We Be Still Talkin’ African

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While surfin through the Internet, I found this interesting article published by Western Washington University about the history of American dialects.  I quickly scrolled down to African American and why “we be speakin da way we do” and although pulp society gives it a negative face, coining someone who speaks this way as being stupid, the way we speak actually is from West African languages that we managed to retain even through slavery.

Black English developed in the Southern states when speakers of dozens of West African languages were abruptly forced to abandon their native tongues and learn English.  Slaves from different tribes couldn’t communicate with one another–in fact, masters deliberately tried to separate slaves who could speak the same language.  Since the Africans had to communicate with one another, as well as with the whites, a kind of compromise language evolved on the basis of English and a mixture of the original West African languages.  Such a makeshift, compromize language, used as a second language by adults, is known as a pidgin.  When a pidgin becomes the native language of the next generation, it becomes a creole–a full-fledged language.  The African-English creole in the American colonies evolved into today’s Black English.

Black English was most influenced by the speech of the southern whites.

Features carried over from early Southern English into Black English:

–loss of final consonants, especially sonorants: po(or), sto(re) like aristocratic southern English.

— use of double negatives, ain’t, as in early English.

–loss of ng: somethin’, nothin’, etc.

Black English, in turn, gradually influenced the speech of southern whites–especially the children of the aristocratic slave owners.  Given the social prejudices of the Old South, this seems paradoxical.  However, remember that throughout all the slave owning areas, black nannies helped raise white children, and the children of blacks and whites played freely together before the Civil War.  Since language features acquired in early childhood tend to be kept throughout life, Southern English naturally became mixed with Black English.

Let’s look more closely at how Black English developed on the basis of West African Dialects.  Whenever a group of adults is forced to learn a second language, the language learned retains many features of the original native language.  Thus, the English of black slaves retained many features that were African and not present in English at all.  The children of the slaves learned this form of English as their native language.  Thus, on the basis of language mixing, a new dialect, called a creole, was born.  This process–at least in some small degree– characterizes the English of all Americans whose parents spoke English as a second language.  But in the case of African Americans, due to the social separation they lived under from the very start, the differences were stronger and more lasting.

Main features carried over from West African languages.

–No use of the linking verb ‘to be’ or generalization of one form for it.

–emphasis on aspect rather than tense: He workin’ (right now) vs.  He be workin’. This is found in many West African languages.

I done gone (from Wolof doon , the completive verb aspect particle + English ‘done’).

–Regularization of present tense verb conjugation: He don’t, he know it.

–voiced th in initial position becomes d: dis, dey; in medial position it becomes v: brotherbrovva.   final voiceless th = f  with =wif

A large number of West African words came into Standard American through the medium of Black English: bug (bugu = annoy), dig (degu/ understand), tote bag (tota = carry in Kikonga), hip(Wolof hepicat one who has his eyes wide open), voodoo (obosum, guardian spirit) mumbo jumbo (from name of a West African god), jazz (? Bantu from Arabic jazib one who allures), banjo(mbanza?), chigger (jigger/ bloodsucking mite), goober (nguba /Bantu), okra (nkruman/ Bantu), yam (njami/ Senegal), banana (Wolof).  Also, the phrases: sweet talkingevery which way; to bad-mouth, high-five are from Black English–seem to be either American innovations or loan translations from West African languages.

The speech of African Americans gradually became more like the speech of their southern white neighbors–a process called decreolization. (And the speech of the whites became slightly more like that of the blacks).  However, in a few areas, the original African English creole was preserved more fully.  There is one dialect of Black English still spoken on the Georgia coast, called Gullah, which is still spoken there by about 20,000 people; it is thought to represents the closest thing to the original creole.

After the Civil War, Black English continued to evolve and change, especially in the creation of new vocabulary.  After the 1920’s millions of blacks migrated to northern cities, where various varieties of Black English continue to develop.

There is one other notable southern English dialect.  The Cajun French in Louisiana also adopted English with noticeable traces of their former language.

Full article: http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/ling201/test3materials/AmericanDialects.htm

 

 

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