Yo, homeys! English has got a fat new flava, nome same?
John Carlin in Washington tries his hand at Ebonics, the newly recognised 'language' of American blacks
Sunday 12 January 1997
But the acid test of Ebonics' credentials is surely simple. Vocabulary abounds, but is the language susceptible to translation? Were, say, Jane Austen to be rendered in Ebonics, would the resulting text stand distinct and alone?
Take the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, or "Dap and Diss".
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," would translate as: "It be droppin' science that a dawg mad with slamming cream must be hurtin' for a bitch."
Or how about a little Shakespeare? Turning "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar not to praise him," into "Bloods, Romans, homeys: bust this! I be comin' to bag up Caesar, not to floss him."
There is clearly something to all this. Shakespeare and Austen would struggle to recognise their original handiwork. But Shakespeare (perhaps more than Austen) might appreciate Ebonics. Linguistic innovator that he was, he would be distressed to discover that standard English has evolved so little in the 400 years since his death, that we continue to crank out the same tired old words, adhering to the same tedious grammatical constructions.
For fluidity of language and metaphorical gusto, Ebonics is hard to beat. Words mean, as Lewis Carroll's Alice might have said, pretty much what you want them to mean. Take the word "dawg" (also spelt "dog" and "dogg"). It has a whole range of meanings beyond the simple canine one typically attributed to it. "Dawg" can mean "foot", or "friend", or "man". Which of the three you are referring to at any particular moment becomes clear from the context. Thus during a half-time football discussion on television Terry Venables might venture the observation, "Desmond, my dawg, that Ryan Giggs has an educated left dogg," and it would be perfectly clear to Mr Lynam and the viewers - had they taken the trouble to bone up on their Ebonics - what it was Mr Venables had in mind.
While one of the attractions of taking a course in Ebonics would be the absence of rules, native English-speakers would find that there are occasional hurdles to overcome. A Spaniard unaquainted with English would have less difficulty than a Yorkshireman wrestling with the Ebonic word "butter", which in translation means "nice" or "cool". There's also "flavour" (usually spelt "flava") for "style", "grill" for "teeth", "siamese" for "two-faced", pretty" for "ugly" (and vice-versa), "red rum" for "murder" (spelt backwards), "fat" for "fabulous", "stupid" for "creative", "mad" for "beautiful", "cream" for "money" and "boo" as a sugary term of endearment like "baby". In the verb department you've got "to house" for "to beat", "to marinate" for "to relax", "to wet" for "to kill" and "to OJ" for "to plant evidence".
More than enough right there for the BBC to do one of their dramatised language instruction videos. You could have an affecting little boy-girl scene, for example.
Boy: "You be fat, will you be my girldawg?"
Girl: "Mmm, yo, boo. You be very, very butter."
Boy: "And you be so, so ugly."
Ebonics, which makes a virtue of its earthiness, would offer plenty of scope for an X-rated elaboration of the same scene. The boy could plausibly go on to ask the girl if it would be all right "to get busy", also known as "to lay pipe". Whereupon she might either go "buckwild" with pleasure, or house him in the grill and call him a pretty, siamese "bamma", which means a person who dresses without flava.
Sensitive Ebonics students might possibly take objection to some of the language's racial and sexist undertones. Black men tend to be referred to as "niggas" and white women as "hos", meaning "whores". White people are called "cave boys" or "cave bitches", the etymological rationale being that a long time ago white people lived in caves. "I have a dream that one day little black niggas and little black hos will join little white cave boys and little white cave bitches as sisters and brothers," undoubtedly sounds better in Martin Luther King's original English.
While not everyone's cup of tea, Ebonics does count among its merits a pleasing impulse to concision. "Know what I am saying?" becomes "Nome same?"; "What's up?" is synthesised down to "Sup?"; the ubiquitous "mother" word is reduced to a manageably concise "mahfok". The crude simplicity and sheer anarchy of the language may not do much for the forgotten art of letter-writing, but its taut richness may inject some zest into the novel medium of the Internet.
As a useful exercise one might attempt to compose in one's head a letter in the style favoured during Jane Austen's time and then render it in e-mail Ebonics. Something like this.
"Sup? I be cool. The weather be mad, the scenery, ugly. The country house where I be marinating these summer months be built in the stupid Augustan flava.
"Butter news from France. We heared that the Duke of Wellington housed Napoleon - the mahfok - at a joint called Waterloo. Yet I be pissed when I reflect on all the brothers who be wet. War be pretty, nome same?"
It's easy. Try it yourselves at home.
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