by Mark Sebba

Department of Linguistics and English Language

Lancaster University

Lancaster LA1 4YT, England



2002 Mark Sebba




"Black English" can refer to two different language varieties: (1) the type of English used by people of African and Caribbean descent who live in Britain; (2) the language of African-Americans (negroes) in the United States. This is usually called Black English Vernacular or BEV for short. "Black English" in both senses has its historical roots in a creolised form of English which dates back to the time of slavery. Creoles are languages which evolve from Pidgins when the pidgins become first languages for some or all of their speakers. Black English Vernacular has a somewhat different history (and is a different language) from British Black English. This unit will concentrate on British Black English.




In another unit you were introduced to pidgin languages and their characteristics. The defining characteristic of a pidgin is that it is no one's native language: it is a second language for all its speakers. This is true of a pidgin whether it is still in the process of formation or it has been around in a stable form for hundreds of years as West African Pidgin English has. However, it is possible for a pidgin to become a native language for some or all of its speakers. In the fact file below you will find descriptions of two cases in which this has happened. When a pidgin becomes a native language for some of its speakers, it said to become a Creole. This means that it is a language which has passed through a pidgin stage, and has now become the language of a community. Children growing up in that community speak the creole as their native language. Very often, of course, there are other languages spoken in the community as well. Some children who speak the creole may also speak other languages.


When a pidgin becomes a creole, it may change its character somewhat. The differences are subtle and difficult to study, and a great deal has been written on this subject with little agreement being reached. However, we can say that where there are differences between the pidgin and the creole, these will be related to the new functions which the creole has taken on. It no longer serves just as a means of communication between adults with no other language in common; it is now a language through which children experience the world, develop their knowledge and mental capacities, and grow up. Creoles, in fact are indistinguishable in their range of functions from other languages. What makes them special is their history. Because they originated through pidginisation, they retain many of the characteristics of pidgins: simplicity of grammar, for example. In other respects, however, they often go beyond the limitations of pidgins. They are likely to have larger vocabularies and are used in a wider range of situations.





1. Creoles are spoken natively by many millions of people in the Caribbean area. Other Creole languages are spoken in the Pacific area (including New Guinea and Hawaii), North Australia, and off the coast of Africa, in the Cape Verde Islands to the West, and in Mauritius and Seychelles to the East.


2. Creole languages have been used in education and books have been published in many of them (often the Bible is among the first to be published) but no creole language is currently used officially as the main medium of education.


3. Krio, a creole language of Sierra Leone, West Africa, is spoken by descendents of slaves who were freed from slavery and settled around the town of Freetown. Krio is being used as a literary medium and some Shakespeare plays have been translated into it. Krio is a close relative of West African Pidgin English.


4. There are daily newspapers produced in Papiamentu, a creole language of the Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) off the coast of Venezuela. This Creole is of Spanish‑Portuguese origin and dates back about three centuries. Until recently the islands were a Dutch colony and Dutch is the official language.


5. Most of the Caribbean creoles have a similar history. Europeans traded goods for slaves along the African coast for several hundred years. A pidgin form of the European language (for example, English) was spoken by the traders on both sides of the transaction. The slaves were divided up into groups without a common language (there are many hundreds of different languages in West Africa, and slaves were taken from all over the region). This was a deliberate strategy to prevent rebellion. The slaves learnt the pidgin in order to communicate with each other (and with their masters, although this was probably less important.) After a time, the slaves had chidren who grew up in a pidgin‑speaking environment and learnt the pidgin as their first language. Thus the pidgin became a creole.


6. New Guinea Pidgin (called Tok Pisin) is now becoming a creole in less cruel circumstances. Many New Guineans have gone to live and work in the capital, Port Moresby. There are hundreds of different languages spoken in Papua and New Guinea and in the capital, there are now many families where the parents' only common language is the pidgin. Children growing up in this environment are speaking Tok Pisin as their native language, so it has become a creole.




Most of the creoles used in Europe (unlike the creole variety of Tok Pisin, for example) have their origins in the slave trade which involved four continents: Europe, Africa and North and South America. As a result, most of the Creoles used in Britain have an element of African language patterns in them.


