The White Man Don' Be Understandin' Me
Black English by J.L. Dillard, 361 pages, Random House, $10
THE LANGUAGE of black Americans has long been subjected to racist analyses. Unable to understand a language that sounds superficially like a shirring of their own, white scholars have concocted a variety of theories to explain the speech patterns of Afro-Americans H. L. Mencken wrote in his influential The American Language. "The Negro dialect as we know it today seems to have been formulated by the songwriters for the minstrel shows." Mencken, in his typically culturally-biased manner, simply assumed that blacks were incapable of constructing their own language, and were only able to mimic what they heard in traveling sideshows. But Mencken's theory is generous in comparison with the racist assertions of some of his white colleagues. One school of thought holds, for example, that blacks only speak Black English in front of whites to confuse them, while another theory explains that the thick lips of Afro-Americans prevent them from speaking Standard English. These theories have had a tremendous impact in education, causing black children to be condemned as inarticulate people with "language disabilities" and "low cognitive skills."
Fortunately a new school of thought has started to develop largely under the impetus of William A. Stewart's 1964 pamphlet Non-Standard Speech and the Teaching of English. This analysis has been fueled by the renaissance of black cultural pride that began to take place in the mid-1960's. The proponents of this school--Imamu Baraka, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks--maintain that Black English is a well-structured dialect that is a derivation but not a corruption of Standard English. J.L. Dillard's Black English is the first attempt to take a systematic linguistic historical look at the subject and as such offers several important insights.
Dillard explains that Black English first began to take form during the period immediately before the Atlantic slave trade. As Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English traders began to comb the coasts of Africa looking for chattel, a number of Africans began to incorporate European words into their vocabulary. When the great slave trade began, blacks from many different language groups were thrown together in ships and packed off to the New World. Communication between people who spoke diverse African languages was impossible until the growth of a common language based on the one language to which all the slaves that were shipped to North America were exposed--English. Black English is therefore a hybrid of African and English vocabulary and grammar.
DILLARD IS CAREFUL to point out that black along, which is often mistaken for Black English, bears no real relationship to the dialect's grammatical structure. Words such as 'chick' for woman, 'squares' for cigarettes, 'hog' for Cadillac, and 'bread' for money are simply colorful additions to Black English and have little to do with the substance of the dialect. In fact, mistaking black slang as Black English leads to the conclusion that the dialect is merely a corruption of English. For example, 'bread' for money is actually a Cockney idiom.
The important difference between Black English and Standard English is in their widely diverging syntaxes. Black English varies from Standard English in its verb systems, negation patterns, and preposition usage. In general, Black English tends to be more streamlined than Standard English.
Dillard gives many good examples:
When the day begin to crack, the whole plantation break out with all kinds of noise, and you can tell what was going on by the kind of noise you hear.
Although the verb forms bring, begin, break, going and hear are in the present tense, they are consistent with past actions in the grammar of Black English. The grammar of Standard English would demand that every verb in a sequence be marked either past or present, but in Black English it is sufficient that only one of the verbs be marked.
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN the two Englishes take on a special importance in America because of this country's emphasis on education as the primary road to equality. With a language barrier between white teachers and black students, there is little chance for education and consequently for advancement.
A school-teacher reported to Dillard that one of her pupils asked her. "Mrs. Smith is I'm failin' English?" The teacher was shocked at what she thought was the child's poor language usage and stupidity. But Dillard explains.
"The child was only using his own grammatical system, which is about all we can expect any child to do.
Dillard and increasingly more educators are proposing as a remedy to this dilemna that teachers of black children be varied in Black English. Black children would be taught the principles of reading in Black English and would learn Standard English as a second language, much like Spanish-speaking children.
Virtually everyone assumes that it helps an English as a Second Language teacher of Spanish-speaking students to know Spanish--the more the better. Why should not a teacher of Standard English to Non-Standard-speaking students feel the same necessity to learn the language of his students.
Dillard readily admits that one of the largest obstacles in teaching Black English is the lack of materials on the dialect. A comprehensive work laying out all the grammatical rules for Black English in addition to examining its vocabulary has yet to be written. Although Dillard's work contains a brief look at the grammar of Black English and an appendix on the pronunciation of the dialect, it is not sufficient. Though scholarly and well-written, the book is more a historical-sociological survey that a linguistics text. More work is needed in the field. Certainly a standard text on Black English for prospective teachers should be a priority. Currently, black children are mercilessly suffering at the hands of teachers with whom they cannot communicate, and the problems simply compound as the children grow older. They eventually reach the point where the black community is unable to communicate with the white institutions with which it must dead.
Dillard recounts the story of a black man who got himself into trouble by fleeing from some policemen who were attempting to serve him with a restraining order. "They goin' to strain me," he told the judge later. Because Black English does not pronounce the initial syllable in the word, he interpreted restrain as strain, a word that means 'beat' in Black English.
There is no way of telling how much injustice the black community has suffered for its refusal to conform to the speech patterns of white America. Certainly this country must come to grips swiftly with the problem. Failure to deal with the languages of Afro-Americans and Spanish-speaking Americans as valid and culturally important paths of communication can only result in America continuing as a modern Tower of Babul.