LINGUIST List 8.197

Sat Feb 8 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Johanna Rubba, Ebonics
  2. benji wald, public behavior
  3. benji wald, AAVE and slang.

Message 1: Ebonics

Date: Tue, 4 Feb 1997 12:54:30 -0800 (PST)
From: Johanna Rubba <>
Subject: Ebonics

I would like to ask Stirling Newberry to explain something about his?
recent posting to Linguist, Vol. 8.164, Message 3. A header from a
message I had submitted was included, without the message, but with some
text (by Newberry?) following.

Are we supposed to be able to identify my message just by the inclusion
of the heading? Newberry seems to be responding to something I said -- I
wish he had included the portion of my message he was responding to.
I hope people don't assume that the text below my heading was my text. I
didn't write it.


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 2: public behavior

Date: Wed, 5 Feb 1997 00:10:54 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: public behavior

In the Ebonics discussion, I'm glad someone picked up on John Konopak's

>It seems to many of (us) them (whites) that among blacks, even
>perfect strangers meeting on the street immediately fall into intimate
>and animated conversations, a fact that puzzles and annoys most of

"animated" could probably get consensus, and involves vocal, gestural,
kinesic and proxemic systems of communication different from those in the
"standard" public culture. (I'll comment further on that at the end.) I
think "intimate" is more in the eye of the beholding culture.

Marc Hamann responded to John's impression:

>a friend of
mine who was from Malawi ... told me that when he first came to Canada the
he found the hardest to adjust (aside from the weather) was that people
>tend to ignore each other in public.

In every African culture I'm familiar with, public etiquette is much more
intricately developed than in Germanic (e.g., "Anglo-Saxon") cultures
(among others). In Germanic cultures you can easily get the sense that
being in public is an "accident", something that necessarily happens when
somebody goes from one place to another, and the culture takes pains to
minimise the impact of that situation on the individual.

In the African cultures I know, if you're in public you're part of the
public. You have great access to other individuals constituting that
public and they have great access to you. By convention, you can't pretend
they aren't there. EG., in East African culture if someone stumbles on a
city street but immediately regains balance, strangers will say "pole".
That's Swahili for "I hope you're OK." In Anglophone West Africa I heard
"sorry" (sori) under the same circumstances. In the US and Europe I've
heard -- nothing. (= pretend it didn't happen, it's NONE OF MY BUSINESS.
OK, once in a while somebody might say "whoops" and smile, the same kind of
person who might compliment you on your beautiful baby -- but that's a
"marked" reaction. In the African cultures I'm talking about it's an
"unmarked" reaction.

(In case, you're wondering, I would also probably ignore it here, but I
would say "pole" in East Africa. The norms of standard public behavior
here sap my inclination toward public sociability too.)

Similarly, in East Africa I've heard people complain that sometimes they'll
pass a white person on the street and the white person will ignore them,
even turn his/her head the other way. (The context is not a crowd of
people, of course, but just two people passing each other). They consider
that rude. In one case, a guy told me (in Swahili), "maybe he's about to
walk into a hole, if he doesn't greet me I'm not gonna tell him there's a
hole ahead. If he falls into it, serves him right." African Americans
have preserved much of the African sense of public behavior (cf. "the
grapevine"), but they are also aware that the "standard" culture does not
share this sense. In a group they may choose to ignore the norms of the
"standard" culture amongst each other, like a group of Americans in Europe
(We'll go deeper into this some other time, most interestingly the issue of
"making a scene" in public, e.g., how in African cultures a party can pull
the surrounding public into what Westerners would call a "private" dispute,
in order to appeal to their impartial judgment of who's right and who's

(My observations lead me to believe that most white people who live in
Africa know how to act in public -- to an acceptable extent. My guess,
unconfirmable, was that the East African incident involved a newcomer who
felt awkward and didn't know the norms. A nod and eye-contact would have