The Great Circuit


Ships left English ports such as Liverpool, Lancaster, Bristol and Cardiff with cargoes of manufactured goods which they traded for slaves along the African coast. Slaves were boarded at different trading stations and usually had been captured inland, so that they spoke many different languages, and usually could not speak each other's language. Under these conditions, with very restricted contact between the slaves and the English crew, a pidgin developed which was used for communication not just between the slaves and their masters, but between the slaves themselves.


The slave traders brought their human cargo across the "Middle Passage" between Africa and the Americas and sold them there to plantation owners. Slaves who spoke the same language were kept apart deliberately to prevent them from rebelling. Thus the pidgin continued to be used among the slaves even on the plantations. Children born on the plantations came to learn the pidgin as their first language (though sometimes they also learnt an African language as well). In this way the pidgin acquired native speakers, and became a creole. Because of the importance of African languages in the slave community, the Creole spoken still showed many similarities to African languages (especially languages of West Africa, where most slaves came from.)



The African Element in Sranan Tongo


Sranan Tongo ("Surinam Tongue") is the creole language of Surinam, a large country on the Caribbean coast of South America. Surinam was a Dutch colony for 300 years up to 1975, but English, not Dutch, is the source for most of the vocabulary of Sranan. This is because English planters were the first to bring slaves to the colony. They stayed only about 20 years before being driven out by the Dutch. But the slaves stayed on, and an English-based creole had taken root in that short space of time.


Conditions in Surinam were so bad for the slaves that they died in very large numbers. Fresh loads of slaves had to be brought from Africa to Surinam throughout a period of about 200 years. Not surprisingly, the African influence on Sranan is very strong. This influence can be seen in idioms with African counterparts, like atibron meaning anger from ati "heart" and bron "burn", wasi-bere "last child" from wasi "wash" and bere "belly". Some West African languages have similar expressions. Personal names like Kwami, Kwasi and Abeni which are still used in Ghana (West Africa) were once common in Surinam.


The next exercise is designed to show some of the more subtle ways in which African speech patterns have influenced Sranan.



Activity 1: African Sound Patterns in Sranan


Compare the following Sranan words with their English sources. What differences can you see between the English and the Sranan words?


lobi love /lVv/

bigi big /bIg/

lafu laugh /la:f/

mofo mouth

ini in

tapu top

luku look

abi have

futu foot

seni send

leni lend


Hint: you need to go by the pronunciation, not the spelling (The slaves had only the sound to go on. They could not read or write English.) Write the English words out phonemically first. (The Sranan is already phonemic.) The first three have been done for you.

The slave traders completed the Great Circuit by sailing back to England with the products of the slaves' labour in their holds. More recently, the descendents of those slaves have completed the Great Circuit themselves by coming to Britain, bringing the Creole language with them.




In the 1950s and 1960s people from the Caribbean migrated to Britain in relatively large numbers. Most of these settled in cities, especially in the large English cities, and in most of these communities people from Jamaica were more numerous than people from other parts of the Caribbean. Although the Caribbean is made up of many different islands and mainland territories, including many where an English Creole is not spoken, British Black English is most similar to Jamaican Creole, because of the larger number of Jamaicans who settled in this country.


Linton Kwesi Johnson is probably the best known poet in Britain who is currently using Creole. His verse is spoken against a musical background (dubbing) and distributed on records, tapes and CDs. The poem "Sonny's Lettah", appeared in print in his anthology "Inglan' is a Bitch" (1980) and was recorded on his album Forces of Victory. It is also reproduced, and copiable for educational purposes, in the Language and Power volume (see "Further Reading"), or you can link to it via his website:


Activity 2: Differences between British English and British Black English.


Read through "Sonny's Lettah" listening to the tape and mark (e.g. by underlining or circling) every difference you can find between Standard English and the English used in the poem. Assume that where odd or unusual spelling has been used, this reflects a difference in pronunciation.


Now, make three separate lists to show different levels at which the language of the poem differs from Standard.


List 1: sound differences - where the sound of the Creole (as shown by the spelling) is different from the sound you would expect in a British variety of English.


List 2: grammar differences - where the grammar seems to be different from standard.


List 3: vocabulary differences - words which are unfamiliar or which you think are Caribbean in origin.


In each list, put the British English equivalent next to the Creole item.




List 1 (sounds) deze these

bes' best

helt' health


List 2 (grammar) dem waak they walked

him belly his belly

mi kick I kicked


List 3 (vocabulary) fi to

pan for

t'ief (to) steal



FEEDBACK: Creole is different from British English at these three levels (and maybe others).




