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The Roots of Black English

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Since the beginning of African American slavery racist and mainstream Americans have ranked Black English at the bottom of the totem pole with respect prestige -- saying it is a reflection of poverty, ignorance, and stupidity. The impact of this constant message has had a significant effect on the “persona” self-esteem of Blacks -- that portion of self-esteem which intermingles with the public.

It has not seemed to occur to the judgmental accusers that their own formal English, like that of Black English, is a Creole language. Because of that neither language is better or worse than the other. Furthermore, the process for the development of formal English and Black English has been the same. All languages started in Africa with the appearance of human beings.

The first Africans probably started learning their language through the imitation of sounds they heard in nature. As group members rippled away from their tribe, they developed Dialects (recognizable variants of the original). Meanwhile, back home their original language was undergoing changes.

Eventually, every homeland around the world was invaded by foreigners. The mixing of the languages of the invaders with that of the conquered created a new language called Pidgin. Pidgin is like a “horse-and-rabbit” language stew whose proportions are one horse (the language of the conquerors) to one rabbit (the language of the conquered).

At first the pidgin provided the basic communication which allowed for business trade and seduction. Over hundreds of years the pidgin off-spring enlarged, became the mother tongue of its region, and was called a Creole Language. An example is English. At the time the Romans dominated the world one thing they did was to conquer the Celts of Britannia and Latin then dominated the Celtic languages.

When the Empire collapsed, Roman Britain was invaded many times by nearby Germanic neighbors -- Danes, Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. Over the next few centuries, the people knew themselves as Saxons and their tongue as English. However, Latin remained a living language only in the Church. Then, with the coming of the Norman conquest of 1066, the process was repeated.

The Norman French imposed themselves on the very Teutonic native English. Yet, since they hated each other, there was no initial language mixing. Despite French being the language of nobility and the court, the nobles learned English while the poor English people learned very little French. Still, Latin remained the language of learning. The result was that English progressed from a pidgin to Creole.

The same thing happened with the development of Black English. The Portuguese who initiated the African slave trade in the 15th century had a pidgin lingua franca (an “adopted “ language). IT evolved from the Mediterranean pidgin used by medieval traders and crusaders. When the Portuguese sailed along the Western coast of Africa, they naturally used their contact language with the captured slaves, the Portuguese form of lingua franca.

Even though by the 17th century the Portuguese were no longer a world power, they had already established their pidgin language as the “seed” for the Atlantic and the Pacific slave market places. The speakers of this pidgin modified it by drawing on the vocabulary of the later arriving European traders -- the English, Spanish, French, and Dutch. These European-based pidgins met up with African pidgins at slave barracoons (detention prisons awaiting the middle passage) and on slave ships. As a result, they all established the roots of Black English.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D