How immigration and social media are changing Black American English

NYU professor Shondel Nero in Guyana, the country of her birth (Photo courtesy Shondel Nero)

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Ciku Theuri: Hey y’all. It’s Ciku Theuri and I’m back for our last installment of our three-part series on Black American English, or African American English — whatever you’d like to call it. Two episodes ago we explored where this vernacular came from. Last time, we examined how it evolved, especially through music. But where does it go from here? I’d like to kick off our final inquiry with a song. Specifically, Drake’s song Too Good featuring Rihanna. I love this song- doesn’t it make you wanna dance?

Brief excerpt of Drake’s ‘Too Good’

Ciku Theuri: Did you catch that? Drake switched up and went straight Jamaican Patois. That’s an English-based Creole. It almost sound like he’s imitating a Jamaican Dancehall song. And what’s interesting about Drake singing in Patois is he’s not Jamaican. But in interviews, he’s says he’s paying tribute, not appropriating.

Drake: The definition of appropriating a culture is not supporting that culture, doing songs with people who are deeply rooted in that culture. That’s not appropriating. Appropriating is taking it for your own personal gain and denying that it was ever inspired from this. That’s the true disservice that somebody could do to Dancehall, to Afrobeats. Me, I ensure that I am not only paying all due respects verbally, but I make a point to give opportunity to people that I respect.

Ciku Theuri: That’s Drake talking on the Rap Radar podcast back in 2019. Drake is from Toronto, a diverse place full of immigrants, where he most likely absorbed accents and lingo from around the world. As one linguistics professor told me, we are carrying around our personal experiences in the language that we speak. Drake seems to be bridging his experiences of growing up around Jamaicans to his songs. Does immersion in a culture give you license to participate in it on your own merits? I don’t have the answer to that — but one thing I can say is the rate at which different cultures are fusing these days is happening at breakneck speed. It’s hard to keep up. And I think there’s a parallel that can be drawn here between Drake’s use of patois and the way Black American English is changing today.

Ciku Theuri: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Ciku Theuri. In this episode: To help explain how Black American English is transforming, I’d like you to meet Shondel Nero.

Shondel Nero: I was born and raised in Guyana which is on the north coast of South America. Guyana used to be a former British colony. It’s the only officially english speaking country in mainland South America.

Ciku Theuri: Shondel is a professor of Language Education at New York University where she studies the ebbs and flows of language. And she says migration has always been a central part of the story of Black American English. She knows this first hand as someone who immigrated to the U.S.

Shondel Nero: Because Guyana was a former colony and a former plantation colony, we have a very diverse population of blacks, Indians that were brought from India that were called East Indians. We have local indigenous people, Chinese, small, Portuguese population, white, and the English that developed there was what we would call in the Caribbean region a creolized English, and in Guyana it’s called Creolese.

Ciku Theuri: Creolese sounds a lot like creole, doesn’t it? In Part One, we heard that a creole is the result of two languages that mix. Various creoles are spoken in the Caribbean. So what does Creolese sound like?

Shondel Nero: I’ll give you an expression that my mother would say, “Who is she when you stew she down?” So, “Who is she when you stew her down” Who is she when you bring her down to low gravy, when you’ve moved away all of the facade? Who is this real personality below the appearance? That’s essentially what it means.

Ciku Theuri: Shondel’s father was the complete opposite. He didn’t speak to her in Creolese but in very formal standard English.

Shondel Nero: My father used words like adumbrate. My father was very formal.

Ciku Theuri: Adumbrate. Yeah, can’t say that’s a word I’ve heard before. Merriam Webster defines it to suggest or outline partially. Shondel says her father’s vocabulary was filled with words like this.

Shondel Nero: The type of words he would use you would see in the dictionary now and it would say in parentheses ‘obsolete’ (laughs). Words like 18th or 19th century British English that nobody in the U-K would even use today.

Ciku Theuri: So when Shondel communicated with her mom, she spoke more Creolese. And with her father, more antiquated English. And then at school, she was taught to speak standard British English. Switching back and forth became so natural that she still does it.

Shondel Nero: My husband now says that– my husband is American– he can tell who I’m talking to on the phone by home. I mean, if I’m talking to my mother or if I’m talking to a guy and his friend. So even among Guyanese, I sound different to different types of Guyanese.

