the language form used in the meme itself. Thus, through social media, memes expose AAVE to a wider audience in two ways: directly, by utilizing AAVE in the meme itself, and indirectly, by marketing rap artists and music to a wider audience.

A popular meme template of rappers Young Thug and Lil Durk. From “Young Thug and Lil Durk Troubleshooting,” Know Your Meme.

Click here for an example of AAVE in written form in an Instagram post by the account “broke.savage.”

Though aspects of AAVE are widely appropriated by white, English speaking communities, many non-native speakers of AAVE are problematically unaware of the linguistic origins of the dialect. bell hooks, a noteworthy African American scholar and proponent of “black vernacular,” emphasizes the importance of AAVE as “a counter-hegemonic speech” (175). While she supports “rap music” as a space “where black vernacular speech . . . invites mainstream culture to listen — to hear — and, to some extent, be transformed,” she is wary of the white speech community appropriating it out of fear that “young white kids” may “trivialize black vernacular speech” by imitating it “in ways that suggest it is the speech of those who are stupid or who are only interested in entertaining or being funny,” thus undermining its “subversive power” (171). A number of journalists, including Sima Shakeri, Zeba Blay, and Mecca Mustafa share hooks’ concerns over appropriation. Social media platforms offer snippets of AAVE with no real context concerning the cultural significance of the language form. Thus, when AAVE syntax or AAVE terms become ubiquitous online, the tendency of the white audience is to appropriate these language variants with little knowledge as to where they come from or what they mean to their native speech community. At best, this form of appropriation is disrespectful to AAVE’s native speech community, regardless of how innocent the intentions of the white speech community are. At worst, appropriating AAVE is actively destructive to the culture it comes from because it trivializes a rich language form that is embedded in a cultural history of oppression as nothing more than “silly youth slang.”

Ultimately, the careless manner through which white speakers appropriate AAVE risks diminishing the cultural significance of the language form. As digital technology and social media culture continue to alter common English vernaculars, the attitudes surrounding non-standard English varieties must change. Although it may be unrealistic to demand that AAVE be used only by African American speakers, at the very least, AAVE should be respected as a legitimate language form by white speakers. Furthermore, white speakers should be conscious of the cultural origins of AAVE and treat the dialect with respect, without trying to claim ownership over it. There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, and it appears that in the case of AAVE, that line has been crossed.

Works Cited

Blodgett, Su Lin, Lisa Green, and Brendan O’Connor. “Demographic Dialectal Variation in Social Media: A Case Study of African-American English.” Proceedings of the 2016 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing, 2016, pp. 1119-1130. ACL, doi: 10.18653/v1/D16-1.

“broke.savage.” Instagram, 8 May 2018, https://www.instagram.com/p/BiiHxP9F0CA/. Accessed 4 Jan. 2020.

hooks, bell. “Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words.” Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, Routledge, 1994, pp. 167-75.

Jones, Taylor. “Toward a Description of African American Vernacular English Dialect Regions Using ‘Black Twitter.'” American Speech, vol. 90, no. 4, 2015, pp. 403-40.

“Young Thug and Lil Durk Troubleshooting.” Know Your Meme, 5 Feb. 2019, https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/young-thug-and-lil-durk-troubleshooting. Accessed 4 Jan. 2020.

“2017 U.S. Music Year-End Report.” Nielsen, 3 Jan. 2018, https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/report/2018/2017-music-us-year-end-report/. Accessed 3 Jan. 2020.

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