White Author, Black English. Problem?

Listen to this episode

S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: From New York City, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language.

S3: I’m John McWhorter. And, you know, in this episode, let’s, as it were, take it to the streets. This is Doobie Brothers, 1976.

S1: For the musicians among you, I love that flatted 6th, that’s such a nice thing to use within the context of that song. This time we’re going to do what used to be called in, say, 1976 on network television, a very special episode. I have decided that for this show I need to go against my general idea that everything is happy down here in the valley. And that’s because there’s a problem. And as I record this, we don’t know who’s going to be the next president. That’s not what this show is going to be about. It’s going to be about something a little more local. It’s going to be something about language. It’s going to be something about black American language. Here’s the problem. A few years ago, a white poet, Anders Carson, we published a poem in the Nation and the poem depicted homeless black woman, and she was having her say so. First lines of the poem went like this.

Advertisement

S4: If you got HIV, say AIDS, if you a girl say you’re pregnant, nobody going to lower themselves to listen for the kick people passing fast. So you had that kind of expression. There was a kerfuffle.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: The idea was that Carson, we because he’s white, was stereotyping in having this black character speaking in black English in this way. And there were various takes on it. Some people thought that only a black person should write somebody black speaking black English. Some people thought that he was making her seem ridiculous, that he was mis depicting the way this person would have spoken. So the nation apologized for publishing the poem. If it had been possible to expunge it, I’m sure they would have. They decided that they had made a mistake. The whole perspective that led to that episode has gotten into the water lately, and especially after last spring with the racial reckoning that America has been going through.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: I have now heard from no fewer than three nonblack authors who’ve been told by their agents or editors that they shouldn’t have black characters speaking black English or they should pull it way, way back and only have them using it a tiny bit out of an idea that for a non black person to depict a black person speaking black English in their work is racist. You know, folks, I’m sorry, but I need to pitch in here in this time. It’s not going to be about irregular verbs or, you know, what things are like in Chinese this time.

S3: I have to put on my outside of Lexicon Valley hat that a lot of you seem to know about. And I have to say that the idea that it’s racist to show black characters using black English is not what our racial reckoning should be teaching us. And it’s my job as a linguist and especially as a black American one to explain why. So first of all, if I try to put myself into the heads of the agents and editors who are very sincerely giving this council to writers who were trying to depict black American characters in their fullness, including linguistic fullness, what they’re thinking is that if you have a black character using black English, then you’re saying that that’s the only way that they can talk. But the problem is that our goal should not be to depict black people as only speaking black English. The idea is that black characters will speak black English and standard English because that is the reality. So the idea is not to say and I’m not aware of any nonblack or black author who has tried to imply that that is the only way that a black person can talk. Rather, black people exemplify something that worldwide is very normal. Linguists call it the glossier. You don’t have to. But what it basically comes down to is that in many parts of the world, people throughout their day oscillate not only between two languages. We know that they’re bilingual people, but also two dialects of the same language, a standard one and a vernacular one. It’s not that they only speak the vernacular one. It’s that they’re, as we call it, linguistic competence is larger than that of many of us vanilla, English speaking Americans where we don’t have a whole lot of variation. And quite honestly, I suspect based on the ethnic composition of the publishing industry, that the majority of of agents and editors are in that orbit. And so standard English speakers whose natural default sense is that the way you talk at Point A is pretty much the way you talk at point B, so you see a black character being depicted saying something like.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: If you got HIV AIDS, if you were a girl and the idea seems to be, well, it must be that that person is being depicted as only able to talk that way. But no, it doesn’t need to be that what we’re going for is depicting black people as being the glossary. What do I mean? Take Asterix.

S3: Asterix is this cartoon character that is very popular in Europe, and he is this little Keltic, is this Gaulish warrior. These these start out in French. And I have never quite understood why Asterix is supposed to be so funny. He’s translated into every major language in the world. Apparently that includes English. And I guess maybe it’s funnier if you understand that it’s British English. I’ve never quite understood it. I, I have often read asterisked, fascinated. I mean, I’ll go through the whole book just thinking why is this funny? But there are many people who enjoy it. And as you might imagine, I collect Asterix books in various languages and that includes that there was a whole series of Asterix is done in Germany where they had him and his pals speaking local German dialects. It was a way of showing that the mood out, as they call them, the local dialects, the Mundelein, are legitimate speech, very interesting books, and they’re also goldmines of data for those of us who from the outside might be interested in obscure regional German dialects, that we’re not going to meet anybody who speaks here in the United States. So there is a Bavarian edition, more than one, actually, but there is a Bavarian one. And it perfectly Tippett’s people who are oscillating not between two languages, but between two dialects. And so Asterix and his his pal Obelix. And he’s supposed to be funny because he is obese or something. I don’t know. But they speak the Bavarian dialect of German with each other. But then whenever the Romans come, they switch to standard German. The idea being that if these characters were Germans, they would have a local dialect among themselves, but then they would switch to the official standard variety when they’re with other people.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And so at one point, Asterix says in Bavarian, well, if we meet Romans now in Bavarian, that’s then Maremma Tifa. So then Mahoma high up then that’s if we now in standard German, it wouldn’t be then it would be then via ma for we is Bavarian via is the Deutche the standard word. So when we Romans meet then maremma up that’s Bavarian Tufan is the standard. And so then VRM at Hyphen Standard then Mahamat up that to a Bavarian feels familiar.

