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Black English Since Slavery

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Slaves who first spoke Black English led very limited lives -- doing basically the same kind of work everyday; not being allowed to have a life outside the plantation; legally kept from learning to read, write, or count; and forbidden to socialize with anyone beyond slave owners, overseers, and fellow plantation slaves.


White slavers purposely kept slave’s vocabulary very small in order to keep them ignorant. Furthermore, most of those limited words were of a prison language type.

Slaves had no way of learning standard English because few White slave owners or overseers could speak it (well) or would speak of anything beyond work instructions to the slaves. Besides, English was a foreign language to newly arriving slaves and their African languages acted as an interference to switching over. After being confined at Whyday, Fernando Po, and other slave coast ports as well as later aboard slave ships, American Plantation Creole gradually grew up from the immature pidgin English.

This “plantation Creole” was a mix of different African languages such as Wolof (Senegal, Gambia), Hausa (Northern Nigeria, Sudan), Tshi or Twi (Ghana), Ibo or Igbo (Nigeria), Congo, and Gola (Liberia, Sierra Leone and/or Ngola -- Angola).Despite being separate languages, many shared a family resemblance in both structural features (i.e. grammar, morphology) and in having some words in common. Much of this African language mixture was incorporated into pidgin English -- especially words similar in several different languages.

Over time and established by the 1850’s, the African/English pidgin, gradually adopting more and more of the features of English grammar and vocabulary, became a Creole language. This early form of Black English can still be heard in the present-day Creole of Jamaica, other Caribbean countries, and among the Gullahs of South Carolina and Georgia. After the Civil War (1865) ex-slaves scattered into different patterns of segregation and formed different English dialects based on geography or social isolation.

For Blacks who did not eventually find their way out of the ghettos, their persistent social and cultural separation from the general White population profoundly influenced their thought patterns and special features of Black English. Those with enslaved minds coming out of slavery formed ghettos. Their prevailing speech orientation has remained a prison type language and their brainwashed thoughts have kept them from rising above poverty.

Under its ancestral influences of Black Creole French, a particularly fertile area for Black English words sprang up around 1900 in New Orleans. There, this was in association with the birth of jazz. During the early half of the 20th century, Black English spread as African Americans migrated North, being diluted in the process. Since then, of all the ethnic dialects in the USA, Black English has become the most distinctive and the most studied.

Having its own grammatical rules, pronunciation, and vocabulary, it rose into prominence as a symbol of race pride during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. It is not spoken by the majority of Blacks but has its “poverty form” in those living in ghettos. Here, Black children, especially between 4 and 8, acquire as much of their language habits from peers as from parents -- mainly because of their intense desire to be part of “the gang.”

Black English is passed down from 8, 7 and 6 year olds to 5, 4, and 3 year olds. Some studies have shown that when standard and Black English are incorporated into a primer, Black children quickly learn to read. After age 8, Black English fades as there is more and more contact with “White English.” However, traces remain indefinitely in conversations among fellow Blacks.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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