Saturday, March 10, 2012

Puttin On The Black - Online Black Talk & Code Switching

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part series on using African American English on purpose in YouTube videos viewer comment threads. [with minor revisions on 2/11/2017]

Part II of this series focuses on the use of "puttin on the Black (African American vernacular) in selected viewer comments for a Patti Labelle video. Click for Part II of this series.

Part III of this video focuses on the use of "puttin on the Black" (African American vernacular) in selected viewer comments of two videos about the Black originated body gesture "side eye" ("cut eye"). Click for Part III of this series.

Disclaimer: I'm not a linguist. I'm an African American who is interested in the use of language. Comments about this topic from linguists and others are very welcome.

Part I of this series provides an overview & examples of "Puttin On The Black".

"Puttin on the Black" is a term that I coined for the conscious use of Black venacular in certain settings. My definition of "puttin on the Black" is "to purposely use Black vernacular to signal to others (including other Black people who may be present) that you are Black, and/or to show off your Blackness". The correct use of Black vernacular is one way online that people can indicate that they are Black without directly identifying themselves by the use of racial terms.

I believe that "puttin on the Black" is a form of "code switching" - the act of effortless shifting from Standard American English (SAE) to a form of African American English (AAE).

[Revised Feb 11, 2017]
I maintain that many individuals purposely use African American vernacular words, phrases, sayings, spelling, and grammar online in YouTube video viewer comment thread and on other blogs.
-end of revised statement-

Among African Americans, "puttin on the Black" means to code switch from either Standard American English or a milder form of conversational African American English to a more pronounced form of African American vernacular English. "Puttin on the Black" is the opposite of purposely hiding one's identification as a Black person by consciously refraining from using any Black slang, or Black sayings, or Black grammatical constructs, unless that African American originated vernacular has been widely accepted by the mainstream American culture.

I believe one significant type of "puttin on the Black" is the use of or the exaggerated use of "down home" ("down home" = Southern American) pronunciation of certain words and phrases. These "down home" pronunciations (and their spelling approximations) are largely retired (no longer used) in everyday African American formal or informal conversations, and are used in certain online or offline communication to "put on the Black". Two prevalent examples of this form of "puttin on the Black" are the phrases "Lawd have mercy!" and "honey chile". I also believe that middle class African Americans who use the dialectic words "da" for "the" and "dat" for "that" are often purposely playing the role of an old timey Southern Black. They are consciously puttin on the Black because they don't usually talk like that in their formal or their informal spoken or written communication.

Furthermore, I believe that the use by Black bloggers and YouTube commenters of such old time & still current Black church related interjections such as "Preach!" and "Amen" as affirmation for religious or non-religious subjects may sometimes be examples of "puttin on the Black". That may particularly be the case if those interjections are used by usually non-religious people, or if those interjections are over-used. One other example of purposely using African American vernacular to "put on the Black" is the use of retired 1970s African American hip-hop vernacular such as the interjection "Yo!", whose meaning is often similar to "Hey!" And I believe that two other examples of the purposely using African American vernacular to "put on the Black" may also be times when the very familiar Dozens put downs "yo mama" and "your mama" are used online or offline. The problem with the use of "puttin on the Black" in global, integrated settings such as YouTube viewer comment settings is that some folks - particularly some non-Black folks - may not understand that this type of communication is purposeful and fun. Consequently, those persons "listening in" to this role play may think that we African Americans really talk like this and may repeat & codify that erroneous information. Furthermore, because African Americans are often considered role models worldwide for current fashions, people who mistake the reason for certain "puttin on the Black" affections may mimic affectations such as "Lawd", "honey chile", and sentences such as "Dats what um talkin 'bout" ("That's what I'm talking about), thinking that in doing so they are being "real" Black.*

And with regard to being "real Black", in my opinion, individuals who "put on the Black" aren't trying to claim that they are "blacker" (in attitudes and/or afrocentricity) than people who don't use this type of language. While "puttin on the Black" may be a prideful act, I think it's much more often just a fun way of showing off one's ability to correctly use correct current or retired Black vernacular, including the affected use of "down home" Southern, often church related vernacular.

