Connecting Black Atlantic Languages

By Ife Thompson

Unpacking the interconnectedness of Black Atlantic languages whilst disrupting linguistic supremacy through a decolonial lens.

As words like Lit, Snitch, Tings, Gwarn, Gyal, Dem, Dey, Nyash and Bae have become words used by Black British English speakers and have effectively been creolised into Black British English. It is important we better understand the particular uniqueness of Language creation and continuity in Black Communities globally. The words mentioned above are from three languages African American Vernacular English AAVE, Pidgin and Patios. It is with this that we must recognise the importance and history of Black language practices so that we as speakers of this language see and speak about our cultural production from a decolonial and Black centred lens.

In this piece, I will be unpacking the histories of three Black languages through AAVE, Patios and Black British English and expanding on the ongoing need to look at and celebrate these languages from a decolonial lens. I use Paul Gilroy’s term Black Atlantic to expand on the interconnectedness of Africa, The Caribbean, African Americans and the UK. Gilroy created this term with his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), it identifies a hybrid [Black] culture that spans the Atlantic, connecting Africa, North and South America, The Caribbean and Europe. For the purposes of discussions on Black languages in the Diaspora, it is key to start at the point that led to the creation of these languages- the forced kidnapping and enslavement of Africans to the new world.

The Black Atlantic and Language Creation

The creation of Black languages and their continued usage serves as a decolonial intervention into white linguistic supremacy. This is because English in and of itself is a colonial and imperial linguistic inheritance. Creole languages are formed in conditions where speakers from various distinct languages are forcefully brought together without a shared first language, often under the domination of speakers from one of the languages and in the context of this piece the transatlantic enslavement trade, white supremacy and European colonialism. A Creole language that demonstrates this is Skepi- a Guyanese Creole; Dahlia & Hubert Devonish explain that it has for an Atlantic Creole, an extraordinary number of lexical items and syntactic markers from a single West African language cluster, Eastern Ijo, and Kalabari in particular. (Smith et al 1987; Robertson 1991; Kouwenberg 1994).

European enslavers banned the use of African languages in the new world as they believed it would aid in uprisings and revolts. This led to enslaved Africans finding many ways to resist white domination. One of the ways in which we actively see this resistance is through cultural resistance via language. Many West African cultures had communal practices based on orality, so the new conditions that forced Africans to create a new language, using solely spoken means and not written means was a practice that engaged the continued use of familiar cultural production practices. We can map out the history of Black language development as follows ‘the Ancient World Africa[ should be seen as the] bearing fruit in the form of letters, syllables, and words of phonetic, morphological, and syntactic value. Non-verbal communication patterns in African culture, for example, rhetorical style, body movement, expressions, gestures, are included in the process as well’ (p. 23).

This has led to a unique language creation legacy with Black communities that has allowed us to survive and to communicate in a way in which our oppressors would not understand us but also enabled enslaved Africans to preserve, code and creolise their African linguistic heritage within a new language. Eric Williams further typifies this by noting that Ebonics is the linguistic and para-linguistic consequence of the African slave trade. It developed in West Africa, as well as throughout the former European colonies of North and South America wherever slaves were sold into bondage.

The legacy of Africanised English structures and Black British English following that legacy

The creation of Black British English follows the globalised pattern of African descended communities creating and using language as a form of resistance and cultural retention. Black British English sits at the intersect of the Jamaican Language ( Patios), West African Creole ( Pidgin) and African American Vernacular English alongside new words and phrases created by Black British speakers like Doing up, Moving mad, Bare, Buff, Peak, Peng, Clocked, Pagan, Gassed and the lexicology goes on. Black British people by engaging and speaking in Black British English are preserving and furthering ancestral linguistic practices against the imperialist reach of white mainstreamed English. Black British English speakers are doing what Dr April Baker Bell describes as knowing the world through their cultural ways of being and knowing, their community and their blackness.

Black British speakers by also adapting and incorporating Black global linguistic trends and words are keeping the Black language tradition alive. This can actively be seen with Black British Language speakers using terms like ‘it’s Giving and Pushin P’. ‘Pushin P’ is an AAVE term developed in the Bay Area and popularised by Rapper Gunna B. ‘It’s Giving’ is a term created by Queer AAVE speakers that was further popularised by Black American Women.

Black languages like all languages have adapted and taken from each other. This process is known as Cognates- Cognates are words that are etymologically related or descended from the same language or form. Words like Magnificent taken from the French language and used within Standard English is a cognate. In Black British English, the greeting term ‘Wagwarn’ taken from The Jamaican Language (Patios) is an example of a Cognate.

False cognates are words whose similarity in form or sound may be coincidental or the result of mutual influence, but they are not etymologically related. In Black British English (BBE) an example of this is the use of the word Bare would form a false cognate as its usage in BBE is different from that of white standardised English. Bare in BBE means lots and in Mainstreamed English it means uncovered.

