Where did African American English come from?

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

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

Patrick Cox: Hi, Patrick Cox here. We’re going to do something different in this episode — actually, in the next three episodes, because we’re about to dive into a three-part series. And my friend, Ciku Theuri will be your host. Here’s Ciku.

Ciku Theuri: Thanks Patrick. Hey y’all. You might remember me from an episode that I produced a while back in which I get personal and explore my journey in accepting my linguistic identity as a Black woman who is often labeled as speaking “white.”

Nicole Holliday: We are carrying around the our ancestral experiences as well as our personal experiences in the language that we speak.

Ciku Theuri: Producing that episode got me thinking a lot about African American English. Where does it come from? And why in this day in age, must we distinguish it as such? So I decided to dig in. This is the first of a three-part series exploring the rich history of African American English.

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, we go back to the beginning — or as far back as we can go — to explore how African American English came to be.

Ciku Theuri: Now, like with many aspects of American history, the documentation we have to tell a comprehensive story about the beginnings of Black American English isn’t much.

Nicole Holliday: We don’t even know how to document all of the languages that may have influenced African American English because the historical record was not well preserved.

John McWhorter: A great deal of what happened with African slaves and their descendants in the kind of English they developed in this country went unrecorded. Or if it was recorded at all, it was often in mocking distortion.

Ciku Theuri: But thanks to the diligence of generations of Black folk who passed down their knowledge, we do have a few clues as to where it came from and how it evolved. But before we get into those theories, I wanna know: what is Black American English?

Nicole Holliday: I’m a linguist, so I hate definitions because we know that they’re always imprecise.

Ciku Theuri: Nicole Holliday is an assistant professor of linguistics at Pomona College. I spoke with her in my previous episode, the one where I explored speaking “white” and speaking “Black.” Well, I wanted to bring her back to help us work through our exploration of what Black American English is. Okay, so as a linguist she doesn’t like definitions.

Nicole Holliday: But I’ll go with this. The broadest way I would describe it is it’s the language varieties spoken primarily in Black American communities.

Ciku Theuri: And it’s been given a lot of names.

Nicole Holliday: African-American English, African-American vernacular…

Ciku Theuri: …English black, Black English Vernacular. The list goes on and one.

Montage of TV/film clips:

“I mean can you dig it baby? Can you dig it? I can dig that. You just bring your fine self on up in here baby (laughs)”

“Oh I ain’t seen nothing, I ain’t seen nothing”

“Where ya’ll been at? We good.”

Ciku Theuri: One term you might be familiar with is Ebonics, which was coined in 1973. The name is a combination of the words ‘ebony’ and ‘phonics.’ The term didn’t catch on until December of 1996 when the Oakland School Board in California voted unanimously to recognize it as the primary language of its Black students who, by the way, represented a majority of the district. An overwhelming number of those students were also classified as academically deficient. So the resolution passed by the school board called for the implementation of a program to not only teach Black students Black English as a way to maintain its legitimacy but in turn, to help them learn standard English. Here’s a recording inside one of those Oakland classrooms. It’s from a documentary called Do You Speak American.

Student: “My grandpa cook dinner every night.”

Teacher: “my grandpa cooks dinner every night. You just got 500 hundred points.”

Ciku Theuri: And this sparked a debate. Kweisi Mfume was the NAACP president at the time. Here he is on ABC’s Nightline.

Kweisi Mfume: I believe that we have to make it a point to see that our students, our young people, achieve proficiency, in reading and writing, in science and communicating. And we don’t raise standards by lowering goals. There is within the larger African American community various dialects. They are not languages, they are dialects. We have to find ways to bridge out of that into proper English but we should not be prepared to call it a second language or even a primary language. I think it is simply a dialect.

Ciku Theuri: Even Maya Angelou said Oakland’s decision made her quote, “incensed”. The Reverend Jesse Jackson wasn’t pleased either, saying: “In Oakland, some madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language.” So Ebonics sort of lost its popularity.

Nicole Holliday: That term has fallen out of favor because in the nineties there was a lot of backlash and so it acquired a negative connotation.

