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Anansa Benbow ’15

Languages, Identity, and Connections A lexicographer documents African American English, part of a new project to capture the linguistic legacy of Black history and culture.Interview by Karen McCally ’02 (PhD)
illustration of Anansa Benbow(Illustration: David Cowles for the University of Rochester)

Anansa Benbow ’15

Linguist, presenter, podcaster

Lexicographer, Oxford University Press Dictionary of African American English

On language and music, and the late Paul Burgett ’68E, ’76E (PhD): “A lot of terms in African American English come from Black music. I took Dean Burgett’s Music of Black Americans and History of Jazz. I really wish I could talk to him about my work. I know he’d be excited. I know he would give me terms from when he was growing up. I think about him every week, just because a term will come up and I’m like, ‘Oh, I learned about that with Dean Burgett.’ ”

There was a lot of language diversity in my family. My mother’s family came from Puerto Rico and my dad’s family is from Greeleyville, South Carolina. A lot of the older people in my dad’s family have distinct kinds of Southern accents, and my mother’s family spoke Spanish and “Spanglish.” I also spent a lot of time in New York City, where there are so many languages spoken but also so much linguistic flexibility.

At Rochester, I started as a brain and cognitive sciences major, but realized what I really loved was language cognition. I came back after one summer and said to my advisor, “I think I want to do linguistics.” When I started taking sociolinguistics, I realized how connected languages are to identity, and I was able to make so many connections from my life to the work.

I’m part of a team creating the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, which is a joint project of Harvard and Oxford University Press. There have been other dictionaries of African American English, like glossaries coming out during the Jazz Age, and then more recent examples from the 1980s and ’90s, like Black Slang by Clarence Major and Black Talk by Geneva Smitherman. The words they included are automatically considered for our dictionary.

A lot of common words come from African American English. “Cool” and “hip” came out of Black culture during the Jazz Age. And there’s “cakewalk.” Its origins are in a tradition that started during enslavement. There were competitions on plantations where Black people would do stylized walks or dances. They were actually mocking the slave owners, who chose the winner and awarded a cake.

Many people think that African American English is just English with mistakes. But it’s a full communicative system, meaning that there’s a vocabulary and grammar rules that tell us what to do with that vocabulary. There’s also a pragmatics aspect to it, which gives us information about how to use terms in different contexts. And there’s a phonological aspect to it, which means it has its own sound inventory, and those sounds change based on where you’re from.

There’s a lot of debate in the linguistics community about the origins of features of African American English common to older varieties of English as well as West African languages. But we’ve unquestionably maintained some words, like “goober,” “yam,” and “okra,” from West African languages.

It’s a common experience to grow up in a Black family where everyone is speaking African American English but still not seeing it as an appropriate way to speak. When I learned in my linguistics classes that African American English can be considered a language, I went home and told my parents. Being able to share what I’ve learned with my family has been extremely valuable in terms of educating ourselves about Black history and Black culture.