Black English Vernacular, Linguistics, and Bible Interpretation

by Jun 27, 2014Linguistics5 comments

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.

Photo by dan lundmark

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.

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  1. Bill Lowry

    But don’t you realize, Mark, that if I don’t understand (or agree with the use of) the language in question, it just has to be morally wrong! This sounds very much like the old arguments for the KJV and against any kind of current English usage translation. Or is that missing your point?

    • Mark Ward

      I’m not completely sure I’m following you, Bill. And since you’ve brought up the sensitive matter of the KJV, I wonder if you’d care to give it another go?

      I’m not really arguing for contemporary Bible translations here, except very obliquely. But it’s true that if we start to see with clarity both the (minor) differences and the (vast) similarities between contemporary BEV and SAE, we are likely to see with greater clarity the (comparatively greater, I would argue) differences and the (comparatively smaller) similarities between contemporary SAE and whatever abbreviation you choose for English as spoken and written in 17th-century Britain. A language will differ between groups—from South African English to Singaporean English to Mumbai English to SAE—just as it differs between time periods (and groups within that time period).

      I really do come to the end of every post I write on language just marveling at God’s creative power. Language is so cool!

      • Bill Lowry

        I was being facetious with the comment about the immorality of a dialect (or more specifically, it’s grammar). I just cannot figure out how a dialect can be immoral. Parts of it may be immoral, such as the words used for cursing in it. But I do think that we are on thin ice to say that God somehow placed His blessing on Greek or Hebrew, or even Elizabethan English, as the only way He could have expressed His Word. The original Biblical languages, only because they are original, are obviously the most accurate. But God could have used other languages and dialects if He so chose. If I understand some KJV advocates correctly, they insist that the KJV English wording and syntax is the only way to express God’s ideas. I heard this a couple of times on deputation and furlough and it took me back a bit. They did not really practice their own preaching because they used modern syntax to express their ideas in their sermons. So they seemed to be saying that one must quote the KJV, but then went on to explain it in SEV for understanding. So why could BEV not come to that point? Could BEV develop to the point where Biblical concepts might be expressed in this dialect with understanding? Though I would not go so far to say that one must have a version in BEV (similar to the Cotton Patch Version, I guess). Or do some think that this dialect has no possibility in the direction of teaching the Bible?
        Finally, I agree with you that language is fascinating!

  2. Mark Ward

    No one should object, in principle, to a Bible translation which uses a different form of English from SAE—one which characteristically elides certain copulas SAE doesn’t, one which abbreviates auxiliaries in a way SAE doesn’t. Modern English Bible translations all use a different form of English than that spoken in 1611.

    But the full cultural reality of BEV and its relationship to SAE is more complicated than syntactical features, and part of that reality, it seems to me, is that BEV speakers and SAE speakers do in fact understand each other just fine. In all my pastoral work in West Greenville, I’ve never run into a BEV speaker who seemed confused by the way my syntax differed from his. So I guess a BEV translation would be unnecessary at this point—but not a future impossibility. John McWhorter has pointed out that the definition of “a language” is itself often cultural. If BEV speakers began to feel that they spoke a language fully different from SAE, they might be led to produce a new Bible translation.

    I always feel awkward and uncomfortable talking about the ethnic differences and tensions I’ve inherited here in America, and in the South. But I hope any fair-minded reader coming across this post and the comments can sense that I mean to accord a respect to BEV that it doesn’t usually get. I’m not emphasizing difference for the sake of exclusion but for the sake of honor. There really is something beautiful about the way different groups put their own spin on English. SAE happens to be the language of the dominant group—numerically and culturally—in America. There are more SAE speakers than BEV speakers in the U.S., and only one of those forms of the language is used on the nightly news. But there’s nothing intrinsic to SAE which makes its dominance logical or necessary. It’s an accident of history. We can’t divorce the feel of BEV or of SAE from our experiences with its speakers. But that won’t be the case for archaeologists of the distant future. They will see the syntactical differences of SAE and BEV with a dispassionateness none of their current speakers can muster.

    • Bill Lowry

      Well said, Mark. The feel we have for our native tongue is not wrong. But we ought not think it is THE language. As you said, “But there’s nothing intrinsic to SAE which makes it dominance logical or necessary.” And thanks for a blog I always enjoy reading.
      I also realized I used the wrong initials. I used SEV (for which I meant Standard English Vernacular) for your SAE (Standard American English).