aave vs. gen-z slang

by Fran
June 11, 2021

One of the biggest Gen-Z values is expecting accountability from brands. We all remember the 2017 Pepsi + Kendall Jenner ad everyone quickly called out for racial insensitivity. More recently, Reformation and Refinery29 were called out for racism within their organizations, despite touting support for the Black Lives Matter movement. As we expect honesty from these aforementioned brands, we’re dedicated to providing the same level of transparency and accountability from NinetyEight.

It recently came to our attention that we had mistakenly appropriated African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) as Gen-Z slang. We as an agency understand that it is important to give credit where credit is due, and sincerely apologize for this mistake. Every week, one of the things we do as a company is to sit down and learn about something important -- and we decided to learn about AAVE this week to 1) address our mistake and 2) help educate others about the real origin of many popular internet phrases.

These phrases, such as “on fleek” and “no cap,” are often credited as Gen-Z slang -- when, in fact, they all originate from Black internet voices. Claiming these to just be “internet words” or “slang” contributes to the erasure of Black people’s massive cultural influence in the United States and around the world, specifically by diminishing the validity of the language they speak.

What is AAVE?

African-American Vernacular English (or AAVE) can go by many names, including Ebonics, Black English, African American English, or Black Vernacular. These names all describe a type of English that is primarily (but not exclusively) associated with the speech of African-Americans. The recent addition of “vernacular” to the name is gaining popularity because it distinguishes from formal English spoken by African-Americans.

According to Portland State University, linguists estimate that AAVE is spoken by 80-90% of African-Americans, often in a “bi-dialectical” pattern; that is, they slip easily in and out of AAVE and Standard American English dialect. The usage of AAVE on a face-to-face level is often regulated by factors around the conversation, such as environment, topic, and audience.

How does this relate to “Gen-Z Slang?”

A Buzzfeed article, published last year, highlights a particular high school teacher’s vocabulary list of Gen-Z slang he heard in the classroom. The words on this list were very similar to those we highlighted on our website. Here are a few examples.

It is important to note the editing history of this article -- originally, these terms were only characterized as Gen-Z slang. The author of the article later added an amendment saying that “many of the terms Callahan characterized as ‘Gen Z slang’ are derived from black culture, and specifically black internet culture.”

This begs the question - why should we credit these words to black internet culture, if seemingly every youth has adopted these terms?

The high school teacher, of course, had no malice in characterizing these words as “Gen-Z slang.” If he was hearing these exclusively within his classroom, it’s understandable that he chalked it up to how young people speak. However, disregarding black internet culture’s impact on the overall internet landscape is an erasure of the Black experience.

When we think about language, it’s mostly about grammar and the functions that make a written or verbal form of communication possible to understand. What native English speakers often overlook is the cultural significance of various dialects and the experiences that come with speaking anything other than Standard American English.

The origins of AAVE are rooted in uprising. White slave-owners commonly did not allow their slaves to seek English literacy because they did not want the slaves to realize their identity, gain knowledge, and break free. Any sort of language acquisition beyond the English that was spoken to slaves was an active response to the dehumanization and stripping of the black identity, which the slave trade enabled. AAVE was a way for slaves to communicate with each other, form communities, and build a common identity outside of their shared trauma.

AAVE is a fully-formed, racially-shaped linguistic system, yet is often de-racialized and characterized as “youthful slang.” De-racializing these words without understanding the context of AAVE’s beginnings diminishes the importance and prevalence of AAVE in the black community.

As Tylah Silva from Emerson College writes, “Not all AAVE is built the same, just as not all African-Americans are the same. Hell, not even all black people are the same. But not everyone even knows the difference between African-American and black.” Jamaicans, for example, may not see themselves as African-American because they are not descendants of American slaves.

The usage and popular appropriation of these words, especially in recent times, has different effects on different demographics. Non-black people and corporations benefit from leveraging these “trendy” words, yet black children in schools are often reprimanded for using AAVE, or are even told that it’s not “proper English.”

AAVE should be taken no less seriously than we take Standard American English. For example, you wouldn’t look down upon a British person for speaking in Standard British English -- why should AAVE be any different? When non-black people diminish AAVE as “slang,” they are ignoring the black community’s value in mainstream culture; that is, the words are taken from the community and credit is not given where credit is due. People are looked down upon for using AAVE in academic settings, yet on Twitter and Instagram, seemingly everyone is using AAVE to communicate their thoughts. This issue goes beyond AAVE and into music, fashion, design, and it is very important to acknowledge the history of black culture and arts when engaging with Gen-Z consumers. This is a systemic problem that must be solved and addressed within academic and professional communities -- but the unraveling starts at an individual level.

For example, did you know that “tea” actually originated from black drag culture? According to Merriam-Webster, it was originally spelled “T” and was used in John Berendt's nonfiction best seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In his book, he interviews The Lady Chablis, a popular drag performer in Savannah, about her dating life. She says that she avoids particular men because they become prone to violence when they find out her “T”:

"Your T?"

"Yeah, my T. My thing, my business, what's goin' on in my life."
— Lady Chablis quoted in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt, 1994

In this case, “T” means the truth - that she is transgender. Even in the 90s, this could have a double-edged meaning in the black gay community, from just one’s hidden truth to gossip. As the term became popular, brands and people have co-opted it on social media with a similar meaning of “truth” or “gossip.”

The popular usage of AAVE on social media isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These words are heavily popularized online, and many of them, such as “spill the tea,” are commonly used by people of all races. While people can still use these words online, it is very important to understand the context of AAVE and how we approach them moving forward. Similar to how “deja vu” is borrowed from the French language and incorporated into the Standard American English lexicon, it is crucial to recognize the importance of AAVE in shifting mainstream culture, especially online.

So before you say “no cap” or “bet,” recognize the origins of these words as AAVE and use them intentionally. As a Gen-Z agency, we believe that it’s our responsibility to thoroughly educate ourselves and others on all things Gen-Z -- even the stuff that is uncomfortable to talk about. We recognize our mistake in not appropriately crediting AAVE in our original website design and have made edits to link to this blog post when visitors click on that part of the website.

We also understand the importance of always being open to learn. This was an avoidable error on our end, and we are taking steps to learn more about this topic (and encourage everyone else to do the same). If you are interested in learning more about AAVE, check out this very informative article or read more about cultural appropriation and the intersectionality of AAVE. Additionally, here is a link to other Black Lives Matter resources, petitions to sign, and other ways to help out.

Blessings to you all,

NinetyEight