JOHN MCWHORTER MARCH 4, 2009
Today I learned that the New York Times will be reviewing my latest book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, on March 15.
Happy am I. I should be grateful--the Times has reviewed three of my books before, but not since 2003. I could still be a contender ... !
The main message of "Bastard," as my wife and I call the latest in shorthand, is that a language is not just words but the way the words are put together--the grammar. In contrast to the rest of humanity listening only to words, a linguist listens to language used as grammar around the clock. Which means that we are hearing real life.
Aren’t just words real life? Not always. Here’s what I mean. Watching the new DVD release of the patriotic World War II musical This is the Army recently, when listening to champion boxer Joe Louis in a cameo delivering his one line, I found myself thinking of, of all people, Tina Fey.
Specifically, what came to mind was her movie of last year, Baby Mama, whose title was one of assorted indications of late that baby mama, the black American inner-city term referring to a woman one has had children with but is not married to, has become mainstream. Further evidence was when Fox News used the term in a teaser graphic last summer in reference to Michelle Obama (“Outraged liberals: stop picking on Obama’s baby mama”). Graceless, but in its assumption that viewers were familiar with the term, indicative.
Hunt up the derivation of the term these days and even the OED has fallen for a tasty but mistaken idea that the source is Jamaican Creole (“patois”), in which there is a term “baby-mother.” However, the chance that a random locution from Jamaican Creole becomes common coin across all of black America is small--a fluent speaker of Black English could go several years without uttering a single word born in Jamaican Creole. Plus, usually the Jamaican term doesn’t really mean what baby mama does, referring more generally to a pregnant woman.
The Caribbean derivation is based on a general misconception that language is just words, rather than grammar. Baby mama is not just an “idiom” or “expression”--it is a predictable manifestation of a general grammatical rule of Black English different from the equivalent one in Standard English.
Namely, the possessive ‘s is often not present in Black English--not just between the words baby and mama, nor between baby and daddy as well (baby daddy is also a set expression), but between any two words in a possessive relationship.
Listen to people speaking the dialect the next time you’re in line, on a subway, or watching a black film and you’ll catch it. Lisa Green in her book on Black English gives the basics, with sentences like:
Sometime Rolanda bed don’t be made up.
That’s the church responsibility
I myself recall hearing someone at a fast food restaurant saying “Dass Brenda drink, not his,” and in a barbershop “Melvin can do what he please--dis Melvin day!” (instead of “Melvin’s day”). None of this has anything to do with Jamaica: it’s a structural trait of the grammar of Black English right here at home.
Or, while the folk history of the term currently highlights the rappers Outkast’s 2000 hit “Ms. Jackson” as helping imprint it with its dedication to “all the baby mamas’ mamas,” black America was regaled with an example of the grammatical construction way back in the eighties and early nineties when the late, great Robin Harris was doing comedy routines about the notoriously naughty brood “Bebe’s kids,” (enshrined in a lovely and undersung cartoon film with Harris’ catchphrase “Dem Bebe kids!!!!”) Again, Harris was not aping Jamaican patois--he was using the grammar of his American home dialect.
Crucially: there is nothing “black” about expressing possession in English without that dutiful “’s.” Go to Yorkshire in England today and you will hear people saying “Me sister husband” for “My sister’s husband.” And not only in Yorkshire. It was lower-class Brits of this kind of parlance who black slaves worked alongside in early America--remember the white “indentured servants” you learned about in school. Slaves drank in what they heard: a different, not deficient, English, in which possession was indicated via the juxtaposition of the possessor and the possessed (sophisticated, no?) rather than with a bit of stuff like ‘s.
Which brings us back to Joe Louis. In the film, he says “All I know is I’m in Uncle Sam’s army and we are on God’s side.” Or at least that’s what the script had, and how the line has been quoted in print. But the way Louis, a native speaker of Ebonics one part Alabama and one part Detroit, actually rendered the line was, in fluent Ebonics style, “All I know is I’m in Uncle Sam army.”
So--baby mama is not just “an expression” in which the absence of the possessive 's motivates a comparison to Jamaican Creole or anything similarly exotic. It is an instantiation of one general grammatical rule out of a great many that makes Black English an alternate system that its speakers command alongside standard English.
The conventional wisdom is that standard varieties have “grammar” while vernacular varieties have merely “slang.” But Joe Louis on a soundstage in 1943, dutifully mouthing a carefully memorized written line, used a grammatical feature of his home dialect. He would have been perplexed--rightly--to be told that he was channeling calypso.
Black English is always a matter of breaking rules rather than creating them? A reasonable notion, and wrong. Negate, in good Ebonics, the following:
She be passin' by every Tuesday.
Note: if you posit "She ain't be passin' by" you are wrong--i.e. five points off if there were a such thing as an Ebonics teacher. The proper answer is "She DON'T be passin' by." Welcome to an alternate--and equally complex--inner-city grammar. Yes, grammar.