S3: That feels like potatoes they switch. All of this is perfectly natural, they’re black characters in that way. So the idea is not to imply that they only use Bavarian, but nobody in Germany would say that it’s somehow classist or something ist to depict them speaking Bavarian when they’re among one another. So it’s all very the wire. It’s the same thing. And in the same way, going back to the Carson we poem, he actually shows that the woman he’s depicting would be the classic. She does start out with, for example, if you a girl or nobody going to lower themselves to listen for the kick people passing fast. But then later in the poem, he has her saying, if you’re young, say younger, so not if you’re young, if you’re young, say younger, that’s exactly the way that person in real life would probably use the dialect you oscillate between the two. So even Carson, we understood that it’s not as if she only speaks this vernacular dialect. She has lived surrounded by the standard dialect. And so of course, she uses it just to give another example of how normal this is, this diagnostic aspect of things. It’s not just black people in Bavaria. You can find this all over the world. One of my favorite examples is actually with Canadian French vernacular, Canadian, French, the French of, for example, people who live in Quebec is so different from Parisian, French in particular that it caught being what you might think of as a different language in a great way to get a certain sense of it is to listen to the Flintstones dubbed into that dialect. It’s probably the best Flintstone’s dub in the whole world. If you grew up as a French Canadian, I’m sure that kids assume that those people were actually French Canadians until they got older and we’re told that it’s an American show and that they originally spoke English. Beautiful, beautiful dubbing. Here is an example of Fred reciting in shame a kind of compliment to Willmar Delima as she is in the Canadian.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And so what he’s saying is, and you cook so well and listen to him saying the following day, Ben comes up and said, my reason why I’m so happy to tell mom BLR cuisine, OK, so that P is Puy, which means then in standard it means and in Canadian French P is so common that it’s really become kind of a different word. And so it’s not a two fatele. Monbiot, if you’ve had your school boy or schoolgirl French in Canada, you get used to hearing speak and then do you Fidelma that is a French Canadian pronunciation, not Dalmau. Telma That means so. And then cooking. You cook so well, your cuisine is so good luck. Cuisine, la cuisine, not cuisine, cuisine. So it’s just perfect. Canadian French. Now people who speak this variety can speak both this sort of French and then standard Canadian French, which is different from Parisian. But you can watch the news and French in Canada and there is a kind of French spoken that’s different from Parisian, but it’s quite different from a lot of what you can hear on there called like piaffe the the French Canadian Flintstone’s. It’s the classic situation. So the idea is to depict black people oscillating between two poles and that is frankly what most people who depict black characters speaking black English actually do. So the idea is not that that is the only way that the black person can talk. The idea is that they have a bi dialectal competence, right? Maybe not. Maybe it seems like the Flintstones and Asterix, et cetera, aren’t quite the right comparison because Canadian French has a history, it’s a written variety, Bavarian has its history, etc..

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: But maybe the idea is and I can understand if a person thinks this, because this is what you’re told and this is what it feels like for various reasons, maybe the idea is, no, we’re not going to think of this as something called glossier, because black English is just mistake’s it’s not legitimate speech, it’s just mistakes. And, you know, you can think that without it being a matter of racism, you might be somebody who fully understands what black America has gone through. You might be somebody who even understands that black English is warm, that black English has its place, as you might think. But you might have an idea that black English is still basically mistake’s it’s breaking rules and that the reason so many black people do it is because of lack of education, etc. You might be very sympathetic, and yet you might think if somebody depicts a black person using black English, they are depicting a black person making grammatical errors and that therefore, Lord forbid, a non black person do that.

Advertisement

S4: We can talk about black people depicting black characters doing it, but not not nonblack characters. No, no, that’s that’s not a black English is not mistake’s. Actually, it’s often more complicated than standard English. It really is. Doesn’t sound like it, but it is. You can listen to black people using what you probably hear as an conjugated be what people be talking about, that sort of thing. You think, well, they didn’t conjugate, but what it’s very easy to miss is that that B is a piece of grammar that indicates a nuance that standard English doesn’t indicate as clearly. What I mean by that is listen to, for example, this is Jazy. He uses that sentence. Listen to how this Bigos, my real Shotokan, my.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: You talk about millions. What are you talking about? What we talking about?

