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You Makin’ Sense

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 his book so readable. Unfortunately, it is also the source of what seem to me to be the book’s chief faults: the tendencies to overdramatize and mythologize and to make assertions going far beyond the evidence.

Black English and the Academic. Establishment,” the first chapter, sets forth the mythological drama that pervades the book. (Perhaps I should say here that I am an academic but not a linguist; my opinion that the drama bears no close relation to reality is based not upon acquaintance with the people concerned but upon checking Dillard’s sources.) The basic assumption, or myth, is that the Academic Establishment is engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the true knowledge of Black English, denying that it is different from the white regional dialects whose origins are traced back to Britain. The Establishment is committed to the geographical approach to the study of dialects, which has been concerned “almost exclusively with patterns of migration from the British Isles and with what they think of as the spread of British regional features throughout the United States.”

This ancient conspiracy (which somehow has overtones of British snobbery as well as power and privilege) is now being exposed and overthrown by creolists (creoles—e.g., Haitian—are pidgins which become the principal languages of speech communities) and other students of minority languages, especially the Black English of the urban ghettos. For example:

The reason for the lack of study in the area of Black English seems to be that the theory of exclusively British origins is seriously challenged by the pidgin/creole theory. Members of the geography-oriented Establishment must have been aware of the possibility of a challenge from that theory for some time and have constructed defenses against it. [Pp. 9-10]

Until the time of Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949) the line was sternly maintained at the border of the United States…. After Turner’s overwhelming demonstration that this position was erroneous, the lines of defense were redrawn. It was simply held that only in Gullah, now pictured as an isolated language phenomenon limited to the Sea Islands…was there any appreciable number of African words. [Pp. 116-117]

Cassidy may be subject here, as elsewhere, to pressure to keep alive the Establishment explanation in terms of British origin and archaism. [P. 220]

This mythology is dramatic, as evil dialect geographers are overthrown by dauntless creolists or sociolinguists; but the facts are more complex. For example, it is distressing to find prominent among the damned Raven McDavid, who in fact took a notably liberal or pro-black position more than twenty years ago, when such positions were unpopular. Furthermore, Dillard’s polemical zeal leads him to make assertions about the nature and history of Black English that go far beyond any evidence presented or referred to. Since Dillard is obviously competent and intelligent, and since he draws on much work that is very recent or even still in progress, the reader is willing to take a good deal on faith. That this faith should be a limited one, however, is indicated by an investigation of Dillard’s use of some of his sources (who are also pet hates in some cases, such as Raven McDavid). For Dillard tends sometimes to drop the reservations and distinctions made by his sources and to harden conjectures into fact as he constructs his own argument.

To illustrate this last point, and also for its great inherent interest, let us look at the main outlines of Dillard’s argument. Black English, “the language of about eighty percent of Americans of African ancestry,” differs from other varieties of American English in ways “traceable to normal historical factors, specifically to language-contact phenomena associated with the West African slave trade and with European maritime expansion in general, and to survivals from West African languages” (p. ix). (The reason for stressing “normal historical factors” is that abnormal ones used to be invoked: thick lips, or congenital incapacity, or laziness caused by the heat—though never by respectable linguists.)

In the 1960s “a group of linguists, freed of preconceptions about the geographic provenience of American dialects, have shown that Negro Non-Standard English is different in grammar (in syntax) from the Standard American English of the mainstream white culture” (p. 6). These linguists are the Social Dialectologists (or Sociolinguists) who study the speech of urban black ghettos, and who consider social factors far more important than geographical ones. Black English “can be traced to a creolized version of English based upon a pidgin spoken by slaves; it probably came from the West Coast of Africa—almost certainly not directly from Great Britain” (p. 6). This conjecture about the origin of the pidgin becomes less tentative as it is repeated, until African rather than British origin becomes a fundamental tenet (though in fact there is insufficient evidence to prove anything).

