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New Oxford dictionary will document the lexicon of African American English


Black people have long contributed to the ways in which we use the English language. Linguistics professor Sonja Lanehart shares some examples.

SONJA LANEHART: If we look at some present words, we can think of something like woke and hip, cool, bad meaning good.


Lanehart is on the advisory board of a new Oxford Dictionary of African American English that is set to create a historical record of these contributions.

LANEHART: Finally, we will have a space that recognizes our language in a way that encompasses all the people within African American language communities.

FADEL: Although there have been projects like this in the past, Lanehart says none have reached this magnitude.

LANEHART: This dictionary is distinct in that it focuses on this particular language variety of African Americans in a way that hasn't been done before. So it will be much more expansive and much more inclusive of the language, as opposed to some words here and there.

MARTINEZ: The project is a collaboration between Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and Oxford University Press. It's one of the most well-funded efforts of its kind and the first edition of the dictionary expected in about three years.

FADEL: Lanehart says what makes this project so special is that it won't just have definitions. It will also provide historical context for each word.

LANEHART: The etymology of a word, the history of the word is extremely important. And so for this, they'll note when a word first came into the language. Who was using it? Where was it being used? And that's really important in understanding how a language sort of has developed and evolved and who's been a part of it.

FADEL: Besides books, newspapers, oral histories and music, the dictionary will also draw from social media.

LANEHART: One of the things that's going to be interesting about this is that because of social media and Black Twitter, there are words that are represented in terms of the ways that Black people have used them. And it's going to be really important to look at that and how words are created in that particular space. Social media has allowed an outlet in a way that Black people hadn't really had before.

MARTINEZ: And she says looking at social media can highlight the regional, economic and social roots of language.

LANEHART: Dictionaries attempt to codify language. That is, this is the spelling. This is the definition. And what's going to be important about this in getting it right is listening to the people, especially for current things, listening to the people in terms of what they say and how they say these words are used and what they mean to them.

MARTINEZ: Lanehart says this is important because African American language has been viewed from a deficit perspective in the past.

LANEHART: I think it's taken a lot to get to this point, to show that Black people and Black language aren't grotesque. They're not exotic. They're not deficient. They have a language variety that is different and should be recognized just like any other language variety.

FADEL: And this new dictionary aims to credit and celebrate this variety.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.