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Culture, Languages

How Beyoncé’s Lemonade Introduced the World to More African American English

“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade,” Hattie White said at her 90th birthday party. Until 23 April 2016, these words had only resonated among her loved ones, but then her granddaughter-in-law, Beyoncé, put her words on her album, Lemonade.

The album instantly became a legend. Such a legend that you can take a university course dedicated to it. It might seem astonishing given that the album was released as a surprise, with almost zero promotion. However, Beyoncé is no stranger to this – she released her eponymous album in 2013 without any notice, too. There’s even a word for it in Spanish, beyoncear, which means to release an album without notice and exclusively on iTunes. Nevertheless, many Spanish speakers use the word in the sense of listening to Beyoncé’s music or watching her visual material.

So, what did the album bring to the world, wordwise? As the album centered Beyoncé’s experience with her husband’s infidelity and reconciliation with her African American and Creole roots, it is not surprising the lyrics hint to African American English.

swag

This word has been around for a while, but let’s take a minute to look at its meaning. Beyoncé used this word in two songs, Hold Up (where she samples Turn My Swag On by Soulja Boy) and Formation. Swag means a style and is borrowed from Norwegian svagga, which means to rock unsteadily or lurch. You can also find a derivation of the word, swagger, which means someone with a style.

Becky

In Sorry, Beyoncé sings, “He only wants me when I’m not there / You better call Becky with the good hair”. Becky, a diminutive of Rebecca, is a term used by African Americans to stereotypically describe a white woman. The word in this sense has already appeared in several rap songs, for example, Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-lot, Becky by Plies, and Big Butts by Ying Yang Twins. There exist numerous derivations of the word, such as beckery, which is a cringe-worthy thing committed by a white woman. You can even find a typology of beckies online.

bama

“My daddy Alabama / My momma Louisiana / You mix that Negro with a Creole, make a Texas bama,” Beyoncé sings in Formation. Bama has changed its meaning throughout times, but now it refers to a person with a bad taste or poor judgement skills: fool, punk, you name it. Some people also use it as a synonym to “dude”. Beyoncé may therefore imply she comes from modest background (in fact, her grandmother was a poor seamstress that used her skill to afford her daughter’s education.

When the album dropped, many people were speculating if Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z would get divorced. Not only didn’t it happen, but the pair was also blessed with twins in 2017 and is going on a joint tour in 2018. This, again, has prompted speculations if the two are going to drop a joint album. We cannot know for sure unless or until it happens, but if or when it does, there will certainly be a new linguistic material to analyse.

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