S1: To what people be talking about all the time when we talking about. So I notice there is what people be talking about all the time. He didn’t used to be until there. And that’s because at first he’s talking about what are you talking about right now? But then when he talks about talking all the time, he says what people be talking about all the time. B is a marker of the habitual black English uses that I’m conjugated. B, to indicate that something goes on on a regular basis, as opposed to that it’s going on right now. And so she’d be walking by my window. That does not mean that you’re looking out the window watching her doing it. It means that every Tuesday she walks by your window. Now, of course, nobody thinks about this consciously, just like none of us think about our running language consciously. But black English in that way has grammar and in that it’s more explicit than standard English. So on conjugated B, you think, well, that’s just a mistake. But no, I’m conjugated B is actually a frill. It’s actually a bow tie. Now you might think, well, all right, what else. OK, but the thing is there is more. So for example, done. You donate it and you think, well, why didn’t they just say, eat it? What’s this done? That done is actually very sophisticated and it’s taken grammarians of black English a long time to figure it out. And it’s not just the past. It’s not. I am eating. I done ate. That is not how it works. It’s much more specific than that. So for example, let’s say that I have some watermelon jolly rancher soda. It does exist and it is utterly delicious and poison. So I allow it of myself maybe once a year. But watermelon, jolly rancher soda. Let’s say that I buy a case of it because I’ve decided that I’d like to die. I put a case of it in the garage. I don’t have a garage, but I like to pretend that I do. So I put it in the garage and I’m saving it. And, you know, one summer day I decide that I’m going to go in the garage and get me some watermelon. Jolly Rancher soda. Yes, water. I’m from Philadelphia and well, there’s no soda here. Maybe there’s just one. Let’s say that I’m a character from one of the Friday’s movies or something like that. I ask somebody, where’s my jolly rancher watermelon soda? And the person says that they drank it all up. I would say you don’t drunk get that done is not just you drank it in the past. What I would mean by that is I’m surprised that you drank it. It’s a marker of the counter expectational. That’s what Don is. It’s not just the past. So, for example, I would say I don’t have a crush on you since you were 12. That means that you didn’t know it. But I’ve had a crush on you since you were twelve. But I wouldn’t say, well, you know what? Yesterday, I don’t need a cucumber unless it was the very first time I’d eaten one for some reason, but not what you eat yesterday. Well, yesterday I done had bacon. Now only if it was quite unexpected. I looked up done drunk on Google and just wanted to see what the first entries were in the first ones that make any sense out of context are this best I’ve ever had. I meant to post a full glass, but I’d done drunk it up. In other words, he wants to put the full glass there, but actually it turns out like whoopsie counter expectational. I don’t drunk it up or next one was in a drop of booze because we don’t drink at all. What that means is, you know what? We drank all of the liquor. That’s counter expectational. That’s something that’s a little naughty, like we done drunk it all or definitely. Absolutely the stupidest thing I’ve ever done drunk. It’s a freaking miracle no one was killed. So whatever that person drank, the idea is that they probably shouldn’t have. It’s like flurried frog legs or benzoate or something. So they drank something that they shouldn’t have drunk. That’s how dunnies used. That is a nuance that standard English doesn’t have overtly. You can imply it in various ways. You can do it with intonation. You can leave it the context. But black English has that done? It’s fascinating. And that means that once again, black English is not just a bunch of mistakes. You can call done a mistake, but it certainly is a rather sophisticated mistake. What it really is, is a refinement over standard English.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: Give you another one. Let’s go a field first. In Korean there is an interesting rule of how sounds work. You might know somebody from Korea whose last name is Li. They know something that you don’t. They know that in Korean that name is E, you don’t say Li, you say E because in Korean there is this rule that when l comes before e that sound e when look comes before e you drop it it.

S1: It’s dropped off, so you don’t say Lee, you’re right, Lee, but the way you pronounce that is e that happened over time. That’s something that happens in languages that you have these picky little things where a sound appears or a sound disappears in a certain very particular context. So in English, I am holding a leaf or I am holding to leifs. No leaves. When you have that fir before a plural marker, then you make it into a verb and so leaves. That’s what you say. I am a horse with four hoofs.

Advertisement

S4: No, I’m a horse with four hooves. That’s a little rule. One doesn’t think about it, but it’s there in black English has different ones. It has ones in addition to what we’re used to. So talk about V V in black English gets dropped when a D is coming up.

