Black English in Washington, D.C.

by Tom Thompson

Discussion and debate about language is common, but the long and bitter history of race relations in American society makes what some linguists call African- American Vernacular English (AAVE), what I simply call Black English, often a topic of contentiousness and sensitivity. The linguistic inferiority principle is in play with this topic. According to this principle, the speech of a socially subordinate group will always be interpreted as inadequate by comparison with the socially dominant group. And this in spite of the fact that Black English shows consistent internal logic and grammatical complexity.

That there are differences in varieties of English which may correlate with ethnicity is easy enough to understand. But in the case of Black English, there’s a clear-cut oppositional identity expressed in part through a distinctive vernacular. Black English is part of everyday life here in Washington, D.C., often affectionately called Chocolate City. On the bus, on the subway, in the work place, in schools, parks and playgrounds it’s a fascinating cacophony. According to the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data, the city’s population is 49.5% African-American. Within Black English here, there’s a range of socially stratified urban and rural dialects. There’s some variation of phonology, intonation, morphology, syntax, slang, and idioms.

Various laboratory experiments have found that racially different listeners about 80% of the time correctly identified whether the speakers were white or black. Most speakers of Black English are bi-dialectal, being able to speak with a more general American accent, as well as Black English. That kind of linguistic adaptation is often called code-switching.

It’s sometimes thought that Black English refers only to slang, such as the colorful language that’s part of rap music. But Black English is more than clever lines in a song. It’s a nonstandard, but not a substandard, English dialect. Often the differences between standard English and Back English are subtle. The writings on grammar and structure of Bailey, Dillard, Green and Rickford are instructive. Some basics from those efforts:

In Black English the stem of many verbs is different from standard English.

Not fill, but full - He fullin’ de tank
Not leave, but lef - He lef town
Not ask, but aks - He aks me the way in the present tense as a copula or ‘linking’ verb. Thus:

In Black English there is no use of the forms of the verb “be”: Examples as a result might include:

They real fine.
If you interested.
They good.
Who you?

Grammatical differences that change phonology include endings with word-final consonant clusters with labials. So “hep” for “help.” “We’re coming” becomes “We comin’.” Similarly past tense endings are absent in such clusters as “look” for “looked,” or “col” for “cold.” The word final “–f” often replaces “th” so that “boof” is for “booth” or “souf” for “south.” There is often heavy initial stress in disyllabic words: “pólice” for police, “défine” for define, for example.

While we know what the vernacular is, the origins are something of a debate. Slave traders were not thinking of documenting their exploitation of people for the historical record. Writing was a specialized – and illegal – skill for early African Americans, making first-hand accounts rare.

The evidence on the vernacular’s origins includes two main perspectives. One is a creole hypothesis that suggests Black English developed from a creole language that was a result of early contact between Africans and Europeans. For instance Gullah or Sea Islands Creole spoken in the Coastal Islands of South Carolina and Georgia are sometimes thought to have formed in this way.

There’s also some thinking about the likely grafting of English vocabulary that could be garnered from transient encounters onto the grammatical patterns which are common to the languages of West Africa. In some of the West African languages a word meaning ‘bad’ is often used to mean ‘good’ or ‘a lot/intense.’ Some linguists believe that the resulting creole became widespread throughout the southern U.S.

There’s also a Neo-Anglicist theory that early African American speech was more similar to its post-colonial white counterpart than was previously thought and that a process of diversion took place within the African American speech community. One explanation, aside from linguistic isolation, is that of an effort at self-defense, to protect communication within the black speech community and to hinder understanding on the part of whites.

An especially interesting aspect of Black English is the speech of rhythmic eloquence and lyricism that goes back to African oral traditions, expressed more recently by preachers, poets, musicians, and politicians. Those traditions are vibrant and vital.

About the writer

Tom Thompson writes frequently on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Aritcles by Tom Thompson


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