LINGUIST List 8.134

Thu Jan 30 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Max Copperman, Re: 8.127, Disc: Ebonics
  2. Ron Anderson, RE: 8119 Ebonics
  3. Johanna Rubba, Ebonics
  4. John E. Koontz, Re: 8.128, Disc: Ebonics

Message 1: Re: 8.127, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Wed, 29 Jan 1997 07:53:37 +0100
From: Max Copperman <>
Subject: Re: 8.127, Disc: Ebonics

> 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.

Better for what?

To determine whether one thing is better than another always requires
a metric. When the metric isn't explicit, it's usually because a
common metric is assumed.

My reading of these posts and my understanding of the position taken
by most linguists would paraphrase the implicit metric as "no one
dialect is more or less `language-like' than another---they are all
effectively equivalent in having the characteristic that make up human

Your metric is different. The fact that one dialect is better than
another with respect to your metric has no bearing on whether one is
better than another with respect to some other metric.

One problem with the absence of explicit metrics is that then terms
like "better", "inferior", and "superior" take on a moral connotation.
I agree that more is written in Standard English than in Black
English, but I don't believe it follows that Standard English is
morally better than Black English.


Max Copperman |
Multilingual Theory and Technology | phone: +33-4 76 61 50 35
Rank Xerox Research Centre | fax: +33-4 76 61 50 99
6, chemin de Maupertuis |
38240 Meylan, France | RXRC Web Page:
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Message 2: RE: 8119 Ebonics

Date: 29 Jan 97 02:50:40 EST
From: Ron Anderson <102036.1205CompuServe.COM>
Subject: RE: 8119 Ebonics

Michael Newman wrote:
>>Ron Anderson's proposal to look at the lack of linguistic preparedness
of many Oakland and by extension other inner city students brings to
me a touch of deja vu. The reason is that similar proposals appeared
in the sixties in the language deficit model of two educational
psychologists, Bereiter and Engelmann (now apparently abandoned by the
authors). <snip><<

I may be wrong on the why's and wherefore's, but the facts remain.
Those who read in First Grade give future tense markers, those who
don't read don't give future tense markers, typically. I have been
looking at student responses to the Idea Oral Language Proficiency
Test for over 10 years, and this pattern is one of the best
descriminators between readers and non-readers. I can successfully
predict reading levels based on response patterns to the test, as a
general rule. Exceptions usually relate to those with educational
"disadvantage", or with a yet to be diagnosed disability. (I do see
more than just future tense, there are other characteristics as well,
e.g. an understanding of words which represent 'basic concepts" which
relate to space and time). It would appear that it is the
relationship between Oral language and Written language that needs to
be better understood, not necessarily the oral language acquisition
process. I think that it is with the 2 language students that this
relationship could be clarified, as relative reading skill compared to
relative speaking skill could be assessed in the same student in two
languages. This same kind of comparison is what I have been doing
these past years.

I look at both 2 language speakers and one language speakers, and the
same pattern occurs. The difference between the two groups is that
the 2 language speakers more commonly have this problem. It may be
because I specialize in the assessment of 2-language children, or some
other factor. I know that the phenomenon exists. I would like to
believe that I can guess the why, but I would certainly entertain any
suggestions, and I would encourage a more formal study than mine with
respect to this issue.

After giving an interesting history related to the Bereiter/Engelmann
theories, Newman finished with: >> Anyone interested can look in Tony
Crowley's 1991 book on Standard English which appears under two titles
both of which escape me at the moment. 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.<<

Ya'll er tawk'n ta jes a gud 'ol cuntry bouey. Ah bin lukin fur a
breedge ta baah. Ya gaught one tht goes ta Bruk-linn, Raht?