Discussing the relation between Black English and Southern white dialect, Dillard argues that black influence “produced some—not all—of the differences between Southern white dialect and Northern white dialect” and concludes,

Although observations like these are slim evidence, it should not be forgotten that the counter-claim—that the Negro has had no influence on American English—is a pure assertion not supported by even this much evidence. [P. 198]

But this sensible and moderate statement is cited elsewhere in the book as if it were demonstrable fact:

The opinion of all laymen, that southern dialect was the result of influence of Negro dialect on the speech of whites (which turns out to be accurate—see Chapter V)…. [Pp. 108-109]

And on the jacket this becomes the triumphant assertion,

Black English has influenced American English (Southern whites picked up the speech of their Black playmates, and not vice versa)….

A last point, and one of crucial importance to Dillard’s argument, concerns the relation of the Gullah dialect to Black English in general. He writes:

It has long been recognized that certain forms of Southern white speech have been influenced by the Negro. As long as it was assumed that the only significant variety of Black English in the United States was Gullah, considered to be confined to the Sea Islands, such influence could be considered to be confined to a small area close to the Charleston-Sea Island area. With the new perspective, which shows no geographic limitations on Plantation Creole, we can see that it is not strange that all of the Southern white dialects should have been so influenced. In fact, it is what one would normally expect. [P. 217]

While Lorenzo Dow Turner, in his great work of 1949, dealt with Gullah as a specific dialect, limited to the Sea Islands and the adjacent coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia, Dillard attempts to prove that Gullah was identical with that hypothetical Plantation Creole from which modern Black English developed.

This seems to me a very dubious leap. Dillard says, “Because Turner found it expedient to utilize the residents of the Sea Islands as informants in searching out Africanisms, his work was still susceptible to a geographic interpretation” (p. 9). This is a distortion: Turner in fact chose the Sea Islands because that is the only place Gullah is spoken, and he stresses the difference between Gullah and other Negro speech, not only in vocabulary but in grammar, tempo, and especially intonation. My own experience, for what it may be worth, confirms this: I grew up in South Carolina not very far from Gullah territory; but when I occasionally heard the dialect I found it completely incomprehensible, as did everyone (black or white) I knew. It is very rapid and weird-sounding because of the intonation pattern, and it was regarded as something very special, strange, and exotic.

Dillard cites a few examples of eighteenth-century black language and says that they prove that “nobody in the eighteenth century differentiated between Plantation Creole as used on the Sea Islands and that used in other parts of the country—and hardly between that of the United States and the varieties spoken in Africa or Surinam.” (Even if true, this obviously does not prove that the dialects were all the same.) He continues: “These examples, along with others…disprove the alleged development of Gullah from pseudo-ecological factors (‘isolation’) in the Sea Islands” (p. 93). But there was nothing pseudo about the isolation of the Sea Islands, and it would take far more solid evidence than Dillard cites to convince me that Gullah was identical with Plantation Creole (pp. 171, 173) or “Negro non-standard usage” (p. 221).

Many books on language are boring because ultimately trivial. Dillard, in contrast, is always interesting because he sees his subject as serious and significant. It is a pity that, by overstating his case, he sometimes weakens it. His presentation is often so one-sided, breezy, and confident of its own righteousness, his treatment of objections and opposing views so contemptuous, that the reader—or at least this reader—becomes suspicious and balky. I have dwelt at sufficient length on this aspect of the book, however, for reservations on this score should not be allowed to obscure the book’s positive accomplishments. To show the best side of the book, let us look in some detail at the most important and original chapter.

Chapter 2, “On the Structure of Black English,” seems to me to be Dillard’s most substantial contribution. Pulling together what many other investigators have discovered and adding much material of his own, he undertakes here a systematic description of how the syntax of Black English differs from that of white English. The verb system, he says, “reveals the greatest difference from white American dialects—as from British dialects—and the closest resemblance to its pidgin and creole ancestors and relatives.” Tense, though an obligatory category in Standard English, can be omitted in Black English, provided the necessary time cues are given elsewhere: He go yesterday. Distinctions of meaning are shown most clearly in the various negative forms. “When he ain’ go is the negative of he go, the verb base marks a point-of-time category. This, again, is a creole language characteristic, and is very different from Standard English.” “He ain’ go is the negative for a momentary action, whether or not in the past. He ain’ goin‘ is the negative of a progressive action, whether or not in the past.” Thus forms such as He stood there and he thinkin‘ are possible.