Ciku Theuri: Again, linguist Nicole Holiday

Nicole Holliday: And so we stopped using it professionally, even though there’s nothing wrong with the term. It’s just that unfortunately the discourse of that time really made the word like not politically feasible. So I would say that now mostly you see African American English

Ciku Theuri: Whatever you call it, it’s important to emphasize that not all people who identify as Black or African American speak this way and that African American English doesn’t just exist in certain communities. There’s a lot to be said about the co-opting of it, as often done in pop culture. Like this SNL skit that includes an abundance of African American English words and phrases that have been made popular by — and often incorrectly credited to — Gen Z and internet culture.

“ Nurse, we demand to know how our bestie is doing?”

“ I’m sorry bro, I told you I don’t have that information yet.”

“Bruh. Seriously?

“I’m so pressed right now bro.”

“Don’t be pressed, the doctor will be in shortly bro. Deadass.”

Ciku Theuri: But back to my original question: how did AAE develop? Where does this language come from? England has books, letters and manuscripts that document the earliest forms of English. Egyptians have hieroglyphics on walls, papyrus reeds and tablets. But that kind of documentation barely exists to help tell the story of African American English. Slavery made that nearly impossible.

Nicole Holliday: The only thing that we can do to try to reconstruct where AAE came from is to take what we know about the historical record, which unfortunately is not very much. People who are not documenting what was happening with enslaved people because they didn’t care, because they didn’t think of them as people.

Ciku Theuri: So while there aren’t many written texts, there ARE clues — and several schools of thought that have formed. Today I want to focus on two aspects . The first is that Black American English is the combination of many English varieties spoken in colonial America.

Nicole Holliday: And then that being in contact with the people who were enslaved in them, acquiring English from all of these different sources in a sort of imperfect, you know, not a classroom type situation.

Ciku Theuri: And the other theory that some linguists believe is that African American English is actually a Creole. A Creole is a language formed when two languages mix.

Nicole Holliday: So if we think about Haitian Creole or Jamaican Creole, these are also situations of slavery where what happened was. We’ll take Jamaica for example. There were the same colonizers that we had in the United States coming from England to Jamaica and the enslaved people were speaking their languages.

Ciku Theuri: Of course there are many other threads we could explore about the origins of Black American English. But we’d be here forever so let’s focus on these two theories, starting with the idea that African American English derived from European varieties of English. One linguist who believes this to be true is John McWhorter.

John McWhorter: There isn’t a single grammatical feature of Black English that you can really trace to African languages.

Ciku Theuri: He’s a professor at Columbia and author of several books.

John McWhorter: For example, the not having to always use the verb, “to be.” That’s not an African language trait.

Ciku Theuri: What McWhorter is talking about here is what linguists refer to as copula absence, or the absence of an auxiliary verb like “to be” in sentence construction. For instance, “She is nice” in standard English can become, “She nice” in African American. This grammatical characteristic of AAE is not something found in West African languages like Twi or Yoruba, according to McWhorter.

John McWhorter: There are many languages in the world where you don’t use “to be” the way we’re used to in English. But languages of the West African coast are not those languages.

Ciku Theuri: And this is one clue, according to McWhorter, that AAE is not a creole.

John McWhorter: So yeah, it’s almost disappointing. Black English would be easier to argue for the legitimacy of, if you could say this is Yoruba with English words. That would be great. It would make everything so much smoother. But unfortunately, the case is impossible.

Ciku Theuri: So if AAE is not derived from the West African languages, what proof does he have that AAE comes out of Englishes being spoken in colonial America?

John McWhorter: What we can know, based on looking at the dialect now and comparing it with colloquial speech varieties as they emerge around the world, and especially under conditions similar to, or equivalent to, plantation slavery in the United States, what we can say is that to create black English, you start with regional UK varieties of English, most of which we’re not very familiar with here in the United States now, and most of which have changed considerably since the 1600s and 1700s. But you start with those varieties. They are transplanted here by whites. They very quickly mix into new American varieties that didn’t exist in England, but it would not have been the emerging standard English. It would have been these colloquial Englishes. They mixed together into a new American stew. That is the English that African slaves would have been exposed to.

Ciku Theuri: And it’s from this linguistic stew that African American English is born. And sure, McWhorter is quick to point out, there is, of course, some African influence.

John McWhorter: The African slaves develop a form of that English that is inflected, somewhat, by the sound system and even melody of African languages, somewhat. And then they also sprinkle it with a few African words — not too terribly many in the case of black English, but a few.

