By: Seth Heard
African American Vernacular English “…has been called ‘this appalling English dialect… gutter slang… the dialect of the pimp, the idiom of the gang-banger and the street thug.’” Americans as a collective tend to bad-mouth African American slang. Considered synonymous with ghettos and the poor, its reputation is overall a negative one. Ironically, the word bad-mouth is a sample of African American English history within itself. Bad-mouthing originally entered English from the West African language Mandingo. The original word was da jugu which meant slander or abuse, literally a “bad mouth.” It is one of the many words white Americans have borrowed from Black English.
The history of African American English starts with the Creole theory. The Creole theory explains how Black speech came about. This theory states that Black Speech originates in West Africa, at a trading post named Mambolo. Here English speaking slavers brought the English language to the African middle men who sold the slaves. Blacks and whites here communicated in a basic language called pidgin which is a mixture of both their languages. Even today, the language still persists in the area. In that time, there was a fort along the river where slaves were kept before being sent of to various new lands. The slavers mixed the different tribes of Africans so that they would not understand each other’s languages. This was done to stop revolts. The slavers spoke to the slaves in pidgin English. With little choice, the slaves learned it to speak amongst themselves. Slaves started speaking in Black English before they even set shackled foot in America.
Also, some Black speech partially derived from the dialects of their slave owners who hailed from multiple parts of England. One interesting example comes to modern day African American English as saying axe instead of ask. Interestingly enough this difference is firmly based in Old English. The original Old English word was acsian. As time passed the “ks” sound was reversed by English speakers. A reader can find the verb axe, meaning ask, fully conjugated in Chaucer’s Troilous and Criseyde as axe, axen, and axed. The verb appears again four centuries later in the novels of Anthony Trollope. Axe is used by the country squires when they speak in their local Barchester dialect. Even somewhat recently axe was used by white Southerners. The word stopped being so widely used because it became so closely associated with black speakers.
On a smaller scale, the city of Philadelphia bears an interesting story of Black English. It was a haven for freed and runaway slaves. A legislative act in 1780 stated that any slave that came to Pennsylvania and who remained there for six months would be free. The black population grew rapidly in 1790 with the Haiti slave revolt. According to the census for 1790, 10,000 African Americans lived in Pennsylvania.
Though sometimes difficult to identify, Black speech was certainly influential in Philadelphia. Though written evidence is scanty, black people groups would most likely have been employed at sea in the shipping business during this time period. African Americans of the time were more likely to travel broadly and speak multiple languages. There is even a record from 1762, where a runaway slave from the Caribbean lived in Charleston and New York. According to the records he spoke fluent English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
In many ways, with their multilingualism and travel experience, Black communities would be exposed to many different types of culture, which in turn, would have enriched their speaking. It makes sense then, that one of the first readily identifiable words of African origin had to do with shipping. A Georgia planter, writing from Savannah, explained a way to extract sesame oil from seeds. However instead of using the word sesame, a word which had been well established in the English language, the planter employed the term bene. Bene is another West African word. It is probable that the seeds themselves and the manner in which they were cultivated hailed from Africa as well.
Even more than a century later, Black speech was changing the language landscape of the time. Southern blacks started to move north for the plentiful factory jobs that existed there. During the 1890s over ninety percent of African Americans lived in the rural south. Sixty years later over ninety-five percent had moved to the urban north. Here African Americans did not leave behind the stigmas associated with their race. They lived on “the wrong side of the tracks.” It was during this time period, it seems, that the birth of widespread “ghetto talk” was born.
