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May 17, 2021

Is it Gen Z Slang or AAVE?

Update: check out our 2023 Parent’s Guide to Teen Slang

During its May 8th episode with guest host Elon Musk, Saturday Night Live performed a sketch called “Gen Z Hospital” in which cast members portrayed Gen Z teens asking hospital staff about a friend who was in the hospital. The actors dressed in exaggerated Gen Z fashion (bright colors, patterns, and dyed hair) and spoke almost exclusively in Gen Z slang (“Yo, if this doctor keeps leaving us on read he’s gonna catch hands, on gang”).

The sketch has since received backlash, primarily from Twitter users. Aside from being incredibly cringey, some think the sketch is offensive for how it labels terms like “sus” and “catch hands” as Gen Z lingo, when in actuality they are examples of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. Not only was the lingo mislabeled, the lines were also delivered by almost all White actors. This sketch is one of many times White Gen Z content creators have been shamed for appropriating Black culture to be funny.

What is AAVE? Where did it come from?

As we said before, AAVE stands for African American Vernacular English. Black English is another term used, as it covers the multiple kinds of speech used by African Americans. According to Britannica, in 1996 the Oakland Unified School District passed a resolution declaring that AAVE was its own language, separate from English. The African American students’ way of speaking was being corrected by teachers who considered it improper English, seeing it as slang or having poor grammatical structure (like the double negative “ain’t nothing”). The goal of this policy was to aid African American students who grew up speaking AAVE by making teachers familiar with the vernacular and including AAVE in the district’s bilingual programs. Though there has been much backlash (Rev. Jesse Jackson famously called it “an unacceptable surrender” and “borderlining on disgrace”) the resolution was a major step in framing AAVE as its own language.

What are some examples of AAVE words that have been labeled “Gen Z slang”?

Here are some examples of common Gen Z lingo that actually come from AAVE:

Bruh: A form of the word brother that originated in Black English during the late 1800s. It was popularized as a way for Black men to address each other in the 1900s.

Slaps: A word for describing music with a prominent beat, originating from Bay Area hip-hop slang around the early 2000’s.

Periodt: Meaning something is final, this spelling originated from Southern Black gay slang during the early 2000s, and was popularized by the Black rap duo City Girls.

Bet: Another way of saying “sounds good,” this slang became popular across college campuses in the 1990s by way of influence from Black culture and hip-hop music.

Lowkey: Became slang for doing something subtly in the late 2000s, popularized by hip-hop music from artists like Chance the Rapper in the 2010s.

Fam: Slang for people who aren’t necessarily blood related but are very close to you, originating from Black English around the early 2000s.

Cap/No Cap: Black slang dating back to the early 1900s, cap could mean a brag or a lie, and no cap could mean no lie or not bragging.

Finna: A condensing of “fixing to,” this term appeared in Black English and was featured in hip-hop lyrics beginning in the late 1980s from groups like N.W.A.

Turnt/Turnt Up: These terms describe a state of excitement or energetic celebration. They have been used in hip-hop culture since the early 2000s.

Trippin’: Another way to describe someone as acting irrationally or overreacting, often used when someone is exaggerating a situation. It originated in Black English in the past decades and remains a common term in Black communities.

Bougie/Boujee: This term became especially prominent in hip-hop culture and music in the 1990s and early 2000s. It originally referred to someone who aspired to a higher social class, but took on new meanings in the 2000s describing someone who is pretentious or acting “high-class.”

Is AAVE Cultural Appropriation? Why is it a big deal?

Many people are unaware that terms they hear every day come from AAVE, or what AAVE even is. Michael Che, the writer of the sketch who is African-American, said in a since-deleted Instagram post that he was unaware of what AAVE was and meant no disrespect to those who thought the sketch was offensive. Other White influencers like Kombucha Girl and Miranda Sings have recently faced backlash for assuming AAVE was part of “internet culture” and being unaware of its history.

Despite the 1996 Oakland Unified School District resolution, many people still only consider AAVE a dialect and not a standalone language. Many still consider it to be an incorrect version of English. Those in favor of considering AAVE to be a language argue that considering it to be incorrect perpetuates racial prejudice against Blacks. The concern is that dismissing AAVE forces Black people to code-switch, or feel the need to alternate between different languages or dialects to appear more a part of whoever they are interacting with (sounding “Black” when talking with Black folks, and needing to sound “White” when interacting with White folks). When White people code-switch by using AAVE for humor, they can do so whenever it benefits their content and then switch back to their normal dialect. Some would say that this is a form of appropriation and is unfair, since Black people may be denied a job or otherwise judged for not sounding smart or sensical according to a White standard.

One of the main problems is that this accidental appropriation often goes unnoticed, or unaddressed. While it’s unlikely that Gen Z will stop using these slang words altogether (at least until new slang becomes more trendy), it’s worth recognizing their original context.  Most uses of AAVE on places like TikTok are meant to be harmless, but being educated on where such terms come from can lead to using them more intentionally.

It should also be noted that language is a big way we make meaning and understand each other, and teens naturally adopt the words and phrases they hear most to stay relevant and effectively communicate with their peers. Gen Z is known for their inclusivity, and even though we all sometimes say things that we wish we hadn’t, they are also known for being sensitive—especially when it comes to current social injustices. Some people will find the “Gen Z Hospital” SNL sketch offensive, and some won’t, regardless of their race or age. Comedy has a long history of being offensive to some and entertaining to others, so it’s important to know our audience and be willing to talk through controversial topics with grace. Let’s try to learn from those we disagree with, whether we understand their perspective or not.

Discussion Questions

Here are some questions you can use with your teen to start the conversation:

  • What are some slang terms you use or hear your peers use? Where did you first hear them?
  • Do you know what AAVE is? Have you ever heard that term?
  • Are there any words other than swear words that you think are bad? Why or why not?
  • Do you think it’s important to know where words come from? Why or why not?
  • Would knowing the history of a word potentially change your mind about using it?
  • Why do you think it’s important to think before you speak? Is it hard to do so?

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