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Vol. 18, No. 1, 2019
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Robert J. Lewis
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Howard Richler is a Montreal-area word nerd and author of these seven books on a variety of language themes: Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, Can I Have a Word With You?, Strange Bedfellows and his most recent book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit ( May 2016, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver).

In the month of February, in the United States and Canada, we celebrate Black History Month to honour the achievements of black men and women throughout history. As such in this month's column, I reflect on the speech patterns of blacks.

While negative attitudes towards black English still persist, we have to look back to yesteryear to see that there has been a sea change in how this dialect is viewed. To wit, in the 1830s, a cartoonist in Philadelphia published a series of popular cartoons that mocked the pretensions of the evolving black middle class trying to act ‘white.’ One cartoon displayed a bewigged partygoer asking the following captioned question: “Shall I hab de honor to dance de next quadrille with you, Miss Minta.” Although despicably racist, these cartoons highlight the realization of the distinct nature of black English. They are also a rather flagrant pictorial example of a process called the linguistic inferiority principle that postulates that the speech of a socially subordinate group will always be interpreted as inadequate when compared to the speech of the socially dominant group. A corollary of this principle, sometimes called the grammaticality myth, holds that any structure not in conformity with the strictures of standard English, is thus ‘ungrammatical.’

However in the last 50 years since linguists have studied Black English with an emphasis that it represents a variety of standard English rather than its degradation. However, they are still many false assumptions about Black English, I am taking the opportunity to present many of realities and nuances of Black English that linguist John McWhorter illuminates in his 2017 book Talking Back, Talking Black. For example, McWhorter explains that a construction such as “She be passin’ by” contains “much more than an unconjugated verb” and that the insertion of “be” is “very specific; it means that something happens on a regular basis, rather than something going on right now.” An equivalent sense in standard English might be “She used to pass every Friday.”

McWhorter points out that counter to the idea that Black English is inherently a simplified form of the language, that in several instances it offers more complexities than standard English. For example, in Black English the word “up” plays a special role when paired with a location. So, in the Black English sentence “We was sittin’ up at Tony,” we know that Tony is a friend as the usage of “up” is a marker of familiarity or intimacy, just as adding ed to a verb is a marker of past action. McWhorter points out that unless the speaker is a masochist he is unlikely to utter “We was waitin’ up at the dentist.” Another nuance occurs with the word “done,” and in a sentence such as “I done drunk it,” you might think that this refers to the time frame of your imbibing but McWhorter explains that you’re expressing something far more subtle – counterexpectation. He says “whether it’s in a sentence about 1973 or last week, a sentence with done is always about something the speaker finds somewhat surprising . . . ” So if a man tells a woman “I done had a crush on you since you was thirteen,” the presumption is that the woman had no idea that the guy held the flame for so long. And if someone said “You done drunk it,” he may be expressing his belief that you were going to share the beer with him but when he got back from the bathroom you had selfishly drained the bottle.

We see other verb nuances in Black English. McWhorter explains the following:
He been seen it! (He saw it a long time ago.)
She done seen seen it. (She saw it recently.)
He be seein’ it. (He sees it regularly.)
She steady seein’ it. (She is right now in the process of seeing it.)

Another way that Black English is distinct from Standard English is in the narrative purpose the verb “had” fulfills. McWhorter tells us that some languages, such as Swahili and other Bantu languages have narrative tenses. Similarly, Black English employs a narrative tense marker in its use of the verb “had.” He gives this example from a ten-year old boy describing a scuffle: “Cause when he hit me like this, he had upper-cut me like that, and then he had hit me like that. He had kicked me, it was half-wrestling and then, one, I was tired, then he just beat me and push me own, that’s when he had push me down.” Rather than signalling a coming finale, the verb had is integral in telling the story.

On the other hand, in many ways Black English is less complicated than standard English. McWhorter provides this sentence as an example: “Why she ain’t call me when she know dis de best time. ” Here, “Why she ain’t” replaces the more elaborate “Why didn’t she,” and “know” and “dis” replace “knows” and “this” respectively. A sentence such as this has led some commentators to issue some rather pejorative, if not outright racist, views. For example in the 1980s, pop grammarian John Simon ordained that “the constructions of Black English are the product not of a language with roots in tradition but of ignorance of how language works.” More recently, political commentator Tucker Carlson said that Black English is “a language where nobody knows how to conjugate verbs.” These opinions are consistent with what is often called the linguistic inferiority principle which posits that the speech patterns of a socially subordinate group will always be interpreted as improper when compared with the socially dominant group.

However, McWhorter explains that complexity in grammar doesn’t in any manner connote language superiority He points out that Old English possessed far more complex grammar than modern English. For example, it had far more ways than merely adding an s to make a noun plural and whereas modern English has relatively few irregular plurals such as men, women, mice and feet, Old English was inundated with these irregularities, But nobody claims that modern English represents an inferior form of Old English because it is less complex and thus, the cases where Black English simplifies standard English doesn’t represent a diminishment of the language.


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