Hip-Hop: An indelible influence on the English language

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Language is the product of society. As a society changes, so does its language. One of the greatest signs of a changing language is the rapid expansion of its lexicons. Over the past 30 years, American dictionaries have grown at unprecedented levels. Words attesting to the rich contribution of global cultures to American culture, words created for scientific use, words recognizing technological advances, and, of course, words representing contemporary culture have expanded the English language. Yet, it is this last category that has altered the English language more rapidly than any other influence.

Expressions coined by urban youth have made their way into mainstream English via the so-called hip-hop generation. Emmett G. Price III, PhD, is an assistant professor of Music and African American Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the author of Hip Hop Culture (ABC-CLIO, 2006) and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. He is also executive editor of the forthcoming three-volume Encyclopedia of African American Music (Greenwood Press, 2008).

These changes are sparked by words created by youth and young adults who feel empowered to codify and label their own realities with new expressions: words that represent the new ponderings, new searches, new desires, and new ideas (even if the ideas really are not so new). In The Hip Hop Generation, Bakari Kitwana establishes the birth years of 1965-1984 as the criterion for admission into the hip-hop generation. It is obvious that Kitwana’s closing year of 1984 is not wide enough, as we have witnessed the emergence of multiple hip-hop generations, each birthing new additions and approaches to the English language.

Hip-Hop Culture

During the 1960s and 1970s — as the streets of New York City erupted in violence, social decay, and economic demise — young, multiethnic, inner-city kids devised their own solution to the traumatic challenges that they continually faced. Unifying the preexisting elements of rapping, graffiti, dancing, and deejaying (a method of using sound equipment and records to create totally new sounds and combinations from those originally recorded — scratching, rapid repeats of segments, remixes, etc.), these diverse youth created an alternative to the hopelessness found in their neighborhoods.

During the mid-1970s, this local phenomenon was ignored by mainstream America; yet by the 1980s, not only did hip-hop culture have a national presence, it was sought globally. Movies such as Wild Style, Style Wars, and, later, Beat Street and Breakin’ allowed international audiences to experience the many facets of hip-hop culture, including the unique approach to speaking and writing English. By the 1990s, print and broadcast media and even video games were dominated by the presence and effect of hip-hop culture. Corporations such as Burger King, Coca-Cola, America Online (AOL), Nike, and Reebok launched advertising and marketing campaigns featuring hip-hop culture, responding to the popular/hip image of these elements and, at the same time, helping integrate them into the broader culture. Amidst the dancing, fashion, and numerous musical elements, what quickly struck the ears of many were the new rules for speaking, reading, and writing English.

Hip-Hop Language

Popular culture in the United States has had a unique effect on everyday English for many generations. African-American music, in many ways, has played a demonstrative role in this evolution. From the days prior to the emergence of the spirituals and the blues, African-American music has informed its listeners (early on, mostly black) of the current events and liberation strategies, using alternative language understood only by those within the cultural network.

Through the years, many of the words and phrases became integrated and used by outside communities who had figured out the context and definitions of these words. This process of cultural adaptation happened in many of the ethnic communities and enclaves within America, yet it was African-American music, containing much of this language, that informed much of American mainstream culture.

The language of hip-hop culture is an extension of past and recent vernacular. Words like “hot” (1920s), “swing” (1930s), “hip” (1940s), “cool” (1950s), “soul” (1960s), “chill” (1970s), and “smooth” (1980s) have been redefined and usurped into hip-hop language. Hip-hop language is the next generation’s answer to the age-old question — What’s new?

The Impact of Hip-Hop Culture

The greatest impact of hip-hop culture is perhaps its ability to bring people of all different beliefs, cultures, races, and ethnicities together as a medium for young (and now middle-aged) people to express themselves in a self-determined manner, both individually and collectively. Hip-hop culture has influenced not only American English, but numerous languages around the world. Multicultural nations have vibrant hip-hop communities who have had to figure out what to do with these new words and phrases. From German Hip-Hop to Australian Hip-Hop to Pinoy Rap (Philippines) to Azeri Rap (Azerbaijan) to Rap Nigerien (Niger), hip-hop has had its effect on the languages of these nations and cultures.

Whether it is the addition of the phrase “bling-bling” to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003 or the inclusion of the term “crunk” in the 2007 volume of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, hip-hop culture is changing the nature, the sound, and the rules of the English language. Words such as “hood” (short for neighborhood), “crib” (which translates as place of residence), and “whip” (meaning car) have become commonplace within everyday conversation. Phrases such as “what’s up” (hello), “peace out” (good-bye), and the extremely popular “chill out” (relax) are frequently used in television shows, movies, and even commercials for Fortune 500 corporations. American English is a living organism, and with vibrant mechanisms such as hip-hop culture and the rapid growth of technology, who’s to say what we will be saying or writing in the next 30 years. Whether the United States is a “Hip-Hop Nation,” as declared on the cover of the February 5, 1999, issue of Time magazine, or not, it is clearly evident that English has been greatly influenced by hip-hop culture.

This article appeared in the August 2007 edition of eJournal USA.

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