Verbs in the Aspect category

…are marked for the ongoing, continuous, or intermittent quality of an action rather than for the time of its occurrence. This is the only obligatory category in the Black English verb system. This is perhaps the most basic difference from Standard English, since a speaker of Standard English must mark tense but can choose to indicate or to ignore the ongoing or static quality of an action. Black English gives the speaker an option with regard to tense, but its rules demand that he commit himself as to whether the action was continuous or momentary. [Pp. 43-44]

The sequence don’ be (or, in the affirmative be) has a special function which is not marked in the Standard English verb. It indicates that the time of the action is “stretched out”—that it is reportably long for the kind of action involved in the verb being used. [He be waitin’ for me every night when I come home.] [Pp. 44-45]

As Dillard demonstrates, these categories express important differences in meaning.

If one says of a workman, He workin’ when de boss come in, he is paying the worker no compliment; the work is coterminous with the presence of the boss…. On the other hand, He be workin’ when de boss come in means that the work went on before and after the boss’s entry…. One might also say to a scorned acquaintance’s rare intelligent remark, You makin’ sense, but you don’t be makin’ sense, meaning something like “You’ve blundered into making an intelligent statement for once….” [Pp. 15-16]

In the Aspect category (the one which is negated by ain’) is the verb structure which differs most obviously from Standard English.” In it are sentences like I been know that and I been knowin’ him a long time, which illustrate the Point-of-Time Aspect and the Progressive Aspect, respectively. “Been marks an action which is quite decidedly in the past; it can be called Perfective Aspect, or even Remote Perfective Aspect.” Like West African languages, Black English has also a “contrasting Immediate Perfective Aspect, for which the preverbal form is done”: I done go, I done went, I done been gone.

The auxiliary have is replaced in Black English by been, done, and is: thus for Standard English “Have you seen him?” there is Black “Is you see(n) him?” The contrast between be and zero as copula markers is significant: My brother sick means that the sickness is currently in effect, but of short-term duration; My brother be sick indicates a long-term illness. Young speakers of Black English, like speakers of pidgins and creoles generally, do not differentiate in the pronoun system between masculine and feminine: He a nice little girl. The invariant pronoun form also occurs in the possessive: me book, we-uns do us washing. “Possession by juxtaposition” extends to the noun system: Mary hat. In the sentence Ray sister seven year old go to school at Adams she got a new doll baby, the relative clauses have the typical zero relative pronoun and the she, Dillard suggests, may be regarded as a Predicate Marker rather than an appositive.

Pluralization leaves the noun unchanged when plurality is otherwise clearly indicated: A whole lotta song. Time is used as a conjunction: Time she said it he jumped up from the table; relative clauses are formed without connectors—He got a gun sound like a bee—or using what where Standard English would use who: My youngest sister, what live in Georgia.

If supplying this terminology sometimes recalls how M. Jourdain learned that he had been speaking prose, it is in a good cause, for it serves to show that Black English is not just a corruption of Standard English but a very different dialect with its own forms of meaning. This sort of analysis is, to my mind, far more convincing than Dillard’s historical argument about Gullah.

