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A new Oxford dictionary will document the lexicon of African American English

The dictionary will also 'acknowledge the contributions of' African Americans to the evolution of the US English lexicon.

A new Oxford dictionary will document the lexicon of African American English
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images | JLGutierrez

Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and Oxford University Press are teaming up to create a new dictionary "that will illuminate the history, meaning, and significance" of African American English (AAE). According to a press release from Oxford University Press, the exciting three-year research project "is a landmark scholarly initiative to document the lexicon" of the language. "Finally we will have a space that recognizes our language in a way that encompasses all the people within African American language communities," Sonja Lanehart, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona and one of the advising editors for the initiative, told NPR.



 

 

"If we look at some present words, we can think of something like woke and hip, cool, bad meaning good," Lanehart added, revealing that although there have been similar projects in the past, none have attempted to focus on African American language varieties at the magnitude that the Oxford Dictionary of African American English (ODAAE) aims to do. "It will be much more expansive and inclusive of the language as opposed to [just] some words here and there," she said. According to the press release, in addition to documenting the meaning, pronunciation, spelling and usage of AAE words, the project will also provide some historical context and quotations taken from real examples of language in use.



 

"The etymology of a word and the history of the word is extremely important... in understanding how a language has developed, evolved, and who's been a part of it," Lanehart said. Funded in part by grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations, the project is reportedly one of the most well-funded initiatives of its kind. A diverse team of lexicographers and researchers will pull from documents including flyers, books and newspapers as well as music, oral histories and social media.



 

"Social media has allowed an outlet in a way that Black people hadn't really had before," said Lanehart. She explained that looking to Twitter for research could highlight the regional, economic and social roots of some of this language. "Dictionaries attempt to codify language," Lanehart said. "And what's going to be important about this in getting it right is listening to the people... in terms of what they say and what it means to them." Furthermore, the project will also "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."



 

"Every speaker of American English borrows heavily from words invented by African Americans, whether they know it or not. 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," Hutchins Center director and the editor in chief on the project, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said in a statement.

"And while many scholars have compiled dictionaries of African American usage and vocabulary, no one has yet 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. This project, at long last, will address that need."



 

Lanehart believes that crediting African Americans for these words in an official, well-researched lexicon will help in other ways as well. "It's taken a lot to get to this point to show that Black people and Black language aren't grotesque, exotic, or deficient," she said. "They have a language variety that is different and should be recognized just like any other language variety."

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