This Am a Minstrel Stereotype, Right?
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S2: From New York City, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m John McWhorter.
S3: And this week, you know what I’m going to do, frankly, what I usually do, which is just bring you in. What was I thinking about over the past week or two? And it was a bunch of things. But I happen to be revising an academic paper that I’m writing, and that paper happens to be about black English. I don’t usually do those, but I made an exception with this one because it’s a topic that really grabs me. And, you know, in deciding what to do the show about, I thought, you know, I’m going to do what I’m thinking about. I don’t want to do it about Kamala Harris or something like that. I’m not sure what I could get out of that. I want to do me. And so I’m going to share with you some stuff about the always fascinating dialect of American English, black English, it’s called by academics, usually African-American vernacular English. But I have a hard time saying that. So we’re just going to call it black English and we’re going to look at it from various angles that I have been sitting around, laying around still in semi quarantine these days. And one of the things is going to be the lost AM. That’s what my paper is about. And this is something that I’ve brought up on the show before. And that is the question as to whether actual black American people ever, as linguists call it, overgeneralized am into persons and numbers beyond where it would go in standard English. And so, for example, I’ll tell you, I am a person. But in caricatures of black speech back in the day, the idea was that black people used with all pronouns. And so you am this GM that we and the other thing that’s something associated with minstrel shows and comic strips. And you would think you would quite reasonably think that that’s something that white performers made up as a way of making fun of black people. That’s what I thought for a very long time. But after a while, various indications seem to suggest to me that actually, wait a minute, black people did once use AM in a different way than mainstream English does. And of course, it wasn’t all black people, but there have always been different ways of speaking English, even here in America. And it seemed to me that, well, you know, as I’m always telling all of you, language always changes. And black English is no exception. And so it seemed to me maybe actually the minstrels overdid it. They were caricaturing, but maybe there was that different usage of em, because all these things seem to indicate it. And in a show that I did probably back in about nineteen forty seven, remember when I used to be sponsored by Kraft Macaroni and Cheese way back then I said that one evidence of this is that there are vernacular British dialects that use em in just that way. You am. We am. The black country in Britain is sometimes called the people who are the yam yams. And what they mean by that is that they say you am. So I gave you some evidence of that. But that was you know, that was back right after the Second World War. And so what about newer evidence? Well, first of all, what do I mean by this, as you might call it, overgeneralized AM? Well, here is one of the latest examples of it. In pop culture, this is a highly insignificant Hollywood cartoon from the studio that gave us such indelible characterizations as Casper the Friendly Ghost and and Catnip, who were about the closest thing in real life to Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons. In any case, one of their other indelible characters was Buzzi the Crow and Buzzi the crow was supposed to was clearly supposed to be this this black American little character, you know, remember the Dumbo crows? Well, Buzzi was an extension of that. And so Buzzi uses reflections of the old minstrel dialect. This is a cartoon called No Ifs, Ands or Buts. Butts is spelled with two T’s. It’s about smoking. And this is what Buzzi says about a cat who seems to have a smoking addiction. Listen to him closely.
S4: Oh, I am a tobacco smoker.
S3: All I have to go back at and you know, he am that cat am a smokin fiend. OK, so that’s the caricature. But what’s interesting is how often you see black American people depicted as speaking that way in many sources that you might think of as authoritative. And I have something even better than this is going to build up to a big fine. We’re circling in. We’re about to find the real thing, but some other stuff that I found. So, for example, there is a novel written by a black man, very conscious, as we used to say, Black Man 1899. It’s called Imperium in Emporio. And the guy’s name is Sutin Griggs. And for whatever it’s worth, his father was a Georgia slave. So Sutton Griggs, 1899, he’s post emancipation, but he would have heard authentic black speech, the speech of people who were denied education. And what’s interesting is that in one of his novels, he is writing in a very serious vein. We would today call him a black nationalist. And he has a scene where there’s a black mother who is being humiliated by a racist white schoolteacher and she’s trying to present her child and defend her child. And what she says, and this is a black writer of black nationalist stamp who grew up with a father who had been a slave and not in New York City, but in Georgia. So we’re talking about where black English really arose. And I want to say throve, but that’s not the word because it’s thrived. And so he has the mother saying about her child, her son, his name, and Belton Piedmont after his granddaddy, ATA’s after so not his name is built in Piedmont, his name and Belton Piedmont. And she’s a character of dignity. His name in Belton Piedmont, not is built in Piedmont AM ATA is Granddaddy. Now what’s Arter? Arter is after and it shows how authentic this depiction of speech is in that we know that not only black people, but also again, regional vernacular speaking. British people used Arter and explains that problem with Jack and Jill. So Jack and Jill went up the hill to get a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. What the hell is that? Is that the best they could do? Of course not. It was Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. After because after can become after King got after. That is the way many people in, for example, Yorkshire still say after. After it’s dialectal after. And so there are always many people who said after. And they came here and often they were either slave owners or they worked alongside slaves. And so early black English has Arter. Here is this woman and she’s saying his name and Belton Piedmont, his granddaddy, the ARTER is very authentic. Are we going to really think that the amn isn’t. I don’t think that Sutin Griggs would have put minstrel speech into the mouth of his character or something else. This is further back. This is the eighteen forties. There’s a white minister and he is entranced with this black preacher who he heard and he calls this preacher a genius. And he’s truly just amazed at this preacher and his linguistic skill. This white man says of this black, uneducated but very articulate preacher. He says he spoken the true Negro dialect but seem to employ a refined, if you please, a classic species’. It rolled from his lips with a sharpness of outline and distinctness of enunciation that seemed to impart to it a polish and a charm, transforming it into a language of beauty. Oh, the way people had to write it. That’s so artificial. But it can be so pretty, very Lincoln. But that’s what this guy says about this black man speech. Then he gives samples of it. Now, here’s a sample. And I warn you that this is going to sound like a caricature, but this man meant it as respectful. The best I can do by reading this is just to read it. So this is one sample. It gives a very long sample of this man’s beautiful speech. But but, brethren, the joy of the believer in Jesus and set forth in a figurative manner and text it and compared to water to them would be dying of thirst. And it goes on and on. And you can definitely feel the articulateness in the content of it. But the language, the grammar is like that, including the am the believer in Jesus and set forth in a figurative manner in the text idiom compared. That looks so ridiculous to us today. But remember that this man loved the way this person talked and described it as refined, if you please, a classic species. It rolled from his lips with a sharpness of outline. I wonder we can’t know because these people are extremely dead, but you wonder whether this white man really was all of a sudden making this black man sound like a minstrel. And another thing is that minstrel shows were very new at the time. And so how many minstrel shows was this man singing? We can’t know. But things like this make you think that people really did say Inam. And, um, but now we’re circling in. Something has been found. The problem has always been that you can say, well, it always seems to be on these pages, but there’s no recording of anyone actually using AM that way in running speech. Now there are people who say it on ancient records and even in some early talkies where they are reading something, reciting something that they were told to say. But in terms of somebody actually recorded just saying it, that’s never existed, including a precious source, which is that giving people work in the Depression. One thing that happened, it’s the most blessed thing is that many people were set out to record ex slaves because at that time there were still a great many black people living who had actually been slaves, record ex slaves talking about what they had been through. Nobody was thinking about linguistics, but it means that there are now thousands of interviews. Most of them exist only on paper, but thousands of interviews of people talking about what slavery was actually like. Now, about two dozen of them were actually recorded. And you can hear these people and it’s no longer that you have to go to some archive probably in D.C. now, you can just listen online. Now, it’s always been assumed among people who specialize in this kind of thing that nobody on those couple dozen recordings uses this overgeneralized AM. And that’s often been seen as an indication that it isn’t real. Makes perfect sense. But, you know, the truth is they do use it. It is on there. If you listen to every second of those two dozen odd recordings, there is one example. And you know what? I have a lot to do. And there are times when I can be a little bit lazy. I have to admit, I have not listened to every single second of those recordings. I’ve learned many of them, but not every single second. And there’s somebody who has I owe this observation to Charles Carson and I was absolutely floored. One of these recordings is done in 1940 and the exclave is named Irene Williams. That’s John Lomax. For those of you who happen to know who he is, who’s doing the interview, and you can hear him for a second in the whole recording. And Irene Williams is talking about how things used to be. And, you know, she pops up with one of these. And now the truth is that she is in a storytelling mode and she might even be reading something that she wrote down. If she isn’t, she’s kind of reading something in her head. Nevertheless, she’s talking about a very casual circumstance where she very casually uses the AM you for the first time that anyone has highlighted this recording in order to indicate this, are going to hear Irene Williams 80 years ago now actually using what we call an invariant AM in running speech. He or she goes, oh, trigger warning, by the way, she is going to use the N-word. That is constant in these recordings and interviews. It was used in a way quite similar to today. Everybody seems to think that that only started with hip hop. No, no, no, no. So there is that. But listen to this very old lady using earlier black English name.
S5: How are you all? I have way. You had yo, yo, yo ram a pretty good block. You go down when you you you want. Yeah. No, no kidding. Yeah. I mean you always laugh until now. You shut your mouth. Do you know you’re just poking fun at me. Hey you know. Well think. Oh he’s coming.
S6: He got all dressed. Yeah. He said he’d want to get going up and out of bed but I’d tell her that he was joking. He’s got a spare room but he promised me that he behaves definitely wanted of cyclone is on the beach and I feel like he can come on here.
