Ukrainian Isn’t ‘Little Russian’ and Black English Isn’t Broken

It was long ago common for Russians to regard Ukrainian as just a dialect of Russian. “Little Russian,” it was called. Writing for The Conversation this week, Florida International University’s Phillip Carter said, “If you ask some Russian nationalists, Ukrainian isn’t a language at all,” noting that in the 1863 Valuev Circular, Pyotr Valuev, Russia’s interior minister, decreed that a separate Ukrainian language did not exist.

Ukrainian is indeed closely related to Russian — they both use a Cyrillic alphabet and have similar grammatical patterns — but Russian it is not. Through the auspices of my own nerdish obsession with language and opportunities to practice within a personal relationship, on a good day I can grasp maybe about half of what Russians are saying to each other in conversation if the topic isn’t too sophisticated. But years ago, when I moved to a neighborhood in Jersey City, I found that I couldn’t catch a single word of what my “Russian” neighbors were saying until it occurred to me that they weren’t speaking Russian at all. It was, rather, the distinct language Ukrainian.

That Ukrainian was viewed, for so long, as just a minor variation on Russian was an erasure of a way of speaking and writing with centuries of history. And its story is not unique: In the 2017 anthology “Standardizing Minority Languages,” Diana M. J. Camps describes how, after the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages recognized Limburgish as a language, rather than a dialect of Dutch, in the late 1990s, the decision drew a letter of “disapproval” from the general secretary of the Dutch Language Union. Elfdalian, a language of its own under any neutral analysis, retains the three genders and other characteristics of Old Norse. But as Andrew Warner reported for Language Magazine last year, “the Swedish government only recognizes Elfdalian as a dialect of Swedish.”

The world’s standard languages offer an impoverished picture of the global diversity of languages, analogous to seeing a group of icebergs from the air unaware of the vast masses of further frozen marvel beneath the water. Much of what linguists do is document the true range of languages in the world, including revealing the uniqueness of what traditionally have been dismissed as mere dialects.

This mission becomes especially urgent when it comes to speech varieties with origins in colonialism and imperialism, created by subordinated, often nonwhite people under various conditions of forced labor or social isolation. In many cases, under conditions like these, adults (as opposed to children, who start learning a language from birth) learned additional languages quickly and without formal instruction, and filled out what they learned with aspects of their native languages, and a good bit of sheer creativity, to fashion something brand-new: creole languages, as linguists call them. These new ways of speaking usually discarded much of the older language’s random material (which any language accretes over time) that is harder for adults to learn and not necessary to communication, anyway. A creole language doesn’t present you with long lists of conjugational endings or randomly assign genders to inanimate objects because many languages worldwide do not, and a language need not. But even when a language doesn’t do these things, it still has a great many rules to pick up, its own grammar, tens of thousands of words and specific ways that sounds are shaped and sentences are intoned. In other words, it’s full human language.

Yet this (rather efficient) shedding of the bric-a-brac, plus the creole’s being spoken by subaltern people, has encouraged a sense of it as a mere “broken” version of an older language. It often distracts even the speakers of these varieties themselves. While there has been, of late, a movement advocating recognition of Jamaican Patois as an official language, experts on the variety are perpetually frustrated by a general misimpression, especially beyond the academy and the arts, that Patois is just broken English, a bad habit.

But one way we know that languages like this are indeed languages is that you can write a detailed grammatical description of each of them, full of complex rules (and exceptions) mapping out how to pronounce words, add tense to verbs, put sentences together, convey nuance — just as in grammatical descriptions of languages such as Ukrainian that aren’t creoles but have suffered similar disrespect.

This brings to my mind Black English. It is a dialect of English rather than a separate language — while Standard English speakers may miss some of it when spoken rapidly, for the most part, they readily comprehend Black English. But traditionally, it has been seen as English gone wrong, just as Jamaican Patois has. The differences between Black English and Standard English are due in large part to the fact that it formed under circumstances like the ones that produced many creoles. Adult learners had a lot to do with its creation, and as such, it let go of some of Standard English’s unneeded bells and whistles, the absence of which is often presented in a way that inadvertently oversimplifies, even diminishes, Black English.

For instance, in various sources providing guidance for teaching reading to kids who speak Black English at home, you encounter the same stock examples showing how Black English relaxes standard English rules: You’ll see the comparison “col’” vs. “cold” show up in more than one place to explain that for some words, the final consonant sound is dropped. You’ll see a basic explanation that the verb “to be” is often superfluous — “she my sister” instead of “she is my sister” and so on.

These descriptions are well-meaning and technically correct. But often, in the way they’re presented, it’s hard not to hear or read them as if they’re describing what a toy piano lacks that a Bösendorfer has while insisting that Rachmaninoff will sound just as good on either one. With some of these sources, I’m surprised anyone comes away thinking of Black English as the equal of Standard English. More likely, they’ll come away with the impression that Black English is a kind of “Little Russian.”

Making the case for proper recognition of Black English requires a heavier lift, more like the comprehensive efforts of advocates of Limburgish and Elfdalian — who see themselves as preserving a heritage — and less like “Fun with Dick and Jane.” Merely observing that it’s grammatically correct to chuck the verb “to be” is inadequate.

A good starting point is Lisa J. Green’s “African American English: A Linguistic Introduction,” a useful primer on Black English grammar that has been available for 20 years now and covers it the way we expect a speech variety to be covered, addressing verbs, the sound system and so on, rather than just listing Standard English things you can get away with not doing. Then there’s this other book that includes a chapter on the aspects of Black English that are more complicated than their equivalents in Standard English: You’ve probably heard the phrases “They be frontin’” and “What had happened was …” but did you think of them as an explicit marking of habituality and a special marking of narrative tense?

There is a great deal of linguistic analysis of Black English out there in academic sources, addressing discrete issues one at a time, the way academic work often does. For instance, as I wrote in November, in Black English the verb “to come” can be used to express disapproval. That’s a fascinating discussion, but it’s hard to go from that to getting a grasp on the big picture because a stand-alone observation doesn’t tell the story of Black English. I hope that specialists on Black English will one day embark on a project to produce an obsessive grammatical deep-dive, some hundreds of pages worth, incorporating all of the important findings from the past, say, 50 years into a single volume, of a weight you could use as a doorstop, throw on a desktop and savor a window-rattling thump or present to a body like the Académie Française — if English had one.

Black English is no “Little English.” In fact, people who speak both Black English and Standard English speak, all together, a larger English. As a brand name, “Larger English” doesn’t really grab you — it’s not an elegant word or phrase, like “Patois” or “Old Norse.” But as a concept it’s vital, and as real as the knowledge that Ukrainian is not Russian.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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