Opinion | Ukrainian Isn’t ‘Little Russian’ and Black English Isn’t Broken

This mission becomes especially urgent when it comes to speech varieties with origins in colonialism and imperialism, created by subordinated, often nonwhite people under various conditions of forced labor or social isolation. In many cases, under conditions like these, adults (as opposed to children, who start learning a language from birth) learned additional languages quickly and without formal instruction, and filled out what they learned with aspects of their native languages, and a good bit of sheer creativity, to fashion something brand-new: creole languages, as linguists call them. These new ways of speaking usually discarded much of the older language’s random material (which any language accretes over time) that is harder for adults to learn and not necessary to communication, anyway. A creole language doesn’t present you with long lists of conjugational endings or randomly assign genders to inanimate objects because many languages worldwide do not, and a language need not. But even when a language doesn’t do these things, it still has a great many rules to pick up, its own grammar, tens of thousands of words and specific ways that sounds are shaped and sentences are intoned. In other words, it’s full human language.

Yet this (rather efficient) shedding of the bric-a-brac, plus the creole’s being spoken by subaltern people, has encouraged a sense of it as a mere “broken” version of an older language. It often distracts even the speakers of these varieties themselves. While there has been, of late, a movement advocating recognition of Jamaican Patois as an official language, experts on the variety are perpetually frustrated by a general misimpression, especially beyond the academy and the arts, that Patois is just broken English, a bad habit.

But one way we know that languages like this are indeed languages is that you can write a detailed grammatical description of each of them, full of complex rules (and exceptions) mapping out how to pronounce words, add tense to verbs, put sentences together, convey nuance — just as in grammatical descriptions of languages such as Ukrainian that aren’t creoles but have suffered similar disrespect.

This brings to my mind Black English. It is a dialect of English rather than a separate language — while Standard English speakers may miss some of it when spoken rapidly, for the most part, they readily comprehend Black English. But traditionally, it has been seen as English gone wrong, just as Jamaican Patois has. The differences between Black English and Standard English are due in large part to the fact that it formed under circumstances like the ones that produced many creoles. Adult learners had a lot to do with its creation, and as such, it let go of some of Standard English’s unneeded bells and whistles, the absence of which is often presented in a way that inadvertently oversimplifies, even diminishes, Black English.

For instance, in various sources providing guidance for teaching reading to kids who speak Black English at home, you encounter the same stock examples showing how Black English relaxes standard English rules: You’ll see the comparison “col’” vs. “cold” show up in more than one place to explain that for some words, the final consonant sound is dropped. You’ll see a basic explanation that the verb “to be” is often superfluous — “she my sister” instead of “she is my sister” and so on.


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