Will The Oxford Dictionary Of African American English Help Address Language Appropriation?

A new project will finally acknowledge that AAVE isn't just slang.
A new project will finally acknowledge that AAVE isn't just slang.

A new project will finally acknowledge that AAVE isn't just slang.

AlthoughAfricanAmerican Vernacular English is front and center in the way all of us communicate, it has always been regarded as slang. More recently, Black colloquial phrases have been wholly co-opted by certain subsets and make up what some more clueless people consider “internet-y” or “Gen Z speak.” Let’s be real: Describing your meal as “bussin” is not Twitter or TikTok slang. Anything remotely cool or flavorful in American culture came from Black people.

So it feels good to hear that Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a team of researchers from the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research have teamed up with the Oxford University Press to give Black English its long-overdue props. The Oxford Dictionary of African American English, set to be released in 2025, will define historically Black words and phrases and provide the more accurate origins of those words — reclaiming them, in a way.

The project involved extensive digging into music lyrics, letters, diary entries, magazines, and even slave narratives, according to The New York Times. In addition to pulling from historical sources, the team tapped into the best living sources it could find: Black women. The team included Anansa Benbow, producer of The Black Language Podcastand Bianca Jenkins, whose graduate research included using language to identify fake Black Twitter accounts; they worked with linguists and lexicographers who have scoured hundreds of historical texts (and, of course, Black Twitter) to curate the dictionary, according to The New Yorker. The first volume will consist of 1,000 words and phrases that lay the foundation for an accessible resource that acknowledges the existence and impact of African American English.

While some of you may continue to pull up Urban Dictionary and Rap Genius for AAVE vocab (I feel the need to note that both were founded by white men), this dictionary will be a major anchor of accountability. It requires Oxford University Press to acknowledge the role white institutions and academia have played in policing and erasing African American English and expression, while also acknowledging that AAVE is a legitimate language. 

The researchers for this project also found this style of English allows Black people to communicate in coded ways that keep us safe from white violence. During chattel slavery, anti-literacy laws prohibited enslaved Black people from reading and writing, which was a big factor in how the dialect was born. 

The publisher’s decision to acknowledge these roots and tap on cultural experts to establish an official record is a huge step toward addressing generations of erasure. Up until recently, we’ve been encouraged to code-switch at school, in professional settings, and anywhere that is predominantly white. But now that it’s cool to exclaim “say less” in a Zoom meeting when enthusiastically co-signing an idea, it’s time that we have a governing body that reminds non-Black America that we are, and always have been, the linguistic drip.

To truly understand and respect AAVE, you must know its origin. All things said, once this Oxford Dictionary drops, I might start telling people I’m bilingual, cause honestly, Who gon check me?”