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Manuel Arturo Abreu on "online imagined Black English" in Arachne


An exciting new web publication titled Arachne has just launched, edited by writer Dorothy Howard. According to its editorial, “The zine’s thematics of gender, labor, and technology focus this project on explorations of the landscape upon which ideas of self, society, public, community, and craft, are constructed online today, using the myth of the spider as a starting point.”

My favorite text thus far is Manuel Arturo Abreu on “online imagined Black English,” which could be loosely described as white appropriation of language characteristic of African diaspora in America. An excerpt below; the full version on Arachne.

The way people talk always changes, driven language-internally or by social pressures. At any given moment in a language or dialect, certain aspects of speech are stable, and others are undergoing a change in progress. How does it happen? Who is responsible for it? How does the internet affect the process of language change?

I consider some of these questions for the case of Black English, the set of linguistic behaviors available to American members of the African diaspora. In recent decades, the advent of hip-hop and the internet have arguably spread Black media farther than ever before. As well, given that "Black English, especially the cadence, is becoming America’s youth lingua franca, especially since the mainstreaming of hip-hop,"3 I focus on the phenomenon of non-black English speakers with no fluency using real or imaginary linguistic features of Black English, which I call imagined Black English. This phenomenon is becoming more common because, as theorized by Cecilia Cutler, "hip-hop is increasingly claimed to be a multi-cultural lifestyle rather than a symbol of ethnic group identity, particularly by white adolescents… it seems to allow whites access to a commodified, ephemeral black experience at various moments or phases in their lives without requiring overt claims of black ethnicity, and the sociolinguistic meaning of AAVE [African American Vernacular English] appears to be adjusted in the process."4

This phenomenon has been called borrowed Blackness,5 Imagined African American Vernacular English,6 linguistic appropriation,7 mock Ebonics,8 and linguistic minstrelsy,9 the latter referring to one of the earliest American forms of this phenomenon in minstrel shows.10 Many times these cross-racial language behaviors do "do not correspond to most African Americans’ linguistic patterns."11 Often, Black language is borrowed and deracialized under the guise of being slang, even though slang is “a small set of new and usually short-lived words in the vocabulary of a dialect or language,”12 while Black English is a fully-formed linguistic system, as all dialects and languages are. White supremacist society renders Blackness able to "travel on its own, separate and distinct from black people,"13 globally marketed under systemic racism since ragtime sheet music, black vaudeville, and race records to cultures across the world in the form of language, music, dance, and gesture. Of course, it has always been and "remains exceedingly attractive and possible in this post-black, post-soul age of black cultural traffic to love black cool and not love black people."14

At least since minstrelsy, non-Black Americans have borrowed from Black English and, more generally, Black culture for a variety of reasons, and the digital manifestation of this phenomenon is a part of this lineage. And at least since 1986’s Jive Filter, linguistic minstrelsy has been an aspect of online talk, both in computer code, and in spontaneous speech.15 Both spoken vernacular and internet vernacular are heavily indebted to Black English, "from everyday words… like tote or goober (peanut), to vernacular like hip, cool, chill, dis or 24/7."16 There is literally an app that only sends ’yo’ notifications.17 The internet allows for communication and media dissemination to a wider and more diffuse audience than was once possible: individuals and communities with less and less relationship to black media and linguistic behavior have access to it, with Urban Dictionary and Genius (formerly Rap Genius) only a few clicks away to provide “definitions.” These conditions potentially alter or accelerate the process of deracialization by which words enter standard English, as well as provide more contexts for the performance of racist stereotypes. This merits an analysis through the lens of language change, as well as a consideration of revising pre-internet models for the linguistic dimension of borrowed Blackness.