Jul 22, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Henry Louis Gates Jr. to oversee new Oxford Dictionary of African American English

Henry Louis Gates Jr. speaks at the 2019 Hutchins Center Honors W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony at Harvard University on Oct. 22, 2019 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: Paul Marotta via Getty Images

Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. announced this week that he will oversee the new Oxford Dictionary of African American English as editor-in-chief.

Why it matters: Many of English's most popular words and catchphrases have roots in Black communities. Linguists and Black advocates have said for years these contributions must be codified and honored.

Details: Gates, who serves as director of Harvard's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, proposed the new dictionary as a joint venture of the Oxford University Press and the Hutchins Center after he was approached about the representation of African American English in existing Oxford dictionaries, the New York Times reports.

  • The three-year research project is funded by grants from the Mellon and Wagner Foundations and aims to serve as a record of African American English, collecting definitions and histories of words.
  • The first version is expected to publish in three years.

What he's saying: "The bottom line of the African American people, these are people who love language," Gates tweeted.

The big picture: Though many words that were originally or predominantly used by Black Americans are now commonly found among the larger U.S. population — such as "woke" and "hip" — America has long looked down on Black English, associating it with poverty and crime due to racist stereotyping.

  • Yet Black English remains a staple of American culture. A 2018 study found it had an outsized impact on Twitter, where three of five common "patterns of lexical innovation appear to be primarily associated with African American English."
  • "It is almost never the case that African American English is recognized as even legitimate, much less 'good' or something to be lauded," linguist Tracey Weldon told the Times. "And yet it is the lexicon, it is the vocabulary that is the most imitated and celebrated — but not with the African American speech community being given credit for it."
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