Talking Black.

I have to admit I’ve gotten somewhat fed up with John McWhorter in recent years. When he’s on his game, he’s great, but when (as is too often the case) he’s pontificating about matters outside his specialty he’s irritating. I’m happy to report that Vinson Cunningham’s New Yorker review of his latest book, Talking Back, Talking Black, does a good balancing act, appreciating the good stuff while calling him out on the bad (at least that part of it that has to do with culture). I’ll let you read the latter at the link; here I want to quote this passage, which makes some useful points:

In five short essays, McWhorter demonstrates the “legitimacy” of Black English by uncovering its complexity and sophistication, as well as the still unfolding journey that has led to its creation. He also gently chides his fellow-linguists for their inability to present convincing arguments in favor of vernacular language. They have been mistaken, he believes, in emphasizing “systematicity”—the fact that a language’s particularities are “not just random, but based on rules.” An oft-cited instance of systematicity in Black English is the lastingly useful “habitual ‘be,’ ” whereby, Carlson’s quip notwithstanding, the formulation “She be passin’ by” contains much more than an unconjugated verb. That naked “be,” McWhorter explains, “is very specific; it means that something happens on a regular basis, rather than something going on right now.” He adds, “No black person would say ‘She be passin’ by right now,’ because that isn’t what be in that sentence is supposed to mean. Rather, it would be ‘She be passin’ by every Tuesday when I’m about to leave.’ ” A mistake to untrained ears, the habitual “be” is, “of all things, grammar.”

However logical, examples like these have failed to garner respect, because to most Americans grammar does not inhere in linguistic rule-following generally but in a set of specific rules that they have been taught to obey. McWhorter offers a couple of typical directives: “Don’t say less books, say fewer books,” and “Say Billy and I went to the store, not Billy and me went to the store.” This narrow notion of grammar has amounted to a peculiar snobbery: the more obscure and seemingly complex the grammatical rule, the more we tend to assert its importance and to esteem those who have managed to master it. “People respect complexity,” McWhorter writes. His smirking and somewhat subversive accommodation to this Pharisaism is to emphasize the ways in which Black English is more complex than Standard English.

One of these ways—the truest, I should add, to my own experience of the language—is the use of the word “up” in conjunction with a location. Hip-hop fans might recognize this construction from the chorus of the rapper DMX’s hit song “Party Up (Up in Here)”: “Y’all gon’ make me lose my mind / Up in here, up in here / Y’all gon’ make me go all out / Up in here, up in here,” etc. McWhorter, playing the tone poet’s patient exegete, scours several instances of the usage, settling on the idea that in this context “up” conveys the intimacy of the setting it qualifies. The sentence “We was sittin’ up at Tony’s,” according to McWhorter, “means that Tony is a friend of yours.” This is an artful and convincing reading, and McWhorter carries it out in an impishly forensic manner, proving his thesis that, in some respects, Black English has “more going on” than Standard English. The latter lacks such a succinct “intimacy marker” as Black English’s “up,” and someone who studied Black English as a foreign language would have a hard time figuring out when, and how, to deploy it.

And McWhorter, defending features like “uptalk” and “like,” is, sadly, correct in saying “Americans have trouble comprehending that any vernacular way of speaking is legitimate language.”


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    I read the book a month or two ago, after it caught my eye on the “new arrivals” shelf at a local public library. A lot of it is sort of a popularizing introduction that will seem redundant if you know anything substantive about the subject (although that may just mean you’re not the target audience) but there was also stuff that was new to me (and I think I have a reasonable grasp of the subject), or expanded on things I knew just a little about, not least the ways in which AAVE both in syntax and phonology had changed quite a bit over the century-plus before the age of what you might call the “canonical” version that sustained scholarly descriptive work started on circa 1970. (There are some surviving early 20th century recordings of speakers who were born before the Civil War, and they often sound notably different than what we think of AAVE as sounding like.) Short book, quick read, on balance worth it imho, esp if your local library has paid for the copy.

    I think the cultural/political stuff is largely orthogonal to the linguistic stuff. Almost any conceivable language variety could be used in the functional ways particularly salient to a historically oppressed or marginalized group, so focusing on the speakers’ historical/social situation is not likely to explain very much at all about why the language variety is the way it is rather than some other way, beyond simply explaining why the dialect persists and its speakers haven’t all just assimilated after a generation or two into speaking some other dialect.

  2. Greg Pandatshang says

    That AAVE is validly grammatical in its own right strikes me as​ just the sort of thing that would seem tritely commonplace to the LH commentariat, but potentially a revelation to the average John Q. Strunkandwagnerspeak.

  3. yvy tyvy says

    potentially a revelation to the average John Q. Strunkandwagnerspeak.

    The key word here being “potentially”. Many (particularly those who are slavish devotees of Strunk & White) will continue to believe that abandoning the God-given less/fewer distinction or “not conjugating”/”misconjugating” the verb “to be” will directly lead to the collapse of civilzation.

  4. Bathrobe says

    I don’t have a big problem with prescriptivism for social reasons but I do have a problem when prescriptivists claim that the grammar rules of English were developed to aid in clarity. I think they’re getting the concept of writing clearly (filtering out the redundancies and impreciseness of the spoken language) with adherence to grammatical shibboleths.

  5. Colloquial “y’all, you guys, you lot” vs. literary “you (pl.)” are a great counterexample.

  6. I love to hear that song “up in here, up in here!” in my mind’s ear while contemplating a serious linguistic analysis. That sort of serious attention to exuberant popular culture is my jam. But I can think of some counter examples off the top of my head to his theory that up signifies intimacy. What about “She was all up in my grill.” Maybe bad intimacy? Proximity? Certainlynot the affectionate intimacy the author seems to mean. Similarly, “He beat up on her all the time.” This might be a different construction: up on rather than up or up in. But my sense is it challenges the author’s hypothesis. Thoughts? (And apologies for phone typing errors).

  7. I don’t think he means affectionate intimacy, just intimacy (which can be bad or good). And I agree about serious attention to exuberant popular culture!

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    The “up” in “beat up” is part of a phrasal verb (and certainly not one distinctive to AAVE), so it’s pretty clearly not an instance of the specific intimacy-marker usage, which would seem to require a prepositional phrase.

    Consider the minimal pair in some example famous enough for me to have learned it in a syntax class way back in 1985. [run up] [a big bill] (up is part of phrasal verb) versus [run] [up a big hill] (up is part of prepositional phrase).

  9. I think beat up on is different, since beat up exists in standard English.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    “Beat up on” is perfectly standard American English in an informal register. If (to take a recent example from a news story I googled up) the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations says “The President has not once called me and said ‘Don’t beat up on Russia,'” and proceeds to insist “I am beating up on Russia,” she doesn’t sound like she’s using an AAVEism, does she?

    Admittedly “beat up on” works a bit differently syntactically from “beat up.” You can say “I beat Ivan up” but not “I beat Ivan up on” or “I beat on Ivan up.” At least not in my idiolect

  11. Greg Pandatshang says

    I think “beat up on” is formally an intransitive: it requires a complement, but in the form of an oblique. I’m guessing that explains the different behavior of the “up”. Is there a term for this sort of transitivity? Perhaps “pseudo-transitive”? Basically the inverse counterpart of a semi-transitive.

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