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)

It’s very simple. If we feel confident telling black people that they speak “bad grammar,” then we should be just as confident telling an Israeli that he speaks broken Hebrew. And if we can’t do that, then we understand that Black English is every bit as normal and OK as the language 7½ million Israelis speak every day.

It’s because of something Black English and modern Hebrew have in common: They were both created in large part by grown-ups learning a new language, instead of infants learning their first one. Black English happened when African slaves had to learn English real fast. Naturally, some of the details got lost here and there.

But modern Hebrew started when a language that had existed mainly on the page for more than a thousand years was picked up again as a spoken language by adults immigrating to what would become Israel. Just as African adults streamlined English in having to wrap their mouths around it quickly at an advanced age, the new Israeli immigrants didn’t pick up every jot and tittle of biblical Hebrew. They shaved off some edges here and there.

This means that modern Hebrew is, compared with biblical Hebrew, a kind of “Black Hebrew.” That is, a biblical Hebrew speaker would hear the modern language as a tad abbreviated. Some of the tougher sounds have fallen largely away — just like “bes’ friend” versus “best friend.”

The grammar is a little less uptight. A biblical speaker saying “the evening meal” would have said “meal-the-evening,” with “the” in a weird place and a special ending needed on “meal,” too. In the modern language, people more likely just say “the meal of evening.”

“The meal of evening.” “What I’m supposed to do” — it’s all the same kind of thing, and it happens all over the world. Modern Persian is “black” compared with ancient Persian. Modern Indonesian is “black” compared with its earlier rendition, classical Malay. If, before widespread literacy, millions of busy adults are thrown at a language and left to sink or swim, then the result is a close shave. Even standard English is “black” compared with Old English — because of what Vikings did back in the 800s.

If I may, you can learn more about this in one chapter of my book coming out in August, What Language Is (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be). For now, though, we should remember that even biblical Hebrew was like Black English in some ways. In the original Exodus, “I am the Lord” was “Ani Yahweh.” Those are the words for “I” and “the Lord” — there was no “be” word.

Once again, there’s no sense in the idea that Black English is bad grammar. We don’t have to pretend it’s African to know that. Black English is, in its way, biblical!

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.