The History and Survival of Black English

Black English is everywhere. It is on the streets, in the classrooms, in movies and in the music we listen to. 80 percent of the African American population speak Black English. It is ubiquitous in society, so why are so many people still unclear on what it is?

Black English is a genuine language system with its own rules of grammar, vocabulary and structure.

The history of Black English is vague. Early theories connect it to African slaves who did not learn correct English from their masters. Basically when African slaves attempted to learn English, their native language got in the way. “This is called interference-tendency of individuals to make the language they are learning conform to the sound and structure of their native tongues”(Brown 3). Another theory is that Black English is a Creole of West African languages and English.

Linguistic interference is labeled as a pidgin or Creole language. Pidgin English is a language of “transaction attempting to fit the words and sounds of the new language into the basic idiomatic mold and structure of their native tongue”(Brown 7). Pidgin is not a native language for any group. It is always spoken in addition to a native language.

John Harris in his 1986 study of the origins of pidgin and Creole explained the need for a pidgin language. The need for a pidgin language emerges when:

1.Restricted access to the target language.
2.Lack of effective bilingualism.
3.Need to communicate.

A pidgin develops into a Creole when it is in widespread use and is the first and only language of a speech community. Creole is a language that develops from a pidgin with expanded grammar, vocabulary and functions as a native language.
“Black English is a socioeconomic variety of language, defined by the social position and education of its speakers. Black English is the nonstandard English used by some blacks in the United States; when blacks use standard English, it has no distinguishing label”(Millward 360).

Many people think that Black English is just slang, this is a fallacy. To think of it as just slang is undermining the importance and value of the vernacular.

“To be sure, lingo is one part – a vivid one- of Black English. However, the first thing we must understand is that the slang that African Americans use is just a sliver of what is meant by the term Black EnglishâÂ?¦Because Black English dialect is so similar to in most ways to other dialects of English, the common perception of “black speech” focuses on the colorful slang of African-American young people, such as “bad” for “good,” “word up” for “that’s right,” and “chillin” for “relaxing. Black English certainly does have a dazzling repertoire of slang. The crucial point, however, is that so do all dialects of all languages”(McWhorter 128-129).

“In the 1930’s and 1940’s, black slang was known as jive, and jazz musicians were among the most inventive sources for the jive lexicon”(Dillard). In 1938, band leader Cab Calloway published the Hepster’s Dictionary. Lester Young, a saxophonist had a profound influence on the jazz jargon. He gave Billie Holiday her nickname, Lady Day. He called heroin addicts, “needle dancers” and anything depressing or downbeat was “von Hangman.” Although Young’s vocabulary was popular in the 1930’s and 1940’s, none continue in use today.

As large an impact that jazz and blues had on Black English, hip-hop and rap of today have an even more profound effect. Infamous rappers like, Notorious BIG, Puff Daddy, Jayze and Old Dirty Bastard have imbued the Black slang into the English vernacular. Youngsters of every race and origin are being influenced by the lyrics of this music and use words like, “pimped” to mean good, “ghetto” to mean low class, “jigga” instead of “nigger”. A recent documentary type film called, Black and White” follows a group of new York City white teenagers around and films them trying to talk, dress and act like Black people. The white teens feel that Black people have more confidence and get more respect and to talk and act like them, they hope to be “cool” like them. It is becoming obvious that Black English in not only for Black people anymore.

There are telltale characteristics, widely present:

Replacement of initial “th” with d
Them = dem
This = dis
Medial or final “th” with a “d” sound
With = wif
Brother = bruvah
A reduction of consonant clusters in general
First = firs
Han= han
Replacement of final “r” sound with a vowel sound
Summah = summer
Mo= more

There is a prevalence of so-called plosive consonants, making the word bill sound more like beel.

“The best known characteristic of Black Vernacular English is its treatment of the verb to be, especially the lack of verb conjugation in the present tense – I be, you be, he be, we be, they be”(Dillard 83).