Click "Codeswitching: Black English and Standard English in the African-American Linguistic Repertoire" for more information about "code switching".

"Puttin on the Black" is different from people publicly acknowledging online that they are Black. However, people who indicate online that they are Black can also "put on the Black" in their comments if they choose to do so, meaning they could often, sometimes, or infrequently use Black vernacular words, spelling, sayings etc. Or they could use Standard American English, and this may be the way they usually speak and write.

[I'll never forget how a blogger writing on a discussion thread on a forum which shall remain nameless asked me if I really spoke the way I write. My response was one word "Yes".]

I rarely "put on the Black". However, I sometimes sign off on YouTube comments as "An African American sista". I particularly use that signature on African music/dance videos or other videos from outside of the United States because I want the readers of those comment threads to know that I am African American and there's at least one African Americans (and there are probably others) who appreciate those types of music and dance.

*Click for a pancocojams post on the use of text messaging & Black slang in a YouTube video comment thread on African American school girls doing Double Dutch jump rope. I believe that a number of examples from that viewer comment thread are mimicking inauthentic African American vernacular.

"Puttin on the Black" may occur in certain integrated informal settings off-line and in certain integrated settings or possibly integrated settings online.

While it's not possible to verify if people online who "put on the Black" are actually Black, I believe that there's a good likelihood that they are.

Here are four types of "puttin on the Black" that I've identified (with examples from actual YouTube comment threads)
1. purposely using "downhome" (Southern) expressions or 19th century so-called Southern Black dialect
"MY Lawd knows Patti OWNED this night on that show!!"


[Interpretation- "Jesus! Praise the Lord!"]

[Note the spelling of Lord as "Lawd". Other examples of purposely downhome talk is "child" written as "chile" either alone or along with the word "honey" as in "honey chile". See an example of this use below.]

I didnt get dis video til i saw dem wit dose books!!! I feel so STUPID!

I believe that the words "dis"* (this) and "wit" (with) are used much more frequently in contemporary African American vernacular than dem (them) or "dose" (those) [or "dat" for "that" and also "den" for "then"]. These words are representative of 19th century and later Southern dialect, and, specifically Black folks Southern dialect. My position is that probably many of the commenters who use these words online are African Americans. Furthermore, those African Americans who use those words are consciously code switching from Standard American English, or another form of African American English to "downhome English". In so doing, they are "puttin on the Black".

*The word "dis" (this) is different from the African American hip-hop originated word "diss". "Diss" is a clip of the word "disrespect" and means to "disrespect", or "insult" someone.

2. Purposely using "contemporary" or "retired" African American vernacular spellin, slang, sayings, and/or grammar
"Dis is my jam."

"back in the day"

"She baddd!"

"sug, you crack me up", "Girl, you see that heffa over there givin' me the side eye? She MUST be tryin' to start somethin'."

"Get it Patti!"

You gets the SIDE EYE!

I believe that, particularly for middle class and upper middle class African Americans, the act of spelling words without their "g" ending may be an example of "puttin on the Black". Spelling words such as "puttin" instead of "putting", "sayin" instead of "saying" and "steppin" instead of "stepping" aren't the way middle class African Americans (including me) and upper class African Americans usually talk or write. When we do this online, we usually signaling our race.

The use of the retired referent for African Americans "negro" deserves special attention.
When contemporary (particularly post 1970s) African Americans use the word "negro" as a referent for any other Black person they are purposely insulting that person by inferring that he or she is acting in ways that are the same as or similar to "Uncle Toms". "Uncle Toms" and their female counterparts "Aunt Jemimas" are Black people who act obsequiously towards White people who are in authority. Those actions by those Black people work against the well being of other Black people. However, the Uncle Toms (and Aunt Jemimas) may believe and usually do believe that they are acting in ways that benefit themselves as individuals.

