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I was going through some articles about "African American Vernacular English". Article 1. Article 2. These articles give some examples, but they do not clearly specify hard rules to be followed in AAVE.

First of all, I don't even have strong skills in Standard English, so understanding AAVE seems a lot more difficult for me. I did, however, craft a few sentences in both SE and AAVE to validate what understanding I do have. Are the following conversions correct? You don't have to validate each and every item, but rather guide me with rules that I should follow, but didn't, in the following examples.

  • What the hell you all are doing here? — What the hell y'all doin' here?
  • Hey you! What the hell are you doing man? Stop that nonsense now. Do you get it? — Hey you! What the hell ya doin’ man? Stop that nonsense now. D'ya get it?
  • Come on, can't you open your mouths? — Come on, ya can't open your mouths??
  • Hey, who's out there? — Hey, who out there?
  • I know, you're listening to us — I know, ya listenin’ to us
  • Somebody is out there man. — Somebody out there man.
  • Wow, it's delicious. — Wow, it delicious.
  • Holy crap, who're these people? — Holy crap, who these people?

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    Generally, avoid the ya spelling. That (or the pronunciation it symbolizes) is how everybody pronounces unstressed you, so it acts as a signal of substandard speech rather than a representation of actual speech. – StoneyB Feb 15 '14 at 17:31
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    Wikipedia has a lengthy article on AAVE, talking about its origins, characteristics, pronunciation, and use in literature. Much can be said about it, but, in my comment here, I'll just say you can't just "convert" a sentence to AAVE in one single, correct way. There's more to it than replacing an -ing with an -in’, or changing you to ya. Here is a related discussion about a classic attempt. – J.R. Feb 15 '14 at 21:33
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    One comment: there are numerous varieties of AAVE (we have a big country). – Peter Shor Feb 16 '14 at 18:39
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    Article 1 is ... Wow ... I don't have words for it. Offensive? Incorrect? Confused? Outdated? I mean, it's just ... Wow. Half of those expressions are more Afro-Carribean than African-American. And, that's just the surface. – David M Feb 18 '14 at 5:48
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    Always with scare quotes, note. It's not a separate language; it's a matrix of idiolects, sociolects, and dialects that form a variety of English. What I'm saying is that nobody but racists uses the term Ebonics any more, and if you don't want to be taken as one, you shouldn't either. – John Lawler Feb 21 '14 at 20:51
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I know the dialect a bit (I could speak it some back in the 80's, but I haven't kept it up very well).

From what I can see, I'd say you are only about 1/3 of the way there. The third you have is that you've constructed sentences that follow the dialect's rules (mostly). What you are missing is that the dialect has some of its own parts of speech that standard AmE doesn't have, and that it has its own vocabulary.

Let's take your first sentence:

•What the hell you all are doing here? — What the hell y'all doin' here?

As a dumb translation, it probably works. However, AAVE has a whole mess of its own tenses and aspects that a true AAVE user would apply here, given half a chance. For instance, if you think the activity has been going on for a while, you might say "been doin'". If it is something you want to imply is truly habitual (a concept most other English speakers don't even think about expressing), you'd say "be doin'" (or more likely "be" followed by a more descriptive verb).

Now for vocabulary, this just doesn't look like the words an AAVE speaker would use. For example, I can't ever in my life remember a speaker using the phrase "What the hell". Doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but the F word is far more likely there. Or in the next sentence:

Hey you! What the hell ya doin’ man? Stop that nonsense now. D'ya get it?

"Hey you" is never used. Often "Yo" is used instead (interestingly, the Philly accent also does this). The word "nonsense" really sticks out. AAVE has much more colorful words for that concept. In my day you'd say someone "be buggin'". In fact, you'd be better off replacing all four sentences with "Foo'*(or perhaps the N-word here)! Why you be buggin'?" (which again implies habitual behavior, but in this case as a ploy to shame the listener into calming down). However the vocabulary of AAVE changes crazy fast, so there's probably another phrase for that now.

