From African America, words to live by

August 23, 1994|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

This ever happen to you? Somebody comes out of a bag, drops a dime and gives the foe one one 'bout some half-steppin'.

If that sounds like a foreign language, chances are you're no tenderoni home slice.

Enter Geneva Smitherman, translator for the clueless. The Michigan State University professor has written "Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner" (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994).

It's a dictionary of words and phrases used by African-Americans from varied walks of life.

"I try to capture the lexical core of blacks from ages 8 to 80," says Dr. Smitherman. "It doesn't just deal with street talk or the stereotypical gangsta' language. It also deals with the language of older blacks, black people in churches, words heard in barber shops, beauty shops, all those different places where black people gather."

From such sources come these phrases: "Coming out of a bag" means acting contrary to expectations. "Dropping a dime" translates to making a telephone call about someone to an authority figure. "Foe one one" is information. "Half-steppin" is to do something halfway, without a full effort. "Tenderoni" is a young male or female. And "home slice" is a black person.

Dr. Smitherman, an English professor and director of the school's African-American language program, became interested in language shortly after graduating from college.

"I had to take an exam for a teacher's certificate," she explains. "You had to use standard Midwestern, middle-class white speech. If not, you would flunk. This was the standard at the time."

Dr. Smitherman flunked and was required to take a remedial class.

"At first, I got an attitude about it," she says. "I thought it had to do with race." But when looking around the class, she realized there were Hispanic and whites sitting there, too.

"Two whites were from the South and another was from the bTC Bronx. The way they spoke was unacceptable also," she says.

From this experience, Dr. Smitherman became intrigued with the whole issue surrounding language and spent years researching words and phrases used in the black community.

The idea for the dictionary evolved when an editor suggested the inclusion of a glossary of words used by African-Americans in the back of her first book.

"I found out this was the part of the book that people liked the best!" Dr. Smitherman says. So over the years, she -- along with her students and research assistants -- began collecting words and phrases.

Dr. Smitherman knows that "black talk" or "black English" has been a lightning rod for decades in the community and among educators. She is not advocating that blacks should only know "black talk," but that it is as valid a language as anything else.

"My position is that Americans are generally too narrow. We need to have a global perspective. We need to promote multilingualism. Whites can learn black vernacular as well as other languages."

Any dialect is a "legitimate entity," says Dr. Mary Clawsey, who heads the English department at Coppin State College. Dr. Clawsey, who is white, grew up in Appalachia listening to the particular dialect spoken in that area.

"But 'black English' is unique because it is not regional like other dialects," she says.

Years ago, she remembers reading a paper about a student's right to his own language. "This is something that I have thought about for the last 25 years," Dr. Clawsey says. "I have somewhat mixed feelings about it."

"Every language has a form that is recognized as the standard. A student that doesn't learn the standard risks being labeled as uneducated," Dr. Clawsey says. "I favor a use of standard English in the classroom and in academic and expository writing. Students should be taught that different styles of speech -- like different styles of dress -- are appropriate in different settings."

To Dr. Gary Simpkins, this is called code-switching.

"Our successful, black kids know how to code-switch. They talk one way on the playground then another way around their teachers, parents, other adults," says Dr. Simpkins, a Los Angeles psychologist who developed a reading program for urban black children.

His Bridge program advocates teaching children how to read by initially using their "black English" then gradually introducing standard English.

"Black language is not a defective language," says Dr. Simpkins.

"If the kid talks just like his mother, father, everyone around him, then someone tells him his language is backward, then that is making a statement against his entire community," Dr. Simpkins says. Children can study the differences -- and similarities -- between black English and standard English, he says.

One reason Dr. Smitherman wrote the book was to show how much of the public language comes from black people. An example is the word "cool" described as an older term meaning "relaxed, calm."

But often when words crossover -- like cool -- they lose their appeal with black youth, Dr. Smitherman says.

"The same lingo," she writes, "generated by the creative juices of the community and considered 'def' [cool] today can tomorrow become 'wack' [outdated] and suitable only for 'lames' [the unhip] if it gets picked up by whites."

'BLACK TALK'

A few words and phrases from Geneva Smitherman's "Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner":

* Boomin: Good looking. Or playing loud and deep bass tones on a stereo.

* CCM: Cold cash money.

* Crack on: To insult a person, either seriously or in fun.

* Dope fiend move: A wild or bizarre action; an unexpected move of desperation.

* Funky fresh: Describes something that is super, exceptional, superior to fresh.

* Got his/her nose open: Refers to a person who is vulnerable, helplessly and hopelessly in love.

* Humpin: Very attractive; good-looking.

* Old head: An older person; generally suggests the person is not only older but wiser.

* On it: In control, on top of a situation.

* Raise: To leave.

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