Dictionary book

New Oxford Dictionary Will Document African-American English Lexicon : NPR

Black Americans have long contributed to how the English language is used. A new research project aims to compile the first Oxford Dictionary of African American English.


Black people have long contributed to the way we use the English language. Linguistics professor Sonja Lanehart shares some examples.

SONJA LANEHART: If we look at certain words present, we can think of something like woke and hip, cool, bad meaning good.


Lanehart is on the advisory board of a new Oxford Dictionary of African-American English that is about to create a historical record of these contributions.

LANEHART: Finally, we will have a space that recognizes our language in a way that encompasses all people within African American language communities.

FADEL: While there have been projects like this in the past, Lanehart says none have reached this scale.

LANEHART: This dictionary is distinct in that it focuses on this particular linguistic variety of African Americans in a way that has never been done before. So it will be much larger and much more inclusive of language, as opposed to some words here and there.

MARTINEZ: The project is a collaboration between the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University and Oxford University Press. It is one of the best-funded efforts of its kind and the first edition of the dictionary expected in about three years.

FADEL: Lanehart says what makes this project so special is that it won’t just have definitions. It will also provide historical context for each word.

LANEHART: The etymology of a word, the history of the word is extremely important. And so for that, they will note when a word first entered the language. Who used it? Where was it used? And that’s really important in understanding how a language kind of developed and evolved and who was part of it.

FADEL: Besides books, newspapers, oral histories and music, the dictionary will also tap into social media.

LANEHART: One of the things that’s going to be interesting about this is that because of social media and Black Twitter, there are words that are represented in terms of how black people have used them. And it’s going to be really important to look at that and how the words are created in that particular space. Social media allowed an outlet in a way that black people hadn’t really had before.

MARTINEZ: And she says looking at social media can highlight the regional, economic and social roots of the language.

LANEHART: Dictionaries attempt to codify language. That is to say, it is the spelling. That’s the definition. And what’s going to be important about that to get it right is to listen to people, especially for current things, to listen to people in terms of what they’re saying and how they’re saying those words are used and what they mean to them.

MARTINEZ: Lanehart says it’s important because the African-American language has been viewed from a deficit perspective in the past.

LANEHART: I think it took a lot to get there, to show that black people and black language aren’t grotesque. They are not exotic. They are not defective. They have a linguistic variety which is different and should be recognized like any other linguistic variety.

FADEL: And this new dictionary aims to credit and celebrate this variety.

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