You gonna finna slay sis: Colloquial use of AAVE

Y’all be sayin y’all ate and left no crumbs. Meanwhile, the plate was never touched. Y’all be claimin you “served.” Meanwhile, I’m starved. Ya’ll be sayin you “ate down.” Meanwhile, you’ve been ate up. Y’all be saying “period” where there should be several question marks. Y’all stay sayin y’all “be doin” stuff y’all don’t even be doin.

Now that that’s out of the way.The evolution of language can be a beautiful thing. However, when I transferred to Tech, I remember sitting in a group of maybe seven or eight students in a circle. 

Our research methods professor had challenged us with a particularly difficult problem set. As we began to make gainful progress, the other students began calling out in popcorn fashion to encourage each other and suddenly I was surrounded by a chorus of “pur!!… pur queen! Pur!! Big pur!!” in compulsory fashion similar to the “MINE” seagulls in “Finding Nemo.”

I believe you, dear reader, also see the emerging issue. One need not look further than last fall’s “slay” epidemic to understand. Words like slay, period(t), ate, gives and the infamous habitual “be” are meant to be used on rare occasions to emphasize extreme strength or magnitude, but their meanings are rapidly being eroded away.

Honestly, a lot of the time, I don’t think people even realize when they’re using it. As such, here is a short list of questions to ask yourself as you evaluate your use of language. Do you notice a drastic change in your normal tone/pitch of voice? Do you find yourself using dramatic gestures of the hands and neck that you otherwise never employ? Do you find yourself inexplicably omitting linking and helping verbs (including but not limited to “am,” “are” and “is”)? Does the arrangement of words in use, seem to be inexplicably at odds with your natural way of speaking? Does the vernacular in question seem to contain an unexplainable element of swag?

If you answered yes to one or more questions above, you or a loved one may be using African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Bonus: would you drop this new accent like a bad habit if your grandparents walked in the room? This is by far the most effective method of deduction.

On a more serious note, I think it’s odd because we don’t really do that to other communities with language. I remember sitting in Tech Square one day and overheard this non-Black girl telling an anecdote to her friends. “You right though! But you right though! He crazy!” she yelled, dramatically gesturing her hands in a knuck-if-you-buck fashion. For whatever reason, we recognize Black English when Black people use it and demonize them for it. When non-Black people use it, we call it “Gen-Z language” or “slang” or “TikTok language,” and it’s acceptable, often humorous. I definitely remember being forced to adopt a new accent growing up because, as it was explained to me, I wouldn’t be able to get a job “speaking like that.” I’m not really going to get into the weeds of what an “employable” accent is; I’m just sharing my experience.

I also understand that language is meant to evolve — AAVE certainly does. However, when people begin forcing accents and changing their personalities to align with long projected stereotypes of the Black community while using AAVE, it’s just unsettling. For whatever reason, that experience in Tech Square really informed my perspective. 

It hit me that if I decided to randomly begin doing an Indian accent in casual conversation, no one would tolerate that — as they shouldn’t. Why is it okay to do it to Black people, then? I get that we’ve grown accustomed to it, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

However, if you still insist on attempting to use AAVE, here is a tentative guide on how to do so. I’m choosing three words I’ve heard most abused. You might not feel there is a difference in the examples provided. However, a lot of it comes down to why you might describe something as popular instead of cool. Again: yes, words evolve, but they also have their own unique meaning. Think about the difference between nervousness and angst for example. They are words that are meant to describe distinct situations and feelings. My love of linguistics and etymology aside, for me, it’s important because these words are a function of my culture: my upbringing, my experiences, some of my best memories — all of which work to tell a story and represent a community much larger than myself. So without further ado:

Okay, so here’s the big one. Slay is a word used to emphasize extreme strength or magnitude. The word also has a connotation of fierceness and can be used as a noun, adjective or most commonly a verb. 

A common misuse of this word would equate it to merely meaning “good” or even “great.” For example, if you were to say “my teacher canceled class today. Slay.” That’s not enough. Beyoncé, a fresh silk press and a well executed vogue routine slay. The habitual “be” is used to describe a state of consistency. For example, if your brother was at Golden Glide every day over the summer you could reasonably say, “no my brother isn’t home right now, you know he be at that Golden Glide!” That doesn’t mean that he is actually there right now, but that he was there many times in the past and likely will be there in the future. 

I feel like with this one, I mostly hear it being used as a present tense verb. For example, my coworker once told me he “be crying today fr.” Devastating. 

Similarly, this one has most commonly been reduced to mean “I like it.” I think a phrase more people are familiar with that could be somewhat of an equivalent could be “knock your socks off.” For something to “go hard” it has to be better than good and immediately impactful. For example, while most classical music is beautiful, inspirational and eye-watering even, it does not go hard. 

“Mo Bamba” by Shack Wes goes hard. “m.A.A.d City” by Kendrick Lamar goes hard. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’’ by Lauryn Hill is a beautiful, eye-watering song that deserved every Grammy, but it does not go hard. 

If you’re looking for classical music though, the “1812 Overture” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (one where they recorded live cannons as part of the
melody), absolutely goes hard.

So the next time you find yourself about to declare that something is “eating,” you should ask yourself, did it really?