S1: Now one thing that you might be familiar with is the expression five dollars instead of five dollars. But you might think, OK, that’s an idiom. Black people say five dollars and you’re thinking, well, they tend to drop sounds and you just kind of leave it there because, you know, you have a mortgage to pay. But five dollars, five dollars. No, that’s a rule. That’s a subconsciously internalized rule in the dialect. It’s not just with five dollars, it’s in general. Let us listen to little Wayne. Let’s listen to Lil Wayne and Birdman. And this is one of their one of their songs. Listen to how one says believe that. Well, that comes out in black English as that. And so you’ve got a D coming up. Listen to believe that. And a lot of you will realize that that’s the way it’s pronounced influent black English. This isn’t just a cute little trick in this rap.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: This is this is normal speech that leads him to believe that any leader you believe now, you might think, OK, well, you say five dollars and bolita especially if you’ve heard that song a million times. But no, there’s more. It’s not just believe that because notice a little later in this same song how you say love that in black English because it’s dat not just black but lead up fresh with the heavy metal.

S6: You know I need that gorgeous day, fly on the stage. Believe that we won the. Can we do it. Can you see me. Black eyes with the chrome and the you know that to express to cool. To shadow to to spend money.

S1: That’s just what we do believe that that is normal. This is based on not just some idiom or a couple of idioms. It’s actually the way sounds work in black English and don’t in standard English. Nor is it there’s something I’ve pushed this a little further is not that there’s just something cute about the word that and then maybe also dollars listen to what happens with this, which is DYS. And it’s not just rap. So it’s not just something that it started happening in the eighties or the 90s or, you know, some thing that’s very local rather than what you would call black English. This is black speech since time immemorial. And of course, I have to play something on The Jeffersons. And so, for example, listen to George Jefferson in this episode and how he says you are not going to believe this. Louise, listen to what he says.

S7: And I was going down, down. And at the bottom of the leaders at the bottom was all these cockroaches yelling and waving. Welcome back, George.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: See, Bilitis, so Sherman Hemsley, that certainly wasn’t in the script, Sherman Hemsley was subconsciously observing the rule in black English that the goes when you’ve got a D coming up. So in Korean, when you’ve got an E coming up, you drop the L black English. When you’ve got a D coming up, you drop the V. This is sophisticated speech and you have to know the nuance of it. It’s not whenever anything with D comes up, it’s when something with D is coming up that’s common. You talk about dollars a lot, you talk about that and this a lot. So George wouldn’t say something like I have to try to imitate him and I don’t think I can wizzy donly daffodils on the windowsill because you don’t talk about daffodils much. You don’t need daffodils on the windowsill. He’d say don’t leave daffodils on the windowsill. You know, you’d be a Martian, but he would say don’t leave them daffodils on the windowsill. Don’t leave them daffodils because you talk about them daffodils, as in those daffodils. You say that a lot of black English is complicated. All right. It’s time for a musical clip, I think. And it’s going to be non-integrated.

S3: That’s cute word to use for this episode, but it’s not going to fit really into anything or I’m going to try to make it make some kind of sense. This is a song from a musical that has music by George Gershwin, and it’s called Tell Me More. And we are in nineteen twenty five. So this is ninety five years ago. And this song is in a way a kind of musical black English, because it’s one part Europe. This is something that starts with the March tradition that had evolved into ragtime and then stride piano. Then it’s one part Africa. Because of the blue notes and the syncopated rhythm, Gershwin sat at the feet of black stride piano players to learn a lot of his tricks. And the result was songs like this one, where you can just hear it in every note. The words to kick in the clouds away are, you know, antique and distracting. It’s the music. And we can hear Gershwin as if he was in the room playing it because he recorded it for a very special kind of piano roll that actually maintain the nuances of a person playing. So let’s listen to George Gershwin. He could be at a party in 1925 playing his song, and this sounds like it’s live because of how good this kind of piano roll was. This is kicking the clouds away, which I think is just massively catchy. So let’s hear some musical black English for a second.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: So I’m saying black English is not mistakes, but frankly, if it isn’t, how come it’s always leaving stuff off? You’re talking about all these things and how sophisticated they are, but it’s always leaving something off that standard English does. And one response to that is that the done bit isn’t the done is not leaving something off, it’s putting something in. But still isn’t black English mostly a matter of leaving things off rather than adding things. And you know what the answer is? Yes.

