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Black Americans have long contributed to the way the English language is used, and now a new research project aims to compile the first Oxford Dictionary of African American English.
“Finally, we will have a space that will recognize our language in a way that will embrace all people within African-American language communities,” said Sonja Lanehart, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona who grew up in South.
“If we look at certain present words, we can think of something like awake and hip, cool, bad meaning good.”
The research project is a collaboration between the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University and Oxford University Press, with Lanehart among the editors.
While there have been projects like this in the past, Lanehart said none have attempted to focus on African-American language varieties on this scale.
“It will be much broader and inclusive of language as opposed to [just] a few words here and there,” she said. And instead of just defining or spelling the words, the project will also provide historical context.
“The etymology of a word and the history of the word are extremely important…to understanding how a language developed, evolved, and who was part of it,” Lanehart said.
Supported in part by grants from the Mellon and Wagner foundations, the project is one of the best-funded efforts of its kind. Researchers will draw on materials such as pamphlets, books, and journals. They will also draw on music, oral histories, and specifically for Lanehart – social media.
“Social media has enabled an exit in a way that black people haven’t really had before,” she says. Turning to Twitter, she added, could highlight the regional, economic and social roots of part of this language.
“Dictionaries attempt to codify language,” Lanehart said. “And what’s going to be important about that to get it right is listening to people…in terms of what they’re saying and what it means to them.”
Additionally, understanding this context behind the origins of African American English can broaden understanding of English as a whole.
“Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not,” said Hutchins Center director and project editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a communicated.
And Lanehart thinks crediting African Americans for those words in an official, well-researched lexicon will help in other ways.
“It’s taken a lot to get to this point to show that black people and black language aren’t grotesque, exotic or deficient,” Lanehart said. “They have a linguistic variety that is different and should be recognized like any other linguistic variety.”
This is exactly what the Oxford Dictionary of African American English is aiming for, the first version of which is due in three years.