S3: You heard it here first. So we’re circling in. That is the most empirical evidence yet of the kind of am that for some reason has been obsessing me for about five years. Anyway, it is time for a song and something that fits somehow with this. It should be something involving black American people. But yeah, I want it to be some Broadway, so how about Pearly Pearly was a black show actually written by white men, but Perley is early 70s and it was a huge hit. I Got Love was the big hit. I frankly never like that. I like the opening number, which was called Walk Him Up the Stairs and we are going to use it partly because it’s catchy and partly for another reason. But Perley is somewhat under attended, given how popular it was and given that it really is pretty decent material. So here is walk him up, walk him up, walk him up the stairs. You’ll see that’s how it goes. So why that partly because it’s damn catchy, but partly because one of the people who was in the original cast of Poorly on Broadway, they did used to say it that way, Broadway. And I don’t even need to tell my longtime listeners why, so I won’t get into it. But on Broadway, one of the people in it was Sherman Hemsley. Sherman Hemsley became iconically famous for playing George Jefferson. And this dovetails us into the fact that I, as I’ve mentioned before, have been using quarantine to watch through all of the Jeffersons. And as you can imagine, I spend about 55 percent of the time thinking about how everybody’s talking. And I noticed a little something that can teach us a little lesson about how weird language can be. Here is an episode of the second season. Mother Jefferson is dating a man briefly. It’s one of these things where it’s only for this episode. I read the title. It says Mother Jeffersons Boyfriend. And I’m thinking, OK, it’s 1976 and they’re going to get some older gentlemen to play her boyfriend. Who’s it going to be and how’s he going to talk? And here I was not disappointed. It was Alvin Childress. Now, Alvin Childress was about 70 at the time and he had become famous for playing Amos on the television version of the Amos and Andy radio franchise that had become so famous. So in the early 50s for two years, Alvin Childress very charmingly played Amos. Well, here he is, 25 years after that. Now he’s an elderly gent and he is playing George Jefferson’s potential new dad. Alvin Childress was born in Mississippi. Now listen to the way Alvin Childress says. Heard this. Nice meeting you, Mr. Jefferson. I’ve heard so much about you from your mother. You hear that? Hey, listen to the way Alvin Childress said worked.
S7: You got a job. No. Huh, uh huh. What are you ain’t got no job, that’s what I. I have worked for years. Are you living on welfare and I’m not on welfare? I got no you got this all wrong. I mean, isn’t that neat?
S3: And to me, it’s neat because that is how my Atlanta grandparents talked. I didn’t think about it at the time, but shirt was shite. They were black people of the Deep South who were minted in the early 20th century. And so when I was a kid, the old people talk that way when we visited them in Atlanta. So it doesn’t surprise me to hear him say WACHT, but it might surprise some of you because we associate that with Popeye and Jimmy Durante and White Brooklyn. You think that becomes EUI only among them? No, that’s just a normal process. And actually, as I have noted on this show before, but with different examples, that was a Southernism. You can hear white people doing it to really entrenched in black speech in the first half of the 20th century. Then it falls away because vowels are always changing. But one more listen to Alvin Childre say motel work. As a matter of fact, you been in a cleaning business enterprise. You are not in hotel. So Sherman Hemsley doesn’t talk that way because he’s younger than Alvin Childress. But Alvin Childress had that vowel as soon as he walked on in that episode. I thought he’s going to do wake and switch. That is the way that somebody from there at that time who was black would say church. And so, for example, let’s listen to Irene Williams, who was a very religious woman. She talked about church a lot. Here’s Irene Williams sounding just like I doubt if she thought of it this way, but sounding just like Alvin Childress.
S6: But he promised me that he behavior is definitely one of the cyclone is on the beat. And I feel like he can come on here.
S3: So if we’re on the black vowels, then there is something else that occurred to me listening to Alvin Childress, I’m feeling pretty secure. He is 07. He is nineteen 07. How did black people talk in the deep past? Well, for one thing, I am pretty convinced that among black people using the vernacular register they were using am with you. He she it we you all and they as well as with I. But you listen to the church and you know that the vowels were different in the first half of the twentieth century and certainly in the last half of the nineteenth at least. But how much can you hear, how far back can you go. And it got me thinking about the very first black people we can hear recorded. The very first black person we can hear recorded is in 1891. And it’s a certain singer named George Johnson who sang very silly. And although it wasn’t his fault, this is all anybody wanted to hear, very racist songs. And you’re listening to these cylinders and they’re four thousand years old. And I’m not going to put you through George Johnson. It’s just it’s it’s hard to hear what he’s saying. It’s unpleasant. The songs aren’t very good. But if you want to get after George Johnson, you can go about ten years later and it’s Williams and Walker. Bert Williams seems to have a major renown these days because he went solo and was in the Ziegfeld Follies and he had his very articulate, sad sack character that he did. So Bert Williams one hears about. But he started out as part of a vaudeville duo. It was Williams and Walker and George Walker played the kind of happy clown type of person. So Bert Williams is kind of profound, sad sack. And George Walker was kind of Jamie Fox. If you have a sense of what he was doing, although it was one hundred and twenty five years ago, he was kind of the Jamie Fox in the pair. And what’s interesting is that we can hear them. They made a few records and it was in the arts. And so depends on what you call a record in terms of what technology was like then. But you can hear them and, you know, they sound utterly bizarre. You think, well, I’m going to listen to these black people like The Jeffersons and they don’t sound anything like The Jeffersons. They don’t sound like Alvin Childress often. They sound like they’re from Iowa. More often they sound like they’re from Jamaica. They have a completely different sound and yet they were perfectly normal. And the reason is because vowels, not only in any language, but in any dialect of any language, are always shifting around. You never know what’s going to happen to them. And so Latin’s vowels become Spanish as vowels, Latin vowels become Latinos vowels. I’m glad so many of you liked that, so I enjoyed it too. But vowels are always moving around nowadays.
