John McWhorter is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, the author of multiple books on linguistics and race relations, and a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more. His most recent book, Talking Back, Talking Black, delivers a linguist’s defense of the grammatical legitimacy of black English. He recently joined Katy Waldman, Words correspondent at Slate, for a Heleo Conversation that unpacks common misconceptions about linguistics, grammar, and “real” English.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Katy: You’re saying [in Talking Back, Talking Black] that black English is not the abasement of a standard form of English, but something totally different. Could you say more about that?
John: It’s easy to think that black English started as standard English and then somehow decayed, or that standard English is somehow the “real thing,” in some scientifically impregnable way, and black English is breaking the rules of the real thing. It’s understandable that people think that, a lot of black people think that, and for me to just write, “If you think that, it’s racist,” isn’t going to work. That was articulately demonstrated by the New York Times review of the book [which] said that a group’s claims about its language or legitimacy should be accepted on their face.
The truth is, it would be nice if they were. But since all of us have a sense that there’s the “real” language, then everything else is a bastardization, naturally you’re going to listen to black English like you might listen to poor Southern white English, and think this is breaking the rules. If somebody says, “No, we insist that this is legitimate, and if you don’t think it’s legitimate, then you don’t like black people,” most white people will shut down. A lot of the black English literature over the past forty or fifty years, as wonderful as it’s been, in many ways has been predicated on telling people, “If you think there’s something wrong with black English then it’s a sociological issue that you need to grapple with. It’s part of you not liking or respecting the people.”
You can love and respect black people, and think, “One nice thing would be if we could prise away this bad grammar.” I thought, “Okay, that’s rational. That’s what I would think if I were white, especially since an awful lot of black people think the same way.” Let’s try to do it with logic, explain what the nature of grammar is, how the dialect is more complicated than it sounds, and how the English that you and I are speaking right now is really shitty, old English. I tried to make people see black English in a new way.
Katy: You drew a really interesting distinction at one point, and you said, “Just proving that black English is systematic, that it has consistent rules that you can write down, that’s not enough to convince people that it’s actually valid.” You had this funny line, “People respect complexity for its own sake.” If you could show that black English is not only internally consistent but more complex than standard English, then you might get laypeople to perk up. Has that been your experience?
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John: Very much. I’ve seen it in classes, and I’ve seen it anecdotally at the typical cocktail party. If you explain that, in black English, you can X and that’s more complex than Y, you see a light bulb go off in a way that you don’t see if you tell somebody that, “If somebody is leaving out the verb ‘to be,’ and saying something like ‘she my sister,’ they don’t do it after ‘I.’ You don’t say ‘I your brother.’ It’s systematic, because it’s only done after certain pronouns.” Most people just think that means breaking that rule about “to be” in a systematic way. Nobody is genuinely swayed by that.
So, I thought, is there any way to convince people? Because linguists understand it, but linguists are this tiny group of people with a very rarefied way of looking at language. Is there a way to get it out into the real world?
Simplicity works with some things. Most people like their music kind of simple. Or with food, you read those New York Times recipes and if it’s any longer than about 20 minutes you don’t want to be bothered. With a lot of other things, people like it to be complicated. That’s what is associated with intelligence, and I wanted to see if I could put black English across with that in mind.
Katy: A lot of people align slang with black English, and they’re not actually the same thing. They tango together, but they’re not identical. Could you speak about the relationship between the two?
John: Black English, to the layman’s ear, is slang and bad grammar. For many people, all of it is the same thing. If somebody says, “She my sister,” that’s slang just like if somebody says someone is “ratchet.” Slang is common in all languages, and it’s especially prolific with the young. Some cultures have more of it than others, but slang is just words, whereas language is partly words, but it’s also how you put them together. Linguists call that grammar. All of that is as involved as the huge collections of words that you have to know for a language. With black English, what people hear is that the grammar rules are being broken.
Somebody is saying, “She be going to the store,” instead of, “She is going to the store.” It really is a different grammar, and not only is that different grammar as systematic as standard grammar, but sometimes it’s more complicated.
Slang is one thing, and a linguist usually is listening past that. To us the words are just the beginning. The words are the balls hanging on the Christmas tree. We’re more interested in the tree. Really, it’s the grammar that distinguishes something. For me, “She my sister,” is much more interesting than “ratchet.” Although, you learn when you write for the media that what interests people more, usually, is where did that new word come from?
“For example, ‘ass,’ as in, ‘big-ass pot,’ the way that’s used. That’s not just profanity. We don’t think about it, but that use ‘ass’ means ‘counterintuitively.’ ‘Man, that was a long-ass movie.’ That means that you were expecting it to be 90 minutes, you would have liked it even after two hours, but it ran three.”
Katy: I get the sense that people like talking about new words because they meet some kind of cultural or societal need. It’s interesting from a criticism perspective: what is this word doing? How is it functioning? Is it your sense that grammar, syntax is also responding to what’s in the cultural other?
John: Does grammar change according to cultural factors? In terms of the conventional sense of what grammar is, I would have to say no, because the way we use grammar is so very subconscious, and often doesn’t correspond to cultural categories. Grammar is changing all the time, but it would be hard to say it was because of surrounding cultural factors.
For example, “ass,” as in, “big-ass pot,” the way that’s used. That’s not just profanity. We don’t think about it, but that use of “ass” means “counterintuitively.” “Man, that was a long-ass movie.” That means that you were expecting it to be 90 minutes, you would have liked it even after two hours, but it ran three. “This tall-ass man comes in,” meaning he was tall—you weren’t expecting him to be so tall. That is a new kind of grammar, because what we have is a suffix that mocks the counterintuitive. That’s what “ass” has become. If you let the language move along for 500 years, then it would just be a suffix. That’s how suffixes are born. Now, is that responding to something in the culture? Is anything cultural about the fact that the gluteus happens to have been brought in to mean that in particular?
