Accents and dialects (part III): Black English
This last post on accents and dialects summarizes an editorial by linguist, academic, and popular writer John McWhorter. McWhorter’s linguistics research focuses on sociohistorical language change and creoles, but he has published multiple articles and books about race relations as well. Here, he tackles a combination of those subjects with Black English (taking a particular and somewhat controversial stance towards a recent event involving the dialect).
Article: “There’s Nothing Wrong with Black English” (The Atlantic)
A short poem published not long ago in The Nation sparked outrage due to the fact that its homeless narrator speaks Black English, while the poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, is white. In response, The Nation editors added a warning to the poem calling it “disparaging,” and the poet apologized profusely.
“The primary source of offense, in a poem only 14 lines long, is passages such as this, in a work designed to highlight and sympathize with the plight of homeless people: ‘It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.’ The protagonist is referring to the condescending attitudes of white passersby who give her change.”
America certainly has a long history of parodying black language (minstrel shows being a prominent example), and our past inevitably influences the unease people feel when artists use Black English today. But the dialect that Carlson-Wee employs is not caricatured; it’s “true and ordinary black speech”.
One reason for the anger provoked by the poem could lie in the too-common perception that Black English is a degraded form of the language – so if a white person uses it to portray a black person, it’s obviously condescending and offensive. But Black English is simply a dialectal variety (just like “standard” English is another dialectal variety).
“If a sentence like People be lookin’ at him funny seems unsophisticated because the be isn’t conjugated, try wrapping your head around the fact that the be also expresses, overtly, a nuance that the standard sentence would not—that this looking in question happens on a habitual basis. You wouldn’t say People be lookin’ at him funny if it were happening at the moment. Black English jangles with things that we are trained to hear as ‘slang,’ but which foreign learners would struggle to master, in the same way as they would with pluperfects and subjunctives.”
Around the world, people use one language variety in their private lives, and a different one in public – and don’t consider their private variety to be “broken.” This is the case with Arabic speakers – national/more local dialects like Moroccan and Algerian Arabic are quite different from the Modern Standard Arabic on the news (and from each other), but speakers understand it’s just context-dependent.
Another problem is that white people may operate under the prejudicial misconception that black people can only speak Black English, and that Standard English is beyond them. Educated whites today, though, often seem aware of the bidialectalism of black Americans – that individuals can speak one way or the other depending on context. Attesting to this, Carlson-Wee’s narrator dips into and out of Black English in the poem.
Ultimately, we should evaluate each work on a case-by-case basis, and shouldn’t necessarily shun all nonblack artists from depicting the valid bidialectalism of black speakers, when those artists do it accurately and gracefully.
[Note: The article touches on several other aspects which I left out of the summary, such as cultural appropriation – if interested in more, definitely give it a read.]
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I’ll wrap up with a few points that I hope these “accents and dialects” posts (and the full articles, if you’ve read them) have conveyed:
- Just like everyone has a language, everyone has an accent; everyone has a dialect.
- The diversity of dialects is a fascinating aspect of our humanity – something to be celebrated!
- Judgements we have around accents and dialects are socially-motivated, and not linguistically-based (see also a somewhat related Linguamonium piece, “Literally cray: A linguist’s attitude towards speech errors and slang”).
- Every dialect, including Black English (also called African American (Vernacular) English – AA(V)E) has regular linguistic patterns, i.e. a systematic grammar. A dialect being non-standard doesn’t mean that it’s “slang” or that it’s not as rule-governed as the more standard dialects. You’re probably just not familiar with the rules.