New dictionary will codify African American English and its global influence on language

Day 611:01New dictionary aims to codify African American English and its global influence on language

A comprehensive dictionary is being compiled to showcase the impact Black Americans have had on the development of the English language.

The Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE) is a project by an alliance of researchers from Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and Oxford University Press.

Entries will be woven together from materials gathered from crowdsourcing, social media, books, music and newspapers. The lexicon is expected to be published in 2025.

“Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Editor in Chief of the new dictionary and director of the Hutchins Center, in a news release.

“Words that we take for granted today such as ‘cool’ and ‘crib,’ ‘hokum’ and ‘diss,’ ‘hip’ and ‘hep,’ ‘bad’ meaning ‘good,’ and ‘dig’ meaning ‘to understand’ — these are just a tiny fraction of the words that have come into American English from African American speakers.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Editor in Chief for the Oxford Dictionary of African American English. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Jon West-Bay, a lecturer in the museum and heritage studies department at Johns Hopkins University, says it’s a “great thing” when projects include cultures that were left out of the conversation.

“We all subscribe to building culture,” he said. “That’s what I believe our mission is as humans. We’re not just here to make money. We all want to leave our creative mark somewhere and we hope it’ll be cool.” 

Adam Bradley, an advisory board member for the ODAAE and a professor of English and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), calls the project a “landmark collaboration” with a goal of reaching “unprecedented” depth and scope.

Bradley spoke with CBC Radio’s Day 6. Here is part of his conversation with host Saroja Coelho.

What is this dictionary going to deliver beyond a list of words and definitions? 

Dictionaries, when we think about them, codify language. They tell you how to spell things, how to pronounce things, and some sort of working definition. This is about creating a historical record. 

This is a living language. It’s a language that’s changing with every song, every tweet, every conversation that’s happening amongst Black Americans and the broader culture. This is as much a story about people as it is about words.

A portrait of Adam Bradley standing with his arms crossed.
A portrait of Adam Bradley, professor of English and African American studies and an advisory board member for the Oxford Dictionary of African American English. (Portrait by Jane Bradley)

Part of the role of this dictionary is to explain the ways African American communities have impacted the way people speak all over the world. 

Language is a fluid thing. With Black American speech — given the engine of expressive culture going back all the way to jazz and blues, and all the way forward to hip hop, and certainly in our social media age — it’s interesting how rapidly [language] can spread across the world. 

It’s really an important task for us to trace some of these linguistic nodes back to the source. 

There’s a kind of elegance to a lot of Black expressive speech, getting to complex ideas in simple ways, and sometimes using the same word with different inflections to mean multiple things.– Adam Bradley, advisory board member for the ODAAE

I understand that your own daughters like adding to the words that are being used.

I have an amazing source of linguistic innovation in my own household with my nine-year-old and my 11-year-old daughters who are always introducing new words, a new twist on old words.

A lot of it is just things that the kids use on social media — little ways of saying big ideas in quick ways. That’s actually what a lot of language is about. 

There’s a kind of elegance to a lot of Black expressive speech, getting to complex ideas in simple ways, and sometimes using the same word with different inflections to mean multiple things.

It’s the multiple meanings from the same word that is fascinating. How are you going to deal with the N-word? 

This is maybe the greatest example of a word that’s capable of the most pernicious harm when used in certain contexts, and yet also has been repurposed and remixed to mean warmth and connection, and so much else. 

It’s also often used just in a neutral setting. I’m someone who studies hip hop, and you can’t listen for very long without hearing the word. 

It presents all sorts of challenges when you are writing it down on the page. How do you spell it? Does that spelling in any way inflect how we understand the word? It’s a tremendous responsibility to talk about words like that, but we need to know no word inherently is evil. It’s the uses to which we put them as people. 

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What is a word you would love to see included? 

As a hip hop person, I go through the catalogue of words that rap artists have introduced into the lexicon. 

I was thinking just the other day about one that I think people have forgotten actually originated in hip hop: bling. I think it lost a lot of its currency as hip hop slang pretty quickly after you had everybody’s grandma using the term. Now it’s settled into a space where if you say “bling” people know exactly what you’re talking about. 

Now it’s just straight-up language. It’s in the dictionary, it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you can find it everywhere. 

What do you think the dictionary could do to break down some of that cultural dissonance, where you have people embracing the language of Black communities, but not necessarily embracing the people? 

What we want to do is centre those people in our study of the language, never separate it. Always understanding that a dictionary, even though it’s just an assemblage of words, is ultimately also the story of a people. A collective biography, if you will, of Black American life across centuries. 

In that regard, it belongs to a community. It belongs to the individuals in the community, to our grandparents and great grandparents and others who have suffered. It belongs to all of us out there who are creating a new language as we speak. 

Parts of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.

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