Understanding Black Dialect

“You Don’t Understand,” by Vinson Cunningham. The New Yorker, 5/15/2017. A review of books by John McWhorter, linguist,  author, and Columbia professor.

John McWhorter

I won’t go into the arguments for or against Black English becoming a recognized dialect, an American street lingua franca.  That was the main focus of the New Yorker article. Rather, I learned two aspects of the speech that have long puzzled me, and that they follow a grammar just as complex as any we learned in high school.

The first is the seemingly ubiquitous “be” in spoken Black English, but the word is not just thrown helter-skelter anytime into a sentence as I had thought.  “Be” indicates something happens on a regular basis. For example, “She be coming to my house.” means she is coming to that person’s house, as she often does. No black would say, “She be coming to my house right now.”  It would not make  sense in black grammar.

Another is the use of “up” in connection with a location, as in “We be meetin’’ up at Marie’s.” “Up” is an intimacy marker, indicating Marie is a close friend and you feel comfortable there. (The “be” indicates you do this quite often.)  Standard English has no equivalent.

If one of my wife’s friends calls as I write this, I could reply, “She be up at the Acme. Want her to call back?” (Maybe I should, just to hear the response.  I would use the typical Philadelphia pronunciation of “Acme” in three syllables: AH-ka-me ).

I am guessing, now, but I suspect there is a connection of “up” grammar with the common black greeting, “Sup?” which is a contraction of “What’s up?”  The “up” indicates the questioner is asking about activities in the familiar places where they spend their time.

As for the other “mistakes” of Standard English, such as the double negative, McWhorter says they are often just the result of a peculiar snobbery that praises those who have managed to master the more obscure rules of grammar, what my professor once denigrated as “school-marm rules,” rules that add nothing to clarity (such as “who” vs. “whom”).  I have never heard of a black misunderstanding a double negative coming from another black.



About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in Popular culture, Writers and Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Understanding Black Dialect

  1. Val says:

    ‘Up’ is also used in South East England (UK) regardless of skin colour or race. And ‘Meeting up’ or even, ‘a meet up’ is a colloquialism.

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