Another characteristic is the redundancy of subjects. An example is, “My sister, she took me to the store.” Deviant verb forms are another trait; an example of this is “He begun packing just yesterday.” Loss of inflection is another quality in BE. The plural marker -s is often overlooked, an example is “I got three brother.” A feature of BE that is also common in other nonstandard English is the is the use of double negatives, for example, “She don’t never come here.” The use of ain’t instead of haven’t, “I ain’t been there.” The use of an a instead of an before words beginning with a vowel, “Do you want a apple?” (Millward 362).
Another facet of Black English Vernacular is tonal semantics, it is the use of voice and rhythm and vocal inflection to convey meaning. Tonal Semantics gives Black speech its musical quality. Both rappers and preachers use word sounds to communicate at deeper level. Examples of tonal semantics include shouting, use of rhyme and alliterative word-play
The topic of Black English has existed on three different levels: as an aspect of African American culture, a topic of research for linguists and academics and a controversial public issue.

On December 18, 1996 the Oakland School District unanimously endorsed a resolution that declared the “primary language” spoken by many of its 28,000 black students is not English. The language was called “ebonics”. The name is a combination of ebony, meaning black, and phonics. The school wanted to conduct language classes in the students “native language” of ebonics and in English. Thus making it a distinct language, the ploy was really to shake federal dollars from bilingual education.

Some teachers have tried the bridging approach to teach children who have learned Black English at home the standard English, thus breaking down the barriers between the English. A component of the bridging approach is drills in contrastive analysis, where students transform sentences in Black English into standard English. An example of this is, “brush your teef,” into “brush your teeth.”(McWhorter 203).

The word “ebonics” dates back to the early 1970’s and has been used in some public-school settings without controversy for many years. Linguists refer to it as “Black English Vernacular” or “African-American Vernacular English.” Whatever it is refered to it is a major linguistic segment that has been recognized for centuries.

When the debate over ebonics arose, many African Americans poked fun at ebonics, even at their expense. Here is an ebonics remake of a traditional children’s rhyme, Jack and Jill.


Jack and JillJack and Jill
went up the hillHip-hoppin up da hill
To fetch a pail of water.To fetch da pail of wada
Jack fell downJack be felt down
And broke his crownAn busted his ass
And Jill came tumbling down.An Jill be tumblin too.

The use of Black English has been overly exaggerated. People assume when they hear Black English, that all Blacks use all these patterns all the time, this is untrue. Not all Black people speak in Black English. The Black people who do speak in Black English do not speak in it consistently, they use standard English alongside BE, there might only be subtle hints of Black English present.

Many African American authors have their characters speaking eloquently in Black English. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Alice Walker’s Color Purple, Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings are all exemplary examples of Black English being spoken and written beautifully. Black English in not just heard in the streets, it is alive on the pages of great African American literature as well.

Many people believe that “Black English” is the result of poor education. The question to support their claim is, How many educated African Americans speak in Ebonics? It is believed by these people that ebonics is only spoken in poor urban African American communities.

Many people have focused on the flaws of Black English, ignoring the positive aspects of it. Black English offers a positive source of identity and pride to the African American community. The language also serves as a testament to the political and social struggles that this group had experienced.

As long as there are differences between the races, Black English will endure.

Works Cited
Baugh, J. Black Street Speech: Its history, structure and survival. Texas: Texaas University Press, 1983.
Dandy, Evelyn. Black Communications: Breaking Down the Barriers. Chicago: African American Images, 1991.
Dillard, J.L. Black English. New York:
Random House, 1972.
Dillard, J.L. Lexicon of Black English. New York:
Seabury Press, 1977.
Major, C. Dictionary of Afro-American Slang. New York:
International Publishers, 1970.
McWhorter, John H. The Word on the Street:Fact and Fable about American English. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.
Millward, C.M. A Biography of English Language. Florida:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1996.
Murphy, Cullen. “The Ebonic Plague?” Slate Archives.
8 Jan. 1997.

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