You Makin’ Sense

Black Jargon in White America

by David Claerbaut
Eerdmans, 89 pp., $1.95

Both these books are by white authors who are passionately convinced that the language of black Americans deserves respect and study. The intention of both books is to make amends for the insults and errors of the past and, more urgently and practically, to enable teachers of blacks, especially in the urban ghettos, to understand their students’ native language. Here, however, the resemblances between the books end.

Black Jargon is brief and superficial; it consists of an introduction dealing chiefly with the author’s experiences in teaching black children and a dictionary of “black jargon,” which seems to mean ethnic slang. No etymologies are given, only rough definitions or synonyms; and the choice of words for inclusion seems to be casual and uncritical. Many of the words are certainly not now peculiar to blacks in the senses defined, and it seems unlikely that they ever were: examples are cabbage for money, coke for cocaine, con game, flick for movie, hustle, liberate for steal, King’s English, laid up, peepers for eyes, pimp, put in layaway, queen for homosexual, rod for gun, sack for bed, shiv for knife, suds for beer. In spite of its admirable intentions, the book is amateurish, and of interest only as supplying and glossing some examples of ethnic slang that may be new to white readers.

Black English, on the other hand, is a professional and substantial work, concerned primarily not with vocabulary but with the structure (syntax, morphology, and phonemics) of black speech. Ethnic slang, Dillard remarks,

…is the recourse of the Black who is not phonologically nor grammatically like his ethnic group but who wishes to retain some linguistic similarity. Listen to Adam Clayton Powell’s Keep the Faith, Baby for an excellent illustration…. Slang is that part of non-standard language which is most nearly above the threshold of awareness; a legion of popular writers have noticed it and have mistaken it for “the ghetto language.” [P. 239]

Dillard’s is the first book by a qualified linguist about the speech of black Americans. As such, and as a lively and extremely readable treatment of a subject partly technical, it is much to be welcomed. The material it presents may be known to most linguists but is certainly not to general readers, who should find in it a convincing demonstration that black English exists as a distinct and fascinating dialect and that its study and use in teaching black children is very important. Black English is, then, popularization of the most useful and salutary kind; it should be required reading for anyone who teaches black students.

Popularization is not, however, really an accurate label for Black English. The book is too personal and too one-sided for that. The author mentions several times that he spent his youth in Texas small towns dominated by black-hating poor whites; and his predisposition—no doubt in compensation—to suggest that black is beautiful does him nothing but honor. This generous partisanship, together with a sometimes open personal quality, contributes to making…

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