If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?

James Baldwin makes several good points about how a person speaks says a great deal about them. We have been talking a lot about “dialects” in class and how everyone has their own. Baldwin, however, shows that some people have their own language that’s different from their base language. He noted how white American may never have had the word “jazz” or “funky”. And that, “There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today.” Baldwin’s family (and most likely generations before them) made up a word to use in case of danger. Unless you were a part of that group, you wouldn’t be able to understand what that word meant. So, it becomes a part of their own language.

“To open your mouth in England is (if I may use my black English) to ‘put your business in the street’: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.” I can’t think of any words that I use and that people outside of my social group can understand, but this generation has abbreviated quite a lot of things. “Selfie”, “presh”, “totes”, and “legit”. Although the older generations can understand what they mean, it would be very strange if they actually used them. Unlike Baldwin, these words weren’t created by necessity, but rather, to make life that much simpler. New words are created all the time.When and how you use them tells people about you and your background just like your dialect can.


18 thoughts on “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?

  1. I really enjoyed how you tied in what we are learning in class to what you read in James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What is?” You’re absolutely right in saying that Baldwin shows that some people have their own language that’s different from their base language; I feel as if a dialect is specific to an individual as well as an individual region whereas a language is what connects people in a region to people within another region. It seems like we might share some of the same view, and I really like how you used so much textual support within your response too; it makes for bold and strong points that are easy to ready and comprehend.

  2. I like how you related how Baldwin interprets what a person from England would say in a black English way and how our parents or older adults interpret our words of “selfie, presh, totes, and legit.” It helped me realize what Baldwin may have been feeling when he heard the person from England speak and express what Baldwin would want to say, “Put your Business in the street.” I can relate to that personally because my mom is so into Snapchat, which is basically almost all “selfies”. So when I’m with my mom, she’ll blurt out “Selfie!”….and I just look at her like she is crazy because I feel like she should not use that word. It shows how different generations have their own language between each other. But in the end, there are always words or meanings that relate to what one is saying even if it is just said in a different way-like Baldwin realizes. One chooses to understand a word or phrase in the way he/she interprets it, and now I can see and understand why there are so many dialects and different types of speech communities that emerge all around us.

  3. You’re right. Our words are used more out of simplicity rather than necessity like Baldwin’s. In actuality, people do this all the time with all types of words. Does this mean that people are lazy? No. It’s just our way of expressing ourselves and creating different speech communities that fit our personalities and our peers. Like how you said we use words like “selfie” and “presh.” These words relate us to our generation and would seem awkward to most adults. This is what separates our speech communities within our lives.

  4. Again, the having your own language is just like having your own dialect. Certain words everyone knows what they mean while others from certain areas have words that they know what they mean and only people from that area know what they mean. I agree, some words are not used anymore, they just get phased out.

  5. I thought it was good how you incorporated a previous topic of dialect into your blog about James Baldwin’s essay, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What is”. Dialect adds to the fact that people from different groups will make different words. Also, I liked how you added that people will not always understand some words that other groups may say, and how you used Baldwin’s example of words his family made up to signify danger. You make a good point about how this generation shortens many words but they are still recognizable to the group of an older generation, which is interesting.

  6. I like how you related what we are discussing in class to Baldwin’s essay. From other people of different religions, races, cultures, etc. coming to America, we have picked up on their dialects and they have picked up on ours. I agree with you about our generation and our parents generation having different dialect. We have a whole new resource for our dialect; social media. Our parents never had that but they have sort of picked up on our social media dialect, although they probably don’t understand most of it. And I’m sure in years to come our kid’s generation will have a whole new dialect.

  7. In the reading, Baldwin states, “To open your mouth in England is (if I may use my black English) to ‘put your business in the street’: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.” I agree with this quote because your dialect can reveal your personal and social background. Because everyone has their own dialect that is different from the larger community, people are able to communicate faster and more effectively. For example, the word “selfie” was created by today’s teen generation as a shortened form for a picture of oneself. This word isn’t used as a code word for anything. It just makes it easier for teens to communicate because it is shorter. Although it is part of our teenage dialect, other people understand it, but it would be weird if they adopted the same dialect.

  8. My base language is obviously english. But I do sometimes say somethings that nobody else would ever even think of saying. But i do not say these words in a different language, they are in English. Some of the words that I say sometimes that a lot of people wouldn’t is “mad silly” and “swell.”These are actual words, I just use them more than others. My friends may also say this word sometimes because of me, but if they don’t say it, they would know what it means if they heard it. Selfie is a good example of a word that this generation has come up with. I think it is stupid, but its whatever.

