Archive for the ‘Black English’ Category

typewriter_jpg-288x300A Black Americanism is a word or phrase that comes from black American English. It is a kind of Americanism. Some are found mainly just in Black English, some have crossed over into Standard English. Some you might think are Standard English but if you look them up in a dictionary, they are not there!

I divide Black Americanisms into three kinds according to their relationship to Standard English: the obvious, the subtle and the naturalized (the words in red are those that I have probably used on this blog):

1. The obvious: those that are so clearly black that most blacks readily drop them from their speech or writing when the circumstance demands Standard English, like at work or school. Many of these are seen as slang or improper English by both blacks and whites.


you is, she pretty, phat, hate on, done gone, I seen, she do, saditty, colorstruck, player (ladies’ man), to front (pretend), play someone, nigga, good hair, check one’s self, bougie, y’all, get busy, ho, conversate, might could.

2. The subtle: those that might seem to be Standard English but in fact are not. I thought all of these were Standard English till I looked them up:


wigger, anyways, inside of, all them, most everyone, dig (= understand), be into, whip out, lighten up, hooked on, go off on, get with it, get real, get it together, get one’s drift, get a clue, go broke, knock yourself out, to sweat someone, take the cake.

3. The naturalized: those that have crossed over into some level of Standard English. Most crossed over into white American slang, especially by way of jazz and hip hop, then into more formal levels of American English. From there some spread overseas.

“Informal” means it is all right for spoken English and for some kinds of writing, like for magazines, blogs and newspapers, but not, say, for government reports. “Vulgar” means not to be used in mixed company.


  • Americanisms:
    • Informal North American English: hooker, redneck, man (exclamation), dis, crib, Oreo (person), dude, to be strung out on something, jive, nappy, white trash, hustle (trick), knock up (get pregnant), two-bit, straight up, hood (= neighbourhood), whup.
    • Written North American English: down-home
  • No longer dialect:
    • Vulgar World English: dick, pussy.
    • Informal World English: okay, groovy, bad mouth, sweet talk, cool, be hip, vibes, yeah, not my bag, max, psych out, gig, funky, Mickey Mouse (adj), be with it, be wired, wing it, working girl, looker, get a move on, every which way, fab, come (= orgasm), put-down, goner, laid-back, quickie, sure enough, blow one’s mind, for real, bust (= burst), uppity, yo, cuss.
    • Written World English: go with (= date), jazz, banana, bogus, dead (no emotion), up on it, set-up (trick, frame), like crazy, lily-white, come down on, pimp, crying shame, crybaby, check it out, go along with, greens, two-faced, uh-uh.

I try to write in world English for this blog, so the World English ones are fine. All the rest are dialect: Americanisms, black or otherwise.

Sources: “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” (2006), Clarence Major: “Juba to Jive” (1994).

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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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imageDB“Betsey Brown” (1985) is a coming-of-age story by Ntozake Shange, who is best known for writing “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” (1975). This book is based loosely on Shange’s own experiences as a 13-year-old black girl growing up in the middle of America in St Louis in 1959. That is just when the city started to send black children to white schools. Shange was one of them.

Betsey is like how I was at that age: reading books, her head in the clouds, full of wonder, feeling different from everyone else, being told how she should or should not be and, of course, wondering about the opposite sex. She feels inside more like me than the people I know. I felt that way when I was 13 and, to tell you the truth, I still feel that way. All of it.

So I had to read it.

The whites at school call her a nigger and keep away from her like there is something wrong with her, her mother asks why she has to like the most niggerish people, why she has to let everyone know what a niggah she is – when she is just being herself.

If she listened to all these people she would begin to believe there is something wrong with her. They want to shame her out of who she is deep down – which is far more beautiful than anything in their narrow, little minds. But when you are young it is hard to see that. The world is run by such people.

Betsey stays true to herself. She does not let the names get to her.

Shange makes this point by the English she wrote the book in.

She writes not in that particular kind of English you see in books that we all learned in school, what Shange has called White English, but in the English that blacks in St Louis in those days spoke and thought in. And there is not just one sort of Black English, but maybe four or five.

Her mother was careful to speak in White English but thought in an English that was blacker – but still much whiter than Betsey’s own English.

You are used to seeing Black English presented as bad and unlettered, close to broken. Shange presents it as something beautiful, almost like music, something more wonderful than White English, which by comparison seems stiff and ugly, like an old block of wood.

There is this particularly terrible form of White English that is the enemy of all thought and beauty, but if you do not write in it some important white people will think you lack intelligence and education. I have to hold my nose and write in it sometimes to be taken seriously. In fact, I am avoiding just such an unpleasant task right now.

Sorry, I just had to say that, but it is something this book made me see more clearly.

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