The myth of “proper” English – How the ban on Black British English continues a colonial tradition of linguistic injustice

By Oyin Makinde & Eve Doran

Upon learning about the ‘language ban’ of Black British English (BBE) at Ark All Saints Academy, BLAM UK wrote an open letter detailing the harm caused by such practices and demanding the removal of it. In response, we received a short letter that ignored and misidentified language discrimination against Black British English (BBE) speakers.

The idealisation of Standard English, which we refer to as white mainstream English, that we experience today has been formulated over many years. In this article, we will cover how historically and currently, intentional practices are used to privilege standardised English and undermine BBE. To first understand what we mean when referring to BBE and Black Language, read our blog – Black languages throughout the Diaspora – BLAM UK CIC and Exploring Black Languages, a quick look at AAVE (African American Vernacular English).  

The myth of ‘proper’ English

The Middle English creole hypothesis, as it is known among linguists, provides evidence that English itself is a creole language. English is a mix of French, Latin, Celtic English and Western Germanic dialects. English borrowed many words from Old Norse following the Viking invasion and French was the official language of England after the Norman Conquest of 1066 by William the Conqueror of France until 1362. Prolonged contact between the two languages and the grammatical simplification of Middle English in comparison to Old English reinforce English’s position as a creole.  

The “proper” English which forms the standardised English imposed in our classrooms today was designed by a BBC committee in the 1920s. The non-regional accent reflected a small aristocratic minority in Southern England, it was a further 20 years before the broadcasters would allow a regional (Yorkshire) accent on the air. Hundreds of years prior, the English tried to stamp out Welsh and Gaelic knowing that gaining control over a group of people who kept a strong sense of self would be challenging. This implicitly recognised the relationship between language and identity and became a tool used across the English colonies. It is an example of English linguistic imperialism – enforcing the dominance of English by continuously upholding structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages.

Language control and the cultural bomb

Ngũgĩ̃ wa Thiongʼo, the renowned Kenyan author, maintains in his book Decolonising the mind that the English language is an instrument of “spiritual subjugation” and native language should be embraced instead. He also believes that children learning through the colonial language will be forced to adopt the Eurocentric view of history that is told through the colonists’ viewpoint and presents images of what is civilised or barbaric. These negative images become internalised and association with their native language and culture becomes a source of embarrassment. (1986) He believes the enforcement of English acts as the wielding of a cultural bomb to: 

‘…annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of nonachievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own’ (p.3) 

The new canon

Through Black British English, young Black Brits are taking back control of their language, and instead of encouraging them, schools are following historical patterns of linguistic injustice. April Baker-Bell (2020) dispels the myth that standard English is “the way educated people talk” and explores how Anti-Black Linguistic Racism persecutes Black-language speakers. She promotes linguistic justice as a way to centre the linguistic, cultural, racial, intellectual, and self-confidence needs of Black students. 

Black British English has been showcased by renowned poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah whose uncompromising use of the collectively created language reflects the themes of resistance in their work, would the language ban apply to them? In 2018 Stormzy and Penguin Random House UK launched #MerkyBooks (award-winning imprint) with a clear aim – to publish books that will own and change the mainstream. Merky books are an inclusive and intersectional home to voices from untraditional spaces. It exists to break down barriers in the publishing industry. Merky Books are bringing the viral story Keisha the Sket to print, a book that’s language disrupts what is usually considered worthy of being in book form – ‘For so many of us Black Brits, the anonymous writer of Keisha The Sket – Jade LB – is as fundamental to the canon as Shakespeare or Dickens.’ (Gal-dem

Don’t say innit!

The policing of language is not exclusive to bans, but through tests and punishments pupils also are taught to reject the legitimacy of their bilingualism. The Ark All Saints Academy indirect language ban highlights the multiple ways in which linguistic discrimination takes place. From the research of Dr Ian Cushing he found teachers would often use statements like ‘[speak] properly’ when nonstandard English was used in lessons.

Together with this, tests are weaponised to reinforce the primacy of Standard English and conformity. An example Mr Cushing uses is a question from an English paper in 2017 where pupils were asked to identify which statement was in the correct form. “One option, ‘we was waiting in the playground’” was classed as wrong even though it would be accepted in multiple nonstandard forms (Cheshire & Fox 2009; Levey 2012). Naturally, these lower grades can then become evidence to justify the use of bans and further policing. 

Are you bilingual?

It is widely understood that BBE is slang, rather than another legitimate language in its own right. The lack of awareness means many children are misinformed at school as to their bilingualism. Instead, they are chastised and belittled when communicating in their most authentic way. In the working environment this manifests as ‘code-switching’ this has impacted even the likes of Michelle Obama through her career as detailed in her book ‘Becoming’. Moreover, Mrs Obama’s ancestry can be traced back to a people in South Carolinian, who were Transatlantic slaves with a rich cultural heritage. 

In the 1700’s, Georgian slave traders desired to monopolise the rice economy in America. Subsequently, they strategized to enslave and relocate those from West African coastal countries to the Southeast coast. Their plan was to profit from familiarity and expertises growing rice back home.The specific placement to the South Carolinian coastline resulted in the birth of the Gullah language. Gullah is unique in that it has a heavy African influence, with small aspects of Sierra Leonean languages wholly preserved. Gullahs are descendants of enslaved people captured from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, and other places along the western coast of Africa that resembled the marshland regions of coastal Carolina.

Their geographical placement provided a level of isolation from other cultural influences and allowed for the unique preservation of the Gullah heritage. 

Similar to BBE, Gullah is a creolised language that is crucial to the culture and identity of its people. This language was previously forbidden from educational spaces. However, four years ago Harvard University recognised a deficit in the knowledge available on this dying language and hired a Gullah Geechee instructor (Geechee being the Georgian specific creole) to teach this language. Black Learning and Mental Health UK (BLAM UK) is an organisation committed to ensuring Black heritage and culture is taught within its entirety within UK schools. Therefore, it is our aim that one day all educational institutions will take these same steps to teach, empower and celebrate Black British English!

Over to you

The fact that English is spoken so widely across the world speaks only to the lasting effects of British cultural imperialism and the empire’s attempts at control by eradicating culture. The classroom ban referenced is an attempt to maintain the sovereignty of Standardised English over Black British English in academic and professional spaces. This article provides an insight into the ways the languages of colonised peoples have been suppressed. We sought to expose the double standards of privileging Standard English and demonstrate how the classroom ban on BBE perpetuates a colonial tradition of linguistic discrimination. We as a society can begin to disrupt this tool of oppression in three simple ways listed below.

  1. Self-educate using the resources list below.
  2. Start a conversation – ask one of your contacts what they believe ‘proper English’ is and tag us on any of our social media to tell us how it goes (@blamcharity)
  3. Share an insight – post what have you learnt from this piece on social media and tag us on any of our social media to tell us how it goes (@blamcharity)

Self-education Resources

Type of resourceLink/where to findSummary of why the word “innit” is not slang.
Reading explaining what code-switching is and who it affects. by Ian Cushing highlighting harmful policies and practices against nonstandard English including his research findings.
ReadingThe Story of English: How an Obscure Dialect Became the World’s Most-Spoken Language – Book by Joseph PiercyThis book illustrates the history of how dialects spoken in what is now Europe became the most widely spoken language in the world.
Video April Baker-Bell, Assistant Professor of Language, Literacy, and English Education at Michigan State University speaks about her book: Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy
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