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How Black English and Modern Hebrew Are Alike

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

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.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. 

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