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Miscegenation of Black English

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Just as “Miscegenation” is interbreeding between different races, so was there interbreeding between Black English and many other foreign languages. This started before American slavery and has continued to the present. Some Africans brought to America as slaves, like those of Guinea, knew “Black English.”

However, the dialects of fresh slave imports were harder to handle by colonial USA planters compared with that of American-born slaves. During slavery, much of the richness of Black English came from the tiny few slave preachers literate enough to get words and descriptions from the Bible and the house servants who had contact with Whites.

At most, they spoke with two or three hundred slurred and fragmented words necessary to a slave’s activities of daily living. Adult field hands had no reason to learn anymore than such “get by” words as “Massa” (a blend of English “Master” and West African Masa, Chief), “yassuh,” or “nossuh” to very White man. At the same, the caste system dictated that slaves grin and/or hang their heads according to the White man’s tone of voice.

During the 18th and much of the 19th century plantation field hands, and in fact most southern slaves, spoke a dialect distinctively different from any White’s dialect. Yet, certain plantation Black and White “play children” frolicked together before age 5 (after which Black children had to go work) and their speech habits interbred.

A similar process in the West Indies resulted in Black and White children having the same regional accent -- quite unlike any regional British accent. Nevertheless, the syntax of Black English maintained some very disstinctive features, particularly in its use of verbs and verb inflections.

“He run” replaced “he runs;’ “he go,” for “he went” (though only if the context shows that the action took place in the past). The verb “be” has a special place in Black English. In standard English, when “be” is the main verb of a sentence, it appears in one of its five inflected forms: is, am, are, was, and were. Inflections indicate grammatical features such as number, person, mood, tense.

In Black English, the form “be” can be used as the main verb: “I be at home” or “he be happy”. Sometimes it appears as “be’s” or “bees” -- “It often bees that way” -- but both are usually reserved to indicate that which occurs over and over. If the situation does not recur, “be” is usually omitted entirely: “he a bad dude.” “That food bees bad” means “that food is bad every day;” “the food bad” means “the food is bad today.”

Another feature is the lack of a final “s” in the third person singular present tense: “He walk.” In Possessives the “s” is often omitted. Only the order of the words indicates the possessive: “it be Titan house.”

A striking feature is Black English’s emphasis on Aspect (the kind of action) rather than tense. In standard English, whatever verb form is used must indicate the time of the action -- past, present, or future -- whether it indicates aspect or not.

In Black English, the emphasis is reversed -- the verb form shows aspect, while time tense is often inferred from the context: “She go below.”

The vocabulary of Black English has strongly influenced all languages. “Jazz” is a West African term for “lively,” “energetic.” “Boogie-woogie” comes from “bogi,” dance; “hip,” from hipi, to be aware and a “hipikat” (from the Wolof language) is an aware person. “Hip” was borrowed by Whites as “hep.”

Jitaw-baga means a frightened person who moves in an agitated manner -- a “jitterbug.” Bugu (annoy) is seen in “stop buggin’ me man.” If you dig all of this, then you degu (understand) it. Other West African words include chigger, gumbo, banjo, yam, zombie, juke, goober, tote, and okra. These and 6,000 other African words have been credited by Whites to sources other than African!

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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