Would Chalky White really have sounded like that?
December 15, 2012 11:36 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any resources to find historical forms of Ebonics?

Sugeneris and I recently started watching Boardwalk Empire, and just got to the third episode, featuring Chalky White. I thought it was odd that Michael K. Williams is essentially using the same phrasing and vocal patterns that he used while playing Omar Little on The Wire, and it got me to thinking: would he have really sounded like that? How has Ebonics, and its vocal rhythms changed over the years? I'm interested in hearing/reading about period-correct forms of the dialect. Anyone know of any? I wasn't really sure what to search for on Google.
posted by patricking to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You might have better luck googling "African-American vernacular English," which is the more accepted and much less racially-loaded term.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:41 PM on December 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: This is what you want to look for. FWIW, I've only ever heard "Ebonics" used as a slur or in comedy, myself.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:42 PM on December 15, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks! Wasn't aware "ebonics" was used as a slur or comedy, which explains why I kept coming up with (weirdly) racially charged results.
posted by patricking at 12:13 AM on December 16, 2012

I've seen old pre-code hollywood films with black actors/actresses in it speaking ebonics/AAVE and they honestly sound like they were dropped into the movie from yesterday. It's actually really shocking to hear, given how different the vocal delivery of every other actor in old films is.
posted by Jairus at 12:37 AM on December 16, 2012

As a side note, the Wikipedia article on Ebonics does a nice job covering the word's evolution from an academic attempt to define African American language to its current more pejorative use. To proponents of Ebonics its explanation for the origin of African American Vernacular English is quite different than the standard explanation(s) (thus the need for the two terms).
posted by bfootdav at 4:05 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of these comments are glossing over a lot. They give the impression that "Ebonics" is just something people say to be "racially loaded," but it was seriously proposed by a well-meaning school board in the '90s. The reason it's not used as much anymore is because the proposal was so widely ridiculed that everyone wanted to distance themselves from it. See the linguist John McWhorter's books Word on the Street and Losing the Race, which have index entries on "Ebonics. Both of these books quote and discuss the 1996 Oakland Unified School Board resolution that generated the controversy over Ebonics. The school board proposed to recognize Ebonics as the "primary language of African-American students." McWhorter quotes one of the main proponents of Ebonics education, Dr. Ernie Smith (not a linguist) saying, inaccurately, that "African American speech is the relexified morpho-syntactical continuation of the Niger-Congo African linguistic tradition in Black America." As the Wikipedia link in the 2nd comment says, McWhorter has criticized the view that black Americans speak a dialect based on African languages.
posted by John Cohen at 7:57 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The linguistic work I've seen on the early history of AAVE leans pretty heavily on some recordings of ex-slaves that were made by members of the WPA. Those recordings were made in the 1940s, but the speakers were centenarians who had been born before the Civil War, and so — if we assume that they're still speaking the way they would have spoken growing up* — the recordings give us a glimpse into the way AAVE was pronounced back before 1850, over 150 years ago now. Frustratingly, I haven't actually been able to find many examples online, but this page has a few audio samples.

Another place to hear early AAVE is in the lyrics of old blues recordings. Here's Mississippi John Hurt, born in the 1890s, and Skip James, born in the early 1900s. This is really not a reliable source of linguistic evidence — it's a performance, after all, so we don't know whether they're using the same accent in which they'd speak normally; as one professor of mine put it, "Imagine trying to understand British accents by listening to old Rolling Stones records" — but it's something to listen to.

Further back than that, deeper into the pre-phonograph era, actual evidence gets very scarce very quickly. Lots of people, in the late 1700s or early 1800s, wrote down "examples" of "how slaves talk" — but most of that was mockery, minstrelsy or well-meaning cluelessness, and I don't think we can trust any of it to be linguistically accurate.

*Of course, that's a big "if." The speakers in these recordings might well be making an effort to sound less Black, or less old-fashioned, or less "country" — or all three.
posted by and so but then, we at 8:46 AM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I thought it was odd that Michael K. Williams is essentially using the same phrasing and vocal patterns that he used while playing Omar Little on The Wire, and it got me to thinking: would he have really sounded like that?

I'm pretty sure none of the white actors are using period-appropriate dialogue or vocal patterns, either. Not to mention that most period TV and film that you see doesn't bother with this, either. You'll often get a little touch of it in dialogue just to evoke an old timey feel (see for instance True Grit and Deadwood), but even that isn't actually true to how people really talked at the time. In fact, writers are often told to hint at dialect with word choice rather than writing in "accents". And while Boardwalk could have a dialect coach helping all the actors sound more 20's, I'm pretty sure they don't.

But, yeah, I came in here to say WPA recordings. You also might want to check out films and recordings featuring Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and other prominent African-Americans of the period. Talkies and the WPA are a little bit after your period, but not long enough after to make a significant difference. Also, presumably if you're listening to a WPA recording of a 40 year old man in 1935, that same guy would have been alive and talking as a full grown adult in the early 20's.
posted by Sara C. at 10:52 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the WPA recommendations, that's a rich source. Questions of "period" accents of all sorts have been rattling around in the back of my head lately—interesting NPR piece on the "smoothing over" of recent Texas accents correlates with my own experience as a kid in upper East TN.

Changing your accent, or learning to speak "Northern" was kind of a big deal as people from smaller towns became more connected with larger cities.

Wondered if possibly the same might have happened with black folks earlier in the century as they found themselves needing to acclimate to a more urbanized part of the U.S.
posted by patricking at 1:30 PM on December 16, 2012

Best answer: Wondered if possibly the same might have happened with black folks earlier in the century as they found themselves needing to acclimate to a more urbanized part of the U.S.

The persistence of AAVE generally points to an ability to code-switch.

Beyond recordings, there were a number of authors -- many of them white -- who attempted to phonetically describe ethnic, regional, and inclusively African-American speech patterns, to varying degrees of success. One was Mark Twain; another was Harriet Beecher Stowe. These may be subject to effects such as hypercorrection, though.
posted by dhartung at 3:09 PM on December 16, 2012

Best answer: To add some more color to the idea that what you're hearing in older recordings and movies may not be faithful... many white actors of the 1930's were taught to use the Transatlantic Accent. I wouldn't be surprised if I learned that black actors were also taught to speak a certain way for the benefit of a show.
posted by jander03 at 9:31 PM on December 16, 2012

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