At the level of sounds, Creole has some characteristics which are associated with regional and working-class varieties of English, and some others which are found only in Caribbean Creole. Some of the most important differences:


The vowel of CUP is like the vowel of British English COP /kVp/

The vowel of ALL is like the vowel of British English ARE /a:l/

The vowels of DAY and HOME are diphthongs /dI@/ and /huom/

The first consonant of THESE /Di:z/ is /d/: /di:z/

the first consonant of THUMP /TVmp/ is /t/: /tVmp/


Do you recognise any of these characteristics of Creole from your own variety of English? Or from any other variety you have encountered?




At the level of grammar there are important differences between Creole and Standard English. Here are some of the main ones:


1. The pronoun system


Standard English has separate forms for subject, object and possessive pronouns. Creole has just one form for all three: sometimes this form is derived from the subject and sometimes from the object form in British English.




1. Subject pronouns









y o u






2. Object pronouns









y o u






3. Possessive pronouns































Notice how Standard British English has 18 different pronoun forms while Creole has only 6. Creole is much more "compact", more "efficient" in using the available forms to cover the range of meaning. But Creole has two forms for "you", one (/yu/) for singular and another (/unu/) for plural. Standard English is rather unusual in not having such a distinction, so in this respect Creole could be said to be more "universal".


2. Plurals


In Standard British English, nearly all nouns have specially marked plural forms, e.g. book-books, woman-women. Creole usually does not mark plural in this way, so that plural nouns often have exactly the same form as the singular, as in: t'ree policeman. Sometimes dem is added after a noun (especially one referring to people) to show plural, e.g. di gyal-dem, "the girls".


3. Past tense


In Standard British English, nearly all verbs have specially marked forms for the past tense, e.g. look-looked, come-came, go-went. In Creole the past tense is often left unmarked, so that it has exactly the same form as the present, e.g. a police van pull-up (Standard pulled up), out jump t'ree policeman (jumped), Jim start to wriggle (started).



These grammatical differences between Creole and Standard have given rise in the past to the idea that Creole speakers have "wrong" or "sloppy" grammar. However, as you can see (especially from the pronoun example) Creole grammar is systematic and has its own logic. Most Creole words look like words of English but they are combined using grammar rules which belong to Creole alone.




At the vocabulary level, there are a large number of words which are specific to Creole. In this respect, Creole is like all other varieties of English, which all have some specific vocabulary which is not shared with other varieties. Some Creole words are names for specifically Caribbean things, while others are older English words which have dropped out of use in other parts of the English-speaking world (e.g. pan from upon meaning "on"). Sometimes there is just a change of function involved, for example t'ief from English "thief" is a verb ("to steal") in Creole, but a noun in Standard English.





"Sonny's Lettah" by Linton Kwesi Johnson is an example of a piece of poetry that was intended for reciting out loud, though it was also published in the anthology, Inglan' is a Bitch. There are some difficulties associated with writing Creole, because unlike Standard English which has an accepted (Standard) spelling system there is no "agreed" way of spelling words in Creole.


The following is part of "Sonny's Lettah" as it appears on the sleeve of the 10" disco version of the poem:


Mama, a jus couldn't stan up an no dhu notin so mi juk one ina im eye an him started to cry mi tump one ina him mouth an him started to shout mi kick one pon him shin an him started to spin mi tump him pon him chin an him drop pon a bin an crash an DEAD. Mama more police man come down an beat mi to di groun' dem charge Jim fi sus dem charge mi fi murder


Now here is the same passage written in a phonemic orthography devised by Le Page and Cassidy for the Dictionary of Jamaican English (1980):


Mama a jos kudn stan op an no du notin so mi juk wan ina him ai an him staatid to krai mi tomp wan ina him mout an him staatid tu shout mi kik wan pan him shin an him staatid tu spin mi tomp him pan him chin an him drap pan a bin an krash an DED. Mama muor pliisman kom doun an biit mi tu di groun dem chaaj Jim fi sos dem chaaj mi fi morda.


ACTIVITY 3: Written and Spoken Creole


Compare the three written versions of this poem.


Which one do you think most accurately conveys the sounds of the poem?


Which one do you find easiest to read?


Which one do you think would be easiest to read for a person who knew how to speak Creole but not Standard English?