Ciku Theuri: I can totally relate to this. Some of you might be familiar with my story which I’ve shared in previous episodes. I’m a first generation American who grew up speaking a mix of English and Kikuyu with my Kenyan parents. But I spoke formal English at school. As I grew up, Black American English started to become part of my everyday speech…especially with friends. As a kid, Shondel wasn’t exposed to it that way.

Shondel Nero: So when I was growing up in Guyana, we had no television. When I say we, I don’t mean my family. I mean there was no television in the country. Television did not arrive in Guyana until 1980. And I grew up in the seventies. So black American English exposure was in two ways music because we were listening to Motown and all that stuff. We did have to cinema, we went to movies and there was that whole age of all of the blaxploitation movies and the black films of the seventies.

Ciku Theuri: Shondel started reading Ebony and Jet magazines. She also encountered Black American English in novels but not through school assignments. One day she just happened to find the work of a particular author in her school library.

Shondel Nero: I stumbled literally, I remember in my high school on James Baldwin.

James Baldwin reading from his novel, Giovanni’s Room: “And I remember walking down the dark, tropical Brooklyn streets. The heat coming up from the pavements and banging from the walls of houses with enough force to kill a man.”

Shondel Nero: Literally, it was my first time exposed to it because all of our curriculum was British.

Ciku Theuri: In 1984 Shondel moved to the birthplace of James Baldwin: New York City. Naturally, she expected to hit the streets of the Big Apple and hear Black American English. The version of it that she knew from music and movies and literature. But what does she hear instead? More on that after the break.

Patrick Cox: Hi, Patrick Cox here, rudely interrupting to tell you about another podcast I love and I think you will too. It’s called The Vocal Fries. And as part of recommending The Vocal Fries to you. I’m going to make an admission. I’m guilty of judging other people’s language. Misplaced apostrophes, use of the word ‘irregardless’, American use of the word ‘entree’ to mean main course. I mean, come on! But as the wise people at The Vocal Fries point out, there’s no point in me or you getting riled up. It’s not going to make anything better. If anything it’ll make things worse. Here’s an example, the thing the podcast is named after: vocal fry, something– for the record– that I have no problem with. But a lot of people do– some people even believe vocal fry harms the vocal cords. It doesn’t. If you want to know more, I tell you, you must listen to The Vocal Fries. In each episode your hosts, linguists Carrie Gillon and Megan Figueroa, take on some aspect or other of speech or language that some people may be repelled by. They find out why the repulsion came into being and– no spoilers– why it’s misplaced. Listen to The Vocal Fries at Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening to this.

Shondel Nero: In New York, everybody picks up everybody’s parts of their speech.

Ciku Theuri: When Shondel moved to New York, she expected to hear and speak Black American English. But what she heard instead surprised her. …She heard a lot of Caribbean influenced English….which made her feel at home. Sort of. It wasn’t just spoken by Caribbean immigrants. But, Shondel says, other Black Americans were speaking it too.

Shondel Nero: It’s a good chance that if you run into a black person living in New York, they’re they probably have Caribbean roots. So they might be born here and even their parents might be born here, but their grandparents might not be. And because people continue to migrate, you still have fresh groups of people coming in, even as you have three or four generations already here. So you always get that influence.

Ciku Theuri: It’s what Shondel and other linguists call transnationalism. Remember Drake singing in Patois? A Torontonian whose language reflects his experiences. Transnationalism is changing Black American speech.

Shondel Nero: There’s a kind of nice fluidity in which people are picking up each language so that you hear African-American phrases and Caribbean phrases very easily from people, even even from people that are not even Caribbean, you know, people from other immigrant groups, whites. In New York, language is very fluid.

Ciku Theuri: So, there is a continuous stream of influence that naturally comes from migration and immigration, pouring into the larger pool of Black American English. And it’s not just Caribbean influence.

Shondel Nero: I think as people move to different states, that’s going to be an influence as well. But then you have blacks now from African countries.

Ciku Theuri: Countries like Nigeria which has the largest African immigrant population in the U.S. But in addition to migration, Shondel says another big factor changing Black American speech is movement in another space: online. Social media and online chat services are making it easier than ever before for expressions to travel and language to transform.