S8: We often hear about vowels moving around in colloquial young American English, and they do. And so, for example, in the dialect you could call quote unquote, white girl. And it’s not only girls and it’s not only white, but this white girl dialect at.
S3: Is becoming. It’s getting really, really close because an hour next door to each other in the mouth is falling. Remember that old commercial where it was about like they have Jane Russell and I’m wearing the the 18 hour bra, and you always kind of wonder, well, what happens after 18 hours? Well, whatever supposedly happens after that time, that can happen to vowels. And so air is falling into. What do I mean by that? Let’s listen to Aubrey Plaza, because, one, I adore her. And two, she speaks perfect early 21st century white girl. I doubt if she’s aware of it, but she really does exemplify these, as we say, vowel movements. Listen to her talking to Konan X time ago and just listen to her talking about redhead’s having more, if I may six.
S9: I’ve read a lot of facts about redheads and one of them is that redhead people have more sex or something. I think I read that.
S3: Think about it. If you were a Martian and you had to transcribe what she was saying and you were new to English, she didn’t say redheads. She said Roundhead. She’s talking about redheads, having more sex. Listen to her.
S9: I’ve read a lot of facts about redheads. And one of them is that redhead people have more sex or something. I think I read that.
S3: So that’s typical vowel shifting. Now, let’s go somewhat further back in time, but it’s a lot further. And you have to bear with me because these guys are using truly barbarically primitive recording technology. And on top of that, tastes and humor change. These were supposed to be funny songs. Now they’re about as funny as as EPOXI. They’re not funny. And musical tastes change. These were catchy songs at the time. Now, frankly, you would rather watch an Apple turning brown. There’s no such thing as jazz when these songs were done. So you’re not going to enjoy this. But listen, through this crackling sound to these very, very successful black men singing what at the time for some reason was a very popular song. This is called Pretty Desdemona. It’s from one of their three big shows. This one is from Abyssinia. That’s right. And so pretty Desdemona. And what I want you to listen to is George Walker. He’s the Jamie Fox. Everybody thought that he was funny. Pratfalls, he’s hip and he’s singing pretty. Does anyone listen to his vowels?
S10: Oh, no, they’re more. Oh oh oh, about five years ago was I was all alone without. I walked off, not surprised when I saw.
S3: You hear that like pretty Desdemona. What’s more, why does he sound like some Cornish farmer or something like that, or if anything, he sounds West Indian and then listen, he’s like, well, that’s what I’m gonna do when he’s talking. That’s what I’m going to do. He doesn’t talk like black people now. And yet he was not from Jamaica. He was not from any acre or anything at all. He’s from Kansas. He was just a guy from Kansas. Perfectly ordinary speech. That’s the way black people sounded. Then anybody who recorded then who was black, you hear those same weird to our ear, West Indian vowels. So he’s pretty Desdemona. If you want to hear more, there’s an even less listenable cut that they made the same day called My Little Zulu Babe. And if you can listen through all of them, you hear the same weird vowels that don’t sound anything like what we think of as black speech. Now, that’s because vowels have shifted and so vowels are now shifting from ear to. And so you get Aubrey Plaza. Well, vowels have shifted from all to the way Jamie Fox would sing the same song, although I really hope that he never sings that it really sheds light on certain things. I am born in nineteen sixty five. My father was born in nineteen twenty seven. My father had a father that all evidence suggests that he had one there survives. I think one picture of him which is hanging not far from where I’m recording now, and he would have been minted in the late 90s and time passes. He died in 62. I never met him. And it’s interesting if you know somebody didn’t happen to be famous, how quickly nobody really remembers anything about them. If I say, well, what was John Hamilton, a quarter of a third like, then people have about three things to say. And one of them, I’ve gotten this many times over the years, people who are now old enough that they remember him say that he sounded like he was from the islands. They say that he had this West Indian sound. Well, you know, he wasn’t from the islands. My sister has actually traced exactly his history. He was actually from outside of Atlanta. And the reason that he must have sounded like he was from the islands where he almost certainly never went and certainly didn’t know how to talk, is because he talked like George Walker. He still had the old black English vowels. So that’s why he would have sounded like that many people of his generation would have sounded like that. I’m going to put on my coat. In fact, all of the old ex slaves on those recordings all sound that way. You think this is a black American person because they always sound like they’re from Jamaica. That’s because black English has changed profoundly. By the way, folks, something that we have to talk about. A lot of you were going to know what’s coming, and that is that, you know, you can get an extra bit of this show for a nominal fee. You can get a little tag at the end.
