Black English Vernacular, Linguistics, and Bible Interpretation
This is an advanced-level linguistics post for those who have actually been reading my others on the topic over the years. It may scare neophytes away, but I urge you to contact me before dismissing my argument.
I apologize for the cusswords in this post, but I’ll start with a playground-level justification for them: he said them first, not me; I’m just repeating them. And now a serious one: I’m afraid the cusswords are important to help make my point—a point very, very worth getting even and especially for Bible interpreters.
That point is this: language and social class get mixed up unhelpfully all the time among English speakers who talk about language, and disentangling them will help you take an important step toward a linguistic clarity you need as a Bible interpreter.
To be specific, educated white English speakers typically regard “Black English Vernacular” with barely disguised moral disdain. They believe that BEV is not just grammatically wrong but morally wrong. Almost none, however, have ever consciously analyzed BEV. They have, if they have enough experience with it, unconsciously analyzed it—and it has not been found wanting. What do I mean? I mean that BEV is perfectly intelligible—and replicable by anyone who has that talent, and I don’t just mean the accent. BEV is, in fact, perfectly grammatical. It’s just a different grammar from the one taught in American schools. Mix in the factors of social class, of ethnic background, of centuries of cultural history; mix in the fact that white disdain often extends further than the linguistic arena (despite our repeated insistences as a culture that we’re past all that), and the fact that the great majority of those with the power to reward you financially disdain BEV too… and you have a potent mess.
The cusswords you’re about to read will provoke a negative reaction in almost all my readers, I’m certain. But don’t let them blind you to the linguistic point. Let them be a reminder to you, every time they pop up, that you’re supposed to be noticing something: the complex, self-consistent grammar of BEV.
The following is an extended quotation from The Language Instinct:
The myth that nonstandard dialects of English are grammatically deficient is widespread. In the 1960s some well-meaning educational psychologists announced that American black children had been so culturally deprived that they lacked true language and were confined instead to a “non-logical mode of expressive behavior.” The conclusions were based on the students’ shy or sullen reactions to batteries of standardized tests. If the psychologists had listened to spontaneous conversations, they would have rediscovered the commonplace fact that American black culture is everywhere highly verbal; the subculture of street youths in particular is famous in the annals of anthropology for the value placed on linguistic virtuosity. Here is an example, from an interview conducted by the linguist William Labov on a stoop in Harlem. The interviewee is Larry, the roughest member of a teenage gang called the Jets. (Labov observes in his scholarly article that “for most readers of this paper, first contact with Larry would produce some fairly negative reactions on both sides.”)
You know, like some people say if you’re good an’ s***, your spirit goin’ t’heaven…’n’ if you bad, your spirit goin’ to hell.
Well, b***s***! Your spirit goin’ to hell anyway, good or bad.
Why? I’ll tell you why. ’Cause, you see, doesn’ nobody really know that it’s a God, y’know, ’cause I mean I have seen black gods, white gods, all color gods, and don’t nobody know it’s really a God. An’ when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ t’heaven, that’s b***s***, ’cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven, ’cause it ain’t no heaven for you to go to.
[…jus’ suppose that there is a God, would he be white or black?]
He’d be white, man.
Why? I’ll tell you why. ’Cause the average whitey out here got everything, you dig? And the nigger ain’t got s***, y’know? Y’understan’? So—um—for—in order for that to happen, you know it ain’t no black God that’s doin’ that b***s***.
