LINGUIST List 8.143

Fri Jan 31 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. benji wald, Re: 8.119, Disc: Ebonics

Message 1: Re: 8.119, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Wed, 29 Jan 1997 19:38:19 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.119, Disc: Ebonics

A number of interesting messages have appeared lately in the aftermath of
the Ebonics controversy. Many of them, in one way or another, are
concerned with how secure are the various linguistic ideas that have
floated during the controversy. It seems that many linguists want to be
able to give answers to questions that have been raised both by
non-linguists and linguists themselves, and they are reevaluating their
knowledge and ability to communicate its relevance to the social issues
raised by the controversy.

Herb Stahlke in one message interpreted my claim that in the US context
African Americans have a "special" relation to the overall society
("standard" society I called it, to emphasise what educational and various
other institutions of the society consider it important for all members of
the society to hold in common). He also referred to negative reactions to
the notion that the relationship was "special", but that is to be expected
on the basis of previous, and certainly all recent, controversies involving
African Americans as a group. They would probably have the same reaction
in discussing any other group which was in the same relation to the society
as African Americans. But there isn't any other group in the same
relationship, and the relationship is a deep one that virtually every
member of American society feels, is familiar with, and lives with in one
way or another. For the moment, the only thing that occurs to me to say
about some of the negative sentiment is that those who characterise the
current issue as a "fad" or "political correctness" have now been using
such dismissive characterisations for a long time (the journalist Tom Wolfe
called it "radical chic" in the 60's to suggest the same thing) and they
WISH it was a fad and would go away. But it won't "go away" until the
problems causing it go away. And that is NOT in the foreseeable future.

One thing that is obvious to Americans but not to many outside observers
about the relation of African Americans to the overall society is that
intermarriage, which, in any case. is relatively low compared to other
large groups in the US, has virtually no effect on that relationship. This
is because traditionally in the US any African ancestry, but for practical
purposes any physically noticeable African ancestry, causes the bearer to
be identified and reacted to as African American. Since African Americans
are at least as aware of this as other Americans, people of mixed ancestry
are much more easily absorbed into the ongoing African American community
than into the community of a non-African American parent, but particularly
if the non-African American parent's group is classified as white. This is
not the case in most other societies (including American Indian societies),
where either a class of "mixed ancestry" people came to be
institutionalised, as in most former colonial societies where the majority
are of African ancestry (Caribbean, South Africa, etc.), or they are
absorbed into other groups (as in Western Mexico, Brazil, and among various
American Indian groups -- and to varying degrees in Europe). At least one
US historian expresses this situation by saying that there are TWO "melting
pots" in the US, one white and one black.

 This is an unusual situation in the world as a whole. A revealing example
of this situation is what happened when the area including Louisiana was
incorporated into the US. Prior to that, the Caribbean system, via the
Spanish and then French, was in force in Louisiana where a group called
"Creole" of mixed ancestry was distinguished from strictly African
ancestry. Creoles remain a separate ethnic group, but once in the US
system they were regarded by both African Americans and white Americans as
"black". By now most Creoles, while maintaining their particular identity,
recognise themselves as black for most purposes, since that is how they are
regarded by the other larger and more influential groups. The recent
musical about Jelly Roll Morton, a turn of the century Creole jazz
innovator, symbolises some of his attitudes as showing the conflict while
the process of "melting in" to the black community was still taking place.
His emphasis on his "white" ancestry, which really called attention to his
status as a Creole in the Caribbean system, was implied to be "racist" and
absurd, since if you have any black ancestry you're black, and the struggle
of the blacks for equality (or whatever) is your struggle.

While the above does not say anything about language, AAVE (let's call it
that) does show major peculiarities that are not found elsewhere in
American society, or in English-speaking society in general. The most
striking one is that AAVE continues to evolve to a significant degree
independent of other varieties of English, particularly in its grammar, not
just in its lexicon and not particularly in its phonology (which evolves in
a localised fashion to a great extent). There does not seem to be any
other NON-geographically based variety of English that has this
characteristic. In saying this, since I have worked on the English spoken
in various US Hispanic communities, it is not yet clear to me or
established by other research that the same is true for any
non-geographically localised group of Hispanics, even though my work on
East LA, a large Mexican American community, shows that it has evolved a
distinctive form of English -- but it is geographically based, and
similarities between it and other Mexican American English-speaking
communities in the Southwest may be the result of language shift rather
than continuing spread of English features from one localised community to
another. This remains to be investigated further. Meanwhile, in England,
Canada etc. people of African ancestry (often via Caribbean, also US for
Canada) are *linguistically* absorbed into local English-speaking
communities for the most part. The various studies of "British Black
English" do not establish that such a label refers to anything more than a
transitional phase in the immigration of black Carribeans to England, and
successive generations are now showing that it is/was indeed a transitional
phase -- but we could profit from more work on that, even if only to
appreciate the difference between that situation and the AAVE one.