S8: Sometimes it’s about what the show is about. Just as often it’s about all sorts of other stuff. Often you get more music for those of you who like that or you get other clips, but you can get an extra bit of the show for just a nominal fee. And not only do you get an extra bit of my show, but you would get an extra bit of all of the Slate podcast that you listen to and you don’t have to listen to any ads for that nominal fee. You sign up for what we call Slate plus, and you can have a completely different listening experience, which frankly is good for us now because the virus has hit the media hard. Slate is media and there’s nothing to worry about. But frankly, quite frankly, we could use the extra money. And so please go to Slate Dotcom Lexicon plus and sign up for Slate plus. You’ll be glad you did. And so, for example, for this episode, if you want to know what the intersection is between Abbott and Costello and Paul Robeson, the only place that you’re going to find that out in your entire life is in the tag to this episode of Lexicon Valley. So go to sleep dotcom slash lexicon plus and sign up for Slate plus. It helps us. It will delight you.
S3: So, you know, I’m into this little jive 70s groove, you know, I’m going to play now. There wasn’t you would almost wonder why there wouldn’t have been there was a Charlie Brown cartoon series, you know, that somebody would have tried to make money by doing that every Saturday morning. And they did for about fifteen minutes in the early eighties. And the show was called Charlie Brown and Snoopy. And it had the Jansenist cutest little theme song. It actually had a name. The theme song was called Let’s Have a Party. And so here’s the theme song. It should live the Linus and Lucy. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. That’s the best song ever written, but this is damn good as well. So let’s have a party. This is the jammy little Charlie Brown and Snoopy song that I remember hearing right around when I went to college wishing that I could keep watching the show, which I didn’t. And because I stopped watching it, of course it went off there. So I’m sitting here talking about how they don’t have the black sound of today. Well, what is that sound? And when you’re listening to these hitherto unknown recorded invariant AMS and then you want to share with your podcast listeners, Williams and Walker, you start thinking about, well, do they know what the modern black sound is? And we need to investigate these things specifically, something that you have to be careful about. But I’d like to be careful with you about this. You ever notice that even if you can’t see a person, almost always if they’re black, you can tell. Come on, you know, you’re not supposed to admit it, but, you know, it’s true. Now, there are people who throw you, but most of the time, the vast majority of times you can tell, well, what is it? And we’re often told that it’s racist, even think about it. No, it isn’t. It’s actually a very interesting subject. And so I’m always talking about black English and I’m talking about things like this and that stick right now. But as you know, even if there were a black person who was reading from something written by Jonathan Franzen, most of the time there’s something that would tell you what it was. You want to know what that is? Yeah, of course. You want to know what that is. Yes. We’re going to we’re going to go here. And I am shamelessly using my own race to allow us to go here. Here’s a person I’m not even going to give his name. That’s not important. But here is a person. He’s going to say something.
S11: And I want to talk about a part of the economy that has been making me scratch my head. We’re in the midst of this major recession. We all know that by now. But in the midst of this recession, unlike the last recession, the entire housing market has not crashed. There are parts of American housing doing really, really well and other parts doing pretty, pretty bad. And I want to break down this kind of best of times, worst of times moment for the American housing market and know better to folks to do it.
S3: Then y’all notice how you can tell, well, what is it? There are a couple of things that you can hear there that we are very sensitized to. This has been tested more than once. Americans are very good at telling whether somebody is white or black based on some standard English passage played, for example. Let’s listen to the way this person says time.
S11: Oh, I appreciate it. Now, last time we talked, you were having some AC issues like there was an air conditioning unit or not. Was that resolved?
S3: Very subtle, but the eye is more like, ah, so he’s not saying time. He’s not Gomer Pyle. But still there’s time and there’s time. Listen to him now.
S11: Last time we talked, you were having some AC issues.
S3: Also the unfortunate word pandemic. Demick Dimmick in between Dimmick, Dimmick, Dimmick, Demick. Listen to him.
S11: I remember also for a while in this lockdown pandemic moment, you were going on like night runs through Manhattan.
