Thursday 31 October 2019

‘Oh gurl, you Sassy’

‘Slay’, ‘yaas kween’, ‘squad’ – if you’re a keen social media, you might be familiar with some of these words. Originally from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) – a variety of English spoken by some Black Americans – these terms have quickly become part of the internet grammar. But, how and why have these terms entered our lexicon and what does the use of AAVE in internet communication mean? This and other questions are examined by Christian Ilbury in his recent paper.

Recent sociolinguistic work has often used social media data to examine patterns of written variation – such as whether you spell the word working as <working> or <workin> - in relation to the distribution of the spoken language feature. An example of this is Grieve’s recent paper which we discuss in detail in a previous post. In that paper he uses social media data to explore lexical (i.e., words) variation across different areas of the UK. This work demonstrates the enormous potential of using social media data to explore general patterns of accent variation. However, whilst these approaches appear promising, Ilbury suggests that these analyses often miss a fundamental quality of online interaction: That users often use elements of language that are not part of their own speech for certain purposes, such as to adopt a different identity or signal that the message is humorous.

To investigate this issue, Ilbury turns to tweets from gay men in the UK to examine the ways in which this community use elements of African American Vernacular English. He argues that the gay community in the UK are well suited to examining this phenomenon because aspects of AAVE feature prominently in mainstream gay culture and form much of contemporary gay slang. For instance, drag queens in the UK frequently use aspects of AAVE such as copula absence as in ‘she going’ for ‘she is going’ or the use of completive done as in ‘she done used all the good ones’ in their performance. Turning to Twitter, he extracted 15,804 tweets from the timelines of 10 self-identifying gay men who reside in the UK and trawled through their tweets to identify features that are typically associated with AAVE.

His analysis shows that several features characteristic of AAVE are widespread in the gay men’s tweets. This includes lexical features, including words such as ‘slay’, ‘yaas’, and ‘y’all’; the representation of sound features such as ‘dat’ for ‘that’, ‘ma’ for ‘my, as well as several grammatical features such as copula absence in ‘you nasty’ for ‘you are nasty’ and demonstrative them as in ‘working them boots’.

He argues that the appearance of these features can’t be accounted for by the men trying to represent their own dialect since they are likely to speak a variety of British English that is very different to AAVE. This is in contrast to Grieve’s analysis where the users appear to be representing aspects of their own dialect. This suggests that the men in Ilbury’s study are not attempting to represent their own voices but are rather using elements of AAVE to adopt or perform an altogether different identity.

To investigate what this identity may be, Ilbury looks to popular memes to see how African Americans and AAVE are represented in digital contexts. This includes exploring two memes that reference aspects of AAVE. The first refers to Kimberly ‘Sweet Brown’ Wilkins and the second is entitled the ‘strong independent Black woman who don't need no man’.

'I am a strong independent Black woman who don't need no man' meme (L) &
Kimberly 'Sweet Brown' Wilkins 'Ain't nobody got time for that meme' (R)
He argues that these memes feed into ideological and stereotypical representations of African American women as ‘sassy’. However, this imagery is not new. African American women have frequently been depicted as ‘fierce’ or ‘sassy’, even in very old media representations of this community. These representations are obviously very problematic since they are based on racialised and essentialised ideas about the personal qualities of African American women.

Returning to the Twitter data, Ilbury argues that these representations are helpful in explaining why the men are using features of AAVE. He suggests that it is exactly that this ‘sassy’ meaning that the men are ‘activating’ by using components of AAVE. In other words, the men appropriate aspects of AAVE to perform an identity that is non-local and to evoke the essentialised associations of that style to present themselves as ‘sassy’ – a quality that has become appreciated in mainstream UK gay culture. He argues that they are not attempting to present themselves as ‘Black women’ but are rather using features of AAVE to appropriate the associations of that variety and perform a gay identity that he refers to as the ‘Sassy Queen’ – where ‘Queen’ is a gay slang term that refers to an effeminate gay man.

Such types of language play, Ilbury argues, are particularly useful in contexts where there is some threat that the user may be read as rude or direct, such as disagreements. In these contexts, the use of this style allows the user to avoid the negative outcomes of the disagreement because the receiver is aware that the user is performing a style that is inauthentic. 

So, whilst social media can tell us a lot about dialectal variation (e.g., Grieve – previous post), it is important to acknowledge that some users will appropriate aspects of other linguistic varieties to perform other identities and utilise the meanings associated with that variety. What users do with that style depends on how it is used in interactions and may differ from community to community.


Ilbury, Christian (Online First/2019) “Sassy Queens”: Stylistic orthographic variation in Twitter and the enregisterment of AAVE. Journal of Sociolinguistics.

This summary was written by 
Christian Ilbury