Posted on August 20, 2022

Black English Is Being Misidentified as Gen Z Lingo, Speakers Say

Samantha Chery, Washington Post, August 17, 2022

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.

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.


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.

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 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.


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. {snip}

“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.