The history of Black English in the United States is complex and even today only partly understood. Black English is also referred to as Black language, African American Vernacular English, Black English Vernacular or Vernacular Black English, Ebonics, African American English, "the language of soul," and "the shuffling speech of slavery." There has been much controversy over the history of Black English and how it came about. Many linguists trace the development of Black English back to the time of slavery and the slave trade. Other scholars contend that Black English developed out of the contact between speakers of West African languages and speakers of vernacular English varieties. Others say that Black English developed from the mixing of African languages.
This paper sets to examine the different theories held by linguists as to how Black English came about. Many linguists trace the development of Black English back to the time of slavery and the slave trade. This dates back to about 1619, when a Dutch vessel landed in Jamestown with a cargo of twenty Africans. During the slave trade, ships collected slaves from several different African nations rather than trading with one nation because Africans from different nations spoke different languages and could not communicate with each other.
Without being able to communicate with each other, they were incapable of uniting with one another to come up with a way of either escaping, taking over the ships or rebelling. In J. L. Dillard's book, Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States, he provides evidence that there was a lack of such language mixing during the early times of the slave trade and that it developed much later. He states that slave buyers learned to prefer African from specific tribes and areas, and the language mixing practiced on the slave ships was sometimes counteracted in the markets of the Americas. This is why African language survived in the New World for some time.
Once the slaves arrived in America, they had to learn at lease some degree of English vocabulary. This established English as a common language among slaves. Linguists propose that Africans developed a pidgin language (an invented language with no native speakers). Dillard states that, the Pidgin English served the purpose of lingua franca, which is a language used for purposes of wider communication, especially in a group when the native language of no member of the group will suffice. When the African slaves bore children, the pidgin language turned into Creole language (a language with native speakers).
Informative evidence of the development of Black English lies in newspaper ads reporting runaway slaves. In 1744, an ad in The New York Evening Post read, "Ran away... a new Negro Fellow named Prince, he can't scarce speak a Word of English. " An ad in the North Carolina Gazette read, "Ran away from the Subscriber, African born... speaks bad English." Not all blacks were slaves in America. Those who mastered Standard English were usually runaway slaves and this proved to be beneficial in passing as a free black as in the case of Frederick Douglass who was a black writer who wrote in the Standard English of his time.
This proved that Black English was the language of slavery and servitude. During the period of the Civil War, abolitionist made the speech of slaves known. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Thomas Halliburton produced many works that indicated their knowledge of the existence of Black English. Those who spoke Black English outnumbered those who spoke Standard English, which ultimately caused Black English to flourish. From the period of 1620-1700, little evidence exists of the language spoken by African Slaves.
But by 1715 the first examples of African Pidgin English (term used before Black English) were stated in court records and treatises on small pox. By the end of the eighteenth century, slaves used at least three varieties of English. One variety was African Pidgin English, which was spoken mostly by slave recently imported from Africa. Plantation Creole, which was spoken by a large number of field workers.
The third was Standard English, which was spoken by slaves who learned it from their masters. In time, the Pidgin English and Plantation Creole started to decreolizate. After the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861-1865, slaves received civil rights for the first time and immigrated to new parts of the country. Their culture became known through music and dance and new and informal vocabulary was picked up from gospels, blues and jazz.
This led to a change in their own speech forms. Other scholars contend that Black English developed out of the contact between speakers of West African languages and speakers of vernacular English varieties. West Africans learned English on plantations in the southern coastal states of Georgia, South Carolina, etc. from a very small number of native speakers who were indentured laborers. Some suggest that this led to the development of a pidgin language, which was then later expanded to a Creole language, which ties in to what was stated earlier in the paper.
Others advocate a contact scenario for the development of Black English. They suggest this contact language developed through processes of second language acquisition. Slaves who arrived on these plantations had limited access to Standard English because the number of native speakers was so small. In this situation, the second language learners or the slaves inserted what English vocabulary that could be acquired from temporary and brief encounters onto the grammatical patterns of their common languages of West Africa. A study done by Harrison, which was published in 1884 and the first scholarly treatise on the subject, he contended that much of "Negro English" as he termed it, was attributable to "old" dialects (Old English, Old Norse, Old Scottish) and that the African-derived aspects were evidence of intellectual inferiority.
Harrison stated, "Much of his (the Negro) talk is baby-talk... the slang which is an ingrained part of his being as deep-dyed as his skin... the African, from the absence of books and teaching, had no principle of anale psy in his intellectual furnishing by which a word, once become obscure from a real or supposed loss of part or meaning, can be repaired, amended, or restored to its original form." In the early twentieth century, scholars such as Bennett, K rapp, and Mencken continued this line of thinking. In the first study of Gullah (rural and urban Black speech communities in the coastal regions of the Southeast), Bennett argued, "Intellectual indolence, or laziness, mental and physical... shows itself in the shortening of words, the elision of syllables, and modification of every difficult enunciation...
It is the indolence, mental and physical, of the Gullah dialect that is its most characteristic feature." Folklorists Gonzales, criticized Black English and even attributed it to the physiognomy of African people: "Slovenly and careless of speech, these Gullah seized upon the peasant English used by some of the early settlers and by the white servants of the wealthier Colonists, wrapped their clumsy tongues about it as well as they could, and enriched with certain expressive African words, it issued through their flat noses and thick lips as so workable a form of speech that is was gradually adopted by the other slaves." These views of Black English were challenged by the research of Herskovits and Turner. Turner mastered five African languages, which were: Kongo, Igbo, Yoruba, Kri o, and Mende. He felt these were a necessary prerequisite in understanding the origins and forms of the language spoken by Gullah Blacks. He uncovered at least four thousand West African words in frequent use and fundamental African language survivals in sound and syntax.
He stated, The sounds of Gullah show many striking resemblances to those of several West African languages. When the African came to the United States and encountered in English certain sounds not present in his native language, he did what any other person to who English was a foreign language would have done under similar circumstances-he substituted sounds from his own language which appeared to him to resemble most closely those English sounds which were unfamiliar to him." McDavid who is often referred to as the "Dean of American Dialectology" praised Turner for his findings and said that his work should, "inaugurate a new approach to the study of American Negro speech." I In conclusion, there have been many proposed theories as to how Black English developed or came about. Whether it developed in the early days of the slave trade, or from Africans developing a pidgin language, or developing from second language acquisition or from "old" English, Black English does exists and has flourished to vast parts of the United States. Many linguists may still argue who is right and who is wrong and are still conducting extensive research in the area. Although there is still debate over the origins of Black English other debates have surfaced in this subject matter. Black English, which is now days commonly referred to as Ebonics by a regular person, has many controversies surrounding it.
We cannot deny that fact that such a language exists and is part of our culture. Whether some consider it a dialect or a form of non-standard English it exists just like any other dialects from the north east, south east, west coast, etc. People who speak Ebonics are often frowned upon but individuals need to understand that this is their language, their dialect.