The above amplifies some of the comments I made last time about the social
relationship being "special" and having a linguistic side. In interpreting
me, Herb Stahlke wrote:

>"From a linguistic perspective, perhaps AAVE isn't
>intrinsically more interesting or important than other dialects--that
>depends on one's interests, but from a perspective of social and
>political history it certainly is"

My comment on this is: those are the kinds of considerations the
dialect/language distinction leads to. It's not "merely" a political
distinction. Cases that are problematic for language or dialect from a
linguistic point of view are ALSO relatively closely related historically.
There is no phenomenon in the world, such that we could say, for example,
"in the land of X English and Chinese are considered dialects of the same
language" (though this might be said in "universal grammar", not" in the
land of X", and historical linguists say such things about Russian and

We understand the meaning of the difference between language and dialect in
historical terms, and that leads to consideration of social and political
history. That's the context in which the dialects/languages either
diverged or converged to their present states. Whether AAVE has diverged
or converged with other more standard-like dialects of English is one of
the big controversies among scholars of AAVE. And much of the disagreement
has now evolved into questions about the actual social conditions under
which AAVE developed. In looking at the details of what is known and what
is not known, linguists have come to recognise that many important
historical details are not well established, but have been subject to
myth-making, the uncritical acceptance of inaccurate impressions and
unfounded theories.

The relevance of this controversy to educational concerns is very indirect.
It is through the linguistic trends common to the various forms of AAVE
that social phenomena are recognised which have a bearing on how AAVE
speakers are situated relative to each other and other members of American
society -- and various other societies, if you want to go into that. Most
observers are becoming aware that AAVE speakers represent a culture which
has a complex and, in some ways, unenviable relationship to the "standard"
culture, and that there are problems in drawing the two cultures into a
cooperative way of life. There is an almost unimaginable array of ideas
about what the problems are, some ridiculous and some insightful.

Michael Newman mentioned Bernstein's very problematic ideas about class
differences in language, with particular reference to England. If we read
"standard" for "elaborated" code, and "dialect" for "restricted" code, we
find a very crude but almost tautological idea that the middle class has
the "standard" and "the dialect", while the working class only has the
"dialect". But Bernstein's way of saying it was more refined. What
distinguishes the elaborated code from the restricted code linguistically
is a mixed bag of things involving various pieces of language and ways of
using it, e.g., how often passives are used, etc., where the elaborated
code resembles the standard language (of England, but in most respects also
of other English-speaking countries). It shows, as some have pointed out,
the difference between written and spoken language at least as much as the
difference among varieties of the same spoken language. In the end,
theories like this, of which there are now many, come close to saying that
the problem with the working class is that they aren't the middle class.

That's not very helpful, but it remains implicit that it's the working
class that has to change, not the middle class. There has been a great
deal of thinking, with little to show for it, about -- how?

Kate Gladstone & Andrew Haber first asked about a letter-to-the-editor of
the LA Times:

>"/3/ The letter-writer states that grammatical tense is an essential
>part of every single language in the world."

What's "grammatical tense"? Many languages mark aspect, and not tense, and
some can mark tense but it's not obligatory. But we're used to the
rationalisation that says one dialect is "defective" because it doesn't
have the features of another dialect, usually the "standard" -- of course,
AAVE DOES have grammatical tense, but rationalisers can always find
something else. It is, of course, interesting to find a new level of
sophistication among such rationalisations: the claim that all "languages"
have such-and-such a feature, so if a "dialect" doesn't it's not a
"language". Does this show some garbled version of UG filtering down into
popular culture?

If we're going to teach people who argue this way something, it will have
to be more than what's essential to a language. Anyway, linguists don't
know what languages have to have. When they know, most of the current
controversies in linguistics will be solved.

Then Kate & Andrew found the letter, and the main issue was something else:

>"I am
>a teacher, black and most definitely against the use of Ebonics in any school
>system. I have been living in Europe for the past 10 years and could never
>imagine the English teaching other English through the use of Cockney, or the
>French through Titi Parisian."

