African Language Construction in America: "Bad English" or African Language Carryover?
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Course
Kamau Makesi-Tehuti (Marshall D. Edwards)
December 6th, 1999
Kathryn Kohnert, Instructor
African people were stolen from their homes and forced to live in the New World dungeon called America. Many have now forgotten the ways of their Ancestors; this forgetfulness includes language… or does it? It is the purpose of this paper to possible add to what some scholars have already concluded: that the African in America is more African than American and one definite way to prove this is through their West African Language system carryovers, even after 500 years of colonization and de-Africanization.
The present population of so-called African Americans originates from the continent now called Africa. This is beyond debate. What has been more debated is what came with us through the boat ride and what if anything still persists after 500 years of foreign subjugation and domination? The media debacle known as the Oakland Ebonics debate brought this question to the fore.
While writers of fiction and entertainers with Black skin rushed to the cameras to denounce Ebonics as "bad English," and/or something we should move away from, most linguists agreed that this was an acceptable way of communicating for this African group unfortunately raised in America. However, for a myriad of reasons, the former view got ALL of the media airplay and the latter position was hushed into oblivion.
Ebonics, short for Ebony Phonics is the normal and natural way of speaking for the overwhelming majority of Africans here in America. This writer, however, does not like this phrase because it does not get to the heart of the matter. Therefore, this writer will utilize the term W.A.L.S.- West African Language System. This removes it from the dialect level of so-called "Black English" and labels it a language in and of itself, while also giving acknowledgement of its place of origin thereby explicitly showing continuity even after 500 years. Proof of this continuity has been displayed most in-depth by Ms. Geneva Smitherman, Professor of English from Michigan from her works, Black Talk, Talkin' and Testifyin': The Language of Black America, and other numerous journal articles.
When one looks at the languages that most Africans were speaking before the Grand Pilfering Project, we will see they consist of "Wolof, Bambara, Vai, Ga, Yoruba, Ibo, Malinke, Fula, Twi, Ewe, Bini, Efik, Mandinka, Mende, Fante, Fon, Hausa, Kongo, Umbundu, Kimbindu among others that are grouped as the Niger-Congo language family group" (Ebonics debate video). From this family group, there are certain grammatical rules that they utilize. When compared to patterns of speech of Africans in America-present day- these same patterns from the W.A.L.S. persist; only the use of English words are different. For example, a W.A.L.S. grammar rule is the repetition of the noun subject with pronouns. We see the carryover in the phrase, "My father, he work there."; another rule is the use of the same form of noun for singular and plural, its carryover is "one boy, five boy"; we see the same verb form used for all subjects and this is continued in America as, "I know, you know, he know, we know, they know." There are even sound rule carryovers. W.A.L.S have few consonant clusters or pairs which lead to the pronunciation of just, west, best, land, sand as jus, wes, bes, lan, san here. A lot of the systems we spoke did not have /th/ or /r/ sounds so words more, store, than, then have consistently been pronounced mo', sto', den, and dan. (Smitherman, 6-7). Ms. Smitherman explains the major argument of this paper this way:
African slaves in America initially developed a pidgin, a language of transaction, that was used in communication between themselves and whites. Over the years, the pidgin gradually became widespread… and became a creole… [T]his lingo involved the substitution of English words for West African words but within the same basic structure and idiom that characterized West African Language patterns…. syntactical structure and idiomatic rules…[are usually the items] of a language that remains relatively rigid and fixed over time (5-6). Grammar is the most rigid and fixed aspect of speech, that part of any language which is least likely to change over time (18).
So from there, this writer goes farther than even Ms. Smitherman in that since language, as a general construct, manifests itself at its deepest levels unconsciously and without having to be explicitly taught, this area highly suggests that the African population in America is unconsciously more African than American even after 500 years of Euro-American culture, styles of living and language.
Participants were high school and college educated Africans in America. Fourteen students were tested in all, Twelve were female and two were male and they ranged from fourteen to fifty-eight years of age. The participant's education ranged from freshmen to Africans with 3 years of college.
The stimulus used was a questionnaire consisting of twenty sentences grouped in blocks of two to give multiple examples of certain W.A.L.S. rules. (see Appendix).
The participants were asked to read the question block and told not to circle yes or no according to if they had said the exact phrases listed; they were told if they had ever used the general form of the phrases listed, to answer accordingly.
The results were looked at from individual and collective aspects. From the individual level, six of the fourteen participants answered yes to all ten questions. Five answered yes more than no, one was even five a piece and only two answered more no's than yes (both four yes and six no). Therefore eleven of fourteen (79%) of those tested were consistent with their original W.A.L.S.
