On Black English and the Evolution of Language
June 13, 2011 12 Comments
Black English and modern Hebrew “were both created in large part by grown-ups learning a new language, instead of infants learning their first one. Black English happened when African slaves had to learn English real fast. Naturally, some of the details got lost here and there.”
Black English and modern Hebrew, McWhorter argues, both end up losing some of the grammatical details of proper or classic grammar because their origins are in speed-learners.
That strikes me as a deep confusion of a long-ago linguistic coincidence and modern linguistic kinetics.
Even assuming Black English and modern Hebrew originally developed as a rushed and defective version of the original, that would not explain their current persistence and their ever-expanding contribution to slang and linguistic evolution.
Both are spoken, and perpetually expanded, by millions of people who learned Black English and modern Hebrew first. Moreover, grammatical short-cuts, in both, make perfect sense as ways language naturally evolves.
To his credit, McWhorter is careful to defend Black English against cultural condescension, but ends up, in my view, dissing Black English as defective, when it is in fact a deliberate and playful challenge of grammatical rules — and the engine of linguistic evolution.
Language evolves. Here is the beginning of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as he wrote it in Middle English in the 14th century:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour
And here it is in modern English:
When April with his sweet showers
Has pierced to the root the drought of March
And bathed every vein in liquid
With power to engender the flower
Same language, separated by time. Very different, but roughly recognizable. Now travel back six more centuries.
Here is the beginning of Beowulf, the oldest epic in English, probably composed in the 8th century, in Old English (and modern typography doesn’t even permit me to render it properly):
HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
And here it is in modern English:
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Unrecognizable. But it’s all “English.” McWhorter’s opening Black English quote is also English: “What I’m supposed to do? I got to wait till she get on her feet. She my bes’ friend” — and likely to end up official English decades hence.
Language evolves dramatically in contact with another language (as in the evolution of Old English, a Germanic language, with the influx of Latinate Norman French vocabulary), and less dramatically, but persistently, with the introduction of slang or simplifications that take hold (which regularly occurs even in isolation from any other language, which is why there are regional dialects of the same language).
Black English operates according to two distinct principles that bode well for its gradual evolution into officialdom, or at least the official embrace of many of its features. The first principle is simplification. “What I’m supposed to do? I got to wait till she get on her feet. She my bes’ friend” (1) uses a musical one-syllable contraction that reverses the official subject-verb order; (2) eliminates the “s” suffix for singular verbal agreement; and (3) eliminates the frankly superfluous linking verb “is.”
Not elegant — yet, but my money says it will be eventually. That’s exactly how language evolves.
The second principle is grammatical guerilla warfare, the deliberate and subversive challenge to official language rules that rocks popular culture (and eventually changes our language). Black English has been doing this for decades. Much of the pop culture slang embraced by the culture at large originated in Black English.
When teenager Rebecca Black famously sang, “we so excited” (about Friday), she wasn’t simply making a mortifying grammatical mistake. She was emulating a feature of Black English. Interestingly, she might have gotten a little ahead of Black English with that one. But I’m willing to bet our grandchildren say “we so excited” as normally as we old fogies say, “oh good Lord, heaven deliver me now!”