The first time she heard Barbara Walters use the phrase “scream” on TV, Tracey Weldon took notice.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, he crossed!'” said Weldon, a linguist who studies African American English.
English has many words and phrases like “shout out,” she said, which started in black communities, worked its way across the country, and then into the English-speaking world. The process unfolded over generations, linguists say, adding countless contributions to the language, including hip, nitty gritty, cool and woke.
Now, a new dictionary – the Oxford Dictionary of African American English – will attempt to codify the contributions and capture the rich relationship that black Americans have with the English language.
A project of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University and Oxford University Press, the dictionary will not just collect spellings and definitions. It will also create a historical record and serve as a tribute to the people behind the words, said Henry Louis Gates Jr., project editor and director of the Hutchins Center.
“Just like Louis Armstrong took the trumpet and flipped it around from the way people played European classical music,” Gates said, Black people took English and “reinvented it, so that ‘it reflects their sensibilities and it reflects their cultural selves’. .”
The idea was born when Oxford asked Gates to join forces to better represent African American English in its existing dictionaries. Gates instead offered to do something more ambitious. The project was announced in June, and the first version is expected in three years.
While Oxford won’t be the first dictionary that focuses on African-American speech, it will be a well-funded effort — the project has received grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations — and can draw on resources from major institutions.
The dictionary will contain words and phrases that were originally, primarily or exclusively used by African Americans, said Danica Salazar, editor of World Englishes for Oxford Languages. This could include a word like “kitchen”, which is a term used to describe hair growing at the nape of the neck. Or it could be phrases such as “side hustle”, which originated in the black community and is now widely used.
Some of the research associated with creating a dictionary involves determining where and when a word originated. To do this, researchers often turn to books, magazines and newspapers, Salazar said, because these written records are easy to date.
Resources could also include books like “Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: a Hepster’s Dictionary,” a collection of words used by musicians, including “beat” to mean tired; “Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive”, published in 1944; and “Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner,” published in 1994.
Researchers can turn to recorded interviews with former slaves, Salazar said, and music, such as lyrics to old jazz songs. Salazar said the project’s editors also plan to collect information, with calls on the Oxford website and social media asking black Americans what words they would like to see in the dictionary and for help. with historical documentation.
“Maybe there’s a journal in your grandmother’s attic that has evidence of that word,” Salazar said.
The Oxford English Dictionary has been crowdsourced since the 19th century, she added. When creating the first edition, inserts were slipped into books, seeking volunteers to read particular titles, write sentences they found interesting, and send them back to Oxford. The OED editor received so much mail that he had his own mailbox set up in front of his house.
Gates explained that the Oxford Dictionary of African American English will not only give the definition of a word, but also describe where it came from and how it emerged.
“You wouldn’t normally think of a dictionary as a way to tell the story of the evolution of African-American people, but it is,” Gates said. “If you sit down and read the dictionary, you’ll get a history of the African American people from A to Z.”
Language differences evolve from separation, said Sonja Lanehart, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona and a member of the dictionary’s advisory board. These barriers can be geographic, like oceans or mountains, she says, but they can also be social or institutional.
“In this country,” she says, “the descendants of Americans who were enslaved, they grew up, they developed, they lived in separate spaces. Even though they were all geographically in, say, Georgia, their lives and communities within those spaces were very different.
African-American English is a variety with its own syntax, word structure and pronunciation characteristics, said Weldon, dean of the University of South Carolina’s graduate school and also a member of the advisory board. from the dictionary. But she has long been dismissed as inferior, stigmatized or ignored.
“It’s almost never the case that African-American English is recognized as even legitimate, let alone ‘good’ or something to praise,” she said. “And yet it is the lexicon is the vocabulary that is most imitated and most celebrated – but not with the African-American speech community that is recognized for it.
This dictionary will offer many insights, Gates said, but one overarching lesson stands out.
“The main thing about African American people, when you read this dictionary,” Gates said, “is that you will say that they are people who love the language.”