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The roots of Black American English are heard in many Southern churches--from the pulpit and in the celebration of the Negro spirituals. Islands off the coast of Charleston, SC, are the "missing link" between African and American English.
On islands off the coast of South Carolina, Blacks speak a language that remains nearly the same as it did 300 years ago. Gullah is a dying language but one that offers a key to the history of Black American English.
In Sierra Leone, the chief is celebrated in words and song in the Gullah language. Slave traders brought English to Africa first through African middlemen who then spoke Pidgin English, a language still spoken in African ports.
English Creoles in West Africa are derived from the early pidgins spoken 300 years ago in slave ports. Viewers of this segment hear Creole spoken on a riverboat and learn about the language rules of African Creole.
While Charleston was the slave capital, slaves took their African pidgin onto the plantations where it evolved into plantation Creole. The language of both slaves and owners was affected by African pidgin.
Most plantation owners had an accent typical of southern England, but it was modified by the speech patterns of their slaves. What emerged were the sounds of the southern aristocracy.
In the 1930s, Blacks began to carry the verbal traditions of the South into the cities of the North in music, song, and dance. The host discusses George Gershwin and jive talk. Archival film footage shows a Harlem nightclub in the 1920s.
Archival film footage shows Cab Calloway using jive talk and jazz dancing as part of his act. His band plays and sings jazz music.
In the North, most Blacks lived segregated lives in the ghettos. Black poetry comes from a self-described bootblack and a man who plays the spoons. Archival film footage shows civil rights riots and a speech by Martin Luther King.
Blacks who move up the social ladder modify their speech patterns to "talk white." The city's schools teach standardized English to black students to improve their chances of employment.
Major changes in English do not occur because of education, but come about on the streets where cultures clash, and where language and vocabulary are essential to group identity.
The language of the streets can be heard in street rappers and poets that perform in this segment. The vigor and zest of English comes from the English of everyone--white and black.
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