British Black English (was: "as such")

Damien Hall djh514 at YORK.AC.UK
Thu Feb 11 12:44:34 UTC 2010

Thought I'd separate this topic from Wilson's post.

I'm not sure there _is_ such a thing as British Black English in the same
way as we talk about American Black English / AA(V)E / etc. There is
certainly a way in which some black people are stereotyped as talking, in
this country, but it's not a uniquely British Black way of talking. Rather,
I think Wilson's hit the nail on the head in identifying the first black
person's English he saw in a British film as sounding Caribbean. You should
really ask an actual British black person but, as far as I can see, one of
the most common ethnic self-identifiers for black people in this country is
'Afro-Caribbean' (that is, if they don't refer to themselves just as
'black'). There's no British direct equivalent of 'African American' - no
such term as 'African British'. I'm not certain about 'Black British', but,
if it _is_ heard, it's not commonly heard.

The Afro-Caribbean stereotype is what led to my brother being mocked at
school when he was 16 for 'trying to talk like a black man'. They meant he
was trying to use the Afro-Caribbean lexicon (and possibly phonology?) of
the black people in Notting Hill / West London. Their English doesn't
represent that of all British black people, though, by a long chalk - my
impression is that the English of well-educated British black people is
(?almost) indistinguishable from that of well-educated British white

It may be telling that, in a lecture last week, I asked a second-year-level
sociolinguistics class whether they could think of British ethnic
minorities who were linguistically distinguished from the majority in the
same way as African Americans are. The class didn't mention British black
people - the only British ethnic minority that they spontaneously came up
with was British Asians (= British people of South Asian descent). 'British
Asian' _is_ a commonly-recognised ethnic category.


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Wilson Gray <hwgray at>
Date: Wed, 10 Feb 2010 15:07:26 -0500
Subject: Re: "as such"
To: djh514 at

BTW, is there such a thing as BrBE? The first time that I saw a Brit
movie - Sapphire, 1960, with black characters, these characters spoke
barely-understandable - to an inexperienced American ear - Caribbean
English or a kind of middle-class, easily-understood variant thereof.
Nowadays, again to a naïve American ear, black Brits, including black
Irishmen, heard via the Celtic Channel, whether in movies or in
reality, appear merely to speak the dialect appropriate to their
social class, without any trace of the equivalent of the American dead
give-away, the inimitable, so-called "black voice."

FWIW, I find "white voice" equally inimitable. Not that there aren't
black people with white voice or white people with black voice. IMO,
voice is like any other aspect of spoken language: given an
early-enough start in the appropriate environment, a person can/will
acquire whatever voice is relevant to his social milieu, together with
the dialect.

Again, FWIW, I find Obama's speech anomalous. I expected, from his
background, that he would enjoy a command of white voice at least
equal to that of Colin Powell. Rather, the Prez sounds pretty much
like any other random, from-the-hood, black, graduate of an
Ivy-Leaue(-ish) college.

Of course, there are exceptions. Back in Saint Louis, I had a frat
brother who held an MAT from Columbia Teacher's College. Yet, his
speech was so rural, Deep-Southern black that I thought, and still
think, that his degree must have been based solely on his written
work. *I* could understand him only with difficulty and I'm better
than Smitherman when it comes to understanding esoteric varieties of

Smitherman writes, quoting Muddy Waters:

I got a axe and a pistol on the
graveyard, friend
That shoot tombstone boozers(?)
Wearin' balls and chain

This is actually:

I got a *axe*-handle' pistol on a
*grave*yard frame
Shootin' [SuTIn] *tomb*stone bullets [bUlIks]
wearin' [w&:n] *balls* 'n' chains

A variant by Boogaloo:

This here is a *.38* pistol
on a *.45* frame
Shootin' *tomb*stone bullets
on a *ball* 'n' chain

The *'s mark the sites of primary rhythmic stress for those unfamiliar
with the song. Actually, Boogaloo's version occurs not in a song, but
in a recitation featuring possibly the best example of melismatic
black _speech_ ever recorded. Cf. YouTube: Cops and Robbers/Clothes
Line, by Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew, for anyone interested.


On Wed, Feb 10, 2010 at 5:43 AM, Damien Hall <djh514 at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Damien Hall <djh514 at YORK.AC.UK>
> Subject:      "as such"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> I still remember an occasion almost twenty years ago when a
> reasonably-sized group of us were going from pub to pub in Oxford looking
> for one with enough table-space for us all to sit and drink. As we were
> entertaining a guest speaker, this was more of a requirement than it would
> usually have been, but many pubs were full. Anyway, after coming out of the
> second too-full one, one of my companions suggested:
> 'We could try [name of another pub], as such.'
> I don't know whether it is relevant that he was British or not. Anyway, I
> always interpreted this 'as such' as meaning 'I suppose' or something, from
> the context, and this was what boggled my mind; I assumed that the wrong
> phrase had come to my friend's mind in the heat of the moment. But, given
> the clear 'therefore' meaning that's been posted on, I suppose this 'as
> such' could be an extension of that meaning, or a different contextual use
> of it:
> '[Those other pubs were full, so] we could try [another one], therefore.'
> Damien
> --
> Damien Hall
> University of York
> Department of Language and Linguistic Science
> Heslington
> YO10 5DD
> UK
> Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
>     (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
> Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

All say, "How hard it is that we have to die!"--a strange complaint to
come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
-Mark Twain

Damien Hall

University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
YO10 5DD

Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
     (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list