Friday, December 4, 2009

Black English

ACU Men’s Basketball: A Case Study in Black English
I have played organized basketball since I was six years old and was first eligible to play through a YMCA team.  Because the zoning rules that the YMCA used to create the teams, I was placed on a team that consisted of two Caucasian players and ten African American players.  This was the beginning of my lifelong education in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) (p.195).  I continued to be one of only a few white players on my basketball teams throughout my life.  I have noticed that Black English has the unique ability to remake itself completely in a short amount of time.  The AAVE that I observed when I first joined ACU basketball team is completely different from the AAVE that I observe now.  These changes seem to be fueled by Caucasians and which AAVE slang they choose to adopt into their own slang.  The story of the ACU basketball team demonstrates the quick changing nature of AAVE as well as the motivating factors behind its changes.
                  Despite the changing nature of Black English it does have certain constants.  Over the past four years the basketball team has seen well over thirty different players enter and exit.  Of those thirty, nearly twenty of them were African American.  Each player brought with him a unique set of phrases and words that were common to the area in which he was raised.  The team has seen players from California, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.  The introduction of each new player brought about a complete change and revamp of the teams AAVE lingo.  The teammates adopted certain phrases from each player and created a hybrid of all the different regional dialects.  Of course there were certain constants such as the deletion of coupling verbs in instances where a contraction can be made like in the phrase “They busy” which is the AAVE equivalent of “They’re busy”  (p.198). 
Another commonality was the cadence of the language.  In AAVE the first word or short phrase that is spoken is drawn out longer than it would be in Standard American English (SAE) and is usually in exclamation or interjection spoken with heavy emphasis.  The rest of the sentence is expressed in a normal or slightly faster than normal rhythm.  In the phrase “Yo, who dat is” the word “yo” is drawn out much longer than normal and is followed by a pause that adds even more emphasis and “who dat is” is spoken very fast.  This is the most common archetype for an AAVE sentence and even works with short phrases as the opening exclamation such as in the phrase “My nigga, lemme tell you bout las night.”  This and a few other grammatical and pronunciation differences such as the absense of interdental fricatives and consonant cluster reduction rule (p. 196) were shared commonalities between all the players on the ACU team over the years.
The hybrid language that my African American and even a few African teammates changed over the years, not only at the beginning of each summer when the new recruits were brought in for workouts, but even within the school year and basketball season itself.  Phrases and words were adopted and dropped throughout the year.  The phrases and pronunciation came from a variety of sources; some phrases seemed to be carryovers from the differing regions, but the new jargon that sprouted during the season was often adopted from popular rap/hip-hop songs and “black” movies such as ATL and All About the Benjamins.  Often in rap/hip-hop songs an artist will alter the pronunciation of emphasis of a word or phrase to help it better fit in the rhyme scheme of the song, and the fact that many of the players on my team adopted their lingo from songs facilitated them adopting their unique pronunciations of words.  Lil’ Wayne is one of the most popular and influential hip-hop artists when it comes to the generation of new phrases and pronunciations.  In the song “Swagga Like Us” he says, “No one on the corner has swagger like moi (French pronunciation mw-ah), Church/ But I’m too clean for these boys.”  The word “boys” is pronounced “bois” (bow-ahs) like the French word moi.  This song was quite popular this year and to this day the black members and a few of the white members of the ACU basketball team pronounce the word boy as /bow-ah/.
Another recently acquired element of language among the members of the ACU Team is a couple of different phrases that involve the word subliminal.  The context where the word was first heard was after one member of the team made a subtle jab at two-year teammate Ian Wagner.  Ian responded by saying, “I see you hitting me with that subliminal.”  The phrase and its derivatives, such as “Brooks, I see you getting subliminal,” was then became a common expression to refer to situations when subtlety was used in language or action.  It is most used in situations where humor is in play in the conversation, but it is not bound to that constraint.  It replaced the phrase “I see you coming at me on the sly” which was directed at a person who was subtly making fun of the speaker.
The main reason that the phrase “I see you coming at me on the sly” fell from common usage with my teammates was that it had been adopted and commonly used by a number of white teammates on my team.  They had taken that element of language that was formerly reserved solely for usage for the Black members of the team and had learned how to use it and adopted it into their own language.  AAVE has its roots in the black church that was formed on slave plantations (Baldwin).  He said they did not just acquire a new language, but “transformed ancient elements into a new language” (Baldwin).  Another quote from James Baldwin that helps explains the elimination of words and phrases from AAVE is that “A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey” (Baldwin).  He explains that slaves often needed to explain in English that one of their fellow slaves was in danger in such a way that the white man could not understand.  The laws of Black English allow for quick changes in meanings and pronunciation because it allows the language to remain foreign to white SAE speakers.  My teammates dropped the phrases that me and my other white teammates adopted, because it was no longer solely there language.  The heritage of their language had taught them that their AAVE needed to be only for African Americans because its origins were based on self-defense from white people.  The video “black slang” makes fun of this fact in the instance of white American’s adoption of the AAVE use of “brother” to refer to someone who is not family.  The comedian jokes that African Americans had to change to using “cousin” and “son” in the same context because white people had stolen the work “brother” (topgal).
The ACU basketball team is a perfect example of way the Black English or AAVE is able to change and adapt to the point of completely revamping itself in a short period of time.  Rap/hip-hop artists as well as popular “black” movies aid in the generation of new phrases, words, and pronunciations.  As white culture continues to adopt elements of AAVE into mainstream usage the black culture will have to continue to remake its language to keep it solely theirs.  The ACU basketball team has managed to due so despite the increasing ease with which American culture continues to pick up their language.


Michael Chase Spain said...

Wow. Well, I can say the harvesting of "interdental fricatives" was worth the price of admission. Thanks for sharing, brother ;-)

Michael Chase Spain said...

Missing your blog writings, Brooksie. Of course, you're probably producing writing for the end of your semester. Hang in there and don't abandon your 100 Days completely. What a tragedy that would be! Success is measured by how many times we get up, not by how often we fall.