Almost 50 years after Dr. Robert L. Williams coined the term “Ebonics” to describe the uniqueness of Black American English, the process has started to commission an “African American English” dictionary with editorial oversight by renowned race, history and literary scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Oxford University Press recently announced the upcoming dictionary, which is slated to be a three-year research project. Upon completion, the official name will be the Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE).
“We’re proud to be initiating this timely and important project with the team at Harvard,” said Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Languages at Oxford University Press. “African American English has had a profound impact on the world’s most widely spoken language, yet much of it has been obscure.”
“The ODAAE seeks to acknowledge this contribution more fully and formally and, in doing so, create a powerful tool for a new generation of researchers, students, and scholars to build a more accurate picture of how African American life has influenced how we speak, and therefore who we are,” Grathwohl added.
The dictionary will be based on examples of African American speech and writing spanning the history of African American English, OUP said in a statement.
Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 27: Karen Fleshman
Lawyer-activist Karen Fleshman returns to the GHOGH show to discuss why white folks call the cops on innocent Black folks and whether an ambiguous diversity concept helps empower BBQ Beckies and Permit Patties.
“Alongside meaning, pronunciation, spelling, usage, and history, each entry will be illustrated by quotations taken from real examples of language in use,” Oxford University Press said. “This will serve to acknowledge the contributions of African-American writers, thinkers, and artists, as well as everyday African Americans, to the evolution of the US English lexicon and the English lexicon as a whole.”
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the director of the Hutchins Center for African and American Research at Harvard University. His body of work spans decades and he is a foremost expert on Black history, race, culture and genealogy.
“Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not,” Gates 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, neologisms that emerged out of the Black Experience in this country, over the last few hundred years.”
Many scholars have compiled dictionaries of African American usage and vocabulary but none had the resources to undertake a large-scale, systematic study, based on historical principles, of the myriad contributions that African Americans have made to the shape and structure of the English language that Americans speak today,” Gates added. “This project, at long last, will address that need.”
Funded by grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations, the dictionary is expected to be released in 2025.
PHOTO: Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes part in a panel discussion during the 2019 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour on July 29, 2019. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)