While the referent "negro" is especially potent when the "n" is spelled with a lower case letter, when that word is spelled with an upper case "N" it has nearly the same meaning. Calling someone an "Uncle Tom" or an "Aunt Jemima" can have the same meaning as the word "negro" or "Negro". In the sentence "Oh negro please!", the sentence means "Oh, stop the crap that you are saying and doing". In that usage, the person so described is thought to be purposely acting like an Uncle Tom or like a coon -a Step N fetchit character. That "Oh negro please!" sentence means that the person acting that way is being called on their behavior and they need to cut it out "with a quickness".

Bottom line - while the use of the words "negro", "Uncle Tom" and/or "Aunt Jemima" by Black people online to describe other Black folks may be examples of "puttin on the Black", that communication is usually highly insulting. In contrast, many online instances of “putting on the black” appear to be playful. And a Black person being called an "Uncle Tom" is never considered something playful."

3. purposely using Black church talk [for church related and also for non-church related topics]

Take us to church!

LET THE LORD USE YA!!!!!!!!!!!!!

"Sing it ,sister!" ["Sister" meaning a woman of the church, or a Black woman, and not your biological sibling]

"the choir director he getting his praise on go head"


Individuals may also mix one or more types of "Puttin on the Black" in their comments. Also, in their "puttin on the Black" comments, they may also use text messaging/internet shorthand such as "lol" (laugh out loud) and lmfao (laugh my fat ass off). In addition, they may use little or no punctuation, and capitolization, and/or write run on sentences as is the custom with other bloggers. Furthermore, "puttin on the Black" bloggers may also use other slang (such as "bing" or "24-7") that originated with African Americans but is now known to the general public. Such use sometimes makes it difficult to determine who is and isn't Black online. However, the inaccurate use of African American vernacular is usually "a dead giveaway that a non-African American is tryin to "fake the funk".

Here are examples of the online use of text messaging/internet shorthand and abbreviations combined with Black (African American) vernacular:
"You act like me huney child lol gurl u r to funny sweets" [Note that "to" here is probably an accidental typo but, gurl may be a

GUUUURRRRLLLL!!!!U had me WEAK!!!! U don't need a perm but he DO need to learn to speak CORRECT ENGLISH!!!

SMH He gets the side eye every time I see him.
[Note: "SMH" means "shaking my head" in disdain, amazement etc]

Other Black people besides African Americans can "put on the Black" as a means of signaling their nationality or ethnic background. Online examples of "puttin on the Black" among Caribbeans are writing "Tune! and "Chune!" in a song's viewer comment thread. In that context, the person who wrote "Tune!" and "Chune!" is complimenting that rendition of that song. Those words mean the same thing as the African American originated sentence "That's my jam". (That's my song" [That's my favorite song.] However, it's probably more accurate to say that "Tune! and "Chune!" are examples of "Showing Off Your Caribbean-ness" because that phrase would encompass all those persons who live in the Caribbean who aren't of any Black descent.

Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't other types of in-group signaling code-switching that occurs online and elsewhere among other racial and ethnic populations.

I can't prove that the examples I identify as "puttin on the Black" are actually that, and not the everyday use of African American English. However, I believe that "puttin on the Black" is a real phenomenon, and I hope that linguists will examine and test the validity of this concept.


Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Viewer comments are welcome.


  1. One of my facebook friends,Janet Buck-Marusov, wrote this comment regarding this subject. (She has given me permission to repost it here).

    "I agree. This form of 'written ID' occurs across many groups. I see people putting on the Irish, the Scot, the country, the Southern. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that tone of voice, facial expression, and other cues besides physical appearance are not evident when the typed word is all by which one can form an impression of another."


    Here's my response to her commment:
    "Janet, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your input very much.
    I think you're right about why "written ID" may occur. (Btw I like that term). And I think it's sociologically significant that people who used to be ashamed of the vernacular aspects of their identity (or at least are socialized to be ashamed of it) like Black folks and perhaps also the other populations you mentioned including White Southerns, are flaunting their identities online and probably elsewhere."


    Btw, I realize that "flaunt" has negative connotations. I actually mean something like "openly share their vernacular culture without any shame, and perhaps with a sense of pride". But I'm not sure if there's just one word that conveys that.

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