How Black English and Modern Hebrew Are Alike

When adults learn a new language, they tend to simplify. That's what slaves off the boat and immigrants to Palestine did.

Jewish U.S. rapper Shyne prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Getty Images)

What I’m supposed to do? I got to wait till she get on her feet. She my bes’ friend.

I heard someone say exactly this recently. She was black. I thought of it as a beautiful sample of the dialect that linguists often call African-American Vernacular English. Most people, though, think of it as bad grammar.

They look down on the way this woman talks. They pity her. They shouldn’t, but it can be hard to get across why.

Some smart people will tell you that this way of speaking is OK because it’s African grammar with English words. Neat idea, and you almost wish it were true. But Black English is no more African than it looks or sounds. Lil Wayne is not rapping in Yoruba, and we all know it.

Some smart people will tell you, correctly, that this way of speaking is OK because if you say otherwise, then you are putting black people down. But that argument has never really worked, either. Most people just think, “I don’t have anything against black people. I just think it’s sad that history has deprived them of training in proper grammar.”

Other smart people will tell you, correctly, that this way of speaking is OK because it’s consistent. They mean that this woman would leave out “be” in general, not just in this one place: “He my brother.” “You da man.” But that’s another argument that never works. Most people just think, “Sure, it’s systematic: systematic bad grammar!”

And when I say “most people,” I mean black ones, too. This is from a pamphlet that none other than James Meredith, the first black person admitted to the University of Mississippi, has been known to hand out to young black audiences:

BLACK ENGLISH LANGUAGE. PROPER ENGLISH LANGUAGE. Which one do you use? Most people in this room use a lot of Black English and a little Proper English. Anyone who wants to become an intellectual giant must learn and use a lot of Proper English and as little Black English as possible. I am not going to argue with anyone about the matter. You can do what you want to do. However, I will tell you that anyone who continues to use a lot of Black English will never become an intellectual giant.

Meredith isn’t alone among blacks in that judgment. But we need to get past it. Here’s how.