Word Nerd: Black English: Where African rhythms resonate

A Gullah Bible, written in Black English. (Photo by Hayley Juhl)

A Gullah Bible, written in Black English. (Photo by Hayley Juhl)

In February, in the United States and Canada, we celebrate Black History Month to honour the achievements of black men and women throughout history. As such, let’s reflect on the speech patterns of black people.

While negative attitudes toward black English persist, we have to look to yesteryear to see that there has been a sea change in how this dialect is viewed. To wit, in the 1830s, a cartoonist in Philadelphia published a series of popular cartoons that mocked the pretensions of the evolving black middle class trying to act “white.” One cartoon displayed a bewigged partygoer asking the following captioned question: “Shall I hab de honor to dance de next quadrille with you, Miss Minta.” Although despicably racist, these cartoons highlight the realization of the distinct nature of black English.

The language used by blacks may have been distinct, but it was regarded as second-rate. H.L. Mencken in his opus The American Language wrote in the 1920s, “The Negro dialect, as we know it today, seems to have been formulated by the song-writers for the minstrel shows; it did not appear in literature until the time of the Civil War … it was a vague and artificial lingo which had little relation to the actual speech of Southern blacks.”

Some years ago, pop grammarian John Simon ordained that “the constructions of Black English are the product not of a language with roots in tradition but of ignorance of how language works.”

It is now recognized that black English is not inferior but merely another of the multitudinous flavours of English available on our planet. It contains some useful refinements not available in standard English. In a 1997 article in the magazine Discover, linguist John B. Rickford outlined some of the versatility of black English in the verb “to run.”

1) He runnin. (“He is running.”)

2) He be runnin. (“He is usually running.”)

3) He be steady runnin. (“He is usually running in an intensive, sustained manner.”)

4) He bin runnin. (“He has been running.”)

5) He BIN runnin. (“He has been running for a long time and still is.”)

Most linguists believe that black English has its roots in the Creole language that developed as a result of contact between West Coast Africans and European traders. Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil In The Story of English relate that “The African element in the English spoken by slaves on the plantation—known as Plantation Creole—was sustained for some time. On each plantation, there would be some esteemed slaves who spoke African languages.”

Not surprisingly, an African heritage resonates through black English speech patterns. Many West African languages don’t possess the problematic English “th” sound. The lack of this consonantal combo may thus lead to “them” being rendered as “dem” and “desk” as “des.”

It was once felt that as more blacks entered the mainstream that the dialect would greatly fade. According to linguists, however, the current generation of inner-city youth employs the black vernacular more than ever. The persistence of the dialect reflects an attitude that prizes cultural distinction. Black English endures because it fulfills a cultural need by enhancing black solidarity. On the other hand, the inability of a black person to speak and write in standard English can seriously impede his or her social and economic prospects.

Schoolteachers used to devote themselves to correcting black English usage under the impression that they were imparting proper grammar. Things are improving somewhat but have a long way to go. The Oxford Companion to the English Language states that “because Black English is devalued … many teachers with excellent intentions continue to denigrate it in favour of standard English. Few such educators … have learned about the history and nature of Afro-American English, and fail to appreciate its diversity and logical integrity as a long-established variety of the language.”

I believe that black English should not be taught as a distinct language but should be used as a tool to improve students’ mastery of standard English.

Richler’s From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in March 2013.

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