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Historical Background of Black English

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The European enslavement of Africans from 1433 to 1865 resembles an hourglass, with “friendly” sand in the top -- converting to “enslaving” sand as it goes through the stricture into the bottom called slavery.

The top half sand is represented by the Portuguese sailors taking African “friends” to Portugal to learn their language so that these African crew members could serve as translators at ports along the West African coast.

However, the sinister (evil) purpose of these 15th century cruises, representing the hourglass stricture, was to trade with interior Africans for slaves. The result of African translators, using a mixture of their language with Portuguese, gave rise to Black Portuguese.

Because Black Portuguese spread westward between Japan and the New World, it became the first world-wide lingua franca (i.e. pidgin trade language). It was well established by the early 16th century and has remained strong on the African side of the Atlantic.

As interest in the slave trade grew, the Dutch forced out the Portuguese from their bases on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1630’s and 1640’s. Despite the development of Black Dutch, Black Portuguese continued as the main language for the mixed crews on board Dutch slaving vessels to the Caribbean.

After a short time of Dutch control, slaving by the French (established in 1630) and the English rose into domination. Particularly among Senegal’s Wolof (Yolof, Jolof), Black French developed and expanded East into the Indian Ocean area and West into the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, among West African Gold Coast Africans, Black English developed around 1557 and disseminated widely among slaves from the north of the River Gambia (Wolof and Mandingo, including Bambara) in West Africa, the Upper Guinea Coast (Akan,), Sierra Leone, and on over to the Bight of Biafra (Nigerian Bay).

Even up to the end of the 18th century, African crew members, using Black English on British vessels, were mainly from the Kra (Kru) tribe of Liberia. There was extensive African language “loaning” into the West African Black English.

Examples of “borrowings” are that of the Bantu language from the Congo and Angola; and later from the Mende of Sierra Leone (whose Black English is termed Krio). Still, Black Portuguese remained the model for Black Dutch, Black French, and Black English.
Slaves sent to the Americas tripled in the 17th century.

The relatively homogenous Black English in West Africa was taken into the Americas by the Wolof, Mandingo, Akan, Ewe (Ghana, Togo), Fon (Dahoney or Benin), Yoruba (a large linguistic group of coastal West Africans speaking a Sudanic language), Hausa (a widespread group of northern Nigerians and Sudanese), and Congo slaves.

Once in the Americas, Black English and Black French branched widely into regional dialects. Black USA English lost all but a few African-derived borrowings -- probably because of its great dilution by USA White speech and culture.

South Carolina’s Sea Island Gullah speakers are an exception. Nevertheless, many African-patterned terms in music and dance have been retained in the complex USA Black English. The Wolof and Mandingo of Louisiana were prominent in developing jazz music and a jazz vocabulary.

Verbally, words like “shuckin,” “jivin,” and “hep” cover “a lot” more ideas than do formal English words. USA Black English and humor continue to be filled with the double meanings typical of Africans. Such Africanized humor serves as an important weapon in their daily struggles against racism.

Since Africans and American Blacks have fewer verbal taboos regarding sex compared with Whites, they differ significantly on what represents “offensive” language. To this day, ghetto Blacks consider the Spoken Word on the African Style to be More Important than the Written Word.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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