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Abstract

Just like in the United States, there is no one way of speaking English-there are countless dialects. This is no different from any other country, specifically those within Great Britain. Comprised of three countries, this large island inhabits people of various backgrounds speaking several different variations of English, even other languages. This essay, however, seeks to explore what British Black English is, when it approximately first emerged, who primarily speaks it, and what caused the emergence.
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Shainah M. Andrews
Dr. Michael Aceto
LING 2740
20 April 2017
Research Paper: British Black English
Just like in the United States, there is no one way of speaking English there are
countless dialects. This is no different from any other country, specifically those within Great
Britain. Comprised of three countries, this large island inhabits people of various backgrounds
speaking several different variations of English, even other languages. This essay, however,
seeks to explore what British Black English is, when it approximately first emerged, who
primarily speaks it, and what caused the emergence.
British Black English is a dialect of English spoken primarily in England, Scotland, and
Wales, hence the word British. The term Black often refers to individuals with African origin or
heritage. Even more specifically, people who can trace family to an Afro-Caribbean location use
the term Black. Nevertheless, stitched together, the entire dialect called British Black English
hones in on those who speak an English dialect in Great Britain which must be differentiated
from a dialect called British English spoken mostly by non-Black counterparts.
Two sources state that British Black English emerged around the 1950s after immigration
to London “post war expansion and rebuilding (Cannons). This provided working opportunities
for those unemployed from the Lesser and Greater Antilles and even parts of Africa in search of
work. These people were formerly under British control; moving to Great Britain was a way to
gain a source of income. Sutcliffe even notes that “55 per cent of Black migrants accepted jobs
of lower status than those held in the country of origin.” Despite hopes, even the descendants of
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these immigrants find themselves at the financial totem pole’s bottom. A British journalist, too,
notes the earliest emergence as being in the 1950s via the children of immigrants from the
Common Wealth Caribbean (Bryant). One cannot ignore the fact, though, that “Black people
have been living in Britain since Saxon times and probably earlier…” (Sutcliffe) In fact, the
influx was so large that Elizabeth I implemented an edict to limit the number of “blackmoors”
entering London. This is important to note because the presence of blacks long before the dialect
was largely recognized allows one to infer that British English is much older than it is written
down to be.
In regards to phonetics, much is written down at British Black English. Due to
immigrants coming from parts of the Caribbean like Jamaica, Trinidad, and St. Lucia just to
name a few, British Black English is very similar to Jamaican Patois in some aspects. For
example, British Black English speakers and Jamaican Patois speakers both may use words like
“dat,” “dem,” “yuhself,” “nuff,” and “respek” (Cannons). This influence, again, is very prevalent
because after World War II, Caribbean immigrants sought industrialized areas for jobs. Within
the United Kingdom, specific Jamaican communities which influence British Black English are
located in London, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and Nottingham.
British Black English speakers use “ain’t” as a negative marker – those speaking the
dialect would say something like, “you ain’t know anybody” (Sutcliffe). This is very similar to
African American English spoken in the United States. In addition, the word “bad” means “very
good, admirable, daring” in Great Britain just like in African American English (Sutcliffe).
However, though, in yet another work by David Sutcliffe, he points out the fact that the language
is “overtly Creole.” This may help explain why countless words derive from Jamaican roots. For
example, the word “batty” refers to “buttocks” and “bold face” means “cheeky.” Simply British
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English speakers use the term “cheeky” to refer to someone who is being impudent, but it is
important to note that two different words hold the same definition the one that is used just
depends on the particular speaker.
“Be going to” in regards to “future time” is more frequent in American than in British
English, especially in informal style” (Algeo). This is in reference to dialects that are often
deemed inferior, like African American English. In this variation, it is very common to hear
something along the lines of, “he be going to the gym” which means that one frequents a fitness
center. The habitual “be” is a staple within various dialects, including British Black English. “He
be going to the gym” would not be uncommon in British Black English either. Another habitual
marker which Melissa Cannons refers to as intensified continuative is “stay” which can be heard
in African American English and Caribbean English dialects which have made their way into
Great Britain. “Been” illustrates a present progressive construction found in British Black
English which could be modeled as follows: “he stay working” (Cannons). This can be translated
into Standard English to, “he is always working.” This is to not be confused with the habitual
“be.” The present progressive demonstrates a continuous action that is consistent like the
habitual “be” but more specifically, it is occurring present-day. Sutcliffe provides a glossary of
British Black English words, many of which are found in African American English. “Doo-doo”
refers to fecal matter. While “extra” in Standard American English means more-than-needed,
“extra” in both African American English and British Black English can be used to describe
someone who is “fussy” (Sutcliffe). If a girl, for instance, jumps wildly when she spots a spider
on her textbook, her male friend may simply squash the insect and say the following: “you so
extra!” This would mean that she was being fussy over something very mundane; she
overreacted. Both dialects also utilize “vex” in the same way. To “vex” means to be annoyed or
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angry this term can be heard whether in a predominantly black part of London or in the
boroughs of New York City. Wine up, a dance that involves a person rotating their hips in a
circular motions, is also popular in African American English this, too, is used in British Black
English. To further compare and explore the similarities between African American English and
British Black English, this paragraph was produced.
