The Oxford Dictionary of African American English.

Oxford University Press will be adding to its majestic shelf of language reference works with the Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE); Elizabeth A. Harris reports for the NY Times (archived):

The first time she heard Barbara Walters use the expression “shout out” on television, Tracey Weldon took note. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, it has crossed over!’” said Weldon, a linguist who studies African American English.

English has many words and expressions like “shout out,” she said, which began in Black communities, made their way around the country and then through the English-speaking world. The process has been happening over generations, linguists say, adding an untold number of contributions to the language, including hip, nitty gritty, cool and woke.

Now, a new dictionary — the Oxford Dictionary of African American English — will attempt to codify the contributions and capture the rich relationship Black Americans have with the English language.

A project of Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and Oxford University Press, the dictionary will not just collect spellings and definitions. It will also create a historical record and serve as a tribute to the people behind the words, said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the project’s editor in chief and the Hutchins Center’s director. […]

The idea was born when Oxford asked Gates to join forces to better represent African American English in its existing dictionaries. Gates instead proposed they do something more ambitious. The project was announced in June, and the first version is expected in three years.

While Oxford’s will not be the first ever dictionary that focuses on African American speech, it will be a well-funded effort — the project has received grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations — and will be able to draw on the resources of major institutions.

The dictionary will contain words and phrases that are were originally, predominantly or exclusively used by African Americans, said Danica Salazar, the executive editor for World Englishes for Oxford Languages. That might include a word like “kitchen,” which is a term used to describe the hair that grows at the nape of the neck. Or it could be phrases like “side hustle,” which was created in the Black community and is now widely used.

Some of the research associated with making a dictionary involves figuring out where and when a word originated. To do this, researchers often look to books, magazines and newspapers, Salazar said, because those written documents are easy to date.

Resources could also include books like “Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: a Hepster’s Dictionary,” a collection of words used by musicians, including “beat” to mean tired; “Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive,” published in 1944; and “Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner,” published in 1994.

Researchers can look to recorded interviews with formerly enslaved people, Salazar said, and to music, such as the lyrics in old jazz songs. Salazar said the project’s editors also plan to crowdsource information, with call outs on the Oxford website and on social media, asking Black Americans what words they’d like to see in the dictionary and for help with historical documentation.

“Maybe there’s a diary in your grandmother’s attic that has evidence of this word,” Salazar said. […]

Gates explained that the Oxford Dictionary of African American English will not only give the definition of a word, but also describe where it came from and how it emerged.

My first thought was that they should have done this a long time ago, but I immediately realized it’s better that they waited — the available resources are far greater now. So good for OUP, and good for Skip Gates! (I get to call him that because I sold him my furniture when I left New Haven in the late ’70s, and at that time he said “Call me Skip.” So I do.)

Comments

  1. Trond Engen says

    A worthy project, but I would think that it runs into quite a lot of definitional problems on the micro level (that’s no drawback — problems are interesting), just as “the Black Community” runs into definitonal problems on the micro level. There are of course very different African American communities, with very different interaction with eachother and with other American and English-speaking communities, and their English usage will also be different.

    Words are coined and new senses are developed. It can begin in some corner, gain underground popularity somewhere else, become widespread in some third group, and then become universal. If any stage of development took place in a predominantly black community, I presume it would qualify. It should. Other words may be lost in the general society but survive in different subgroups before making a comeback. Hopefully the intricacies and reasons for doubt will be recorded.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t know that I share Trond’s concerns. “African-American” (although an anachronistic word) was a reasonably coherent concept, sociolinguistically, when Prof. Gates was growing up in W. Va. back in the day (not yet complexified by immigration by e.g. Nigerians who’d been on the losing side of the war for Biafran independence), so if you confine it to that demographic group you’ve got a reasonable and coherent project.

    I appreciate (for petty quondam-New-Haven-resident reasons) the “call me Skip” anecdote. Respect/Ashe!

  3. I find the concept of “Russian” confusing. We have this situation, where initially the West Ukraine and some lands east of Moscow spoke more or less the same langauge and Novgorod spoke something else and now Ukrainian and Belorussian are two different languages, while Moscow and Novgorod are one. To understand what has happened and what is literary Ukrainian and what is literaly Russian I need to stop thinking of “Russian” as “Russian” and model it as a system of literary registers, urban dialects, urban koines and rural dialects.

    A “coherent concept” does not mean that it does not have a structure to which words are sensitive in the manner described by Trond. I woundn’t expect “black” dialects to have much less structure and variation than “white” dialects.

  4. January First-of-May says

    where initially the West Ukraine and some lands east of Moscow spoke more or less the same langauge and Novgorod spoke something else

    AFAIK West Ukraine then is East Ukraine now, while what is West Ukraine now was then Polish (and/or Austrian) and spoke Ruthenian (a direct descendant of which is now called Rusyn). Then the borders shifted, and literary Ukrainian formed out of contact between Ruthenian and Muscovite languages.

    OTOH the rural surroundings of Novgorod and (especially) Pskov still had wildly divergent dialects well into the 20th century; of course what still remained there by then was obliterated by the Nazi advance in 1941 (which almost entirely depopulated some areas in Pskov Oblast).