S3: A lot of people would try to talk you around that. But no, the answer is yes. Most of what distinguishes black English from standard English is leaving things off, often in ways that are rule bound and sophisticated, such as that business of the V in the D, but still, you can’t help thinking why is it always subtractive if this is legitimate speech? There are two reasons why black English is mostly not doing things that you do in standard English. One of them is because black English was created by grownups. Black English is ultimate history is that you have slaves who are adults and adults don’t learn languages as well as children, and they’re exposed suddenly to English and they do their best and they did pretty darn well. But if you learn English under those conditions, then often you’re going to leave out the things that are the most complicated, that are the most particular, especially the things that are needlessly complicated. And so, yeah, why you ain’t call me instead of why didn’t you call me? Well, the thing is, why does English have to do that anyway? Why do you have to take the subject pronoun and put it after the auxiliary? Why can’t you say why you didn’t call me? You know what it means. Instead it’s why didn’t you call me? That’s something odd about Germanic languages in particular. Well, if you’re learning the language on the fly and you’re just trying to talk, you might leave that out. And frankly, it doesn’t hurt anything. It has nothing to do with clarity, has nothing to do with expression. So there are all sorts of things like that. But the result is still nuance speech, which is still complex. You could write a grammatical description of it that was three hundred pages long. And does that sound like special pleading? Of course it does. But here’s why it isn’t modern standard. English is a vast subtraction of the machinery, most of it unnecessary that old English had. So, for example, here is one of my favorite old English passages and you’ll have to go into the old English voice.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: It’s about body parts. And so it’s God granted us two eyes and two ears. God Gaskill plus God granted us, God created for us God with two eyes and two ears to a gun and to Adam. So eyes and ears, airgun and Ahran on is the plural marker for those. But then two nostrils toid. No. Stulen No, no not not nostrils on its tois nose to so nostrils is nostrils too then to lips Thuan because the gender changes of course you have to have this stupid gender. So to and without us that means two lips notice all of a sudden it’s familiar. It’s so they did have plural s but it’s er got an air on and so iron and Aerin and then nostro loo and then lips so to and weather and then two hands and two feet and not hands but under and then two feet fat just like us we have feet but it’s not Foote’s and it’s not FTS.

S3: And so you’ve got er er I don’t know you whether that’s Honda and Fate, all those different ways of making the plural in old English and there were more, that was the way it went. We of course just make everything with S except for a little handful of words. Understand that in old English this was all nouns you kind of just had to know to an extent. So we don’t have that. Do you miss it. I don’t, I don’t want to talk about Nostro Lu. I don’t want to talk about nostrils at all. But if I’m going to make nostril plural, it’s going to be with God damn s. That’s just the way modern English is. But compared to old English, modern English is clumsy and stupid and telegraphic. And yet the world keeps spinning and we think that our language is the best thing since watermelon jolly rancher Sota. Well, black English takes it a little bit light compared to standard English. But if modern English is legitimate language, yes, I think we all assume that it is black English is to for the exact same reason modern English is not alone in this. Swedish is like that. Mandarin is like that. Among the Chinese. It’s easier than it should be. As difficult as it is Persian noble language is like that compared to old Persian. Indonesian is. Like that there are languages that are streamlined in that way. That would sound like barbarism to people speaking the same language 2000 years ago. So black English. Yeah, subtractive in that way. But really, just to a little bit of a degree, it’s as if I’ve used this in a book that I wrote. But I’m going to bring it out here because I think it’s a handy analogy. Modern English got rid of enough old English material that if it was a liquid, it would be a bucket. Black English gets rid of about as much standard English material as would fit into not even a martini glass, but one of those small martini glasses where you don’t get enough like that. Often if you ask for four Baileys, you get one of those little teeny ones where like if you spilled it on your leg, you would barely even bother to wipe it off. That is how much black English is subtracted from standard English.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: OK, let’s push it even further. I’ve got these white cartoon characters, et cetera, but it’s still different because even if now you know, agent or editor, that black English is not mistakes, well, most people don’t know. They’ll think it’s mistakes and so don’t. We have to think about that. When we have white authors putting black English into the mouths of their black characters, people are going to think it’s mistakes. And that’s not the message that we want to give to the public. And here’s where things get a little dicey, is the fact that there will be readers out there who assume that black English is mistakes important enough to elide linguistic reality, including for readers in what might be a more tolerant and an educated future about the nature of non-standard speech.