Ciku Theuri: But he emphasizes, AAE is not an African language with English words thrown in.

John McWhorter: Nor was it something that we have any reason to think slaves created as a secret code so that white people couldn’t understand. That’s not why languages and dialects like this develop. It’s a more natural and ordinary and largely subconscious process where speech varieties change depending on who’s speaking them and to who — who’s developing them, what the composition of the population is.

Ciku Theuri: So what about the other theory? That AAE is a Creole? More on that after the break.

Patrick Cox: I’m jumping in here for just a minute to tell you about a podcast I’ve been listening to. It’s called Vanishing Postcards, and it’s “One of the best podcasts you should listen to in 2022” That’s a quote. I didn’t come up with it– Digital Trends did– but I agree. In the latest season of Vanishing Postcasts, host Evan Stern motors cross country, along America’s favorite highway, Route 66– he goes west, of course, from a dance in Tulsa, to an eating contest in Amarillo to a morning on the Santa Monica Pier. This is a highway where America’s past meets its present. You can hear that in every episode in people’s voices, and their stories. Of course it makes you want to take that drive yourself — it shames me to say I have not driven one mile of it. But maybe you don’t need to because Vanishing Postcards has done the job, it’s taken you there. Listen to Vanishing Postcards wherever you’re listening to this.

Ciku Theuri: We’re back. Talking about the origins of AAE. Is it a mishmash of colonial Englishes? Linguist John McWhorter thinks so. But there’s another school of thought that AAE is actually a creole.

John Rickford: We have found that these special varieties that we call pidgins and then creoles develop when people of different speaking, different languages are brought together.

Ciku Theuri: John Rickford is a linguist in this camp. He’s professor emeritus at Stanford and author of several books including Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, which he wrote with his son. He’s also from the Caribbean nation of Guyana and speaks Guyanese Creole. He knows first hand how creole developed and believes that some of its features can be found in African American English.

John Rickford: So very often in our case, it’s because of colonial expansion. Britain, for instance, would expand and bring people from different African countries to the Caribbean. And in that context, very often they would develop a pidgin kind of English.

Ciku Theuri: So a pidgin isn’t a native language. A pidgin is developed when two different languages come into contact. For example an English speaker and an Igbo speaker might develop a pidgin language to communicate with each other but still speak Igbo or English as their primary tongue. But then subsequent generations might adopt that pidgin language as their primary language. Later on, when that pidgin is learned as a native language, it has to be used for a much wider set of purposes than the pidgin. So at that point, you would say it becomes a Creole. This is what Rickford thinks happened in the United States, much as it did all over the Caribbean. He finds proof of this theory that AAE is a Creole in the language of Gullah. Gullah is spoken by Black Americans who live on the outer banks of the southeast coast and it’s been preserved for decades.

Sunn m’Cheaux: The southeast region, which is the epicenter of Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is the fiorst and foremost the epicenter of Gullah-Geechee language. And that’s from Wilmington, North Carolina, in 35 miles and down to about Jacksonville, Florida.

Ciku Theuri: That’s Sunn m’Cheaux. He teaches Gullah at Harvard, and, by the way, we did a whole episode with Sunn a while back. We’ll post a link in the show notes. According to Sunn, there are many, many linguistic similarities between Gullah, Caribbean and African languages.

Sunn m’Cheaux: Gullah is one of those languages that is a bridge between the Caribbean and African diaspora, in a sense that you will hear, you know, Guinea Coast creoles, West African Pidgin. It sounds very reminiscent of the creoles there in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And people will hear them next to Gullah and like, “Wow, they sound so similar.” It has preserved so much of its Africanness, essentially more than any other subset of the African-American community linguistically.

Ciku Theuri: Against the odds, Gullah has survived. And in addition its culture, has been carefully passed down from generation to generation.

Sunn m’Cheaux: Many of the people who still speak their mother tongue are literally the mothers. Literally the grandmothers, the great grandmothers, the older generation who either never did subscribe to crossing over or are no longer in a position at a point in their life where they feel inclined to code-switch for acceptance.