Examples of the creolised Black British English

Language Supremacy and Anti-Black Linguistic Racism

Rusty Barrett, a professor of linguistics states ‘there are a number of linguistic studies that demonstrate that ideas about “correctness” are based on social prejudice rather than linguistic facts.’ It is important that we have this in mind when looking at Black languages under white supremacy. white supremacy permeates all aspects of society and language is not exempt. We see an encoding of white supremacy through the perceived language supremacy of English. The means by which whiteness has globalised the supremacy of the English language is through imperial and colonial domination, all of which produced institutionalised values and hierarchies within societies that served/s white elites.

Linguists identify ‘‘standard’’ languages as political constructs, having little to do with the inherent linguistic structure of any given language, as all languages are in fact created by humans for the purpose of communication, there cannot be an inherent form of language supremacy.

A universal principle that sociolinguistics maintain is that speakers who hold positions of political influence and economic power in this case white elites are then the very individuals who set and maintain linguistic standards in society.

Like other forms of discrimination, the idea that Standardised English is inherently better than other Black languages places an unfair burden on Black Language speakers who must continually accommodate those who hold negative and anti-Black attitudes toward them and/or their languages.

These positions and attitudes also fall within a raciolinguistic ideology- which is the dominant practice of racialising language and framing racialised speakers ( in this case Black Language Speakers) in negative ways, the linguistic practices of racialised populations are systematically stigmatized regardless of the extent to which these practices might seem to correspond to standardized norms”. (Rosa & Flores, 2017, p. 3)

Rusty Barrett reminds us that ‘prejudice against speakers of undervalued varieties often comes with arguments that only the standard variety is able to express nuanced meanings, encode logical thought, or produce good writing. Yet again, none of these beliefs has a valid basis in linguistic facts. All varieties of all languages are capable of expressing nuanced or subtle distinctions in meaning.’ The practice of policing and shunning Black languages is known as Anti-Black Linguistic Racism. Dr April baker Bell coined this term and explains it as the following- Anti-black linguistic racism refers to the linguistic violence, persecution, dehumanization, and marginalization that Black Language (BL) speakers endure when using their language in schools and everyday life. It includes teachers’ silencing, correcting, and policing students when they communicate in BL. It is the belief that there is something inherently wrong with BL; therefore, it should be eradicated. It is denying Black students the right to use their native language as a linguistic resource during their language and literacy learning. It is requiring that Black students reject their language and culture to acquire White Mainstream English(WME), and it is also insisting that Black students code-switch to avoid discrimination.

It is important to understand that even Black language (BL) speakers can also internalise the mainstreamed negative narrative and attitude about Black languages. This is seen when ‘Black students’ language practices are suppressed in classrooms [ and mainstream society]or they begin to absorb messages that imply that BL is deficient, wrong, and unintelligent, this could cause them to internalize anti-blackness and develop negative attitudes about their linguistic, racial, cultural, and intellectual identities and about themselves. As with internalized racism, students who absorb negative ideologies about their native language may develop a sense of linguistic inferiority.’ This is why Black language scholars advocate for the cultivation of Black Linguistic Consciousness. A practice prioritises the reversing of anti-Black Linguistic Racism whilst providing Black people with the tools to make language political choices that call for the intentional employment of Black Language. This they describe as the exercising of liberation. They remind us that it is imperative that Black people learn Black Language through Black Language; that is, they learn the rich roots and rhetorical rules of Black Language.

How we can overcome and push back against Anti-Black Linguistic Racism

Firstly, we must begin to see the ways in which we speak across the Black Atlantic as part of a rich legacy and heritage of a unique language creation practice. It is through doing this we can start to truly appreciate and explore the Bilingualism of Black Language speakers. We need to recognise that Black Language speakers like other Bilingual speakers exhibit advantages in several areas of executive function, including working memory, inhibitory control. Research on Bilingualism also shows bilingual advantages in executive function are not limited to the brain’s language networks. Researchers have used brain imaging techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate which brain regions are active when bilingual people perform tasks in which they are forced to alternate between their two languages. For instance, when bilingual people have to switch between naming pictures in Spanish and naming them in English, they show increased activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a brain region associated with cognitive skills like attention and inhibition.
We must ensure Black communities are equally entitled to be provided with bilingual education in both Black languages and the dominant language they manoeuvre within. There needs to be a push towards a linguistic education that does not penalise and disregard and interiorise Black creativity and language ways. We need an education practice and cultural acceptance of the brilliance of Black languages and the unique skills akin to Black language speakers due to their bilingualism.

This blog was originally written and published on Medium.com, it is available here to read.

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