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Not really. It’s largely accidental. I find it fascinating, but it’s not cultural. Whereas, if somebody is saying “fake news,” the new term, that obviously has a cultural story that “big-ass pot” doesn’t. “Big-ass pot,” although it sounds like a matter of a word, is grammar. There’s a new suffix being born, whereas “fake news,” is going to look quaint in ten years, and maybe we won’t even be saying it. We’re going to have to remember what it meant. That’s how words go.
Katy: You also speak to “ass” as a dismissive pronoun, right?
John: Yeah. If somebody says, “I’m going to fire his ass,” do you really mean that you’re only going to fire their buttocks? No. You mean you’re going to fire him. But why did you mention his ass? Of course, you can think of it as a kind of metonymy, but we use it so much, and you don’t even put your accent on it. “I’m going to fire his ass,” not, “I’m going to fire his ass.” It’s gotten to the point that “his ass” is a pronoun just as “him” is. It just connotes a certain dismissive flavor. Or you’ll have a sentence like, “Carl’s ass in trouble.” By his ass, you mean him. What is the ass as a part of speech? It’s not really functioning as a noun, because nothing’s happening to his ass.
It becomes a very abstract thing, but you have to know how to use it. You might think, “That’s just profanity, it’s kind of ‘street,’” but it’s actually very complicated, and very subtle and not just systematic. Black English’s pronouns are more complicated. Imagine a Martian coming down and having to learn English, and the English they happen to learn is the English of Brownsville, rather than the English of the Upper East Side. Imagine having to learn how “ass” is used. “Carl’s ass is in trouble.” Okay. “I’m going to tell your ass a story.” You can tell that’s a rather awkward sentence. It’s unlikely you would say that to a child. You’d have to learn the context.
Then there are little things that would sound perfectly normal that don’t quite work. “That’s mine ass.” No, “that’s mine.” “That’s yours ass”—you just don’t say it. It’s actually rather tricky. Another example is, “You’re going to do it your damn self,” as opposed to, “You’re going to do it your damn self.” You have to learn to put the accent on the “damn.” Imagine being Japanese and coming to it. The fact that it has, as we might call it, “flavor,” doesn’t mean that it isn’t grammar.
Katy: To that point about flavor, do you think it’s fair to say that black English is, on the whole, more irreverent than standard English? You have pronouns that incorporate profanity and it seems like a less formal way of communicating. I wonder if that has something to do with the way people sometimes denigrate it as a less lofty or impressive style of speech.
John: Vernacular language in general tends to be saltier than the neutrality of standard language. To the extent that you might think that there’s a certain punchiness about black English, a certain general irreverence beyond what you would expect from general teenage slang… there is a certain tendency for indignation in black English. I discuss this with a very smart grad student—Alysia Harris at Yale—who’s finishing up her dissertation. This may play into what you’re saying about culture and grammar, indignation creating new machinery in black English.
“We listen to the black person and we think of them as messing up the language. Nobody would think that way about an Egyptian, or a Sicilian, or various people in India.”
For example, someone will say, “She comes telling me that I have to do the whole thing.” The “come” is not literal. The person may not have approached you at all. The “come” indicates that you are indignant. Someone will say, “Well, I’ll be done whooped his ass if he comes back to me again.” The “be done” is grammatically sophisticated. It’s the black future perfect. Black English uses the future perfect more than ordinary standard English does—very Latinate. Also, that “be done” is not used in neutral context. It wouldn’t be something like, “I be done made the scrambled eggs by the time you come back with the milk.” It’s only used in indignation. There does seem to be a certain pique that drives some of what ends up becoming grammaticalized, or pragmatic-alized, in black English. I don’t know where that comes from, I have tabled it as something to think about.
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Katy: That’s fascinating. I would like to say a sentence and get your reaction to it: “But they can’t talk that way at a job interview.”
John: Yeah, that’s the one that gets my goat. There’s a way that people listen to the conversation about black English where they seem to think that linguists are saying that black people should be able to use vernacular speech wherever they want. Somebody raises their hand and says, “Well, they can’t talk that way at a job interview.” You weren’t saying that they were going to. It almost seems as if people haven’t been listening.
There are a lot of people who have a kind of impatience. They feel like in our society certain groups are expecting to be catered to too much, and many people would put black people in that group for reasons that I do not find defensible. I think there’s a little bit of that impatience when it comes to our race conversations. It’s not about job interviews. It’s if you see a black person walking down the street, or you hear them using that speech, it’s helpful to not hear it as bad grammar, but as something different.
Katy: One of the really convincing arguments is that a lot of people from, for instance, Italy or practically anywhere but from the United States, have a much broader range of dialects that they dip in and out of, depending on the situation.
John: Everybody does it. For the mainstream American, there is a narrowness. Compared to any, say, Sicilian character in the Godfather or Boardwalk Empire—if you see a character speaking Sicilian, that character can also speak standard Italian. Italian and Sicilian are really about as different as Spanish and Portuguese. That person is essentially bilingual, and then on those TV shows, they speak English. That’s just normal. Here, we have people with that same kind of repertoire. The person who is a fluent black English speaker, who also speaks standard English in other contexts, is like that Sicilian. [But] we listen to the black person and we think of them as messing up the language. Nobody would think that way about an Egyptian, or a Sicilian, or various people in India.
It needs to change. We don’t understand what linguistic treasures there are in the United States, because we’re trained to hear any kind of linguistics except the kind you and I are speaking as somehow wrong. It’s not true. I’m trying to change that.