Collectively, or when looking at specific questions, all fourteen had more yes answers than no, with none being lower than nine yes to 5 no answers-being questions five and six, respectfully. Question two received thirteen yes answers to one no response and question ten had twelve yes responses to two no's. This also shows that the participants are overwhelmingly unconsciously activating their "inherent" African language knowledge even with their Western education.
Regarding the question, "Do you have any African friends in America who speak like this?" all except one answered yes. Regarding if they felt this way of speaking was "bad" English or a natural communication style, twelve felt it was not "bad" English but a natural communication style, while two had comments. One stated that "this type of English separates us from other people," and another stated, "if that is the only way you know how to speak, then it is very limiting."
"No displaced people [have] ever completely lost the forms of their previous culture" (Asante, 4).
The findings were not surprising. There was a lot of laughing when participants read the questionnaire and some questioned, "Do I really speak like that?" A few felt that this type of speaking was "slang" and this writer felt that way on some of the items to a degree also. After doing some research and this empirical study, I no longer feel that way. The majority of our language expressions has followed us from our place of origin and has stubbornly stayed with us to this day. I am sure that if this study was replicated among a larger grouping, Western educated or not, the results would remain the same- we still speak consistent to our W.A.L.S.
When [B]lacks use [these and other expressions], the lingo is negatively assigned the status of "street or hip" talk- in other words slang. Yet in the native African languages, these are not considered slang expressions. This would suggest that many of the terms in Black Semantics [and our way of communicating in general] have been or are improperly labeled and misperceived by [B]lacks as well as whites not hip to the source of soul talk (Smitherman, 45).
Asante, Molefi Kete (1975). African and African American Communication Continuities. New York, NY: Self-Published Manuscript.
Carruthers, Dr. Jacob and Smith, Dr. Ernie (1998). "The Ebonics Debate." New York, NY: Videocassette.
Smitherman, Dr. Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. (1998). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
HAVE YOU EVER SAID ANY OF THE FOLLOWING IN ANY WAY?
b. I ain't done nothin' with nobody?
b. You need to be getting' outta my face!Y/N
3. Have you seen those people? Yes, I have seen dem.
b. After I got home, den I turned on the light.Y/N
b. Man, I failed that damn tes.Y/N
5. Chante Moore and Anita Baker can sang!!
b. Look at Miss Thang over there.Y/N
6. Baby wait, I was gon tell you about Shaniqua.
b. You missed her, she gon.Y/N
7. Hey, shut yo' mouf!!!
b. "Back that a*# up" is booty music from the Souf.Y/N
8. I am full. I can't eat no mo'.
b. Do you want anything? I am goin' to the sto'.Y/N
9. Oh, he a big balla now.
b. They daddy in the house.Y/N
10. She been late every day this week.
Age___________ Year of schooling_________________ M/F____
Do you have other Afrikan in america(A.K.A. Black) friends who speak like this? Y/N________
Do you feel that this is "bad" English or a natural way of speaking? Y/N___________
Additional comments: ___________________________________________________________
Each question responded to a specific W.A.L.S. rule.
Question one dealt with the principle of negation and the use of "done" (Smitherman 23-26).
Question two dealt with the use of the form "be" for all tenses. "The verb systems of Efik and Ewe …Twi and Igbo-all Niger- Congo languages… exhibit a similar lack of inflection to show time. Past, present and sometimes future time are indicated by context rather than by verbal inflection" (Asante, 9-10). Also, "It has been found that there is no distinction between past and present indefinite forms of the verb among Yoruba speakers" (18).
Question three dealt with the non-use of /th/ sounds in the initial position.
Question four dealt with the non-use of consonant blends/clusters in the final position.
Question five dealt with "vowel plus /ng/ rendered as /ang/ (Smitherman, 18).
Question six dealt with the use of "gone" in different constructs. Context defines tense versus verb form. "No tense indicated in verb, emphasis on manner or character of action" (7).
Question seven dealt with the non-use of the /th/ sound in the final position. "Most W.A.L.S. do not have consonant blends. The majority of their systems are C,V,C,V with some exceptions" (Ebonics video).
Question eight dealt with the non-use of the /r/ sound.
Question nine dealt with the absence of the "be" form, while focusing on context.
Question ten dealt with the use of "been" in different tense constructs.
Other areas of W.A.L.S. continuity that both Asante and Smitherman, among others, express are the emphasis on tonality, the call and response construct, and the emphasis on orality or being expressive through speech.