He was using the same grammatical regularity that elsewhere yields “Rolanda bed,” “Bébé kids” — and “baby mama.” To wit: A black person saying “baby mama” is simply rendering “baby’s mama” with the rules of Black English instead of standard, just as he or she would say “Brenda drink.” That person is expressing the possessive relation the same way as in legions of languages worldwide that have no possessive marker.
In the Indonesian that President Barack Obama spoke as a child, mother is ibu, baby is bayi and “mother of baby” is ibu bayi — “mother baby” — as in this gossipy item with a headline announcing a “list of presumed baby mamas” of Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo.
One might ask, though, where black Americans picked up this “regularity” — and the answer is England, of all places. Remember the indentured servants from school history lessons who worked alongside slaves on Southern plantations? Well, it wasn’t elite Brits who wound up laboring in the Alabama cotton fields; slaves worked alongside folks who spoke rural brands of English quite unlike that of Henry Higgins.
Even today, you might hear someone in Yorkshire say among friends “my sister husband” rather than “my sister’s husband.” In court transcriptions of statements by London prisoners in the 16th and 17th centuries, lower-class folk regularly say things like “Goldwell wife” instead of “Goldwell’s wife” and “Barlowe owne brother” instead of “Barlowe’s own brother.” Many of these people were due for transportation to plantations in Virginia and beyond. “Baby mama” wasn’t long in coming, especially since the absence of a possessive ‘s gave a break to people who, like most recently arrived slaves, were learning English as adults rather than natively.
“Baby mama,” then, is a symptom of the birth of Ebonics as a mash-up of assorted British regional dialects. Created by Africans and going its own way for so long, Black English now has its own cadence. Yet the basics are largely what they always were, and when we say “baby mama,” we are channeling less Bob Marley than Bob Cratchit.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.