S3: And I dare say that things have gotten better on that over about the past 10 years. But still, the question is, is the fact that people out there will see black characters speaking black English and think of it as errors wherever they’re going to put it, they are going to think of it that way. Is that important enough to depict black people inaccurately on a regular basis? So, for example, I can’t help them on this colloquial French kick today. But I can’t help thinking, for example, of Michelle Trombley. He is a novelist and playwright who has written wonderful fiction and drama about working class Montrealers who are speaking full blown vernacular Canadian French. And you can go through the books and you almost have to learn a different language. But these characters jump off the page as if it was bellow. And part of the reason they do is because they talk the way those human beings actually talk. Now, there are people who have thought of this dialect joal as vulgar as something that is not right more in the past than today. But there still persist certain attitudes, sometimes among the speakers themselves, just as with black English. And the question is, should Michel Tremblay have written all of these wonderful books with the characters speaking standard, Canadian or even Parisian French?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I don’t think anybody would think so. And so in one of the books, somebody says, I heard crying last night, do you have a bad dream? Now the way that goes is stamped on Dupere. I heard crying Newitt said it so not set that standard French, but said Senate. That’s the way that person would say night. Now should that person be depicted saying Newie out of a textbook or like a newscaster or newitt which is what that person would say. I don’t think there’s any question to effect a movie. I’ve French Canadians. I know. I know. I’m trying. It’s been about twenty five years since I’ve had it in my ears, but I kind of remember so to fit the movie I’ve did. You have a bad dream. We who had some French in school, we know that it’s OK to think in the French that we were taught from those musty textbooks, but in actual fact it has nothing to do with masculine and feminine. The form here is fit so out to fit on mobile. That is what that person would say. Should that not be in there? I don’t think anybody would think that Trombley shouldn’t have written his characters using the actual speech that they use. If anything, his work has helped to legitimize that way of speaking among the larger populace. Black English is analogous or something else. Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn is tough to read because of that thick dialect. And you’re not used to reading people talking that way. I must admit, I have never enjoyed reading Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn because it’s so hard on the eyes. But still, should Mark Twain have written those characters using the language of Henry James? Was it wrong? And that includes with Jim, said Jim, not have spoken that way. I’m not talking about the N-word. I’m talking about the dialect in general. Was it stereotyping because. Jim would have been able to speak two ways, but what we see him speaking when he’s comfortable is this black English dialect, except it’s an earlier version of it. Is that wrong? I don’t think most of us would think so. For example, the characters in The Wire, David Simon’s masterpiece, The Wire. Well, a lot of the writers of The Wire were not black. And yet should the characters on The Wire have been talking like the ones on friends, the idea being that it’s wrong to depict them speaking black English. Can you imagine, like, why am I comrades? Here comes Omar. That wouldn’t have been as good as the way they had it. And OK, maybe somehow film and television are different, but is writing different in this way? I think of Richard Price, you know, who has a hand in things like The Wire. Richard Price is white and he does an amazing job of writing black inner city characters and all of their humanity. And that includes writing them, speaking the dialect that they speak that he has in his ear. So you can read a book like Clockers or or Homicide, which doesn’t seem to get the attention that I think it should. But you have characters using black speech. Was he wrong? Are we now going to say that that is something that we need to get past? I don’t think so. And then also, I have to say, won’t the next thing be because there are other ways of looking at this, won’t the next thing be that having black characters only speaking standard English denies black culture? There will be people who say that you shouldn’t have the black characters talking that way because it constitutes a kind of stereotyping, but a different kind of person. Fiddle with the dials and switches, might see these black characters not using the dialect that their real life equivalents would certainly dip in and out of. And they might see that as racist because it’s denying something that’s integral to them. And you can imagine the words that we use your whitewashing them.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: Now, there’s one more thing. There is an idea out there that it’s not that black characters should never be depicted speaking black English, but that really to keep things clean, only black writers should write black English. Here’s the problem with that. White people get black English right all the time. You know, since this is the theme of my life lately, let’s try The Jeffersons. I’m halfway through the whole series, folks.

S1: This is an episode called Three Faces of Florence. Now, Florence is the maid. She often uses black English in her speech. So let’s just listen to this very ordinary scene where Florence says some stuff was where the exposure we got one Bahamut bodybags up.

S8: Put them in front of your mouth. Maybe you better go help him. On second thought, I’ll help you get the door good. I show got the best of that deal.

S1: So ain’t got and show God instead of Sure. Had or something like that. Then here in this scene, you get all the treatment.

S8: You need treatment. I don’t need no treatment. Look, anybody goes around saying she’s a cow disease. A lot of treatment. Wait a minute. You mean just because I told you I was a countess? You think I’m crazy? I’m not crazy, Florence. Just a little disoriented, huh? Well, you are not a countess. I know. And I ain’t crazy. Don’t worry, Florida, I’ll see that everyone at the hospital takes very good care of you.