People of Afro‑Caribbean descent who have been born in Britain nearly always learn the local variety of British English as their first language. Usually, they speak and understand Creole as well (though how well they know it varies from person to person) but use it less often than British English. Especially in private, informal conversations, both British English and Creole may be used. When a speaker "switches" from one language variety to another in the course of the same conversation ‑ sometimes even within one sentence ‑ this is called code switching. It is common behaviour among bilinguals of all kinds (though in some communities, it is frowned upon). The following is an extract from a conversation among some young women in London. Most of the conversation is in British English but the speaker B. switches twice into Creole (underlined).


B it's that same guy that you go back to and have the

best life cause you know that guy you know [ what

C [ yeah


B to expect you two can sit down and (.) sort out

where you went wrong=


C = yeah that's it, yeah


B an' you might end up marryin' that guy me know who

me want marry a'ready! [softly] so, you know it's

just [ * * * [inaudible]

C [ * * * [inaudible] gonna marry


J you see this is what I'm saying about Graham right,

I don't really know but you know when you see

someone and I tell you I did like Graham from the

first time I saw him, I mean it does take time

gettin' to know the right person


B Let me tell you now wiv every guy I've been out wiv,

it's been a ‑ a whole heap o' mont's before I move

wiv the nex' one!


J Next one, yeah!



ACTIVITY 4: Code switching


The two switches to Creole by speaker B are both marked by a noticeable change in the pronunciation (not shown in the transcription), for example, "whole" is pronounced /h l/. In the "British English" parts, the speakers have fairly strong London accents (e.g. "with is pronounced" /w v/) but in the "Creole" parts, the phonemes and intonation patterns are pronounced as in Creole.


1. What grammatical features of Creole can be seen in the first code switch?


2. Can you suggest any reasons why the speaker might have decided to switch to Creole in either of these cases?




1. (a) Use of me as subject pronoun where Standard English would use I (twice)

(b) The word to is omitted after want (want marry : want to marry).


2. Linguists have identified many reasons for code switching. One persuasive theory is that in some bilingual communities, the language which has a longer association with the community (in this case Creole, which has its origin in the Caribbean) is used as a sign of solidarity, to signal membership of a group and show closeness to other group members. Research has shown that in the Afro-Caribbean community, Creole is often used to emphasise an important point (only in informal, personal conversations). There is no "right" or "wrong" answer to the question of why a speaker switches at a particular moment (usually they are not aware of switching). If you know any bilingual speakers, you might try recording them in conversation with other bilinguals to see whether, when, and in what ways they code switch.




The following narrative was written by a London school pupil of Caribbean descent.


Bull, Babylon, The Wicked


One manin in January me and my spars dem was coming from a club in Dalston. We didn't have no donsi so we a walk go home. De night did cold and di gal dem wi did have wid we couldn't walk fast. Anyway we must have been walking for about fifteen minutes when dis car pull up, it was this youthman ah know and him woman. We see sey a mini cab him inna. Him sey "How far you ah go"?


Me sey "Not far, you ketch we too late man".


Anyway before me could close me mout de two gal dem jump inna de car, bout sey dem nah walk no more. Me an Trevor tell dem fi gwan. And de car pull way.


Next ting me know me is about 50 yards from my yard and is the wicked dem just a come down inna dem can. At first me wanted fi run, but Trevor sey "run what" "After we no just kool". We don't have no weed or money pon us. Dem can't do notin.


Next ting we know dem grab we up anna push we into dem car. Me and Trevor put up a struggle but after a few licks we got pushed in. "Now then you two "Rastas" been ripping off mini cabs haven't you?". "We aren't "Rastas" and we don't know what you are talking about". "Save all that until we get to the station Rastus my son". Den him get pon him radio, and tell the station that him ketch the two responsible for that hold up of the mini cab. Trevor luk pon me I could see that he was worried.




manin : morning

spar : friend

donsi : money

gwan : go on

yard : home

weed : marijuana (drug)

Rasta : Rastafarian


ACTIVITY 5: Creole and Standard


1. Do an analysis of the above passage the same way as you analysed "Sonny's Lettah". Show how it is different from Standard/British English at the levels of sound, vocabulary, and grammar.


2. Do you find any evidence of code switching in this story? How does the author use it?





See online bibliography


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