Is black English a distinct language? This is the question which James Baldwin addresses in his 1979 essay “If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” Baldwin first asserts that the status or use of black English is deeply rooted in American history and rests in the role of language in society. The way a speaker utilizes and manipulates a language both "reveals the speaker" and defines him.
Throughout history, people have used language so that they are not "submerged" in a reality without the ability to articulate their experiences. By being able to describe one's circumstances, one gains a greater chance of surviving and succeeding. Baldwin then points to people living in various regions of the world which are French-speaking, from Paris to Quebec to Martinique, and states that since each region presents its own "very different realities," each of these speakers would have difficulty understanding each other even though their base language is the same. The experience shapes the language itself.
Language, then, carries political weight. It has the power to bind people together in a common and shared experience, and it has the power to divorce people who stand outside that commonality. Baldwin again looks to Europe and notes that in England, to open one's mouth is to "put your business in the street." The subtle nuances in British English betrays “your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.”
Baldwin argues that black English has significantly influenced Standard American English, but not in the ways white people always consider. For example, the term “jazz” existed as a sexual term in the black community before white people "purified" it during the Jazz Age. Baldwin also points to the Beat Generation’s appropriation of the concept of being “beat,” which refers to poverty. Beat figures were "uptight, middle-class white people" trying to imitate the poverty and “funk” of the black community—an act which black people themselves could not comprehend.
Baldwin looks to history for examples of the powerlessness of people who do not share a language. He notes that when slaves were brought to America, they were chained together but, given their disparate origins, lacked any means of communicating. This allowed the institution of slavery to last much longer than it would have otherwise. Slaves began to come together under the formation of the black church and in that context devise a shared tongue. As in the formation of any language, the rules of that new language were dictated by what it was required to convey.
By way of example, Baldwin recalls times in his own past when his parents or siblings needed to convey to him the imminent danger he faced from white people "just behind [him]," and they did so with both a speed and with subtle nuances of language which made comprehension impossible for white people. Baldwin further argues that white people cannot "afford" to understand...
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