Lessons in Ebonics: What’s Up?

The use of the word “up” is just one example of the complexity of Black English — and how there are right and wrong ways to use it.

One of the hardest things for a black linguist is getting across, once and for all, something that the public never quite seems to get: Black English is not bad English.

Over the years, people have tried. But it doesn’t help to say Black English is African with English words, as we heard back when Oakland, Calif.’s school board was thinking about using Black English as a teaching tool. For one thing, there’s no such language as “African,” and besides, we can all tell that Black English is a kind of English, period. The question is what kind.

Others tell us that the slang is “rich.” Or that Black English is a people’s “home dialect.” But none of this ever makes anybody respect Black English more, except those few who already did. A thoroughly reasonable person, black or white, may think, “Yes, Black English is African, rich, homey and wrong.”

What does not come across in most defenses of Black English is that it’s intricate. This will be the first of a few columns I will be doing, once a month, touching on one of the ways that Black English is not just “warm” but fierce. Today, let’s look at what’s up.

Or better, what “up” is. These are Black English sentences, all of which I caught on the fly: We was sittin’ up at Tony’s. Don’t be sittin’ up in my house askin’ me where’s the money. I ain’t got no food up in my house. It was buck-naked people up in my house.

Anybody familiar with black American speech has heard “up” used this way. Yet if you think about it, it doesn’t mean “up” in a literal sense. In the first three sentences, the locations weren’t “up” in any literal sense; the domiciles were on the ground floor. These first three sentences were uttered by black Americans, but the fourth was uttered by a white man who had many close black friends and was given to launching into affectionate (and deft) imitations of black speech. It was telling that he spontaneously included this usage of “up” in this case, especially since his apartment was, again, on the ground floor.

This usage of “up” is not spatial at all. It has a whole different meaning, although because we speak language mostly unconsciously, we would hard-pressed to tell a foreigner what this “up” meant. What it conveys is that the speaker has an intimate relationship with the location. One would not say “I was up at the dentist’s” — unless the dentist’s office was uptown, in which case you would intend “up” in its literal meaning. You would not say “I was up at that man Mr. Taylor’s” because, in referring to him as “that man,” you show that you don’t know him that well, such that his living space would not be one you thought of as a home away from home.

That is, one could give away an infidelity in Black English by unthinkingly referring to having been “up” at someone’s apartment, someone with whom your partner had assumed you were only briefly acquainted. The “up” would give away that the apartment was somewhere in which you had spent a lot of time in serious comfort.

Now, it might be easy to think that this “up” is just “slang.” But what kind of slang lives on, decade after decade? It won’t do to object that this “up” doesn’t make literal sense, because other ways that we all use “up” are similarly nonsensical. In what sense is making up with someone vertical (when in certain cases it distinctly isn’t!)? If someone is all washed up, what is that person above, and in what way is someone successful if he or she is more horizontal?

And if “up” is slang, then why, in other languages, when there is a similar way of conveying that same kind of meaning of intimate proximity, it’s treated as grammar? In Korean, “put” is a different word depending on how intimate the puttage is. You nohta a cup on the table, nehta an apple into a bowl and kkita a videocassette into its box. It’s a lot like the Ebonics “up”: In a way, you slide that videocassette all “up” into the box.

The “intimate up” is one of several ways that Black English is complicated, and in a way that even Standard English isn’t. A foreigner, if assigned to learn English in South Central instead of a classroom, would have trouble mastering how to use “up” in this way. One imagines him telling a child something like “OK, get nice and up into bed” — but no, that’s not quite right. It is, in a word, incorrect Ebonics. Black English is, despite its humble and even randy associations, a grammar, a system — and a challenging one to make sense of, at that.

And “up” is just the beginning — stay tuned for another one in May.

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.