S3: Those two things alone are part of what can tip you off about these things. Perfectly subconscious, and they matter not a whit. However, black people tend to talk to one another more than they talk to white people, especially at a young age. And the result is that the vowels develop somewhat differently among black people than they do among, for example, Latino Americans or white Americans or some other Americans. So different vowels in Latin that goes to Spanish as opposed to goes to Portuguese as opposed to goes to Ladino. Same thing in microcosm with black English. So listening to this person, again, listen to the way he says. I know.
S11: Right. I know. Card, if you’re a little mad because you thought we were taping this show a day later, same thing.
S3: More like not I but more like the end is a little more like end. It’s in between and it’s things like that. There’s a handful of things like that. I want to go further. I know there’s a little awkward, but it’s also real and it’s harmless. These are the sorts of things that make linguistics interesting. Here’s someone else. Listen to her say actually tangible action.
S1: They’re saying that they want leaders who are not just progressive thinkers, but who are actually on the ground in their neighborhoods talking to them and taking what they say and putting that into tangible action, perfect, normal English.
S3: But if you’re listening to her, that actually tangible action is one of the things that subconsciously tips you off, that she happens not to be white because the air is, as we linguist call it, slight. He raised the difference between act and at very subtle, similarly, listen to this clip. We have to be careful these days about Bill Cosby for the obvious reason. But let’s face it, the show the sitcom was delightful. And many of us will remember little Rudy and her relationship with Little Bud and the way she would say Bud to tease him. Listen to this. Rudy, can I ask you a question? Sure. Speaking as a woman, if you were married, would you go to Boston without your husband, Alvin? I’m not a woman. Yes, you are. Just like I’m a man.
S12: You know, man, you but.
S3: And also listen to her saying, my love, not only the mar, but how does she say love? If you were married to me, would you go to Boston? First of all, I’m not going to marry you. You would if I told you to. Why would you have to earn my love? All of that plays on the fact that in black English, not only is a slightly raised to add, but or goes up, we don’t think of it as up, but there’s a difference between us. And now, of course, we’re not dealing with the bird is exaggerated, but playing back the person I just played. Let’s listen to her say. But and then the word what.
S1: But I do want to point out that in this moment, I think it’s important to specifically pay attention to the black electorate right now with the emphasis on black women and what they are really hoping to see come of this announcement just a little.
S3: But it’s just that little bit that little bit of difference that gives you a sense of it or this gives me an opportunity to return to Hamilton. I used Hamilton on the show. This is even before World War Two. I remember I did Hamilton on this show sometime around when FDR was elected. Remember back then when I was being sponsored by Kamal’s and I had the guy on who was talking about all the haloes and Hamilton, etc.? Well, let’s go back to Hamilton and I want to show you something else that very subtly tips you off. It’s why you don’t need to see a person often to know what color they are, even if they’re reading from the phone book. So this is right hand man. I believe this is when George Washington is introduced. And there’s so many great rhymes in Hamilton. This has actually always been one of my favorites, but partly for a geeky linguistic reason. And so listen to this right here. Cannot be a second, but just a millisecond the dumb my God, and tell the people how I feel a second. Now, I’m the model of a modern major general, the venerated Virginia. You can get a little warm up real a second millisecond. How I feel a second. So real a second millisecond. Feel a second. Now you can just hear a certain kind of person saying, well, technically that doesn’t whine because reload and ml at different valve. OK, that might be technically true or it’s true in mainstream English, not in black English, because it is more like it in black English. I doubt if Manuel and Miranda was thinking about this consciously, but he has a full immersion in the dialect and so it’s not real. A second in black English, it’s more like real a second, and that does rhyme with millisecond and therefore you can then follow it with how I feel a second. That’s just the way it is. Those of you who love rap will hear this perfectly, so E is more like it. And therefore these are the sorts of things. It’s these tiny little vowel colorations that are a great deal of why, even if you feel guilty admitting it, you can tell it’s there. And so it’s not just slang. Even if somebody’s not using the slang, even if somebody isn’t using the grammatical differences nowadays there is no invariant AM. But anything with a hint or, you know, what had happened was even then, you can almost always tell. And the reason is because of these slightly different vowel colorations. In any case, I’m now still in this Jammey when I was eleven mood. I think it’s partly because this quarantine has been going on for a long time and it’s getting me nostalgic. You know what else I’m watching not only The Jeffersons, I’m watching the old Abbott and Costello sitcom, which is really just quintessentially, almost surreally stupid. And yet I’m sitting there. It’s like I’m engaging it the way I should be engaging Jois. It is the weirdest thing. So that and The Jeffersons, I alternate between the two. But in any case, I want these 70s because, of course, everything was great in the 70s because I was a child. And so a little bit of spinners I’ve used love or leave before, but what a great song. One of the B sides of pick of the litter and so good if you are by any chance an ear player on the piano, try to work out a couple of the main chords that this lands on. This is also very complicated music, but just. Well, it’s good because it reminds me of being nine, which is very narrow of me, but I can’t help it. When you have tried to. You tried to stand down then?