S1: I don’t need to go to know just how quickly they don’t need no treatment, don’t want to go to no hospital. That’s good old black English. Now, the writers of this episode were white. And yet can we really say that Florence was speaking in a stereotypical way? No, actually, Florence is like classic between standard and black English and these were perfectly normal lines. Now, I have not gone to the trouble of digging up the scripts of Jefferson’s episodes and trying to see how much of the black English was actually written down. Just maybe the actress Marla Gibbs improvised black Englishness into lines that the white writers wrote as standard. But then the question is, was she inaccurate? Did Marla Gibbs do something wrong? No. She was, you know, giving a very genuine depiction of how that made at that time would have spoken. Now we think, well, it’s OK for Marla Gibbs to improvise because she’s black. But what’s the difference between how we just heard Florence talking and this about a man?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: And he won’t pick up me, it does. You can. No.

S10: Well, your Chris. How was. Stilgoe.

S1: It don’t go that way now. That is, of course, an exquisite melody, and isn’t it nice to actually be able to understand the words that is Dat’s love, as it’s called from Carmen Jones, sung by Dorothy Dandridge, dubbed by Marilyn Horn, who was white for the record, and Carmen Jones as Carmen set in black English. And the thing is, Carmen Jones was written by a very, very white man, Oscar Hammerstein. Here’s a little more Carmen Jones. This is there’s a cafe on the corner.

S11: Telephoned me, asking me to make a date. Oh, no way.

S1: So not asking, but Acción, that is accurate, black English, they’re white people who say accents, but, you know, black people use it as part of black English. So there’s no difference between the way Florence, the maid, would be speaking in the 70s and 80s and the way Carmen Jones was depicted speaking in nineteen forty three when Carmen Jones first hit the stage. The movie is from the 50s. And the truth is Carmen Jones is written in black English and there isn’t a slip in it. And as you might imagine, I have checked it is very genuine black English. It’s not stereotype black English.

S4: The characters toggle between standard and black English, but that is the way black people then, as well as black people before that and black people since then have actually spoken. Some people at the time said that they found the dialect kind of stereotyped. But, you know, with all due respect to them, I’m not sure that I see it as a linguist who has specialized to an extent in the dialect. And finally, black people can get the dialect wrong, too. And here I’m going to be very careful because I don’t want to out anyone. But there is a book written by a very intelligent black person, very interested in issues of black culture. And I’m not going to specify what the piece of writing is or who the author is. But very often throughout the work in question, they sprinkle the phrase I.B. ghetto and they’re trying to make a little joke and they’re trying to signify a certain identification with the black community. But the truth is, grammatically, that use of B isn’t the one that I talked about earlier in the podcast about habitually. It’s actually if you want to nit pick and only if you want to nit pick. And there’s no reason to accept in this very particular context. It’s not actual black English. If it were a white person writing it, a person could justifiably say, well, that person doesn’t know because they’re too far from it. But the thing is, language is something that all of us can distort even when it’s our own language, because so very much of communication is subconscious. So there is a very well intentioned black writer who, as it happens, gets it wrong. Or on this show, I’ve talked about the old fashioned use of OM with pronouns other than I invariant am, um, the only one we m the ones who he am. Qiam sounds so strange to us now. I personally think from my research that that is something that actual black people used in casual black English about 100 years ago, but it became extinct by the middle of the 20th century. But this is the thing. There will be people who are specialists who disagree with me. And if they are correct, of course I’m correct. But if they’re correct, then it means that legions and legions of sincere black writers were wrong in putting this invariant am in the mouths of black characters, even in very sober situations, not just in minstrelsy musical contexts. So, for example, even down into the 70s in Roots, Alex Haley has his characters experiencing emancipation and he has one of them yelling freedom. Anwan. I truly believe that people actually did say that, but traditionally people have thought that that was just a minstrel ism. And if so, that means that Alex Haley, who certainly had black people’s well-being in mind, this is the person who got down the autobiography of Malcolm X, etc., He was mis depicting black speech. So that’s to say white people can get it right. Black people can even get it wrong. The question really might be making sure whatever color people are, that they get it right. So I have to get on a bit of a soapbox here. And I promise the next episode of Lexicon Valley will be back to the shits and giggles. But publishing agents and editors please stop telling nonblack authors to tone down or to eliminate black English in the voices of their black characters. Obviously, nonblack authors as well as black authors should be sensitive about it. They should check for the accuracy and the nuance in their ways to do that. But for them to have all black characters just talking like white ones is inaccurate and it’s not necessary. There’s no need to see black English as implying that black people live immersed in standard English but somehow mysteriously fail to learn it. Black people have toggled between standard and black English for centuries. As long as, for example, a white author is showing that WCA then. Really, they’re more than halfway there, countless white writers have gotten black English right in the past, right up to now, and to the extent that some readers will think black characters are speaking mistakes. Well, you know, life isn’t perfect. And to knuckle under to that mistaken way of thinking and to therefore withdraw the dialect and have only black authors write characters using the dialect, that’s going to have two results. One of them is just cultural inaccuracy. But then another one, white writers may start to just avoid having black characters at all rather than writing them in what they know is a linguistically inaccurate way upon which, let’s face it, some will interpret that as racism of a brand new kind. Agents, editors. Do you want to see somebody distributing a graph in around 2030 where they show that white writers started creating fewer black characters by the year after 2020? Obviously, that’s not what you’re going for. Now, they’re black people in the industry who will feel differently. I know you have to hear them out, but in making your decision and figuring out where you fall on this, I beseech you to also consider what I’ve tried to get across here and to put it in the most economical way that I can. Depicting a black character as speaking black English is not racism.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: You can reach us at lexicons, Ali, 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 slash Lexicon Valley. You know, you may have noticed that in the last episode for certain parts I talked to slowly, you know what that was. Now we record at home. And because of technology, you do the recording in parts. And I got home really tired one night and I thought, you know, I have to lay the showdown tomorrow, but I don’t want to have to have the whole show sitting there to do so. I’m going to record a little of it now. But I was tired and so I ended up talking slowly. And the next morning I got up all peppy and full of coffee and did my normal kind of delivery. And so the result is that for some reason, all of a sudden in that show, there’s a part where I like that that will never happen again. In any case, might Volo is, as always, the editor. And I’m John McWhorter.

