Listen to this story
A short dive down a TikTok rabbit hole left me angry and confused. Somehow the dialect with which my grandmothers (who died before most Gen-Z’ers were even able to form sentences) used is now considered Gen-Z speak or TikTok Speak, and this simply is not true.
Black Twitter has been a movement in the social media world, which has inevitably caused some overlap in how language is written en masse. Rebranding AAVE as Twitter speak or Gen Z speak is nothing but erasure. AAVE (African American Vernacular English/African American English and formerly known as Ebonics) is not simply the use of certain words that many people confuse with slang (ex. periodt, purr, slay, bop, basic, etc.) but also a certain structural syntax that is very specific and consistent. Examples of this are the dropping of the helping verb, the use of “be” as the present tense of the verb when expressing a constant state of being, the use of double negatives (present in other languages), and the lack of stem change in the third person singular of verbs.
There are rules.
Some of the biggest problems with AAVE being rebranded as Gen Z speak are that, generally, white Gen Z’ers have a sense of understanding the dangers of cultural appropriation, except here. The lack of awareness of cultural appropriation lends itself to them fumbling through the very specific syntax while simultaneously attempting to gatekeep it. The Twitter handle @aavenb displays “AAVE struggle tweets,” highlighting, well, AAVE struggle tweets.
AAVE comes from a shared cultural experience, not modeled after some damn teenagers in Iowa, and with the shared experience comes a fluency that is often missed with its brand-new users. Not to mention, its brand-new users attempting to correct the fluent speakers on how it is used. Imagine a child trying to correct an adult’s grammar, which goes to show how little respect AAVE gets. And speaking of chirrun, the word chile, which is a shortened form of the word child, was often pronounced “chillay,” by people who frankly did not know what the hell they were talking about online. The word “finna,” recently found itself in the middle of a Twitter debate after very not Black TikTok user @iam.aiwa informed her audience that when it comes to Harry Styles, she does not do balcony. She emphatically stated, “I finna be in the pit,” yikes.
While many agreed that finna is a shortened form of the white Southern expression, “fixing to,” many younger Twitter users tried to argue down that this was something said by southern whites in ubiquity. According to many Black users and Dictionary.com (which correctly credits AAVE), it shole the hell ain’t.
AAVE is also used by non-Black people to express a very limited array of interactions. Often, non-Black youth use AAVE only to display humor or bellicosity. “B-tches be like,” became a cultural phenomenon for people who had never used “be,” in the present tense, and went downhill from there. Additionally, if I ever heard “I’m finna beat yo ass,” coming from someone named Tanner, I would be the one who wanted to fight. Maybe I’m triggered, but having grown up in a predominately Black neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago, as well as a predominately white neighborhood in Central Florida, I learned how to codeswitch early. Surviving school meant tucking my Blackness down as deeply as possible, and AAVE was the easiest thing to hide. While AAVE is more acceptable as I have become an adult, it is still not good enough to be used in the boardroom but good enough for the commercial. Many social media managers use AAVE in their marketing, but due to a lack of diversity and inclusion in certain job functions, the managers often miss the mark.
A tweet by Netflix on Nov. 19 found Wednesday Adams “the queen of the snapback.” Now, I don’t know if that means she will wear a lot of fitted caps or have her body back in shape six weeks after dropping a baby, but I gather they actually meant “clapback.”
Hiring a social media manager who uses the dialect for more than just funny memes would probably be in their best interest, especially when it is lowkey offensive to Black people. I cannot imagine social media managers using other dialects and languages in marketing and not ensuring they were certain of spelling, syntax and congruency. I am sure that if they wanted a social media manager who could seamlessly code-switch from Standard American English into AAVE because they grew up using both, they would not have had difficulty finding one. A non-Black social media manager can still be funny and effective without co-opting language and verbiage. Codeswitching is almost a requirement for success to assimilate into a mostly homogenous American society that requires us only to fit certain constraints and to speak in a way that is not congruent with the grammatical functions of AAVE.
Simultaneously, AAVE was one of the few things we were allowed to have.
Non-Black people who do not speak AAVE at home do not need to use it. When non-Black people “codeswitch,” into AAVE around us, not only does it prove that, in fact, white people do see color, but it feels like mocking, especially for a dialect that has a long history of being ridiculed and viewed as unintelligent. We also speak Standard American English; you do not need to act as your translator. Codeswitching is a matter of survival for Black people. White people do not have to codeswitch because they were not forced to survive us.
As a Black woman who spent the better part of a decade learning several different languages and pulls out German as a cool party trick, I know that language and orthography are fluid even in the rigidity of rules. Still, the difference is the native speakers of those languages are the ones who dictate how the language and ensuing dialects are spoken and preserved. Outside cultures are not telling them how to speak, and even the French have an entire counsel, L’Académie Française, for the preservation of their language. Dialects and languages that were not mocked and ridiculed get the decency of being able to gatekeep how they communicate without outside interference. Their cultures have made it a mission to spread their languages through colonization. We have not. AAVE is, for so many of us, our heirloom. Our cultural tie to last names that were changed out of agony and forgotten on documents that did not care enough even to mention them. It is our inside jokes, where we keep our secrets and recipes. AAVE is warmth to ears that heard it echo off the kitchen walls of our aunts’, grandmas’, and mothers’ best friends’ houses, and if you did not learn it there, then maybe you should leave it alone.
AAVE is home and rebranding it as “Gen Z speak,” or “TikTok Speak,” feels like nothing more than linguistic gentrification.