Black English is a very broad term used to refer to British English and American English as spoken by the black communities in the US and the UK. To a lesser extent it’s also used to refer to black communities in places like the Caribbean and Africa.
Two of the major sub-varieties of Black English are African American Vernacular and British Black English (see below for more on these).
Interest in the existence of Black English began in the early twentieth century with several publications by linguist George Philip Krapp who attributed the existence of Black English to the “baby-talk” that he assumed slave masters must have employed when speaking to their slaves. He hypothesized that slave masters addressed their servants in a simplified English, similar to that used with babies.
The view that black people who spoke in Black English were deprived of a real, dynamic, and multi-faceted language continued through the 1960s untill William Labov, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by J.L. Dillard, Geneva Smitherman, and other linguists, mounted an impressive defense of the legitimacy of Black English refuting the language deprivation theories of previous times.
US & AAVE
African American Vernacular English or AAVE is a distinct dialect of English, sometimes classed as a variety of English. It is also known as Ebonics though this is not a term used by linguists and is sometimes used pejoratively.
AAVE has its roots in the slave trade where people captured in various parts of Africa, and from a variety of language backgrounds, were forced to create a pidgin or creole (a common language composed of fragments of their native languages) in order to communicate. Eventually this incorporated elements of English so it could also be used to communicate with the slave owners.
AAVE has a language structure which has much in common with a number of African languages. One interesting aspect of AAVE is the tenses used which appear to be less rigid than in standard English. For example it distinguishes between the recent past and the distant past.
I been done it.
I done it.
I did it.
In this example above the first is distant past, the second is recent past and the third is very recent past.
AAVE is used extensive in popular music, most recently in hip-hop where artists such as LL Cool J (pictured) will use typical AAVE phrases such as:
She said her name Shayeeda.
UK & BBE
British Black English (BBE) has some similar origins but is based on a Jamaican creole spoken by Caribbean communities, mainly in London but also in large cities such as Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and Nottingham.
There is a history of British sugar planters in Jamaica, which was a British colony until 1948, after which in the 1950’s there was significant immigration to London as England welcomed workers in its post war expansion and rebuilding. Jamaican Creole is recognized as an independent variety with its own grammar and vocabulary.
Increasingly British Black English speakers are finding their own voice in literature such as rap poetry and song, with Benjamin Zephaniah a respected name. There is no standard form of orthography so much of the language is written semi-phonetically – “yuhself” for “yourself” “dat” and “dem” for “that” and “them”, “nuff” for “enough”, “respek” for “respect”.
Some of their culture appeals to young native white English speakers who in turn adopt features of BBE speech mixed with their native accents such as Cockney.