Really, my suggestion if there's any money in this would be to get yourself a consultant who knows the language (better than I!). If you want/need to do it yourself and have some time, try to hang out with people who authentically speak it. If you have no way to physically do that, perhaps as a last resort try hanging out on Black Twitter for a few months and/or listen to a lot of Rap and Blues music.

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+25

This is wrong on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. But here goes.

Most people, including speakers of AAVE, don't say "ya" unless it's at the end of a sentence. Also, you can't write out the dialect without making a fiasco out of it unless you have actually studied it. Mark Twain wrote and rewrote the Missouri Mississippi dialect, and he grew up there! (Also, it's an easier dialect.) You can't imitate well the glottal stops, the soft r's, the th/d cross, etc. I would strongly advise you to avoid it altogether.

Also, there's more than one AAVE. It depends strongly on region, who one is with, one's age, and one's education.

If you insist on doing this, I'd recommend that you read authors who have done this well.

You can find some helpful info here, for example:

Final consonant clusters that are homorganic (have the same place of articulation) and share the same voicing are reduced. E.g. test is pronounced [tɛs] since /t/ and /s/ are both voiceless; hand is pronounced [hæn], since /n/ and /d/ are both voiced; but pant is unchanged, as it contains both a voiced and a voiceless consonant in the cluster. Note also that it is the plosive (/t/ and /d/) in these examples that is lost rather than the fricative or nasal. Speakers may carry this declustered pronunciation when pluralizing so that the plural of test is [tɛsəs] rather than [tɛsts]. The clusters /ft/, /md/, are also affected.

Also, listen to this.

Good luck.

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As an American, I can tell you that you are treading on some VERY thin ice with this question. There are many people who may be offended by a Non-African American attempting to write or speak in this vernacular.

This doesn't mean that you cannot do it, but you have to very careful to maintain respectfulness and portray your subjects fairly. If you are a non-native speaker or have limited exposure to AAVE, this can be very difficult.

As you may not be aware, there is a long and unfortunate history of Non-African Americans writing in this vernacular in a very offensive and disrespectful way for entertainment purposes. These were known as Minstrel Shows. In light of this history, if attempting to write in this vernacular, you must be very careful to avoid sounding racist.

But, in answer to your question: There is a problem with your question because you are asking for rules in a vernacular. Vernacular implies that it is NOT a formal system of language, and hence the rules are much more fluid. Granted, there are many who say it is a legitimate dialect all its own, but I still think you'd be hard pressed to learn it.

There are very few specific rules that globally apply to all variants of AAVE, and can be used to proper effect without being insulting to the speakers of that vernacular. The problem stems in the origin of the speech patterns themselves. Some are derived from regional dialects. Some are derived from mother tongues other than English (African languages, French, etc.) Some are derived from the quality of available education. Some are not "rules" at all.

This is the most I can say on the subject without branching into subject matter that may or may not be appropriate for this site.

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    Actually, there are lots of non-African Americans (e.g., screenwriters) who write in this vernacular. But people will be offended if you get it blatantly wrong. – Peter Shor Feb 18 '14 at 15:41
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    @RyeBread Why would my comment be racist? I am speaking of the perception of having people attempt to imitate your language patterns. If it is not done with absolute care, it can be perceived as being offensive. – David M Feb 21 '14 at 19:47
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    @RyeBread I'm sorry. I don't speak jive. Anyone able to translate? – Elliott Frisch Feb 21 '14 at 19:48
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    @nmclean I'm comparing race relations to a box with an angry snake. I'll thank you not to try to make me seem a racist. And, I would think it's apt. Look how much controversy it has stirred up already. As to why should it matter? Well, again, it shouldn't but it does. I don't make the rules. I don't even always follow the rules. But, I do try to protect people from blindly stumbling afoul of them. – David M Feb 22 '14 at 3:07
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    @nmclean Scrubbing the subtext makes this a moot argument. It would be great if we could just declare the emotional component of arguments non-contributory. But, we cannot. I never said the words "not be allowed." I said, be careful if you choose to go down this road that is fraught with potential danger. – David M Feb 22 '14 at 3:37
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Attempting to answer only the actual question here - so forgive me if there are some cultural nuances that I miss with respect to the ethics of some person of unknown race wishing to add this beautiful dialect to their dialogue.