Shondel Nero: That’s like an unfiltered space on something like Whatsapp because you’re texting anybody anywhere. So you might be physically and let’s say Boston, but you know, you’re texting your friend who’s in the Caribbean or texting somebody who is in L.A. And in that response to that message might be some black American language from L.A.

Ciku Theuri: One example of how speech is influenced by technology is with the growing popularity of the phrase ‘Pushin’ P.’ This expression has long been native to people in Texas and the Bay Area. But this year, it exploded on social media all over the world. Back in January, Atlanta rapper Gunna released a song called Pushin’ P, featuring Young Thug. And the phrase “Pushin’ P” is mentioned in this song a lot. This term perplexed a lot of people. And there were a lot of discussions about what exactly it meant. What does ‘P’ actually stand for? Here’s Gunna breaking it down on the Breakfast Club with radio host Charlamagne tha God.

Gunna: If I wake up and my backyard a beach, that’s P. So you woke up early in the morning to a beach, that was P. It’s simply playa but you can also use it in other ways. Like, ‘aight man I don’t like how he did that, that ain’t P.

Charlemagne tha God: Oh, so P is just short for playa?

Gunna: It could be.

Ciku Theuri: Playa? Peace? Positivity? Productivity? I think the jury is still out on the exact meaning and appropriate way to use of the phrase. But the ambiguity of it didn’t hinder it from becoming a viral international sensation on TikTok. While this term is new to millions of social media users, it’s long been a regional term. Its meteoric rise speaks to the point that Shondel is making about transnationalism and how language, especially Black American English, is moving and evolving today, both on big platforms like TikTok and even smaller Whatsapp groups between friends. Shondel has her own anecdote about teaching the Caribbean expression, steups, to her American husband. It’s a noise you make with your mouth.

Shondel Nero: Sucking your teeth. It goes like it sounds like that (She makes the sound.)

Ciku Theuri: Yeah, I’ve heard that.

Shondel Nero: Right. And it signals a sort of mild dismissal of someone. And it’s funny because my husband’s American and he is in Brooklyn, he has a lot of Caribbean students. And one day his student did that, and because he is American she thinks he didn’t understand. He goes, “Don’t do that, I know exactly what you’re doing. Don’t steups at me, I know what that means.” Right?

Ciku Theuri: OK, so Shondel’s husband learned about the steups sound because — well, that’s what happens when you’re married to someone. But even when you don’t have a personal connection like that, there are plenty of pathways to pick up new expressions and phrases. Most of those pathways involve some combination of migration and social media. No question, this is helping set the future course for Black American English.

Shondel Nero: It’s hard to predict, it’s very fluid. But I would say technology and population movement is the ease at which this generation has broken down physical boundaries in terms of borders. I mean, borders are just virtual, really.

Ciku Theuri: There’s one common undercurrent throughout our series that has played a major role in the evolution of Black American English. And that is movement. African American English has and always is in a state of flux. That’s just the byproduct of the journey of those who speak it. From the perils of slavery to the earliest attempts to escape north. From the Great Migration to the current waves of immigration. Black American English has been a mirror of this movement. And today the movement includes Shondel and others from the Caribbean. And also, me, born to parents from Kenya. All of us are following a linguistic tradition that began when the first enslaved Africans arrived in North America 400 years ago. We are building on that tradition and sometimes breaking with it, so that the thing we currently call African American English — the way we speak — it’s reenergized and reinvented with every generation.

Ciku Theuri: This episode is reported and produced by me, Ciku Theuri. Special thanks to Oluwakemi Aladesuyi , Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki. Also thanks to everyone at the Linguistic Society of America. Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our social media and newsletter.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke podcast collective. We’re a bunch of podcasters dedicated to telling stories about stuff that you’re not going to come across elsewhere. Here’s one of the other Hub and Spoke podcasts: Iconography. This is a podcast about icons — things with meaning in our lives, meanings that we don’t fully understand. This fall, Iconography is returning with a new miniseries, looking at the movie “Jaws” through the lens of its most iconic character: the saltine-chomping shark hunter, Quint.

Thanks for listening. It’s been a pleasure hosting these past three episodes. Thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you learned as much as I did. We’ll be back with a new episode in a couple of weeks.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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