On Saturday, Dec. 1, professor Sha’Dawn Battle’s Advanced Rhetoric and Grammar class met to pen a letter to administration about two black students being inappropriately questioned by police; this letter was written in Black English.
The class had previously been discussing Black English within the last unit of the semester, focusing on the ways in which language is used as a tool of power, and how Standard English removes the voice of individuals who speak Black English. The students in the class were not completing this work for a grade or participation points, nor was their attendance or participation mandatory. Rather, the class was involved because, as individuals on Witt’s campus, they wanted to help in the efforts to make campus equitable for everyone.
“Our letter will reflect a distinctive Black voice, given that language reflects a collective consciousness which is itself informed by collective experiences,” Battle said. “My students—90 percent of whom are white-identified voices—do not intend to co-opt the Black voice, but instead understand that there is a violence underway when Black voices are smothered and forced to find expression through Standard White English—the language of the hegemony that strips them of their rights and dignity.”
Students utilized rules by June Jordan—and a few other rules they produced in class, which came from common saying they had heard—as a basis for appropriately writing in Black English. The first 19 guidelines were first put in print by Jordan, note that, as Battle said, rules three through six “provide for the use of the minimal number of verbs per idea and, therefore, greater accuracy in the choice of verb.” The guidelines are as follows:
- Minimal number of words for every idea. . . . eliminate every possible word.
- Clarity: If the sentence isn’t clear, it isn’t Black English.
- Eliminate use of the verb to be whenever possible. This leads to the deployment of more descriptive and, therefore, more precise verbs. (S.E.: She is here. B.E.: She here.—Battle’s example)
- Use be or been only when you want to describe a chronic, ongoing state of things. (eg. He be at the office, by 9.He been with her since forever.)
- Zero copula: Always eliminate the verb to be whenever it would combine with another verb, in Standard English. (S.E.: She is going out with him. B.E.: She going out with him.)
- Eliminate [the] do [auxiliary] (S.E.: What do you think? What do you want? B.E.: What you think? What you want?)
- In general, if you wish to say something really positive, try to formulate the idea using negative structure. (S.E.: He’s fabulous. B.E.: He bad.)
- Use double or triple negatives for dramatic emphasis. (S.E.: Nobody sings like Tina Turner. B.E.: Ain nobody sing like Tina.)
- Never use the –ed to indicate the past tense of a verb [even when the action is in past tense.] (S.E.: She closed the door. B.E.: She close the door.)
- Regardless of intentional verb time, only use the third person singular, present indicative, for use of the verb to have as an auxiliary. (S.E.: He had his wallet then he lost it. B.E.: He have his wallet then he lose it.)
- Observe a minimal inflection of verbs. Particularly, never change from the first person singular forms [I go] to the third person singular [he goes]. (S.E.: Present tense forms: He goes to the store. B.E.: He go to the store. S.E.: Past tense forms: He went to the store. B.E.: He go to the store, he gone to the store. . . ..)
- The possessive case scarcely ever appears in Black English. Never use an apostrophe (‘s) construction. If you wander into a possessive case component of an idea, then keep logically consistent: ours, his, theirs, mines. But, most likely, if you bump into such a component, you have wandered outside of the underlying worldview of Black English. (S.E.: He will take their car tomorrow. B.E.: He taking they car tomorrow.)
- Plurality: Logical consistency, continued. If the modifier indicates plurality, then the noun remains in the singular case. (S.E.: He ate twelve doughnuts. B.E.: He eat twelve doughnut. S.E.: She has many books. B.E.: She have many book.)
- Listen for, or invent, special Black English forms of the past tense, such as: “He losted it.” “That what she felted.” If they are clear and readily understood, then use them.
- Don’t hesitate to play with words, sometimes inventing them: e.g. “astropotomous means huge like a hippo plus astronomical and, therefore, signifies real big.” [and try Portmanteaus like “Billary.”]
- In Black English, unless you keenly want to underscore the past tense nature of an action, stay in the present tense and rely on the overall context of your ideas for the conveyance of time and sequence.
- Never use the suffix -ly form of an adverb in Black English (S.E.: The rain came down rather quickly. B.E.: The rain came down pretty quick.)
- Never use the indefinite article an in BE (S.E.: He wanted to ride an elephant. B.E.: He wanted to ride him a elephant [or ah elephant])
- Invariant Syntax: In Black English it is possible to formulate an imperative, an interrogative, and a simple declarative idea with the same syntax: (B.E.: You going to the store? You going to the store. You going to the store!)
- Be mindful of the endings of words: –er should be a; th is often pronounced with a F (S.E.: My mother locked herself out. B.E.: My motha locked herself out. S.E.: I’m from the South Side. B.E.: I’m from the Souf Side.)
- There is often an abbreviation or truncation of words and phrases. (S.E.: about; because B.E.: ‘bout; ‘cause S.E.: I’m about to . . .. B.E.: I’m finna . . ..)
- Black English often incorporates cultural and regional adages.(Ex: “I’ll kill a rock and drown a rain drop for my kids.” “I brought you in this world and I’ll take you out.”)
- Oftentimes, the word been is used to indicate duration, in place of a phrase like “for a long time.” (S.E.: I’ve done that for a long time. B.E.: I been did that.)
- It’s customary for sentences composed in Black English to end in prepositions. (S.E.: Why did he do that? B.E.: What he do that for? S.E.: What are you doing? B.E.: What you on?)
- The helping verb had is often used in conjunction with other auxiliary verbs. (S.E.: I went to the store.B.E.: I had went to the store.)
- In Black English, it is not uncommon to hear the repetition of words to express emphasis. (S.E.: You are really tripping. B.E.: You trippin’, trippin’!)
The Black English Letter can be found on page three of The Torch.
Jordan, June. “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You And the Future Life of Willie Jordan.” Harvard Educational Review (1988): 363-74.