Everyone would have believed, Dillard says, that the “earlier patterns of the (creolized, in effect) Negro speech have by now disappeared, except for Gullah” (p. 8), if it had not been for William A. Stewart’s discovery in the 1960s of an age-grading feature in the speech of ghetto blacks. “Relatively archaic forms are preserved in the speech of younger children, even in the inner cities of New York and Washington, D.C. Geographic factors are thus subsidiary to social factors—age-grading in this case” (p. 8). “This comparatively archaic character of the speech of the younger children…is sociolinguistically perhaps the most exciting factor in Black English” (p. 236). An “upwardly mobile female Negro past the age of about fourteen will speak something relatively close to Standard English; on the other hand, a six-year-old ghetto resident (male or female) will usually speak something which is amazingly different from Standard English…” (p. 239).1

The William A. Stewart who made the age-grading discovery is the same man to whom frequent acknowledgment is made throughout and to whom the book is dedicated. As a pioneer in developing methods for teaching. English as a second language or a foreign language to ghetto blacks, and as instigator of three textbooks in parallel Black English and Standard English versions, he bulks large in the last chapter, “Black English and Education.” This seems to me the most valuable chapter aside from the one on structure; it is full of information and practical suggestions. The book also includes a useful glossary of linguistic terms, an appendix “On the Pronunciation of Black English” (relegated to an appendix in order to avoid giving it too much prominence), and a full bibliography.

Dillard seems to me to prove successfully that Black English differs structurally, as well as in vocabulary, from white, and that white English is best taught to blacks as a second or foreign language. Neither of these propositions is new,2 but they have not before been demonstrated so fully or convincingly. He seems much less successful in proving African origins,3 but this is not logically necessary to his case: there is no need to determine origin to establish a dialect’s legitimacy and respectability or its difference from Standard English.

Dillard is careful never to suggest that Black English is a separate language, and it seems to me a dangerous illusion to think that it can become one, for literary or black nationalist purposes. But it is important to black self-respect to stress the dignity, legitimacy, and exceptional interest of Black English as a dialect; for though linguists know that all dialects are equal, the general public does not. To carry on education in both dialects is a good pedagogical aim, and entirely consonant with black self-respect: after all, it is different only in degree from the process whites go through when they learn formal as distinct from colloquial usage.


Gullah January 25, 1973

  1. 1

    Archaism here is valued because it supports the argument that black language is different. Elsewhere, however, Dillard is infuriated by nothing so much as the suggestion that black language is archaic, “the white man’s castoffs.” “Even the ‘thick lips’ theory is kinder to the Negro: A man might suffer from a physical handicap like thick lips or a cleft palate and be as bright as the next man, although handicapped; but the man who, being physiologically normal, simply remains a hundred years or so behind the times must be mentally deficient” (p. 190). This is, of course, absurd, as Dillard must know when not angry: linguistic change has nothing to do with intelligence. Those who observed that black language was archaic were not picturing “a Negro who just can’t catch up or keep up” but a person who changed his linguistic habits slowly simply because of his rural, isolated, illiterate, and therefore static condition.

  2. 2

    As long ago as 1941, M.J. Herskovits in The Myth of the Negro Past suggested that the speech of Negroes in the New World tended to retain the structural forms of West African languages. Generalizing on the basis of Turner’s work with Gullah (which Turner summarized for him long before publication) and of the parallels with other creoles, Herskovits suggested that the Negroes who were brought to America learned English words but “organized them into their aboriginal speech patterns” (p. 281). He suggested, but did not attempt to prove, that this is true not only of Gullah but of the speech of black Americans in general.

    The basic educational principle was stated by Leonard Bloomfield in 1933: “For the native speaker of sub-standard or dialectal English the acquisition of standard English is a real problem, akin to that of speaking a foreign language. To be told that one’s habits are due to ‘ignorance’ or ‘carelessness’ and are ‘not English,’ is by no means helpful. Our schools sin greatly in this regard” (Language, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, p. 499).

  3. 3

    Turner’s great work demonstrated the African element in Gullah, but dealt chiefly with vocabulary, and made no generalizations. Dillard’s argument that Gullah is a survival of a hypothetical Plantation Creole once spoken by blacks all over the United States is based on very slender evidence, and most of that controversial: about twenty-five words that were brought by the slaves (pp. 118-9, 218) into Standard American English, the parallels in structure between African languages and Black English cited in Chapter 2, and the archaic forms that appear in age-granding. There is nothing improbable in the hypothesis that other creoles existed and that they were more or less like Gullah; but this is a long way from proving that they were identical.

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