S13: Oh, there is no crutch from the fast lane when you find out it’s all. But with you, there ain’t no limit for love, only get yourself to care for people and you may never get another chance.
S3: We have to do a little more because now that makes me think of the Jeffersons again and more to the point, yes, I’m just sticking that in is the transition for the podcast. But I have been watching the show and I have been thinking about language and I can’t help. But I think you’ll enjoy this. This is this is really interesting. So here is an episode for those of you who are interested. It’s the episode called Florence’s Problem, which dramatically makes no blessed sense at all. But in Florence’s problem, at one point, George and Louise have an exchange. Louise starts it out by saying this thing, it’s this riddle. And then what’s interesting is that you can hear George say the exact same thing. So that means we’re listening to the actress Isabel Sanford and the actor Sherman Hemsley saying the exact same thing as people and black people in nineteen seventy six. So Isabel Sanford says if a man wears a size forty four belt, I, I did. I once went as Lui’s for Halloween anyway. So she has this way of speaking. Listen to her first. If a man wears a size thirty four belt what size suspenders does. Zawia The thing about Isabel Sanford is that she grew up in Harlem in the 1930s and she has perfect Arless English dialect. And what I mean by that is that not just in black English but in mainstream New York English. You tended to leave the Rs off at the end of syllables. So not corner, but Kohana, not Parker, but Parker. So Isabel Sanford, as a very standard speaking person and character, is very Arless. And so it’s if a man wears not wears, but wears a size 44 belt, she spoke the most magnificently. Arless English. And then what size? Suspenders. Suspenders does he wear. So suspenders. Chelsea wear suspenders does he wear. OK, so that’s her. But then when Sherman Hemsley says it in this scene, he’s Arless too. So listen to him. If the man wears a size thirty four belt, what size is suspenders. Does he win. OK, so they sound the same in terms of their artlessness. But what’s interesting is that I watched them do that and I thought that’s a little off because Isabel Sanford grew up in New York, but Sherman Hemsley grew up in my Philadelphia. He talks exactly the way all of my older relatives talk. And here’s a crucial difference in terms of artlessness between New York and Philadelphia. Philadelphia was more artful, so to speak. So New York, very Arless, very Isabel Sanford, very FDR, Boston, you know, Poca Park, the car. That was not true of Philadelphia. Philadelphia was a little quirky in that way. If you want a South Philly Italian and if you weren’t Irish and a great many people in Philadelphia weren’t, if you were not white in that way, you had those hours at the end of syllables and that included black people. So I thought, I wonder why they sound alike here. And then I thought, well, wait a minute, Hemsley, because he’s playing George Jefferson, who’s a very slangy sort of person, is speaking Blakley when he’s doing George Izabel. Sanford, usually on the show was being kind of grandiloquent, but Sherman Hemsley was being this character of his. I thought, I’ll bet in casual speech Isabel Sanford was Arless because everybody in New York was whether they were speaking black English or not. But I’ll bet in casual speech as opposed to black English, Sherman Hemsley was artful. So black English is inherently Arless and so, you know, money, et cetera, et cetera. But I was thinking I’ll bet for him when he just talked, he was awful. Well, how do you know? Because on the show they’re playing characters and they’re reciting from a script. But late in their lives they were interviewed. And you get to hear them speaking at great length about The Jeffersons. And you know what? I happened this time to be right. So listen to Isabel Sanford late in her life. She was as Arless as ever, just sitting there talking. She’s not performing. She’s not trying to sound like she’s in the theater. So listen to how she says ROKR, as in Roxie Roker, as in Rocha and together together and then how she says, Mother, I knew Roxie in New York, Mark Zerok.
S14: And we we then play together in New York. Tell me about Zahra Culley. She played Mother jabbers Oh, dear. Zahra. I knew her a few years before she got into all in. The family, and she used it whenever we ran across each other, you know, acted it for distance and what have you run across each other, and she is about if ever you have a mother to play, someone to play your mother, call me. Please call me. I said, I certainly will.
S3: So she sounds like wheezy, except, you know, later in life.
S15: Now, here’s Hemsley around the same time and listen to him when he’s speaking casually and never really like breaking cover at all while, you know, just this up a lot. Lot this used only only in rehearsal. There’s nothing more professional minded, but we just a bunch of nuts. It was Paul Benedict. I think Paul was the big instigator. He used to that he could keep a straight face longer than anybody else. So we do things in the way nobody. But he never got caught.
