Few large groups of English speakers have borne as great a burden of stigma as black people. In the time of slavery, that stigma was enshrined in law—and even after emancipation, legal measures have been used to ensure that black people could not easily vote, could not access decent education and transportation, and so on. Since the civil rights era, many legal barriers to equality have been removed, but society has yet to catch up. As of the second decade of the twenty-first century, black people are almost five times as likely to be jailed as white people, despite making up only 13 percent of the population. It’s not surprising, then, that the dialect many black people speak is stigmatized, too—to such a great extent that it’s often denied the status of dialect, becoming merely “bad” English. That assumption has become so ingrained, it’s even taken up by some black people themselves.
“There is no such thing as ‘talking white’ … It’s actually called ‘speaking fluently,’ speaking your language correctly. I don’t know why we’ve gotten to a place where as a culture—as a race—if you sound as though you have more than a fifth-grade education, it’s a bad thing.” This was the argument of a young black woman whose video on the subject went viral in 2014. In her view, speaking what linguists call African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is not speaking “fluent” English. It is bad English—the kind of English that should be dispensed with by the time you’re eleven years old. As the journalist Jamelle Bouie wrote about the video, “the … ideas that black Americans disparage ‘proper English’ and education and use a ‘broken’ version of the language have wide currency among many Americans, including blacks.”
The funny thing is, most English-speaking people, wherever they live, are to some extent familiar with AAVE. That’s because of the powerful projection of black culture through movies and music, including the massive popularity of hip-hop. Despite being stigmatized in America itself, the dialect has cachet around the world, though arguably that’s because it’s seen as “edgy”—romanticized as the argot of gangsters and drug dealers. So when Britons or Australians read phrases like “I ain’t lyin,” “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it,” “He be workin’ hard,” they can identify the speaker as likely being black; they can conjure up the accent and intonation in their minds’ ear. Read More