  9. In my opinion, social media and technology as a whole have greatly impacted our generation. Words such as “selfie” and “legit” really wouldn’t have spread so quickly and drastically without the use of technology and social media, in one way or another. I also liked the way you explain that we each speak in our own “language” because it not the same as the base language we learn form. I also like that you said that we borrow different aspects of speech from those we meet and communicate with throughout our lives.

  10. I agree with you completely. I feel like if anyone deviates from the formality of life they are looked down upon. I feel like the differences in dialect create variation and impressions on new people creating a diverse and better place. By the suppression that started before America was still 13 colonies, on difference we still oppose indirectly the differences in how and what people say. “Baldwin’s family (and most likely generations before them) made up a word to use in case of danger.” I have an experience with my department than if something happens to our traffic control while working at a wreck then our command will understand the word and will send the department to the traffic control. One night I used this at a mutual aid call wreck and a drunk driver almost hit me while I was doing traffic for the wreck we were at. My chief was not in command and I hollered to give the guys heads up as I jumped in the ditch to dodge the car. One of our members, a sheriffs deputy began to make the driver stop and arrested him. If I had not hollered the phrase then the car could have killed my fellow firefighters.

  11. As you noted, language changes with each generation of people. Even though I’m not sure how much more the next generations can simplify the English language, but I am positive that when I am older I will not understand every slang word that is used. The example Baldwin uses with the African-American slaves is that they are from another generation people where language is opposite entirely to English. In my personal opinion, since they weren’t allowed to become educated, I think that they were purposefully trying to separate themselves from the white ethnic groups by creating their own form of English. It allowed them to feel empowered and free in that aspect of their life. As newer generations enter our world, the English will continue to evolve and change with the norms of society.

  12. Generations definitely influences the kind of language being used. Even in today’s society you can look at the age groups and see the giant distinction. The younger generation seems to use a more loose and slang filled diction. Most adults wouldn’t understand what a teenager was saying if they spoke to them as if they were their peer. The fact that Baldwin made up their own words so that his family could understand the face of danger, is a great way of revealing the differences in a region’s language and dialect.

  13. I would like to first state that I agree with you completely. It seems that the un-norm is now labeled as weird, just because its different and may provoke change. I also find it intriguing how you related the passage to what we have learned in class. It is almost as if having your own dialect is almost the save as having your own language. Overall well done on your response and you did a great job at making it relatable to the audience.

  14. I agree with you and your take on Baldwin’s piece and how when we differentiate from the standard English in some ways our dialect forms new words that make up that community. There are so many words the elderly use that are different from what young teens use now a days. Just because a dialect is different doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, because to those who identify with that specific speech community feel that the way they speak is correct and should be accepted just the same.

  15. I find it interesting that Baldwin and his family had a word that was used to show that there was danger. The word was in english, but if you weren’t apart of the family, you wouldn’t understand it. It reminds me of when I was in VA Beach. All of the surfers and skaters would use the word “weak”. They would say things like “Brah, that was so weak”. I always interpreted it as “week” and would question if something happened in a previous week. They had to explain to me what the word actually meant. It was not until the moment that I realized that “weak” meant “hilarious” that I was now included in their language community.

  16. All of this discussion about new words our generation uses like “selfie” “presh” or whatever makes me inquire as to where it all started. I just think its interesting how every 6 months,it seems like, there is a new word that “everybody” is using. I wonder how long it took for the Black English to spread around to all the slaves? Probably much longer just because they didn’t have social media back then. But then again like people said above the Black English was necessary because it protected one another from danger of the white man and it made all the slaves have an instant connection. But what about the silly words our generation comes up with? Is it really that easy to post a silly, yet catchy word on twitter, facebook, or instagram and everybody start using it?

  17. I like how you related how you use different words around your friends and such that you would not use around your parents, or would be weird for your parents to say. We all have seen on TV or somewhere that tries to use the common lingo and it just comes off as awkward and somewhat immature. I also enjoyed how Baldwin need another language so the whites could not understand him, this idea of language is crucial in some situations because it could be life or death.

  18. I enjoyed how you brought up what we learned in class and related it to the subject matter. I agree completely with how we use different words around a certain group of people. You wouldn’t talk with your parents how you would talk to your friends. I haven’t really heard of people using another language just to survive around another race or ethnicity. All in all great job.

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