LINGUIST List 8.127

Tue Jan 28 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Stirling Newberry, Re: 8.54, Disc: Ebonics
  2. Karen S. Chung, Disc: Ebonics
  3. Magda Ciesla, An unfortunate and unsuitable analogy
  4. Dick Hudson, restricted codes and Ebonics

Message 1: Re: 8.54, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Sun, 26 Jan 1997 15:23:57 -0500
From: Stirling Newberry <>
Subject: Re: 8.54, Disc: Ebonics

Several posts, and many professional articles have repeated over and over
again the idea that no one dialect of a language is any "better" than
another, that it is merely social acceptance which differentiates dialects.
Some of them have phrased this belief in ways which accuse people who
disagree with the statement of belonging to the party of Thrasymicus...

However this statement - however often repeated - is not correct, because
language is not *only* used to speak to other people, but also to gain
information which has been codified away from social interaction.

That is to say *books*.

Dialects which, however widely used in the present, do not access needed
information are inferior with respect to those purposes which require that
information than those that do not. When I could aquire the sum and total
of western science in "Ebonican" then, and only then, is it equal to
English for the purposes of science, and perhaps not even then. Many of the
changes to modern english grammar versus the English of the last centruy
were dictated by the needs of running an industrialized technological
society. Sentences had to be shorter, instructions absolutely unambiguous,
and syntax more algebraic.

The set of dialects which are collectively labeled "Standard English" are
not merely more useful in dealing with bank presidents and professors in
college, but in dealing with information such as calculus text books and
periodic tables and other written records. While it is a common belief in
late 20th century scholarship, from musicology to history, that "everything
is social" this is dogma created by the social nature of universities,
where everything is indeed social, rather than by the realities of the
topics at hand. In otherwords, people in universities believe that
everything is social, because much of whether or not you get a degree in a
university, and later a job, depends on being a social creature.

Thus while one may claim as much as one likes that every dialect is merely
an arbitrary set of rules which are imposed by force, the truth is somewhat
different. A dialect which must deal with certain information must change
its structure, either by adapting old forms and words to new purposes or by
creating new forms to match new purposes. Dialects which do not have to
deal with certain concepts do not make these adaptions. It is thus
impossible or more difficult to map concepts to the dialect which is not
adapted to them. It is not to say that it is impossible to do so, but
declaring that it already has been done does not make it so.

To take an example - one might say that Hittite is no worse than English as
a language and we could all learn Hittite. However there is a great deal of
information which is not available in Hittite, which would have to be
rapidly translated into - or no one would fly airplanes and perform heart

You may say what you will about the value of dialects of English; they do
not have the information codified in them, nor have they been adapted to,
the basic technology required to run the modern world. It isn't an army
that keeps standard dialects in place - it is the need to run things in a
particular way.

It is not impossible to translate codified information into a new language,
it has been done before, and will need to be done again as new groups of
people rise in the world and require access to information. However this
project is not a trivial task of declaring "we all gonna speak like this
here now." but a commitment to creating a functioning separate language
which is capable of incorporating ideas that are required.

- - -

Which brings us to the dialects of standard English. One of the recognized
needs of the standard set of dialects, because there are many, not just
one, is first and foremost the need to be able to communicate with other
people who speak another one of the standard dialects.

Bussinesspeople speak a different dialect of English than do Scientists,
and the progressive difficulty of translating between the two causes many
difficulties and disasters. Thus a dialect which does not recognize the
need to communicate with other core dialects which run the society is
inferior with respect to communication than one which does, and a social
group which does not recognize the need to communicate with other groups is
going to have more difficulty doing so than one which does.

Thus the standard dialects are far more mutable in many of their basic
forms and structures because the need to actually run things is more
important than socially learned forms. When groups forget this, they run
into trouble, (see France's Linguistic police as an example...)

This bears on the current debate in two directions:

One is that the various non-standard dialects are very insular - they do
not recognize the need to communicate with other dialects, except those
that they have direct social contact with. Many of them are not literate
dialects - they are based on verbal rather than written forms. Writing, as
any reader of Milman Perry can attest, changes the way people think and
work, and changes the nature of the language.

The second is that often when dealing with a non-standard dialect, many
people do not realize the importance of understanding it, and refuse to
learn how. If you are going to teach people the basic set of skills which
are common to the standard set of dialects, then you are going to have to
treat the internal structure of their dialect as important.

So we are not dealing with an abstract "preference" based on bigotry, force
or bias, but the reality that there are a core set of dialects which have
developed to deal with the intricacies of codifying knowledge needed to run
a modern society and to be able to communicate with other such dialects. It
is by no means impossible to add to this set of dialects, as the computer
industry is rapidly showing, but there must be a compelling reason to do
so, and the people involved more or less have to make the commitment to
doing to their language whatever is required to make it a functional
standard dialect.