Ciku Theuri: These Gullah speakers don’t feel the urge to alter Gullah to gain acceptance from those who might not understand it or deem it secondary to standard English. There’s purity in its preservation. And perhaps Gullah speakers have been able to prevent its alteration because of their geographical isolation. And there’s been concerted efforts to keep it that way. In 2006, The Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act was passed, allocating financial support and protections to preserve the rich Gullah-Geechee culture. But even though the Gullah people have tightly preserved their language, isolating it from the influences of Standard English and AAE, Gullah has played a role in the evolution of Black American English. During the Great Migration between 1916 and 1970 millions of Black Americans, including people from the Gullah-Geechee community, moved from the South to the West, the Midwest and the North, seeking better opportunities and a fresh start. This Migration affected the way Black Americans’ speech evolved and changed. And part of that change can be traced to Gullah. For example, the way verbs are modified in Gullah.

Sunn m’Cheaux: In showing verb tense or modifying verbs in a sentence. The term “a” is either going to be present tense where it replaces the suffix -ing for for “doing” instead of doing it would be “a-do.” Also, it is for near future tense because “ge” — “I ge-say” or “I ge do” would be something that you’re doing in the future. “Imma do” or “Imma say” is something that is immediate future.

Ciku Theuri: This grammatical construction is something that you also hear in African American English.

Sunn m’Cheaux: So how many times if you heard someone in L.A., in New York, in Arkansas say, “Well, Imma to tell you what,” or “Imma go.” “Well, Imma say this.”

TV clip: “You ain’t gon’ kill me, Imma kill them.”

Sunn m’Cheaux: So it’s in our language all throughout the country, we haven’t had very many people pointed out and say, hey, this is where that comes from. And that’s why you say this thing that you say it’s not broken English or whatever you’ve been fed. That’s a part of your linguistic heritage that stuck around in your language from generation to generation.

Ciku Theuri: Okay, truth moment. I’ve heard “Imma” a million times. I also use it when I’m speaking to people, depending on who I’m speaking to. But I never knew how it came about. And honestly, after going through these theories it’s hard for me to make conclusions from the bit of research I’ve done for this episode. But I do see why linguists side differently on the origins, right? Again, without comprehensive documentation, how can we expect a linear story? And on that, there’s something that Nicole Holliday told me that really struck me.

Nicole Holliday: It actually doesn’t matter where it came from, whether or not it came from a creole or it came from, you know, the Anglophone speakers undergoing change.

Ciku Theuri: Anglophone speakers meaning English speakers.

Nicole Holliday: It’s still a legitimate variety.

Ciku Theuri: Legitimate variety. Those two words are very powerful. Considering the lost past of AAE, moving forward, it’s crucial that we document this variety, this legitimate variety of English that tells us stories of the past, illustrates the survival of a people. It demonstrates the tenacity of their belief in its integrity despite the attempts to destroy, delegitimize and distort it. Those attempts never went away. They’re still here. Linguistic bias is everywhere. At work, at school, in the media. In fact, John Rickford has written about the role linguistic bias plays in the courtroom, particularly in the trial for George Zimmerman in 2013. The prosecutor’s key witness, Rachel Jeantel was used to discredit Zimmerman’s claim that he fatally shot Trayvon Martin out of self defense. Jeantel spoke for many hours on the witness stand.

Rachel Jeantel: He did not ask me if Trayvon was describing the man. He just told me– I didn’t think it was that important at all. He had asked me [indecipherable] I said creepy. The only thing I said was creepy.

Ciku Theuri: Jeantel was deemed “not credible” by members of the jury. Why? Because they said she was, quote, “hard to understand.” They found Zimmerman not guilty. But despite continued attempts to delegitimize it, Black American English hasn’t and isn’t going anywhere. And it’s time we recognize its role in the American public square and the way it resonates with the masses abroad. To acknowledge the people who speak it. To recognize their journey. To validate their humanity in this way.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. Next episode we’ll explore AAE in music.

Ciku Theuri: This episode is reported and produced by me, Ciku Theuri. Special thanks to Patrick Cox, Oluwakemi Aladesuyi and Nina Porzucki. Also to Alyson Reed and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America.

Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our social media and newsletter. If you haven’t subscribed yet, the newsletter comes out every two weeks. There are language-themed news items, also some updates on the podcast, and some fun stuff.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. Another Hub & Spoke podcast is Nocturne. For anyone who loves the sounds and mysteries of the night but sleeps through most of it, this is a wondrous listen. Hosted by Vanessa Lowe, each episode takes you on a unique nighttime adventure.

Thanks for listening! We’ll be back 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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