Archive for the ‘ebonics’ Category

Ebonics (by 1692), or Black American English, started in the 1600s. The first recorded instance of it is in the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 when Tituba says:

“He tell me he God.”

Many think of Black English as an imperfect copy of White English. Even some scholars argue that. But that overlooks two facts:

  1. Black English has features that are seen in no form of White English, but which you do see in Caribbean and African forms of English. You just saw an example of that: the lack of “is” in “He tell me he God”.
  2. Blacks learn English mainly from blacks, not from whites. This became even more true after the slaves were freed, but somewhat less true with the rise of public education and television.

If you came from Africa to America as a slave, no white person took you aside to teach you English. You picked it up mainly from other slaves: in the slave forts of Africa, in the Caribbean, where many slaves were taken first, and in the fields of America. Blacks did not mix with whites enough to copy their English mainly from them.

The first form of English that was used between blacks and whites was a makeshift form of English called pidgin English. It used mostly English words but set to more of an African grammar. It was a simple language, one you would use to give orders or to buy and sell, but not one you could use all the time.

But for those born over the seas from Africa it was pretty much the only language they knew. They made it into a full language called Creole English, an English you could use all the time, that could express any thought. This is called creolization. You can still hear Creole English on the street in the West Indies.

Black American English started out that way and you can see signs of that, especially in its use of verbs. But, unlike the West Indies, most people in America are white, and so over time Black English has become less like Creole English and more like Standard English.

The English of both blacks and whites in America has been getting closer to Standard English over time, the kind of English you see in books or hear on CNN. That has come about mainly through the spread of public education. It started sooner with whites.

While Black English does preserve words from Africa (like okay, jazz and banana) and even some of the grammar, it also preserves some of how most white people used to talk (like the use of “ain’t”, dropped g’s in -ing and double negatives). But for the most part it has been shaped by creolization.

Not all scholars agree with that. Africanists say it has been shaped more by African languages, while Anglicists, like John McWhorter, say it has been shaped more by the sorts of British English you heard in the American South 300 years ago.

– Abagond, 2008.

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