African American English: Exploring Roots and Changing Perceptions with Typography

Today’s guest post is by Nuri Abdur-Rauf. USA native, Nuri, is interning with us at Asilia while she pursues an MA in Contemporary Typographic Media at the University of the Arts London College of Communication. We’ve been privy to what she’s working on for her final project – getting tidbits and sneak peeks of work in progress over lunch. I personally have learned a whole lot about African American English (AAE) and my own perceptions/preconceptions have been challenged! Here, Nuri shares a little bit of her fascinating topic. Enjoy!



There are about 5,000-7,000 recognized languages in use in the world today. The amount of dialects (versions of languages that are specific to a region or group) can't even be traced because of the vastness in variation that is related to factors like geographic location, education level, ethnicity and social status.  

I've always been fascinated by language and all that it embodies. This is why reading books are some of my first memories, why I couldn't be consoled after I got tripped up while spelling "carriage" in my 4th grade spelling bee and why I proofread for pleasure. I think it's also a big part of why I decided to get my Bachelor's degree in Journalism and Creative Writing and even though I'm working on my Master's right now in Graphic Design and Typography, the research I've decided to concentrate on deals squarely with linguistics and how people remix language to suit them.




What is AAE?

My research centers around African American English (AAE) – also known as Black English, African American Vernacular English and many other monikers – and how it can be represented typographically. African American English is what its name suggests – a dialect of English that is primarily spoken by African Americans. It includes its own set of grammar and pronunciation patterns, a huge vocabulary of words and terms, distinct tone and inflection styles as well as body language. To put it simply, it's a rich and complex way of speaking that reflects its speakers. It developed from our creation as a people nearly 400 years ago, out of the need and desire for those taken from different parts of the continent to find a common linguistic ground to tread on and communicate amongst themselves in the strange land they'd been forcefully brought to. It began as a means of survival and has endured to the present day, morphing and adapting to the changing times, still with the undertone of survival but also of expression, identity and tradition. 


Code switching

Growing up down south in the states, in Georgia and South Carolina, hearing and speaking AAE was natural to me. It was just as natural to learn that there were times to speak it (around close family and friends and in relaxed settings); times when you should switch to the more mainstream, accepted form of English (I revoke the term Standard English because I don't think such a thing exists, but that's a different blog post) and; times when your speech could fall somewhere in between. This practice is called code switching and is a fluid occurrence that almost every Black American person I know considers to be second nature. The ease of turning it on and off comes from conditioning and is a window into what being Black in America entails. Code switching is necessary because of the unsettled racial inequality that exists in the country. Those who can't successfully code switch may miss out on opportunities. Their voices are often marginalized, their character is often judged unfairly and incorrectly. This complicated relationship that America has with AAE is the basis for my research and I hope to unpack some of the misjudging by presenting this way of speaking visually and in a positive light.




Origins of AAE

There is intense academic debate over the true origins of AAE – whether it is an amalgamation of the many African languages that converged when slavery in the United States began, versus whether AAE is a byproduct of the various English dialects that slaves first heard spoken by the white British, Scottish and Irish indentured servants they labored with. Personally, I think it's all of the above and it's a waste of time to "pick a side." Nevertheless, it's ridiculous to believe that AAE doesn't have ties to the ample amount of languages across the diaspora.

During my research, I've come across the possible etymology of some of the words found in AAE's lexicon and their roots in the Wolof language of Senegal and Gambia (see illustrations above). While listening to a recording of a talk held at The British Library in 2010 on the language of hip hop, it was eye-opening to hear moderator MK Asante drop knowledge on these words – considered slang in mainstream America – and how they tie the African American experience to Africa (I could do an entire seperate project on AAE as it relates to hip hop music).

As I continue my research, I hope to uncover more connections. Information like this and the general discussion about this subject will hopefully help foster acceptance and begin to dissuade the isolation that AAE speakers experience by simply trying to communicate.

AAE is beautiful. Just as its speakers are, just as the struggles they triumph over are, just as their ancestral homeland is.




Get involved

Nuri is conducting a survey to gather opinions on AAE. It is open to all, from AAE speakers to those who are learning about it for the first time. Find it by clicking here. The survey is open until the end of August.

To follow along with Nuri's research, visit


All images designed by Nuri Abdur-Rauf



Continue reading “African American English: Exploring Roots and Changing Perceptions with Typography”