  5. As an example of the wonderful things that can be collected within the ODAAE… A while ago I came across an explanation and etymology, outlined here and here, of the term nation sack in Robert Johnson’s song “Come On In My Kitchen”:

    Oh, she’s gone, I know she won’t come back
    I’ve taken the last nickel out of her nation sack

    Does the tradition of the nation sack still exist in some form, and if so, is this word still in use to describe the object up to the present day? Is (was?) the word confined to the Memphis region? Did other regions have a different word for the same object? Is the etymology from donation sack offered above correct? (I originally went looking for an account of Johnson’s word because I wondered if it was an alteration of notion sack, because it contained a woman’s notions, like “all dere diff’rent little concerns” that Harry Middleton Hyatt’s informant mentions. But it seems not.)

    I sincerely hope we can begin seeing the fruits of this project in three years. What a precious resource it will be, and what fun and fascination it will offer for browsing! I couldn’t find any mention about whether there would be an online version available for free, and how (or if) the dictionary would avaible in print, and how many volumes are envisaged.

    the first version is expected in three years

    Even if you substitute volume for version (volume 1: a-ain’t—I look forward to a nuanced account of the diachrony and synchrony of this form with reference to the earliest documents, as here), this time frame seems too ambitious… I wonder what the timeline of the development of Dictionary of Jamaican English was like, for comparison. From my own experience as a lexicographer, I can imagine that some individual words will take months, especially when considering the depth of coverage envisioned:

    Researchers can look to recorded interviews with formerly enslaved people, Salazar said, and to music, such as the lyrics in old jazz songs. Salazar said the project’s editors also plan to crowdsource information, with call outs on the Oxford website and on social media, asking Black Americans what words they’d like to see in the dictionary and for help with historical documentation.
    “Maybe there’s a diary in your grandmother’s attic that has evidence of this word,” Salazar said.”

    If people begin to come foreward and offer their grandmothers’ diaries and other such documents for study and citation reading, it will require a graduate student working full time just to administer the reading program. And if people begin to provide online submissions the way they do to the Urban Dictionary, it will take another graduate student working full time just to process the electronic submissions. All this is completely aside from the central task—the painstaking work of citation reading, collation, and semantic, morphological, syntactic, and phonological analysis supported by ethnographic research, dialect geography, and etymological research. I hope that they will make an online version and then simply the post entries online, whenever editors are satisfied that an individual entry is ready for posting, with no particular regard for an enforced march through the alphabet.

    As a completely irrelevant aside, the acronym ODAAE reminds me of Oromo odaa, the sycamore (Ficus sycomorus), the tree providing the center of communal and religious life in Oromo society.

  6. this time frame seems too ambitious

    I agree, and I thank you for your (as usual) thorough and thought-provoking discussion!

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    The Harry Middleton Hyatt book (based on fieldwork from the 1930’s but not published until circa 1970) seems to be what most internet discussions of “nation sack” trace back to, but it also comes up in “Where I Was Born and Raised” (1st edition 1948) by David L. Cohn (1894-1960), who says “Negro women of this section almost universally carry their money in a ‘nation-sack,’ a canvas bag suspended on a belt worn next to the body under their underclothing.” It’s snippet view so I can’t be certain, but “this section” probably means the Delta region of Mississippi. Cohn (who grew up in Greenville* in the Delta, where his dad was the stereotypical one Jew in town who owned the dry-goods store), is FWIW the man who coined the proverb that “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel,” across the state line in Memphis.

    Cohn’s account of the nation sack is pragmatic and lacks the hoodoo angle. And the hoodoo angle is not actually necessary to make sense of Robert Johnson’s lyric [i.e. “nation sack” as nothing more than a synonym for “purse” works just fine] although you can see why certain exegetes would find it attractive.

    *Greenville is about 50 miles west of Greenwood, where Robert Johnson died under mysterious circumstances. Or perhaps under non-mysterious circumstances that the authorities were not sufficiently motivated to investigate and document at the time, thereby leaving plenty of room for speculation by subsequent generations.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    UPDATE: That passage from the 1948 Cohn book was carried over essentially unchanged from an earlier shorter work of his about life in the Delta titled “God Shakes Creation,” which was published in 1935, the year before Robert Johnson recorded two different takes (with substantially different lyrics – “nation sack” is in one but not the other) of “Come On In My Kitchen.”

  9. And the hoodoo angle is not actually necessary to make sense of Robert Johnson’s lyric [i.e. “nation sack” as nothing more than a synonym for “purse” works just fine] although you can see why certain exegetes would find it attractive.

    This is why I thought 3 years was a very compressed time frame, if that was what the editors envisaged for the completion of the work … There is a lot of material to sort through. Even if nation sack simply denotes ‘cloth sack fastened round the waist, used as a purse’, that does not exclude some additional ethnographic dimension that editors of the ODAAE may want to include to illuminate the citations. Was the lovely alliterating nickel something that the speaker in Johnson’s song had urinated on for luck? From one of Hyatt’s informants:

    An’ a woman, if she gamble, she kin let her man urinate on her money an’ put it [in] her pocketbook or her nation sack… you know, where thats he kin git to it you know from the bottom, an’ jes’ go in a game an all the money then is their money.

    Was speaker in ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ in fact taking the woman’s luck from her?

    In Andrew and Jim Baxter’s “Bamalong Blues” (recorded 1927), nation sack seems to be a simple purse (here nation =‘one’s home region’?):

    Been to the nation an’ I just got back
    Been to the nation an’ I just got back
    Didn’t get no money but I brought the sack

    Could a man have a nation sack? I am no expert on the blues, and I am curious how often male performers would perform songs in a female persona. Or does this verse refer to an actual sack for donations (such as circulated for a musician during a performance, or circulated among the community for donations to a down-and-out member)?

Speak Your Mind

*