Not having read Crowley, and being a member of Newman's last mentioned
group, I thought I might add:

Once there was a spider named Spy who had his web-building apparatus
glued shut at birth. It seems that the poor thing could not get the
sticky stuff to be emitted, he never had practice building a web. One
day he accidently walked across a pin cushion and the pin miraculously
opened his web-building orifice. Unfortunately, the poor thing still
couldn't build a web, he had passed the critical stage period for
learning this. He died of starvation. His cousin Dee, who had the
same genetic birth defect, had a wise mother spider who opened the
orifice with a sharp mandible at an early age. Although cousin Dee
could build a web, his webs weren't seen as being as good as his
brothers and sisters. Nonetheless, he was able to live a long and
productive spider life. He never did enter the web-building
competition in his community, though some said his webs were some of
the most beautiful. Some of these began the practice of gluing up the
web building orifice in all of their children at birth so they could
be modified to build beautiful webs too.

Ron Anderson, M. S. School Psychologist
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Message 3: Ebonics

Date: Wed, 29 Jan 1997 10:51:29 -0800 (PST)
From: Johanna Rubba <>
Subject: Ebonics

I've been following the discussion with interest. Maybe some of
you have seen a related discussion on linguists being misunderstood and
misquoted in the discussion on brain imaging, language genes, etc.

The 'restricted code' and 'one dialect _can_ be better than other'
contributions point up the lack of interface between linguistics and
other disciplines. We must constantly deal with a big problem: most
people, even very educated people, aren't aware that there is a
scientific literature on language, and that, in order to speak with
authority on language, one has to have consulted that literature in some
depth. People accept this easily enough where other topics are concerned,
like economics, disease, etc. But not so easily with language.

I frequently get into disputes with family and friends -- people who know
I have been studying language closely for 20 years -- about language
issues like correctness and standard dialects. Even when I draw analogies
like 'you're a chemist, yet I would never dare to tell you about
chemistry, because I am not an expert in that area', it is extremely
difficult to get through to them.

Perhaps we need to study folk theories about language much more closely
to find out what it is about language that makes it difficult to convince
people that expertise on language comes from studying it scientifically.

Johanna Rubba	Assistant Professor, Linguistics ~
English Department, California Polytechnic State University ~
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407 ~
Tel. (805)-756-2184 E-mail: ~
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Message 4: Re: 8.128, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Wed, 29 Jan 1997 09:33:05 -0700
From: John E. Koontz <>
Subject: Re: 8.128, Disc: Ebonics

>Post by: Kate Gladstone & Andrew Haber <>
>Subject: Here's the full text of the L.A. Times anti-Ebonics letter.
>... Comments?!
>One thing that they do do in Europe, that we don't, is teach grammar. I
>know many Americans would say that is not true, but until tenses are taught to
>every student in the United States, there will always be confusion as to
>what to do with the English language. I myself was adrift in this matter 
>until I was confronted with having to teach English as a foreign language, 
>and had to learn. ...

In defense of Roberson, my reading of this is simply that he is
recommending, in non-specialist vocabulary, that English verb morphology
(and, in the case of periphrastic forms) syntax be taught more thoroughly in
the schools. I had this (as a laid out system) in 8th grade (c. 1967, in
Colorado), and the periprastic parts of it, as far as I can recall, in the
context of sentence diagramming in 7th grade (c. 1966 in Michigan), but if
my dialect had differed substantially from the standard or written one, I'm
think I might have benefitted from more of it earlier, though how to present
it to an elementary school child is, of course, an interesting question. 

In principle, I think that this is one place where teacher knowledge of the
analogous parts of "Ebonics" [yuck] might help: it gives the teachers the
background they need to be able to say to the children, "You can, in fact,
should, say it this way at home and among your friends, but in school and
other social situations where the written dialect is used, you should say it
this other way. They're different dialects of English, with different
rules." This ought to work much better than trying to convince the children
of the (to them) intuitively false assertion that they are invariably doing
it wrong if they do it the "Ebonics" [yuck] way anywhere. It also ought to
help the teachers to know that the students aren't simply producing random
"corruptions" when they do it the "Ebonics" [yuck] way. It seems to me that
the majority of Americans of all colors are convinced that Black English, in
particular, is just that, an unsystematic, corrupt, degraded and degrading,
departure from correct and normal English. 

John E. Koontz
NIST:ITL:HPSS 895.01 (McCrary); Boulder, CO
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