No more should Black English be presented largely as a dialect that leaves out this and reverses that, with specialists then wondering why the public continues to think of it as a cluster of errors and isn’t impressed that the errors are systematic. Rather, Black English must be introduced via a collection of ways in which it is more complex than Standard English, not less.
People respect complexity. People like simplicity in their music and in ways of preparing food, but in terms of grammar, not so much. Some people involved with presenting Black English to the public might wonder just what such a collection of complex features would consist of, other than the shadings of verb usage I just mentioned. The simple fact is that specialists in Black English have not been primed to seek out those features that outdo Standard English in complexity. Systematicity will intringue and stimulate academic linguistic analysis, but the public isn’t having it, so we must change the lens.
Below I will discuss five things in the dialect that demonstrate that anyone speaking Black English is doing something subtle and complex.
1. Up what?
I once had occasion to ask a black American with a solid command of Ebonics what up means in a sentence like “We was up in here havin’ a good time:’
“Well, up is the opposite of down,” she replied. That was a natural answer, since we all think of ourselves as using words according to their basic dictionary meanings. Yet quite often we don’t use them that way. Imagine you peep into a room down the hall and see your little nephew in there playing with an Etch A Sketch when you thought he was outside in the yard with the other kids. “What are you doing in here?” you ask. And yet, it’s quite clear what he’s doing: playing with that Etch A Sketch. What you mean by that sentence, phrased just that way, is why he is in there, not what he’s doing. You may not be conscious of it, but you are not using what in accordance with its basic meaning.
Up in Black English is like that. I said to the woman, “But if you think about it, you’d say ‘We was up in here havin’ a good time’ even if you were in a basement:’ She said, “Yeah, I guess so!” “So,” I continued, “what does up mean in that sentence?” Her response: “It’s just slang.” I stopped there — we were at an Outback Steakhouse; it wasn’t the occasion for linguistic analysis. But in fact, up in Black English is not just slang in the sense of being a way of saying something that you’d say a different way in Standard English, such as “Whaddup?” for “How are you?” or even finna for fixing to. Rather, up, as random as it seems, has a meaning, just like of, indeed, and Formica do. But no one has any reason to think about the meaning of a word like up, so you have to smoke the meaning out by listening to how people use it.
Here are five sentences I have overheard:
We was sittin’ up at Tony’s.
Don’t be sittin’ up in my house askin’ me where’s the money.
It was buck naked people up in my house.
I was gettin’ comfortable watchin’ TV up in the bed. I ain’t got no food up in my house.
The first thing that should be clear is that the vertical meaning of up has nothing to do with these sentences. In fact, the first three sentences came from people who lived on the first floor of their buildings. The fourth one was from someone whose bed I had not had occasion to view, but the chances that her bed was oddly high were infinitesimal — who talks about climbing “up” into bed other than the princess in “The Princess and the Pea”? I heard the fifth one from a passing stranger, but it was similarly unlikely she was referring to her residence being “up” anything. Imagine how odd it would be if you lived on the ninth floor of a building and needed to do a supermarket trip and told someone, “I don’t have any food up in my apartment.” It would sound like you actually live somewhere on the ground but for some reason keep an extra apartment up high where you stashed your groceries like some squirrel.
Linguists have yet to discover a single instance in any human language or dialect where people randomly toss a word into their conversations all the time for no reason at all, just because it just feels good to say it or because every one has mysteriously been possessed by some kind of tic. If people are using a word, it’s there for a reason, just as the ed on walked is there to mark the past and we use will in will walk to mark the future. No matter how slangy, or even profane, something sounds to us, if people are saying it all the time, it’s speech, and speech has rules.
So what is the function of this up? Up what? In this instance, up signifies that the place you’re in is familiar and comfortable. Humans can choose to have a word that expresses all kinds of things, far beyond what Standard English conveys. Some languages make you mark whether you learned something by seeing it, hearing it, surmising it, or hearing it talked about. Some languages make you mark whether something happened in the morning or the afternoon. And there is one speech variety that makes you mark when the setting you are in is one you have a sense of intimacy with, and that is Black English. Up is a marker of intimacy, just as adding ed to a verb is a marker of past action.