The speech of the poor blacks began to dominate the language of the people for which they worked. The words and phrases which were picked up into general society often had to do with pleasure. Dance names readily illustrate this principle. Dances like the “cake walk” and the “hootchy-kootchy” were followed by “the shimmy”, then the “jive” and “boogie woogie.” Even earlier musical terms and genres such as “jazz” and “blues” had completely renovated the idea of music. Interestingly enough the word hip, used in popular culture to denote something in vogue or “cool,” probably came from the African word hipikat which in the original language meant someone finely attuned to their environment. Eventually, “Jazz” came to mean having sex, so did “rock’ n’ roll.” “Boogie woogie” was used as a nickname for syphilis. “Boogie” was a southern word which originally meant prostitute. Even the phrase “shacking up”, which first meant living together in a common-law relationship, came from black speech contemporary with this time period.
It is interesting that the general conception of Black language is jaundiced, synonymous with the ideas of the poor, the uneducated, and the unrefined, yet the culture surrounding it is of such an interest to white America. Some authors even goes so far as to describe it as “one of the paradoxes of American life.” English speaking youth of the later twentieth century embraced black culture as a mark of their generation. Some authors attribute this to the fact that youths find “ . . . a covert prestige or generational protest in imitating black speech.” Put simply, “You wanted to be ‘cool,’ ‘groovy,’ ‘mellow,’ and certainly not ‘square.’ Then there’s ‘to blow your top,’ ‘uptight,’ ‘right on,’ ‘hassle,’ ‘far out,’ ‘bread’ (for money), ‘make it,’ ‘put down,’ ‘ripped off,’ ‘cop out,’ ‘no way.’” Even the English word man is a very early example of Black English first recorded in 1823. All of this is interesting because African American English came to be widely integrated even though its speakers had no military or political dominance. This brand of English originated from a largely poor, often oppressed minority who originally spoke a different language than English, yet it shaped the way Americans talk.
Even more interesting, millions of Americans speak a dialect of English not easily understood by the rest of English speakers. Most of the usage of this dialect occurs in inner cities. It is a speech which is surprisingly consistent from place to place. An African American in Detroit will sound more alike to an African American in Philadelphia than a white American from Detroit will sound like a white American from Philadelphia. Black speech is a national speech. It is the language of the urban ghettos.
This form of speech which so closely ties people from all over the United States together, also serves to alienate the same people from others around them. In 2014, a study, published by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, explored children who were born into households which spoke African American English. The study’s goal was “to examine the relationships among minority dialect use, language ability, and young African American English (AAE)-speaking children’s understanding and awareness of Mainstream American English (MAE).” Eighty African American English speaking children ages three to eight participated in the study. The ability to notice differences between the two dialects was judged, as was the children’s lexical comprehension of Mainstream American English. “Receptive and expressive vocabulary, receptive syntax, and dialect density were also assessed.” The results displayed that children with larger expressive vocabularies completed the experimental tasks better than did those will smaller vocabularies. The children with higher levels of dialect density, those who spoke mainly African American English, found it harder to comprehend mainstream English. The opposite was true for those with less of a dialect density. “The results suggest that children with high levels of non mainstream dialect use have more difficulty understanding words in MAE . . . .” This could explain why inner city communities maintain their own languages and often live so insularly, they simply understand each other. Further, they have trouble understanding those who speak outside of their dialect. This could explain why African American English has continued to flourish throughout America, it is a lingua franca of sorts.
From its very inception in the slave prisons of West Africa to the modern day inner cities of the United States, African American English has a colorful and unique history. It has bled into the American vernacular seamlessly and often unnoticeably. English would be a very different language without the influence of African American English.
Bailey, Richard W. Speaking American: A History of English in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ©2012.
Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. u.s. ed. New York: Arcade Pub., 2004.
Edwards, Jan, Megan Gross, Jianshen Chen, Maryellen MacDonald, David Kaplan, and Megan Brown. “Dialect Awareness and Lexical Comprehension of Mainstream American English in African American English-Speaking Children.” Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. 57, no. 5 (Oct. 2014): 1883. Accessed February 25, 2015. http:// go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE %7CA386919932&v=2.1&u=tel_s_tsla&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=e284199e6ae4f 8b734de026a4a50537c.
MacNeil, Robert, and William Cran. Do You Speak American? A Companion to the Pbs Television Series. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2005.