Language News: July 29, 1979 – If Black English Isn’t a Language, What Is? –

James Baldwin, Distinguished Visiting Professo...

Those who are interested in the development of African American English (AAE) might be interested in this article by the novelist James Baldwin, who died in 1987.

Op-Ed Contributor – July 29, 1979 – If Black English Isn’t a Language, What Is? –

First published in 1979, this essay reminds us that many words and phrases that are now considered important to the development of a unique American culture (say, for example Jazz) originated from African American language and, before that, from African American traditions.

Many scholars now wonder how effective the white slave traders were at creating linguistic isolation among the slaves who made it to the new world.  Some suggest that many of those who were kidnapped were probably polylingual since it was common at that time to know, in addition to your own tribe’s language and a lingua franca,  one or two other tribal languages.  But, slave traders did their best to eliminate opportunities for people who shared a common language to stay together, and slave owners did everything they could to discourage the use of non-English languages, too.  

Baldwin’s article reminds us that at a time when speaking a foreign language could have drawn unwarranted attention and penalties, the development of a unique, coded form of English was the only option.

As Baldwin so eloquently says:  

This was not merely the adoption of a foreign tongue, but an alchemy that transformed ancient elements into a new language: A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.

I encourage you to check out this article, particularly if you haven’t heard the linguistic case for protecting and documenting such dialects.  The first time that I heard a compelling linguistic argument for preserving the history encoded in African American language varieties, I knew it was going to be an important part of my career.   In fact, I was shocked to know that articles like this 1979 gem had been in circulation because I didn’t hear any of these arguments until the late 1990s.  More than 30 years after its original release, let’s hope that the reprint of this New York Times article finally starts to reach people.

(Thanks to Dr. Christine Mallinson, co-author of the new book, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools, for sharing this article with me!)


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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