On Black English and the Evolution of Language

Over at The Root, John McWhorter compares Black English and modern Hebrew, with an interesting and provocative, but ultimately suspect, thesis.

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!”

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13 Responses to On Black English and the Evolution of Language

  1. lbwoodgate says:

    I concur completely but there will always be purist in every field and the linguistic purists are shaking their fist at you on this.

    • Won’t be the first, or last, time “purists” shake their fist at me. :)

  2. You be trippin, Kendrick. The Old English ain’t nothin’ like real English. Anywayz, I gotsta bounce. Deuces!

    • You are so much cooler than me.

      • Not even. I’ve just had more exposure to Black English. :-)

  3. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Ok – I enjoyed this, read it a couple of times, but honestly, Kendrick, I can’t wholeheartedly support the notion that Black English is a “deliberate and playful challenge of grammatical rules.” Literacy rates for many African Americans remain abysmally low and the high school drop out rates are high in many areas, too. Of course, this playfulness can be an engine that drives the evolution of our language, but it can also be a thing that marginalizes individuals in our society. Or did I completely miss your point in this post? Sheesh. I hope not.

    • No, SDS, you didn’t miss my point at all, and as usual, respond insightfully. I opted to keep the post focused on language itself and not get into the socioeconomics of language. In John McWhorter’s piece at The Root (which inspired my post), he quotes James Meredith, the first black person admitted to the University of Mississippi:

      BLACK ENGLISH LANGUAGE. PROPER ENGLISH LANGUAGE. Which one do you use? Most people in this room use a lot of Black English and a little Proper English. Anyone who wants to become an intellectual giant must learn and use a lot of Proper English and as little Black English as possible. I am not going to argue with anyone about the matter. You can do what you want to do. However, I will tell you that anyone who continues to use a lot of Black English will never become an intellectual giant.

      I don’t disagree with Meredith — given his focus on the rules of the game if your game is becoming a prominent intellectual. That game’s language is, to be sure, “Proper English.” But Proper English is already a different animal now than it was when Meredith wrote those words. And the point of my post was to consider what engines drives this change.

      Black English drives some of the change in American language because it is playfully subversive and so eagerly embraced by pop culture.

      I’m not prescribing so much as describing. Speaking Black English has consequences. Mimicking it has consequences. I’m less concerned here with whether someone “should” speak or mimic Black English than with simply observing its impact.

      • Snoring Dog Studio says:

        Thank you, Kendrick and I do recognize the point of your post better now. Meredith’s comment is apt – but even non intellectual giants will find that Black English holds them back in many occupations and transactions. I agree that many engines can drive the evolution of language, Black English is one for sure. Where these evolutions occur first is in music and poetry and the result is very often delightful. (You just can’t let go of Rebecca Black, can you, Kendrick?)

        • (I just tend to be a fan of women who become pop cultural punching bags… Christina Aguilera after the SSB fiasco, Rebecca Black every Friday, Sarah Palin… :) )

          • Snoring Dog Studio says:

            Everyone needs a champion – someone on their side when they’re down – they’re lucky to have you!

  4. A good read, Ken. Thank you for the musings!

    The evolution of language is a fascinating thing, and if we stay observant, we see change even in our own lifetimes.

    The ease and quickness of internet communication poses a singular difficulty to language, however. At no other point in human history, to my knowledge, have we as a society interacted MORE with the written word than the spoken. I worry that as a consequence we will oversimplify and truncate shades of meaning as we pare down our language for quickened communication. It is even conceivable to see a near future with two very distinct dialects of the English language.

    • Your premise is correct, I think, your worry perhaps misdirected. I think of it as a both-and, rather than an either-or, dynamic. Yes, we’ll see truncation and simplification becoming ever more standardized. But I don’t think we’ll see the loss of shades of meaning — for those communicators who cultivate the capacity for precision and shades of meaning. And there is the linguistic dialectic that will define the evolution of the English language in America — simplification will always eventually simplify even “Proper English,” and “Proper English,” with its absolutely durable focus on precision, will always continue educating the users of “popular English” on how to say something better, more beautifully. There is no “net loss” to language in this dialectic, only enrichment going in unpredictable directions.

  5. Alex.Linguist says:

    Linguistics student here, this is years after you posted this article, and thanks for doing it because it’s helping with an essay I’m writing :) I just wanted to say though that it’s worth pointing out that Rebecca Black’s song was WRITTEN by an African American (who, judging by his own self-written and self-performed music, is a speaker of BAE), it was only SUNG by a White American (who, as she’s inadvertently proven in later songs and interviews, is a speaker of SAE). So I don’t think this song provides an arguable case that SAE is transitioning into BAE in the younger generation.

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