Now that I’ve expressed the basic idea in casual and potentially offensive terms in the subject, let me elaborate here.
Sometimes I encounter black people (either on TV or in rea life) who speak “African American Vernacular English” (AKA “jive” or “Ebonics”) with such a strong accent that I (a white guy raised in the midwest US) have great difficulty understanding what they are saying - not just the grammar, but the actual pronunciation of individual words.
Is the reverse true? Do these people have difficulty understanding the English language as it is spoken by, say, Brian Williams or Katy Couric?
No, they can understand standard American English just fine and can usually speak it as well if they really want to especially for mocking purposes. The area I grew up in was roughly 50% black and very poor so there were several dialects of English around. Everyone understood the standard Southern one and television English. It wasn’t asymmetrical at least locally. Everyone could understand everyone else even though the speech patterns were quite different differing mainly by age and race. I like to say that I grew up trilingual. I could speak and understand Redneck, Southern black, and standard American English. I literally had to translate when I took my yankee girlfriend to a BBQ shack run by an old black man in my hometown.
I’ve had a similar experience with a northern girlfriend. She and I gave a ride to two black girls from my hometown. They had a really funny conversation in our back seat. I wondered why she didn’t at least crack a smile, since she had a really good sense of humor. Turns out, she couldn’t understand a word they said.
I speak with a flat midwestern accent. Daily I speak with persons, mostly Jamaicans, who speak a patois. Their patois has distinct grammar and vocabulary that is not standard English. They often cannot understand me.
Many of such persons are not Americans. Their media influences have not been Brian Williams and Katie Couric. That may make a difference.
As to whether you consider an English based patois the same as ebonics or “jive” I will leave to you.
I believe that Jamaican patois is not considered by linguists to be a dialect of English at all, but rather a creole language that includes elements taken from English.
I had a Jamaican roommate in college, and in addition to Jamaican patois (which I only heard her speak with her Jamaican friends and was unintelligible to me) she could speak at least two English dialects. What she used when talking to me and in class sounded to my American ears like fairly standard British English with a Jamaican accent. When on the phone with her family she spoke what I assume is a less formal dialect that I could understand pretty well but that differed in terms of both grammar and pronunciation from standard British and American English. The example that sticks in my mind is “Him no go dere”.
Many African-Americans can code-switch like this, and shift from one dialect to another depending on who they’re speaking to. Of course, even people who only speak Standard American English may change the way they speak depending on how formal the setting is and how well they know the other people.
I took a call from a woman who I couldn’t understand at all. Finally she started talking extra slowly: She was Jamaican, speaking “patois” (I learned that word from this thread) I guess. She wasn’t using really any slang or words that I didn’t understand, it was just the most difficult-to-understand accent I’ve ever heard. She could understand me just fine.
If it was only her pronunciation that was giving you trouble then it probably wasn’t Jamaican patois; Jamaican patois includes many non-English words (some unique, some borrowed from other languages). Of course, she might have started out in patois and then switched to using only English words when she realized you couldn’t understand her.
I’d like to piggyback with a related question. How much has jive talk changed over the decades? I kind of assumed that the two jive talking dudes in Airplane! would sound out of place today, like me talking about being a hep cat doing the twenty-three skiddoo.