African rhythms resonate in Black English
In the month of 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 in this month's column, I reflect on the speech patterns of blacks.
While negative attitudes towards black English still persist, we have to look back 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. For example, 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.”
However, it is now recognized by linguists that black English is not inferior but merely another of the multitudinous flavours of English available on our planet. In fact, black English contains some useful refinements not available in standard English. In an article some years ago 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 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. For example, 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 fulfils 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.
School teachers used to devote themselves to correcting black English usage under the impression that they were thus imparting proper grammar to the black student. 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 rather should be used as a tool to improve the student's mastery of standard English.
Howard's book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press in March 2013.