S3: See Franklin cover, he says cover, not cover. So Isabel Sanford would have said, oh, yes, Franklin cover, but he says cover. Or she would have said, oh, yes, Pope Benedict was the great instigator, but he says instigator the way my father would have said it. And so that’s because they’re from different places. So when Sherman Hemsley is offstage, he’s artful. Isabel Sanford is are less. And you can just tell and all this is subconscious. Neither one of them ever thought about that. I’m sure I didn’t know them, but they weren’t thinking about it. But Sherman Hemsley subconsciously would switch between instigator in his standard variety and then with his say, size forty four, a belt in his black English. He had those two ways of speaking and there was a lot of bleed between them. And when he played George, he spontaneously went Arless. That’s what it is to speak real language. Most people speak more than one version of whatever it is that they speak and they don’t think about it. Sometimes the version that they speak that’s more casual is considered awful. Sometimes it’s considered just different. But this is what it is to speak real language. Fans of the show will remember that all of a sudden, for some reason in the second season, there’s this other guy playing Lionel the Son. It starts out as Michael Evans and then bang, it’s Damon Evans and nobody bats an eye. But what’s interesting is that both of the guys who played Lionel were named Evans, Michael Evans and Damon Evans, and they weren’t related. There were so many things like this on The Jeffersons. It was a very mystical so. So Lionel is involved with the Willis’s upstairs daughter, Jenny. Lionel is Michael Evans. At first, Jenny is Berlinda Berlinda. That’s a pretty name. Berlinda Tolbert, Michael Evans and Berlinda Tolbert were born one day apart, believe it or not, and not only one day apart, but both of them in the state of North Carolina. There’s even a little more in real life. Michael Evans got married to a woman whose last name was Jefferson. And that amazing. And I know what you’re thinking. And the answer is nobody would read it. So all it’s going to happen is me sharing this stuff here. I’m going to go out on walk him up the stairs again because it’s just so good. And, you know, you can reach us at Lexicon Valley, at Slate Dotcom, that’s Lexicon Valley at Slate dot com to listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out, go to Slate Dotcom Lexicon Valley. You know Helen Willis on the show, Roxie Roker. She was married to a white man in real life, too. And yes, she was Al Roker’s cousin. And you can see it in their faces. And she was Lenny Kravitz, his mother. And that means that Zoe Kravitz called Helen Willis grandma. In any case, Mike Volo is, as always, the editor. And I am John McWhorter. So I said that I’ve been watching the old Abbott and Costello TV sitcom, well, you know, there are linguistic gems even in that. And since I also mentioned the earlier toy thing in American dialects, there’s actually one minute of one episode of the Abbott and Costello show that’s very revealing about how sound change works. And so this is an episode where for reasons we don’t need to get into, they’re doing a very silly Southern play. And listen to what one of the supporting players says. He’s playing a Kentucky person and listen to how he pronounces the word.
S16: Join me now. Which one of them? I’m signing up. I’m signing up to get out. Goodbye. No, I’m proud of you. Goodbye.
S3: So you think, well, why do they say John instead of join?
S8: And more to the point, it’s why is I substituting for joy in lots of words that’s actually a genuine southernism, mostly the northern south. And so it’s not only that join becomes gyun, but you have byul for Boyle and Pisin for poison. This is a receding feature, but it definitely was much more alive in the old days. So, for example, Pisin, that sounds really weird. But actually, listen to this. This is one of the three films of Showboat and also the best one. And this is a duet between Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel. And this is a song written especially for the film. And this is a lyric by Oscar Hammerstein. But he’s trying to have a little bit of dialect fun. Listen to the way Paul Robeson says poison in order to have the right people.
S17: You criticize me, Pisin, I apologize and you should.
S8: So gyne for join. Sounds funny to most of us, but it’s not just that one word, it’s not some sort of vaudeville ism that actually represents an actual feature of Southern American English. You know, Abbott and Costello. But then listen, in the same scene when Costello says it in the pronunciation that we’re used to.
S16: I’m kind enough to join.
S3: So we’ve had gyne and join, then the scene goes on and shortly afterward listen to Bud Abbott and the way he says it, you are traitor.
S16: Now I’m a horse trainer, you idiot. You join the army.
S8: So what’s the GERN? Well, that is that people became aware that you could say boy for her and that it was considered kind of funny, kind of quaint, kind of Popeye and so on. Some words people who spoke that way would overdo correcting it and have a kind of subconscious assumption that a word that actually is pronounced or in mainstream English is pronounced with the earth. So you get the Archie Bunker toilet, for example. There were people back then who talked about someone being hard barreled out of a sense that Boyle was maybe dialect for an original Berl. And in the same way somebody like Bud Abbott would plausibly have said something like GERN instead of going out of the idea that if Bird is pronounced Boyd and Boyd is cute, then maybe if you say join, you’re saying something cutely that started as gern. All of this subconscious and all of that happens in one minute of one episode of the Abbott and Costello sitcom. The episode for those of you who might want to check it out is from the second season, and it’s called South of Dixie.