If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Course Hero. (2021, February 18). If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/If-Black-English-Isnt-a-Language-Then-Tell-Me-What-Is/

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Course Hero, "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? Study Guide," February 18, 2021, accessed May 17, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/If-Black-English-Isnt-a-Language-Then-Tell-Me-What-Is/.

If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? | Quotes


The argument concerning the use ... of black English is rooted in American history.

James Baldwin

In his opening sentence, James Baldwin establishes his view that the disdain for black English is not new. Later in the essay he points to the history of how black English evolved. Black people who were enslaved and spoke different languages found ways to communicate with each other. They used what they knew of their ancestral languages and combined that with the English they learned in America. Black English did not suddenly appear in the 1970s but it evolved over time as the country evolved. Baldwin writes that it is too late to punish black people for the language they have created after having been in the country for a very long time.


The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language.

James Baldwin

Baldwin discusses how people who object to black English do not really object to the form of the language. People who object to black English are prejudiced toward the speakers of black English. They object to the language because it is empowering for people to have their own language, and some people would rather not see black people empowered.


Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other.

James Baldwin

The language a person speaks and the way they speak it reveals something about that person to whoever is listening. Baldwin points to how these revelations can lead to tension. Hostility can grow when a person feels that someone else's language or manner of speaking does not reflect or include him.


People evolve a language in order to describe and ... control their circumstances.

James Baldwin

Baldwin discusses why people began to speak languages. He does this to later illustrate how the need for language fits into the lives of different oppressed populations throughout the world. People may use language to communicate with others, but they also need it to survive.


They each have very different realities to articulate, or control.

James Baldwin

Often the verb "articulate" is used to discuss the ability for self-expression. This verb also refers to forming and connecting body parts with joints. Baldwin refers to both meanings in this sentence. Articulation is not just expression, it is also control. People use language to express and to manage their realities.


What joins all languages, and all men, is the necessity to confront life ... to outwit death.

James Baldwin

The language a person speaks can help that person describe and make sense of life. It can also provide a piece of immortality if the language survives beyond that person's life. When a language dies, so do the stories of the people who spoke it.


It goes without saying ... language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power.

James Baldwin

Baldwin asserts that suppressing a language is a way to also suppress a people. Even when a language is not suppressed, it can be used politically. Since language reveals identity, political factions can reward or punish the speakers of certain languages based on who is in power.


Black English is the creation of the black diaspora.

James Baldwin

The black diaspora was formed when black people left or were taken from Africa and dispersed around the world. Baldwin writes that black English is not entirely African nor does it entirely belong to the English-speaking countries where black people reside.


A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity.

James Baldwin

Baldwin points out that creating a language is not the same as learning someone else's language. He describes language creation as alchemy, a mysterious process by which the components of other communication systems are transformed into something new. Black English was not created in schools or through an orderly process. It came about by "brutal necessity" as a means of survival for people who had been taken from their homelands.


I am curious to know what definition of language is to be trusted.

James Baldwin

Baldwin's brief overview of the history of black people in America points to all that black people have endured and achieved despite brutal oppression. He argues that if black English created under trying circumstances is not a language, then he is not sure language is being defined correctly. This is a prelude to the doubts he expresses later about the American education system.


A people, ... in ... so hostile a population, has not endured ... by ... what is patronizingly called a 'dialect.'

James Baldwin

The field of linguistics has definitions for the concepts of language and dialect. However, linguists themselves do not always agree on how to define these terms. Baldwin writes that black English does not fit into the limited definition of a dialect. To him black English is the testament of a people's survival skills in the face of great animosity and should not be looked down on as a mere variation of standard English.


We, the blacks, are in trouble ... but ... not doomed.

James Baldwin

Baldwin does not paint a rosy picture of black Americans' past or present, but he is not without hope. Earlier in the essay he asserts that people need language to describe and to manage reality. Here he writes that despite trouble black America does have mechanisms for survival and language is one of them.


The bulk of white people in American [sic] never had any interest in educating black people.

James Baldwin

Baldwin is brutally honest about the harsh truths of race relations in America. Black children in America are not being educated so they can be empowered and define themselves. They are being educated in ways that will maintain America's existing power structures.


It is not the black child's language that is in question ... It is his experience.

James Baldwin

Baldwin opened the essay asserting that opposition to black English has "nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language." Towards the end of the essay, he progresses from that overview to something more specific. People oppose black children articulating their experiences especially if that experience is articulated using black English. They do not want that experience discussed.


A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand ... is that the child repudiate his experience.

James Baldwin

Baldwin writes that if a language is what allows someone to reflect and manage their reality then opposing someone's language short circuits that person's ability to function in the world. He asserts that black children who are taught to reject black English are being told to reject their own experiences.

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