Writing in AAVE/Ebonics/African American Dialects is very difficult to do well. My advice, first and foremost, is to read some of the authors who have used this language successfully and study what they do. Faulkner, Morrison, Dunbar, Hurston and Baldwin all have managed to meld these dialects with their fictional worlds in a way that adds to the reality of their characters rather than reduces their characters to a specific racial viewpoint.

Written AAVE and spoken AAVE differ in a variety of ways, it's very easy to go 'overboard' with AAVE in writing and seem like you are creating racialized caricatures instead of race-conscious characters. If I might posit a golden rule from writing in AAVE - too little is always better than too much.

The second thing you need to think about is why you are using AAVE. Is there a reason your characters need to sound a particular way? Is AAVE a subtextual signal of a lack of privilege? Is it used to group people in a particular way? What do those groupings signify? Would you be comfortable just coming out and saying why you are grouping people? If not, AAVE may be the wrong tool for the job. Using non-standard vernacular english to engage in racialized groupings of characters and ideas is not something I'd recommend.

So when should you use AAVE? I think some scenarios where it is appropriate include when you are writing to a privileged audience and want to help them traverse that white privilege and empathize with characters and ideas that would otherwise seem distant to them. AAVE is a powerful tool for forcing readers to give voices to the characters, it demands verbalization and expression - it cannot be skimmed or glossed over by white gazes, instead it confronts whiteness and demands acknowledgement and, to some degree, agonistic empathic connections.

Now that we have a sense of when to use AAVE, what about the how? Here are some 'general rules' - remember AAVE is invented and constructed by the author so there is not right or wrong (just like with all written fiction), just always be sure the choices you make adhere to a larger goal of communicating something through form that the content of the text alone is unable to communicate.

These distinctive Ebonics pronunciations are all systematic, the result of regular rules and restrictions; they are not random 'error'--and this is equally true of Ebonics grammar. For instance, Ebonics speakers regularly produce sentences without present tense is and are, as in "John trippin" or "They allright". But they don't omit present tense am. Instead of the ungrammatical *"Ah walkin", Ebonics speakers would say *"Ahm walkin." Likewise, they do not omit is and are if they come at the end of a sentence--"That's what he/they" is ungrammatical.

AND

Ebonics pronunciation includes features like the omission of the final consonant in words like 'past' (pas' ) and 'hand' (han'), the pronunciation of the th in 'bath' as t (bat) or f (baf), and the pronunciation of the vowel in words like 'my' and 'ride' as a long ah (mah, rahd). Some of these occur in vernacular white English, too, especially in the South, but in general they occur more frequently in Ebonics. Some Ebonics pronunciations are more unique, for instance, dropping b, d, or g at the beginning of auxiliary verbs like 'don't' and 'gonna', yielding Ah 'on know for "I don't know" and ama do it for "I'm going to do it."

Source

In Ebonics, be refers to a continuing state of being. The Ebonics sentence. "I be angry" is the same as the standard English "I have been angry for a while" and is grammatically correct. Ebonics leaves out forms of to be in cases where standard English would use a contraction[...]Ebonics also often drops -ed from the past tense and lacks the possessive 's[...] Consider the sentence "I don't want no trouble," which is of course, commendable [...] double negation is acceptable in Ebonics.

