Lessons in Ebonics: What’s Up?

The use of the word "up" is just one example of the complexity of Black English -- and how there are right and wrong ways to use it.

And if “up” is slang, then why, in other languages, when there is a similar way of conveying that same kind of meaning of intimate proximity, it’s treated as grammar? In Korean, “put” is a different word depending on how intimate the puttage is. You nohta a cup on the table, nehta an apple into a bowl and kkita a videocassette into its box. It’s a lot like the Ebonics “up”: In a way, you slide that videocassette all “up” into the box.

The “intimate up” is one of several ways that Black English is complicated, and in a way that even Standard English isn’t. A foreigner, if assigned to learn English in South Central instead of a classroom, would have trouble mastering how to use “up” in this way. One imagines him telling a child something like “OK, get nice and up into bed” — but no, that’s not quite right. It is, in a word, incorrect Ebonics. Black English is, despite its humble and even randy associations, a grammar, a system — and a challenging one to make sense of, at that.

And “up” is just the beginning — stay tuned for another one in May.

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.

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