British Black English (was: "as such")

Paul Johnston paul.johnston at WMICH.EDU
Thu Feb 11 15:41:29 UTC 2010

In the 1980's, David Sutcliffe wrote a book called "British Black
English", and colloquially, we used to talk about B-BEV, parallel to
BEV of the US, but it was a slightly koineized Afro-Caribbean
(largely Jamaican-based) that he was describing.  I'm not sure how
that functions as a mark of identity today, and even then, it seemed
to vary greatly from area to area in Britain how those of Afro-
Caribbean or African descent spoke English.  I'd hear a lot of
Sutcliffe's B-BEV in London and Birmingham, (though I'd hear some
Cockney and Brummie too), but up North, most of the Black working-
class people i'd run into mostly used the local vernacular.  In
Scotland, where i lived, this was really striking to Americans, who
didn't expect someone who obviously was of African descent speaking
pure Edinburgh, Glasgow, or even better, Aberdonian Scots.   Even in
London, I'd hear some interesting code-switching and code-mixing
between Cockney and Jamaican Patwa.

Paul Johnston
On Feb 11, 2010, at 7:44 AM, Damien Hall 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:      British Black English (was: "as such")
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> ---------
> 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
> people.
> 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.
> Damien
> ---------- 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
> BE.
> 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.
> -Wilson
> 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 -
> --
> -Wilson
> ---
> 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
> 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 -

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list