As pointed out in a piece about accents and dialects, it is imperative to state that a
language is living much like any component of life and “change[s] with time” (Hughes, Trudgill,
and Watt). For example, over time, young speakers in Great Britain tend to smooth of vowels;
this means that these individuals tend to produce diphthongs or even monophthongs. Older
speakers typically would produce tyre as a triphthong. Now, the word sounds more like tire.
While changes will occur in all dialects, this particular ones can be outlined in British English
and even British Black English. In fact, Sutcliffe makes note of English in general changing over
time. The language has evolved since the Viking and Norman invasions, thus causing the Norse
and French speakers to “pidginize” and “creolize” the language. It causes one to think: is the
problem the creole, or the speaker of it? If speakers of a language often deemed fancy can
successfully creolize a language with little to no flack, why can British Black English and
African American English speakers not do the same? Sure, some Atlantic Creoles may not be as
highly inflected as outside languages, but this does not take away from the dialects.
It is no secret that is in an individual’s best interest to utilize Standard English when
writing in a classroom setting. This is difficult, though, when the teachers and students all come
from different backgrounds and testing is standardized, ultimately working against certain people
“in public examinations” (Sutcliffe). In fact, those who speak and write in some sort of London
vernacular are “examples of lack of proficiency.” For instance, the use of a double negative is
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marked down. While this is a prescriptive matter, it may be worth mentioning it to demonstrate
the impact that one has on the other all because of one’s way of speaking. If it is not as close to
the standard as possible, it is quite literally marked as incorrect. As countless linguists have
discovered, no one talks similarly to how they writes unless this Standard-English-way-of-
talking has been imbedded into the brain. If it has, Sutcliffe suggests disposing of “one
generalization which is both unhelpful and untrue.” Once this is done, pieces of writing “covered
in impatient red marks” can be obliterated and all can begin to talk about dialects in a literal way,
much like linguists do, not subjective.
Sutcliffe writes that there appears to be “no trace of a local white working class accent.”
The way that a white person in the working class and a black person in the working class would
pronounce “a pint of beer” as “a noit of beer” or “a point of beer” are the same. Further, this lets
readers know that difference appears to be more greater outside of class statuses rather than
within in relation to what a person’s heritage is.
The distinction between British Black English and British English is necessary because as
one author wrote, if not, “…this Black language will remain a reinforcement of the divide in
society rather than a bridge leading to real understanding” (Sutcliffe). Real understanding means
coming to terms with the fact that British Black English, just like African American English, is
rule governed and spoken systematically by individuals. It being wrapped up in various
Caribbean creoles may be difficult to wrestle with. However, as Sutcliffe implied, this is only
because of its distance from Standard English. “It is all too easy to regard English Creoles as a
distortion or perversion of English, hotchpotches of non-standard forms with no rules”
(Sutcliffe). In short, Sutcliffe lets his readers know that nothing too different or unfamiliar takes
places in British Black English or Jamaican Patois, which are closely intertwined due to
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immigration waves. This way of speaking is “not ‘wrong’ in any case,” and this is coming from
an expert linguist who has worked closely with both dialects.
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Works Cited
Algeo, J. British or American English? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns. Great
Britain: Taylor & Francis Group, 1979. Print.
Barton, Geoff. Language and Society: Improved Definitions.
Cannons, M. British Black English (BBE). Blogpost, 2011, retrieved from
http://englishlanguagea2melissacannons.blogspot.com/2011/11/british-black-english-
bbe.html
Hughes, Trudgill, and Watt. English Accents and Dialects. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2012. Print
Sutcliffe, D. British Black English. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited, 1982. Print.
Trudgill, P. Language in the British Isles. Cambridge University Press, 1984. Print.
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Article
Speakers of British and American English display some striking differences in their use of grammar. In this detailed survey, John Algeo considers questions such as: Who lives on a street, and who lives in a street? Who takes a bath, and who has a bath? Who says Neither do I, and who says Nor do I? After ‘thank you’, who says Not at all and who says You're welcome? Whose team are on the ball, and whose team isn't? Containing extensive quotations from real-life English on both sides of the Atlantic, collected over the past twenty years, this is a clear and highly organized guide to the differences - and the similarities - between the grammar of British and American speakers. Written for those with no prior knowledge of linguistics, it shows how these grammatical differences are linked mainly to particular words, and provides an accessible account of contemporary English in use.
Language and Society: Improved Definitions
  • Geoff Barton
Barton, Geoff. Language and Society: Improved Definitions.
  • M Cannons
  • British Black
  • English
Cannons, M. British Black English (BBE). Blogpost, 2011, retrieved from http://englishlanguagea2melissacannons.blogspot.com/2011/11/british-black-englishbbe.html