“We was sittin’ up at Tony’s” means that Tony is a friend of yours. To say “We was waitin’ up at the dentist’s” would be incorrect Black English, because the dentist’s office is a place you probably don’t go to that much and experience little comfort in. “It was buck-naked people up in my house” is the statement of a man who was struck by the fact that in his place of residence, the intimate space he had carved for himself in this chaotic world, there were, unexpectedly, naked persons (it had been quite a party, apparently). Because bed is comfortable, naturally one will refer to being “up” in it, especially in the long term, as this woman was referring to. To refer to not having food “up” in one’s house conveys the close, bodily aspect of having no food in one’s home.
This intimacy marker up, then, is a grammatical element. Someone who had to learn Black English would find mastering it challenging. For example, it’d be easy to say something like “I’m up in the 7-Eleven and I can’t find the Slim Jims,” when, no, not quite — You don’t know the cashier there and there’s nowhere to sit; there’s nothing “up” in the Black English sense, about a 7-Eleven. Black English up is complex — and it isn’t about leaving something out or twisting it around. It’s a nuance that Standard English cannot convey as easily and briefly. In terms of up, Black English has more going on.
It has often been written that in a sentence like “I done seen it,” done serves to mark the recent past as opposed to the more distant past. “I done drunk it” supposedly means you drank it this morning or yesterday, while you’d say “I drank it” if it was something like last month or last year.
However, this isn’t the way people actually use done. It isn’t just a random alternate way of indicating the past in general. You wouldn’t say “Last summer after they done planted tomatoes, they planted some cucumbers:’ But it isn’t because last summer was too far in the past, because you would say to someone “You done growed up!” — even though presumably the growing up happened years ago. “I done had a crush on you since you was twelve” is perfectly fine — and yet you could say this to somebody who was thirty (or seventy), referring to a crush that began eons ago.
Yet, there must be system to this done, since it is part of fluent human speech. A Black English speaker has a confident sense of whether done is being used properly or not, but figuring out just what determines what’s right and what’s wrong has thrown quite a few, myself included.
Elizabeth Dayton at the University of Puerto Rico did an interesting project where she apparently watched every black movie made from roughly She’s Gotta Have It to The Cookout and tabulated uses of done. From this, she identified that the reason done has proven so elusive is that we have been trying to assign to it descriptions based on what we expect from English, or French or Spanish, where we think about things like the perfect (have gone) versus the simple past (went). But actually, the reason done can mark things in both the recent and the distant past, but only in certain sentences in either case, is that its function is more specific than it seems. It marks counterexpectation. That is, whether it’s used in a sentence about 1973 or last week, a sentence with done is always about something the speaker finds somewhat surprising, contrary to what was expected.
“You done drunk it,” then, does not mean “You drank it a little while ago.” It could — but then you could also say “You done drunk it” about something that happened last summer. “You done drunk it” is something you would say if you left someone sitting outside with a can of soda that you expected to share with him, only to find when you got back that he had drunk the whole can. The done would convey that you hadn’t expected him to do that. But that means that you could also say “You done drunk it” if you had stashed away one can of watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher soda in the garage over the winter, looking forward to savoring it on the first hot day of the coming summer, only to find it missing on that day, and when you bring this up with your son, he turns out to have drunk it sometime last September. “You done drunk it?” you could ask — despite that it happened almost a year ago. “You done growed up!” conveys that a part of you always imagined the person as a tyke and it’s a little odd to see the person now as an adult. “I done had a crush on you since you was twelve” is something you would impart to someone as news — presumably the woman you say this to hadn’t been aware of it.
