A groundbreaking initiative is underway as the Oxford Dictionary of African-American English takes shape. This first-of-its-kind dictionary aims to immortalize the rich lexicon originating from African-Americans, highlighting the significance of African American English and providing a valuable resource for future research into Black speech, history, and culture.
Spearheaded by the esteemed scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a team of researchers and editors from Oxford Languages and the Harvard University Hutchins Center, this three-year project delves into the diverse sources that shape African-American English, ranging from jazz and hip-hop lyrics to slave narratives and Black Twitter.
The dictionary seeks to shed light on the unique linguistic contributions of African-Americans and acknowledge their profound impact on the evolution of the English language.
The Oxford Dictionary of African American English, a meticulous endeavor unveiled last spring, seeks to encapsulate the vibrant tapestry of African American English. Beyond merely documenting words, the project aims “to provide historical context and etymological evidence,” drawing upon the works of influential African-American writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison as well as jazz, hip-hop, blues and R&B as well as letters, diaries, newspaper and magazine articles, Black Twitter, slave narratives and abolitionist writings.
The black dictionary celebrates the ingenuity of Black speech, which evolved as a survival mechanism during oppression and systemic racism. Professor Gates emphasizes how African Americans transformed language to express themselves and navigate hostile environments, creating a “double-voiced discourse” that enabled expressing their thoughts without risking their lives.
“Black people take language and ‘wrap it around themselves,’ Professor Gates said. “They turn words inside out. We are endlessly inventive with language, and we had to be,” he continued. “We had to develop what literary scholars call double-voiced discourse. We had to learn to speak the master’s language, then you had to learn to speak under the masters so that you could have a coded way of speaking English that would allow you to voice your feelings without being killed, whipped or — worst-case scenario — without being lynched.”
Embedded in the New Oxford Dictionary of African-American English entries are the invaluable contributions of African-American writers, thinkers, and artists. The dictionary meticulously cites examples of language usage from diverse sources, including novels, academic papers, song lyrics, social media, and everyday conversations. Some of the first words to be announced are:
- bussin (adjective and participle): 1. Especially describing food: tasty, delicious. Also more generally: impressive, excellent. 2. Describing a party, event, etc.: busy, crowded, lively. (Variant forms: bussing, bussin’.)
- grill (noun): A removable or permanent dental overlay, typically made of silver, gold or another metal and often inset with gemstones, which is worn as jewelry.
- old school (adj.): Characteristic of early hip-hop or rap music that emerged in New York City between the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, which often includes the use of couplets, funk and disco samples, and playful lyrics. Also used to describe the music and artists of that style and time period. (Variant form: old skool.)
The researchers say they aim to publish a first batch of 1,000 definitions by March 2025. The public will continue to be able to suggest entries for consideration even after the first edition is published.
In a complementary endeavor, the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, which was first announced in 2020, has recently opened its doors in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop. The museum features engaging exhibits, including “The [R]Evolution of Hip Hop,” employing artifacts, multimedia, artificial intelligence, and virtual and augmented technologies to take visitors on an interactive journey through hip-hop history.