First contact with Larry’s grammar may produce negative reactions as well, but to a linguist it punctiliously conforms to the rules of the dialect called Black English Vernacular (BEV). The most linguistically interesting thing about the dialect is how linguistically uninteresting it is: if Labov did not have to call attention to it to debunk the claim that ghetto children lack true linguistic competence, it would have been filed away as just another language. Where Standard American English (SAE) uses there as a meaningless dummy subject for the copula, BEV uses it as a meaningless dummy subject for the copula (compare SAE’s There’s really a God with Larry’s It’s really a God). Larry’s negative concord (You ain’t goin’ to no heaven) is seen in many languages, such as French (ne…pas). Like speakers of SAE, Larry inverts subjects and auxiliaries in nondeclarative sentences, but the exact set of the sentence types allowing inversion differs slightly. Larry and other BEV speakers invert subjects and auxiliaries in negative main clauses like Don’t nobody know; SAE speakers invert them only in questions like Doesn’t anybody know? and a few other sentence types. BEV allows its speakers the option of deleting copulas (If you bad); this is not random laziness but a systematic rule that is virtually identical to the contraction rule in SAE that reduces He is to He’s, You are to You’re, and I am to I’m. In both dialects, be can erode only in certain kinds of sentences. No SAE speaker would try the following contractions:
Yes he is! > Yes he’s!
I don’t care what you are. > I don’t care what you’re.
Who is it? > Who’s it?
For the same reasons, no BEV speaker would try the following deletions:
Yes he is! > Yes he!
I don’t care what you are. > I don’t care what you.
Who is it? > Who it?
Note, too, that BEV speakers are not just more prone to eroding words. BEV speakers use the full forms of certain auxiliaries (I have seen), whereas SAE speakers usually contract them (I’ve seen). And as we would expect from comparisons between languages, there are areas in which BEV is more precise than standard English. He be working means that he generally works, perhaps that he has a regular job; He working means only that he is working at the moment that the sentence is uttered. In SAE, He is working fails to make that distinction. Moreover, sentences like In order for that to happen, you know it ain’t no black God that’s doin’ that b***s*** show that Larry’s speech uses the full inventory of grammatical paraphernalia that computer scientists struggle unsuccessfully to duplicate (relative clauses, complement structures, clause subordination, and so on), not to mention some fairly sophisticated theological argumentation.
I believe young black boys in my neighborhood, the ones attending our church ministries, need to be taught the SAE that our local Cherrydale Elementary School is trying to inculcate in them. I believe that because it will be difficult for them to climb out of poverty if they do not become, as it were, bilingual. (I believe the technical term for this kind of bilingualism is “code-switching.” ) This is no problem for Spanish-speaking kids. They know that SAE is different from what they speak at home. BEV is also different from SAE, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. When we treat BEV as wrong, a deformed and degenerate version of SAE, we miss an opportunity to grant clarity to our own linguistics and, more importantly, to the future of young black boys and girls.
I’m stepping out on a limb here, because I don’t know how to explain this to a fourth-grader, but I do know that the teacher needs to understand clearly that ain’t most definitely is a word. To say it isn’t is to say that BEV is not a human language, and it’s to unnecessarily insult his parents and his whole community. The incredibly gifted linguist John McWhorter is right:
Black English is as systematic as standard English, and what we hear as “mistakes” are just variations, not denigrations. Try telling a French person that double negatives are “illogical.” The “unconjugated” be in a sentence like Folks be tryin’ it out is used in a very particular way to indicate habits rather than current events, making explicit something that standard English leaves to context.
Real quickly: what does this have to do with Bible interpretation? The Bible was written in human languages, and some authors—I can speak with some authority about the New Testament writers, at least—use a higher, more difficult language than others. It would be extremely difficult if not impossible to get a feel for the variations in ancient Κοίνη Greek that is equal to the feel we have for variations in contemporary English. But those variations were surely there in Greek as they are here in English. I’m not saying that parts of the NT were written in the ancient equivalent of ebonics; I’m saying that even one “language” can come in very distinct varieties—varieties spoken at the same time and mutually intelligible within the same society. A given BEV speaker may have a virtuosic command of his dialect or not, but to suggest that his language is morally substandard is not too far from saying to the person clad in lowly raiment, “Sit here under my footstool.” And all the objections I’ve ever heard to BEV merely reveal that the objector doesn’t understand language. Don’t be a respecter of dialects.