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!)