Source

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    If you don't know what Toni Morrison calls the five present tenses: she talking; she be talking; she be steady talking; she been talking and she BEEN talking, then you have no idea of what you're endorsing. – anongoodnurse Feb 22 '14 at 3:28
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    I agree! That Morrison quote "It’s terrible to think that a child with five different tenses comes to school to be faced with books that are less than his own language" is spot on. – pavja2 Feb 22 '14 at 4:19
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I think it would be helpful to spell out what your goals are. Are you writing a story? Are you thinking you'll try to speak this way on a trip? (That would be a bad idea.)

I can't address AAVE directly, but there is more to writing realistic dialogue than sentence structure. For example, the choice of vocabulary: "Wow" and "Holy Crap" do not sound like words I'd expect to hear from a speaker of AAVE. I also see a fair amount of profanity, which may or may not be appropriate, depending on your goal.

On a minor note, your first mainstream sentence would be "What the hell are you doing here?", where "you", if it refers to more than one person, has a variety of regional phrases. The southern US version is "y'all", a contraction of "you all", and AAVE would also use that construction. But a mainstream speaker might also say "y'all" if they are from the south, or something else if they were from another region, but probably not "you all".

  • Yes, the examples given here are from a story that I'm writing, the speaker is an African American. Why do you think "Wow" and "Holy Crap" won't be the choice of AAVE speaker? I've seen African American using these words. – user43286 Feb 15 '14 at 19:38
  • I may be conflating geography, culture, and generation with dialect, so I could easily be wrong. Actually, now that you've pointed it out, I have to agree with "Wow". On the other hand "Holy Crap" sounds like a euphemism from another subculture to me. (Not saying an AAVE speaker wouldn't use euphemisms, just that I'd expect something different.) – Wayne Feb 15 '14 at 19:58
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    I don't have a specific alternative, sorry. It just sounds wrong to my ear. --- While I'm commenting again, you say you've 'seen African Americans' using these phrases. Would this mean on TV or a movie that might be a comedy? And were they AAVE speakers? (As the articles state, not all African Americans speak AAVE and not all AAVE speakers are African Americans.) – Wayne Feb 15 '14 at 22:19
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    I'm definitely no expert (most of my exposure to AAVE comes from movies and books, to be honest). But I have the impression younger speakers (and "badasses") would invariably say "What the fuck!". And older ones still tend to avoid religious profanity, so they'd either do the same or use some other expression far removed from concepts of "blasphemy" or disrespect for the church. – FumbleFingers Feb 16 '14 at 18:39
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    Don't forget that speakers are individuals. Different people choose very different words, even when speaking what might be called the same dialect. – snailboat Feb 17 '14 at 6:07
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As well as reading the aforementioned articles and books, you might find some answers by studying the HBO series "The Wire". The writers produced some exceptional research and also had help from some of the actors in order to properly convey some of the street slang. The show is set in Baltimore, Maryland, but much of the dialect used is universal.

Here is a link to the scripts.

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Personally, I find any dialog difficult to write. I can't imagine doing what you are attempting. That is because I have an AA friend who is a medical professional. At work he uses SE exclusively, i.e.emphasized text in written and spoken communications. "Off duty" his speech shades from that same perfect SE to AAVE, depending on his companions and the reaction he wishes to elicit from them. I agree with previous posters that you need to find a consultant because of both the temporal and the situational fluidity of AAVE.

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Initial tentative rewrite (take the gift, and please watch out for INGS, which are BE + verb)

— What the hell y'all be doin' here? - Hey man! What the hell you be doing man? Stop that shit now. Ya hear me? Hey you! What the hell you be doin’ man? Stop that shit now. Ya hear me? Come on, say something? — Come on, can't ya say somethin'? Hey, who out there? [no is or maybe be: who be out there] I know, you be listening to us Somebody be out there man. Wow, this taste good. [NO s in third person] Damn,man, who the fuck are these people?

And to hell with what is politically correct, especially for writers....the only way to learn is to mimic. Delicious would not be used, depending on level of education.

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