S3: You know, one thing that’s hard about the pandemic is if you have small or smallish kids and figuring out what to do with them. And so I’ve been thinking about issues of day care a lot lately. And, you know, there are linguistic implications. And so, for example, I’m actually going somewhere that you’re going to enjoy. But first of all, day, what’s the etymology of day? Well, it’s from Proteau Indo-European, that language of Ukraine originally meant to burn things about the sun.

S4: So day is burn care is from that same language where the word was to yell or to shriek ga ga. So yelling and shrieking and then the meaning changes over time.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: If you’re yelling and shrieking, well, you might be lamenting. That’s one reason that you yell are you shriek. And so by the time you have the ancestor to the Germanic languages somewhere, probably in that neck of Denmark, the word means to lament, such as maybe in some funereal celebration that the Vikings were having. Then you move to old English where that word to lament is softened somewhat to being anxious, being solicitous. And you can see where you get care from there. You are taking care of something, you care about it, etc.. So you start with burn. Yeah. Oh, two words that probably weren’t put together and now you have day care. It’s just interesting how any language is the product of that kind of change having gone on and on. That’s why linguists are always so happy about language change, because it’s language change that takes you from burning and yelling to day care, thinking of day care. I remember when I was in day care back in the very late sixties and very early seventies carriage kiddy care was what it was called. It was in Westmount area, Gorgias Lane. And I remember they made me suck my thumb. I never sucked my thumb naturally. Of course not. But they made me do it because they thought that it would make me sleep. And I remember thinking I’m supposed to be having a nap. And the way I’m going to nap is to have my salty, larger finger nestled in my mouth. I did not get it. You know, what about Thumb knows how it’s about thumb, but it’s not that anybody ever talked about sucking their thumb. You can kind of tell that they didn’t. The word is thumb. The original word was toome. That bee is only on there because some son of a bitch decided that thumb had to be spelled like dumb. But and Dumba does have an action will be based on the fact that it used to be Dombi, etc. and then somebody just thought, well, dumb and thumb. So I guess it’s got to be thumma. And so here we are with that Limbe. Probably the same reason. Here’s where I’m getting to this carriage. Kitty Care was near an Acme. There’s still an Acme there. Acme is a supermarket. Listen to the way people could still say supermarket back in the early 1960s. This is the musical. I had a ball and Liuba Lisa is singing. Adès added again. Listen to how the word supermarket sits on the melody.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S12: Placement will come from no bargain basement and. And we don’t forget to come to.

S3: You will your shopping carts up, so she sings supermarket now that’s bad writing if the word of supermarket supermarket that doesn’t scan. But the person who wrote this was very good at making lyrics scan. It’s because back then you could talk about a supermarket. It’s a market. Oh, we’re going to have these big ones where there’s too much. We’re going to have a supermarket. Want to go to the supermarket. After a while, the back shift happens and it becomes a supermarket. But that took a while in the early 60s. People say, let’s go to the supermarket. You can hear people saying it in movies in the 1950s, too. Well, you know what? If people used to say supermarket, then you just know that people must have once said day care. We say daycare. But if we’re talking about care during the day when that started to become what we now call a thing, it must have been the people said day care. And you know what they did here is a recording from the World War Two era.

S13: And listen to how the announcer says care, everything possible will be done to provide day care for the children.

S1: So for a nominal fee, that’s what you got today on Slate Plus.