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Henry Louis Gates Jr. Leads Efforts for Black English Dictionary

The Washington Informer
The Washington Informer
 2022-08-03
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In the next several years, a new African-American English Dictionary will make its way to the press.

Oxford University Press and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research announced the launch of the three-year research project in June with the goal of compiling the Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE). It will be compiled by a team of researchers and editors and spearheaded by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Center and Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard.

Funded partly by grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations, upon its completion it will represent the first comprehensive source of African-American English that has significantly influenced the development of English vocabulary, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries.

With its roots in African languages and creoles, it has long contributed total categories of words and phrases that have profoundly impacted the way English is used in the U.S. and worldwide, the groups said in a statement.

Alongside meaning, pronunciation, spelling, usage, and history, each entry will be illustrated by quotations taken from real examples of language in use.

Researchers said this would serve to acknowledge the contributions of African-American writers, thinkers, and artists, as well as everyday African Americans, to the evolution of the English lexicon.

Additional research will be gathered from diverse sources such as novels, academic research papers, newspapers and magazines, song lyrics, recipes, social media and more.

“Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not,” Gates, Jr. said. “Words with African origins such as ‘goober,’ ‘gumbo’ and ‘okra’ survived the Middle Passage along with our African ancestors. And words that we take for granted today, such as ‘cool’ and ‘crib,’ ‘hokum’ and ‘diss,’ ‘hip’ and ‘hep,’ ‘bad,’ meaning ‘good’ and ‘dig,’ meaning ‘to understand’—these are just a tiny fraction of the words that have come into American English from African-American speakers. These neologisms emerged out of the Black Experience in this country, over the last few hundred years.”

Gates said the project represents a dream that began decades ago when he first studied the pages of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language.

“This massive project draws upon decades of scholarship from the most sophisticated linguists, especially those colleagues who have graciously joined this project as members of our editorial board, as well as the vast academic resources at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and the crowd-sourced contributions of speakers of African American English as well,” he said.

“African-American English is the most interesting dialect of American English on all levels, and yet remains misunderstood by the public,” said Dr. John McWhorter, professor of linguistics, Columbia University and a member of the project’s advisory board. “Even specialists in it have a fascinating mountain of material still to examine. I would feel incomplete to not participate in this project.”

The first version of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English is projected for release in 2025.

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