Oxford Dictionary of African American English to give credit where it's due

The dictionary will contain words and phrases that were originally, predominantly or exclusively used by African Americans. PHOTO: PIXABAY

(NYTIMES) - English has many words and expressions, such as "shout out", which began in black communities, made their way around the country and then through the English-speaking world, said Professor Tracey Weldon, a linguist who studies African-American English.

The process has been happening over generations, linguists say, adding an untold number of 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 black Americans have with the English language.

A project of Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research 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 Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, the project's editor-in-chief and the Hutchins Center's director.

"Just the way Louis Armstrong took the trumpet and turned it inside out from the way people played European classical music", said Prof Gates, black people took English and "reinvented it to make it reflect their sensibilities and to make it mirror their cultural selves".

The idea was born when Oxford asked Prof Gates to join forces to better represent African-American English in its existing dictionaries. Prof Gates instead proposed they do something more ambitious. The project was announced in June and the first version is expected in three years.

The dictionary will contain words and phrases that were originally, predominantly or exclusively used by African Americans, said Ms Danica Salazar, executive editor for World Englishes for Oxford Languages.

That might include a word such as "kitchen", which is a term used to describe the hair that grows at the nape of the neck. Or it could be phrases such as "side hustle", which was created in the black community and is now widely used.

Some of the research associated with making a dictionary involves figuring out where and when a word originated. To do this, researchers often look to books, magazines and newspapers, Ms Salazar said, because those written documents are easy to date.

Resources could also include books such as 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 look to recorded interviews with formerly enslaved people, Ms Salazar said, and to music, such as the lyrics in old jazz songs.

She said the project's editors also plan to crowdsource information, with call-outs on the Oxford website and on social media, asking black Americans what words they would like to see in the dictionary and for help with historical documentation.

Prof 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 of telling the story of the evolution of the African-American people, but it is," he said. "If you sat down and read the dictionary, you'd get a history of the African-American people from A to Z."

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the editor in chief of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English. PHOTO: NYTIMES

African-American English is a variety with its own syntax, word structure and pronunciation features, said Prof Weldon, dean of the graduate school at the University of South Carolina and a member of the dictionary's advisory board.

But it has long been dismissed as inferior, stigmatised or ignored. "It is almost never the case that African-American English is recognised as even legitimate, much less 'good' or something to be lauded," she said.

"And yet it is the lexicon, it is the vocabulary that is the most imitated and celebrated - but not with the African-American speech community being given credit for it."

This dictionary will offer many insights, Prof Gates said, but one overarching lesson jumps out. "The bottom line of the African-American people, when you read this dictionary," he said, "is that you'll say these are people who love language."

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