On the Spread Of English Eloquence

How did a language that makes it difficult to tell whether a speaker is saying dozen or doesn’t; bin or been; owed her or odour; conquer or concur, hoar or who’re; and whose most famous truisms can be transcribed into nonsense: e.g.“Thyme end tied weight four know man.” – come to be understood and spoken world wide?

I put it to you, that from the earliest days of American nationhood black voices played a crucial role in the spread of English and that without their influence the first black President’s words would hold little meaning for us today.

Escapees from religious persecution in England setting up home in early 17th Century America opened up the possibility of that New World becoming home to the oppressed and poor from many nations.

Legions of multi-tongued immigrants began to arrive whose main aim was to become ‘regular’ Americans as soon as possible. The best way to achieve this goal was thought to be to get to grips with English.

But how could the masses who owned little but the clothes they stood up in – afford language lessons? By happy coincidence the greatest surge in immigration, which happened during the 19th Century, coincided with the invention of Minstrel shows.

These hugely popular entertainments in which a Mr Tambo and a Mr Bones -white men, blacked up and mimicking the speech and body language of African slaves flanked a highly articulate, white faced character known as Mr Interlocutor – first made their appearance in the mid 1830s.

Typical of the examples of word play accompanied by a shake of the tambourine or a clack of the bones to indicate that what was about to be said was worth attending to was: “ Have you ever see a-bun-dance on a plate?” “ No. But I’ve seen a cow-slip in a field.” Mr Interlocutor would then intervene repeating and questioning what had been said in deliberate, slow, correct English allowing everyone in the audience time both to get the jokes and hear the correct pronunciation. White audiences – at their own varyingly laughable stages of proficiency in comprehension and pronunciation – could laugh at the antics of the minstrels and latch-on to English idioms without being made to feel that their own proficiency was being brought into question.

That black skinned, unwilling immigrants were being belittled mattered not a jot!

But the tables were about to be turned – for from the first indents on the foil covered cylinders of Edison’s Phonograph in 1877 through to the first discs cut for Emile Berliner’s Gram-o-phone in 1887, whoever gouged the grooves of the record industry was to plough the furrows of the social history that followed.

Former slaves (America’s emancipation bill had been enacted in 1865 ) and their offspring, now playing themselves and performing in their own idiom, were at the forefront of the technological revolution that sent the English language spinning around the world.

Over the next decades, songs created and performed by black Americans would be funnelled down speaking tubes, punched into cylinders or cut into shellac and reproduced as ragtime, spirituals, jazz ballads and blues. Each three minute’s worth of technological wonder could be pinned-down and grooved-to time and time again by listeners the world over: the tunes and rhythms lodging English phrases in the mind so that they became common parlance no matter what language the listener actually owned.

The voices of black Americans that so fascinated and connected the world in the early days of recorded sound have continued to do so ever since. Barack Obama when making his own voice heard around the world honoured that connection. Let us hope that the freedom and world wide mutual respect he articulated will resonate long in the minds of us all.

Janet Howd © April 24th 2009