British Black English (was: "as such")

Lynne Murphy m.l.murphy at SUSSEX.AC.UK
Fri Feb 12 12:00:18 UTC 2010

I was flipping through radio channels this morning (that probably isn't
idiomatic in _any_ dialect), and stopped on BBC 1Xtra, which I didn't
really know anything about.  Was listening to a conversation between DJs,
and wondered to myself  "How can I tell that this woman is black?" I
couldn't identify anything in particular, but there was no doubt in my
mind.  The man, however, I thought sounded 'white'.  As I listened on, they
said that it's the new black music radio station.  So, I've looked up the
morning crew and found that they are in fact both Black Britons--but I
still don't know what it was (must've been phonological) that I was picking
up on, since the woman's accent didn't strike me as particularly
Afro-Caribbean, just London.

You might be able to hear here (I believe that non-UK residents can hear
radio, but not watch tv on BBCiPlayer).  The two DJs are talking at about
10.55 (that's not when I was listening, but there's only so much
procrastinating I'm going to allow myself on this matter):


Incidentally, there is a Wikipedia article for 'Black British'.  One of the
problems with trying to compare it to Black American is that 'black' is
much more commonly used to mean 'non-white' in the UK than in the US, so
it's a more polysemous term.  For instance, Black History Month (at least
in my part of the country) usually involves commemorating South Asian
Britons as well as African/Caribbean.  (Incidentally, it's October in the
UK, rather than Feb like in the US.



--On 11 February 2010 10:41 -0500 Paul Johnston <paul.johnston at WMICH.EDU>

> 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
>>> YORK
>>> 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 -

Dr M Lynne Murphy
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics
Arts B357
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QN

phone: +44-(0)1273-678844

The American Dialect Society -

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