A counterexpectational marker — that may seem like bending over backwards a little. Is that really grammar? Do other languages have counterexpectational markers? Well, yes, they do! Take a tribe of people in the Amazon rain forest called the Jarawara. In their language, to say “The water is cold,” you say “Faha siri!” But if you give someone a glass of water that strikes him as extremely cold — say, for example, you give a member of the Jarawara water from a refrigerator and he, as someone who lives in the rain forest, isn’t used to water that cold — then he will say “Faha siri-makoni!” Makoni doesn’t mean “very” or “Whew!” — there are other words for those. To a Jarawara, figuring out what makoni means is as odd and challenging as it is for black (or any) Americans to nail what up means in “We was sittin’ up at Tony’s.” That’s because, when you look at how it’s used in lots of sentences, you glean that it marks the counterintuitive – a Jarawara can also use it to remark on how much bigger a Westerner’s shoes turn out to be than his feet, or how an ant was walking in an odd way on a leaf.
That’s one of endless examples worldwide. Like Jarawara, Black English has a clear and frequently used way of indicating the counterexpectational with a little marker: makoni in the Amazon, done in Atlanta. But done is not used that way in Standard English. Here, as with up, Black English has more going on.
3. Narrative had
Some languages have a verb tense that you use when you’re telling stories. Swahili is one of them. The word I is ni. The word eat is kula. The present tense is na. So to say “I am eating,” you say “ni-na-kula.” To say “I ate,” you use the past tense marker, li — ni-li-kula means “I ate.” But if you’re telling a story about how you sat down and picked up a fork and you were eating when the wind blew out one of your windows, then you use a different marker, ka. You would say “ni-ka-kula.”
That’s called a narrative tense, and it seems rather nice from a distance. But actually, Americans are surrounded by the same thing, because Black English has a narrative tense marker. Those speaking Black English use had in narratives. Here is a real-life example, from a ten-year-old boy describing a scuffle: ‘”Cause when he hit me like this, he had upper-cut me like that, and then he had hit me like that. He had kicked me, it was half-wrestling and then, one, I was tired, then he just beat me, and push me down, that’s when he had push me down.”
It can be strange to the uninitiated to hear this usage of had. My cousins used it quite fluently when I was a kid, and I remember that when I first noticed it, I felt as if they never quite got to the point when they recounted things at length. “Okay, so all that had happened, but what finally did happen?” But after a while I realized that the use of had did not signal a coming finale — it was telling the story itself. It’s that way with the ten-year-old’s narrative: “That’s when he had push me down” is the conclusion, not a prelude to “. . .upon which my friend came and grabbed him. . .(etc.).”
The narrative had sounds like a flub, no doubt. In Standard English, had is used only for the pluperfect, or “past of the past”: “She had already closed the door, and so the cat couldn’t get in.” However, had is used that way in Black English, as well; it’s just that had has a double function. In this way, a person using Black English happens to arrange the “furniture” differently than someone would in Standard English. Nor is Black English slovenly in the use of had to convey two different meanings. That occurs in Standard English, too. Did you ever notice that putting an s on the end of something can mean either plural or possessive? Dogs or dog’s — to the ear, they are the same; the apostrophe is just on paper. Yet we have no trouble keeping the two meanings apart. “Have you seen Peter?” we ask, but the have in that sentence has nothing to do with what have is supposed to mean, as in “I have a new book:’ We don’t think twice about it. In Black English, had moonlights in the same way.
This means that, like Swahili, Black English has a narrative tense: The narrative had is grammar. For Black English speakers, the one phrase “Now, what had happened was. . .” is a running in-joke, associated with someone trying to worm their way out of some kind of jam, and is often thought of as a self-standing expression. Less obvious is that this phrase is an example of a general way of using had in reference to anything happening in the past, which is exactly the kind of thing that distinguishes Black English from Standard English. More to the point, this use of had is one more way in which Black English has more going on than Standard English. . .
–excerpted from Talking Back, Talking Black
Jack McWhorter teaches linguistics, Western civilization, music history, and American studies at Columbia University. His books on language include The Power of Babel, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, What Language Is, The Language Hoax, and Words on the Move.