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Black English During Slavery

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Black English is an essential part of African American heritage and is therefore to be respected. Some call it either Creole, a dialect, and/or a language. Whatever the case, it is a constantly evolving form of American speech -- adding and dropping vernacular as society and the English language change.

Whereas a dialect is an altered form of an underlying tongue, a language has its own internally consistent syntax and grammar. Creole is a language that evolves from a pidgin but with expanded grammar and vocabulary. Ultimately, it functions as a native tongue.

Pidgin is a “salad-like” mixture of several languages used by speakers for whom it was not the primary tongue. African Pidgin began around the slave barracoons (a herding place for slaves) of the West African coast and therefore consisted of a mix of such languages as Ibo (Nigeria), Yoruba (Nigeria, Benin, Togo), Ewe (Ghana, Togo, Benin), Hausa (along the Niger), Wolof (Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania), Arabic, and European slavers tongues.

Two other major locations where Black related Pidgin languages developed were the Caribbean and the Southern USA. Although different patterns of pidgin developed wherever slaves were grouped, Black English had its most formative development in the Sea Island region of South Carolina because it was present at a time before slaves were arriving in the USA in high numbers.

Starting in the late 17th century, a high concentration of African Gullah slaves were transported into Barbados and then a high concentration of Barbados Gullah slaves were transported into South Carolina and its sea Islands.

Thus, these Gullahs became the most concentrated group of African Americans during the colonial era and, as a result, they fashioned the “seed Black English” to which newcomer Barbados slaves were introduced. Thereafter this “seed” speech was passed down from generation to generation of slave children.

The Gullah Black English was able to maintain some degree of stability because of the slaves’ relative isolation on the Sea Islands, the continuing influx of slaves from Barbados, and the few numbers of Whites on those islands to serve as dilutants and pollutants in life style -- whether in speech or in racial, cultural, and religious distinctions. When slaves came in directly from Africa, as opposed to Barbados, they learned the local language, not from Englishmen, but from resident slaves.

Furthermore, many slaves were not eager to learn standard English. The exceptions were shrewd Negroes who used it to eavesdrop or read the newspaper with greater understanding then they took advantage of that information as best they could. By contrast, it was to the slave’s advantage to express “bad English” to Whites because, as Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) said, “Ignorance is a high virtue in a human chattel; and as the master studies to keep the slave ignorant, the slave is cunning enough to make the masters think he succeeds.

The slave fully appreciates the saying, ‘where ignorance is bliss ‘tis folly to be wise.’” Then there was the aspect of passive-aggressive rebellion. To totally accept the master’s tongue would be but another form of giving up a part of oneself.

The egotistical slaveholders’ interpretations were to declare those slaves who could not understand their commands and questions as ”non-sensible Negroes.” The same was true if the master could not understand what Blacks were saying to them.

By the early 18th century the foundation of Black English was firmly established, at least in the South Carolina Gullahs. Then a transition began toward a more elaborate “Negro Creole” language. The Negro dialect as we know it today was formed by White song-writers for minstrel shows around the time of the Civil War.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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