Community & Government

The Triumph of Black English

Linguist John McWhorter shares the origins of Black English. Often dismissed as slang, Black English is a uniquely sophisticated form of communication with its own nuances and complexities.

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Topics include: The Origins • Evolution of The Black Sound • The Fierce Complexities of Black English • Why Black English Persevered • A Linguistic Victory

Seven preeminent Black thought leaders share their insight on the reckoning with race in America in three parts: past, present, and future.

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- This morning's hearing relates to the subject of Ebonics, which is a term derived from Ebony Black and phonics sound. There has been considerable discussion, really controversy, and concerns as to whether Ebonics is a separate language and as such undesirable, or whether it is a teaching skill and a bridge for some to perfect and learn language skills. - I think Ebonics is absurd. This is a political correctness that simply has gone out of control. - Many of the children who come to us have language systems that are not consistent with standard English. We have not taken a position as to whether it is a language. We simply acknowledge that these systems exist. [MUSIC PLAYING] - If you're taught as you are in a society like this one that default English is what I'm doing right here, then anything else seems lesser. It seems like it's, well, just a dialect, as people put it. So real language is in "The Wall Street Journal." Then there's all this other stuff that's only spoken and, you know, it's in hip hop. And well, they keep using bad words. And so especially that one, Black English especially. That's no good. That's not real. So it's the responsibility of somebody like me to explain how many sophisticated things are going on in this supposedly broken down speech. My name is John McWhorter. I teach linguistics at Columbia University. I host the podcast "Lexicon Valley." And I'm a contributing editor at "The Atlantic." Linguistics is the study not so much of what people say but how they say it. It's the scientific study of language. It's an umbrella term. You know, the idea that there's a white way of speaking and a Black way of speaking can sound like what someone like me is saying is that at first everybody talked one way, and then Black people ran off into a corner and started talking in their own way. And damn it, why don't they stop that? It wasn't anything like that. Really it's this. Black English is English because Black English is spoken here, and we're around so many English speakers. But it is something that has lasted a very long time. It is something now that has a whole history of transmogrification over the centuries. It is something that has informed what is the world's most popular music. Why in the world are people using Black English terms in New Guinea? I've heard it. I have heard people in New Guinea who don't speak a word of English but are rapping in whatever they're rapping in. And they're all sorts of words and little phrases that are from Black English spoken in the United States. They'll never meet a Black person. Or if I met them, I was the one they'll ever meet. That's it. And this is going on in China. That's a pretty amazing thing given where Black English started. The origins of Black English start with the fact that Africans are brought to the United States. And big surprise. They don't speak English at first. Africa has its own languages. And so what d...

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From critical race theory to the 1619 Project, Black intellectuals are reshaping conversations on race in America. Now seven of those preeminent voices share their insight on the reckoning with race in America in three parts: past, present, and future. Gain a foundational understanding of the history of white supremacy and discover a path forward through the limitless capacity and resilience of Black love.

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Angela Davis, Cornel West, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Sherrilyn Ifill, Jelani Cobb, and John McWhorter

Seven preeminent Black thought leaders share their insight on the reckoning with race in America in three parts: past, present, and future.

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