Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I be enjoying this stuff

Some of you might actually be old enough to remember the great "Ebonics" flap of 1996-97. The Oakland School Board was considering using Black English to teach Black kids, and predictably the country went bananas.

People yelled that Black English was nothing but slang, but of course slang is a here-today, gone-tomorrow thing. Visit your nearest middle school and listen for how many students are saying "gag me with a spoon." Some said black English is an African language that used English words. That makes no sense for several reasons, including the fact that speakers of Black English use goofy and thoroughly English-language irregular verbs such as went and stood, and plural nouns such as men and feet. You don't find that kind of stuff in Africa.

In fact, Black English is what is called a nonstandard dialect of English, much like what you hear in the "hollers" of Appalachia or in countless parts of the British Isles.

But what was interesting to me was that a majority of Black English comes - not all but in large part - from those very backwaters of the British Isles!

It turns out that Black slaves often worked alongside indentured servants from the old country, people who generally did not speak standard English. For instance, Irish English speakers use what is called the habitual "be," just as Black English does. (When a Black English speaker says "She be walking to the store," it doesn't means she's doing it now, but that she regularly does.) Similarly, an Irish English speaker might well say that even "if I be there with friends, I be scared."

I think it is cool that many people freaked by a rapper's use of that talk don't have a clue that it comes from the merry old United Kingdom. And, as icing on the cake, that the rappers don't either.

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