Stirling Newberry
Boston, Massachusetts

"The true artist has no pride, he realizes that arts demands are limitless.
Though he may be well regarded by others - he sees only darkly how far he
is from his goal, when a purer genius shall stand before him like a distant
sun." Ludwig vanBeethoven
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Message 2: Disc: Ebonics

Date: Wed, 29 Jan 1997 00:05:26 +0800 (CST)
From: Karen S. Chung <>
Subject: Disc: Ebonics

	I haven't read every post on Ebonics - some are just too darn
wordy, with too sparse a distribution of interesting new input. But I am
wondering if maybe somewhere along the line I missed some reference to the
origin of the term 'Ebonics'. 

	I know how touchy people are about political correctness these
days, but I find this term downright offensive - mainly because of how it
screams out subservience to the tenets of PC. It reminds me of the
magazine _Ebony_, and I can only guess that this might be its origin. I of
course have nothing against the magazine; I just feel 'Ebonics' is an odd
and inappropriate name for something we already have a more familiar and
simpler term for. 

	What in the world is wrong with 'Black English', as it always used
to be called? Sounds so much more *normal* and comfortable to me. Why do
we have to pussyfoot around like this? What is the point? I will refrain
from thinking up names built on the 'Ebonics' analogy for the English
spoken by various other minority groups and whites to try and make my
point. Sometimes PC just goes *too* *far*. 

	This whole thing also points up how one coinage in one district of
one state can change the language so quickly, something that is
interesting in its own right. At least *I* never heard of the term
'Ebonics' before the current furor. And I think the sensitivity of the
whole issue had a lot to do with the rapid acceptance and spread of the
neologism. Perhaps it was the awkwardness of a term no longer considered
admissible in polite company that paved the way. 

					 Karen Steffen Chung		
					 National Taiwan University
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Message 3: An unfortunate and unsuitable analogy

Date: Tue, 28 Jan 1997 08:12:16 -0800
From: Magda Ciesla <>
Subject: An unfortunate and unsuitable analogy

In a posting by Herb Stahlke <> on the subject of
Ebonics we read:

>it is the much lamented failure of our profession to adequately inform
>the public, especially educators, politicians, and journalists, on
>what language is and isn't.

Easily accepted...

> What we've allowed to happen is the
>equivalent of building medical policy on the basis of folk medicine
>and chiropractic.

This is certainly one of the worst possible analogies that could have been
used: disputable extralinguistic claims are not a good way in which
linguists should make a suitable argument for further developing their
practice and their methods of public presentation thereof. Such analogies
may well turn more people off the important issue than draw them to it. I
don't want to think that linguistst really see a need to take the arrogance
of "modern medicine" as their shining example...

Without wanting to enter into a discussion on the relative benefits of
various kinds of medicine, i would like to draw your attention to the need
for humility and caution in our pursuit of knowledge.

Magda Ciesla
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Message 4: restricted codes and Ebonics

Date: Tue, 28 Jan 1997 22:08:52 +0000
From: Dick Hudson <>
Subject: restricted codes and Ebonics

As Michael Newman says, Ron Anderson's comments on the `lack of linguistic
preparedness' of inner-city pupils is similar to the debate about
Bernstein's Elaborated and Restricted codes, and Bereiter and Engelman's
`deficit theory'. But I don't agree that this makes Ron's comments invalid,
as Michael implies:

>It's interesting how these ideas just keep repeating themselves in
>spite of the fact that, when looked at in a historical perspective,
>they seem quite bizarre. It's also interesting that they seem to
>always come from nonlinguists.

It's not that simple. There is good solid work done by linguists which
suggests (to my mind at least) that some kinds of homes do not prepare kids
for the linguistic demands of schools in the way that other homes do. I'm no
expert in this area, so I'm sure others could provide a much more complete
survey, but here's a couple of items of interest:

1. Gordon Wells conducted a large-scale longitude study in Bristol (UK)
which showed that the syntactic complexity of children's speech develops at
different speeds according to how their care-givers interact with them. (The
differences concerned are only loosely connected to social class, but they
show how children can be differently `prepared' for school by their family

2. He showed a correlation between social class and children's vocabulary size.

3. Mary Mason, in UK, has developed a variety of school programmes for
teaching `academic language' (Latinate vocabulary etc) to kids who don't
hear such things at home, and has achieved impressive improvements in school

4. Shirley Brice Heath found that children of working-class parents were not
used to being asked the kinds of questions at home that middle-class parents
ask - and that teachers ask at school.

It would be quite wrong to conclude that linguists have shown that prejudice
against non-standard speech is the *only* problem that faces inner-city

I summarise some of this research in pages 220-227 of the revised version of
my textbook `Sociolinguistics' (1980/1996, Cambridge University Press).
References can be found there.
Richard (=Dick) Hudson
Department of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
work phone: +171 419 3152; work fax: +171 383 4108
 home page =
 unpublished papers available by ftp =
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