Notice that the letter writer had received one of the most inflammatory
versions of the controversy -- that AAVE was going to be used as the
language of instruction. I'm sure the teacher, herself black of course,
was wondering what kinds of teachers could teach *in* AAVE. As you know,
I also wondered what a classroom variety of AAVE would sound like.

Apart from this, the general issue reaches its most inflammatory stage
when, which was not the case in the Ebonics controversy, it is suggested
that beginning readers be written in AAVE and then the children are to be
transitioned to standard English readers. This presupposes a certain
"standardisation" of AAVE, which would inevitably distort the child's most
likely spoken form, but in any case, the typical first reaction would be
that this is a threatening move and an intolerable economic burden on the
educational system.

Stirling Newberry made some good points, shaped toward his interest in
making the issue one of the difference between spoken and written language.
He wrote:

>language is not *only* used to speak to other people, but also to gain
>information which has been codified away from social interaction."

This is about how important literacy is to economic viability in current
societies. Stirling wrote this with respect to the linguistic doctrine of
equality of languages. I think the careful version of the equality
statement is that languages are all equally capable of ADOPTING to the
social demands put on them. That has nothing to do with the fact that one
we call the "standard" already has been adopted for the social demand of
storing information in written form. But it calls attention to the
educational problem. In this context it is worth noting that in current
African countries and various other post-colonial countries the language of
higher education remains the former colonial language. So we notice that
the educational systems of the current countries remain tied to the former
colonisers at higher levels of education, not surprising since the
administrative and economic framework of these countries was created by the
former colonisers. The expense of translating former and continuing texts
into a "national" or "official" non-colonial language is beyond the
resources of such countries -- and, once symbolism is out of the way, it's
not even necessary. ( The only thing about this final statement that might
give some Americans pause is that it necessitates bilingualism.) I think
the same applies to the relationship between AAVE and written English.
It's not necessary to develop a written or classroom form of AAVE. But
symbolism is hardly out of the way, nor are the conflicts between African
American and standard cultures that underlie the symbolism.

Striling goes on to say:

> 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.

In fact, Stirling is right about standard English. It is not absolutely
uniform, especially since its written form leaves some (but far from all)
of its phonological features out of control. And it is subject to change
like any other living language. It's not clear to me, for example, whether
there are local standards in the US which accept "between you and I" and
things like that, but we hear such things quite often on TV and elsewhere,
where "respectable" people are presumably speaking standardly. National
politicians speaking according to standards which are locally but not
nationally prestigious is particularly striking. Meanwhile, using the term
"dialect" for the differences between professional groups is a very
extended notion of dialect. Usually these are called "jargons". What are
the differences among professional "dialects"? Lexicon and what else?

Again, he says:

>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

I already acknowledged that above. and it's an interesting point about the
flexibility of the standard in US English, a greater flexibility than for
the standard versions of some languages in some countries. But I don't see
what that has to do with the problem of how AAVE speakers can get to master
the standard -- in any of its forms.

Finally, Dick Hudson observes a number of sociolinguistic/educational
studies, esp the well-known Gordon Wells study on linguistic class
differences in language acquisition and early school years in Bristol,
England. Those, along with many studies he didn't mention, confirm and add
detail to class differences in language and the closer relation of the
middle class to the educational system in language and other aspects of
culture. To this extent they confirm Bernstein's basic onbservations, but
not with the questionable interpretation in much of Bernstein's work. Dick

>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

If it isn't obvious, I guess it's worth saying. There is ALWAYS something
else underlying prejudice. I suppose the constructive point is that we
must understand what that "something else" is if we are going say something
constructive about it. It is not sufficient, and not even effective, to
simply talk about "prejudice", either with regard to language or groups of
people. It may have been at one time, e.g., during the Civil Rights
movement of the early-to-mid 60's, when there was a lot of soul-searching,
esp. when the focus was on what was happening was localised to the Southern
US, where racist laws were still in place. But since then a great many
members of American society have been immunised against such
"soul-searching" and are more prone to fear and resentment. A lot of what
I have said above suggests that useful discourse will have to go beyond
talking about "scientifically unfounded prejudice".
This is not to say that there is no need to explain such things in
comprehensible terms when it is encountered, as it frequently is in
rationalisations. But it is to say that it is only the beginning, and it
is insufficient both for the sake of the societies involved and for an
understanding about what language has to do with the societies that value,
respect or tolerate linguistics itself.
- Benji
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