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Another kind of freedom to speak

Black English matters

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speech or Black English (often used as an umbrella term for the many varieties of speech used by African American communities) is a prime example of how a regular way of speaking can have a major impact on people’s lives. On absolutely no scientific basis, linguistically consistent grammatical features like double negatives, along with other marked grammatical differences to standard American English, such as use of habitual be, as in “he be walkin’,” or perfective, as in “he done did it,” have stigmatized the speakers of Black English as linguistically backward, uneducated, or unintelligent.

It once did happen that some tried to elevate the status of Black English to the level of a language in the eyes of the general public. For decades, linguists and other educators, pointing to the logic and science of language, have tried to convince people that Black English exists, that isn’t just a politically correct label for a poor version of English but is a valid system of language, with its own consistent grammar. In 1996, with the unanimous support of linguists, the Oakland School Board voted to recognize AAVE, or the more politicized term “Ebonics” (a portmanteau of “Ebony” and “phonics”), as a community language for African American students, a decision which might have opened up much needed additional funding for education.

Incorrect beliefs persist

Instead it resulted in intense public backlash and derision due to the still widespread, incorrect belief that Black English was an inferior, uneducated form of English associated with illiteracy, poverty, and crime. It’s hard for a language to get ahead when it keeps getting put down. Some linguists, such as John Russell Rickford, have noted how even sympathetic linguistic research, which has derived a lot of benefit and understanding from Black English grammar, can unknowingly focus on data that represents African American communities negatively, giving “the impression that black speech was the lingo of criminals, dope pushers, teenage hoodlums, and various and sundry hustlers.” The term “Ebonics” even now is used mockingly by some as a byword for broken English.

Filled with linguistic innovations

Black English is not just one monolithic dialect spanning the many millions of speakers across the country. There are rich regional and class differences with a deep linguistic history intertwined with stories of migration and movement, and there are dialects that grew to include more standard as well as vernacular forms. There’s an almost relentless creativity to the linguistic innovations found in Black English. In fact, as linguists have found, there’s a lot more that Black English speech can teach about language in general and a lot more that Black English has contributed to American cultural life, both past and present, than it may ever get back in kind, given its reputation as a broken language.

This is the remarkable twist to this tale. All along, while standard American English was busy convincing everyone that it was a superior dialect, it’s Black English that’s been a true cultural and linguistic force in contemporary society. Standard English is in fact deeply indebted to this so-called impoverished speech. It’s Black English that has left its mark on the popular culture we participate in, sliding seamlessly into the language of art, music, poetry, storytelling, and social media. Perhaps no other variety of speech has been quite so significant, innovative, and influential to the development of standard American English.

Good enough for the NY Times

Linguist Margaret G. Lee notes how black speech and verbal expressions have often been found crossing over into mainstream prestige speech, such as in the news, when journalists talk about politicians “dissing” each other, or the New York Times puts out punchy headlines like “Grifters Gonna Grift.”

These many borrowings have occurred across major historical eras of African American linguistic creativity. Now-common terms like “you’re the man,” “brother,” “cool,” and “high five” extend from the period of slavery to civil rights, from the Jazz Age to hip-hop: the poetry of the people. This phenomenon reflects how central language and the oral tradition are to the black experience. As Lee points out, from “the disguise language used by enslaved Africans to conceal their conversations from their white slave masters to the lyrics of today’s rap music, [the magical power of] the word has been shaped by a time when, as observed by Harlem newspaper writer Earl Conrad, ‘it was necessary for the Negro to speak and sing and even think in a kind of code.’”

An outsized impact

It’s a kind of code that’s highly creative, and conducive to sharing. Despite this speech being “low prestige,” there’s a strong covert prestige to using African American vernacular speech. As outside the mainstream as it is, it’s often seen as cool for rebellious outsiders to use these expressions, from fans of hip-hop and jazz to other marginalized but influential African American sources of language such as in camp or drag queen linguistics. It’s a sign of a strong linguistic culture, tradition, and community that linguistic innovations can be so widely distributed and end up having such an outsize impact on the standard language.

It’s ironic that Black English speech is still dismissed and devalued as being linguistically broken, and at the same time is one of the richest sources of lexical innovation in English. It’s clear that the linguistic creativity of Black English and African American vernacular speech, which across history has contributed so much to standard American English and American culture, is something to celebrate, not despise. It’s not just another language. To those who speak it, and to those who feel its cultural impact—Black English matters.

Chi Luu is a computational linguist with degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

A longer version of this article appeared in the February 2020 issue of JStor Daily.

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