Such cultural differences lead to misunderstandings, as in the East African
case I mentioned above. Note that Koponak observed that the public verbal
behavior of some African Americans (particularly teenagers I would guess)
ANNOY many white Americans. For similar reasons, some behaviors of New
Yorkers, white, black or polka-dot (as the saying goes), annoy Americans
from various other parts of the country. And the public behavior of
Americans (in a group, e.g., miltiary personnel on leave from a base)
often similarly annoys Northern Europeans. Similarly, I've heard Northern
Europeans complain about the "French", "Italians" and other Southern
Europeans. "They get on a bus (or whatever) and they're noisy. Bunch of
show-offs! They don't respect other people's right to privacy. (I can't
concentrate on what I'm READing)". Get it? Right to PRIVACY in PUBLIC.
(Some readers of this posting in Africa may not understand what I mean. It
sounds oxymoronic to them. -- But if they have access to e-mail, they
probably also understand enough about Western culture to understand this.)

(Astute Japanese marketers understood the "private in public" business.
They came out with the WalkMan. Really big sales in Europe. Neutralises
everybody's public behavior. Only problem is some WalkMan devotees get hit
by cars or bikes when crossing the street. Contrast the WalkMan with the
boombox, a device for sharing -- or declaring -- in public. It is also
noticeable that more Europeans than Americans walk around with books to
read on public vehicles etc., and the books are bigger, not in number of
pages but size of the cover and pages. On the New York subways people hide
behind newspapers -- a familiar image -- or simply close their eyes and

Without intending to stereotype, I suggest from my observations in England
and Germany, that most British tend to ignore their resentments in public.
They won't say "shut up!" or "pipe down!" ( = "you're intruding on my
RIGHT to pretend you don't exist".) They get even in other ways -- with
somebody else. Germans seem slightly more apt to complain at the moment.
And don't TOUCH such people -- even by accident (proxemic norms). That
kind of intrusion allows them to give vent to their resentment. It's
happened to me (sitting next to someone on an airplane -- of all places!).

Since I've only given anecdotes, don't try to generalise to "everybody" in
a culture, ignoring inter-individual variation, but recognise I'm referring
to norms understood by the cultures mentioned, and immediately grasped as
"different" by observers foreign to the culture. There's a whole field of
ethnography of communication which studies such things. The only practical
thing they can tell us so far is "be aware of cultural differences, and try
to give the benefit of the doubt". Like linguists trying to communicate
their understanding of "language" and "dialect" etc., these ethnographers
usually do not acknowledge how HARD that is to do. People whose theme
song is "MY way (is the ONLY way)" dismiss such suggestions as "political

I'll end by noting that the vocal, gestural, kinesic and proxemic systems
that I referred to in the beginning are noticeable not simply because they
are different but because their "standard" counterparts evolved to be less
noticeable (or "intrusive") to the peripheral public according to the
general standards of public behavior in the society Koponak is referring
to. -- Benji
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Message 3: AAVE and slang.

Date: Thu, 6 Feb 1997 23:34:54 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: AAVE and slang.

Below I want to share with the list what I wrote to an individual
correspondent. It concerns the common perception that AAVE is "slang",
whatever that means. Well, "slang" means a lot of things, and scholarly
works on slang tend to say that there are problems defining it (as a hedge
to common definitions which they then go on to discuss or exemplify).

The fact remains that not only is AAVE confused with "slang" in the popular
mind, but a special relationship between AAVE and slang is also perceived,
even by scholars who understand the difference, and still appreciate the
African American community as a particularly innovative community with
respect to lexicon, including "slang" terms which often also impact other
English-speaking communities (and even beyond, so that, for example, "rap"
has been borrowed as a word, rather than "translated", into the many
non-English speaking cultures that have adopted it as an art form; of
course, this particular case follows the precedents of "blues",
"rag(time)", "jazz", "swing", "boogie (woogie)", "rock", "soul", "hiphop"
etc etc as cultural exports, but more than them it is adAptable to other
cultures because the recitative style overshadows the rhythmic components
of African American rap, and , thus, allows the receiving cultures more
latitude in integrating it into their own musical forms).

The comments I make below suggest that the functions of "slang" in the AAVE
community go beyond those in most other American communities, and account
for these perceptions. I have not seen what I'm gonna say expressed
elsewhere, so I present it as a hypothesis open for further discussion.

The correspondent does not specifically talk about "slang", but writes:

>...I meant the actual vocabulary on the streets specifically in Oakland
>at the moment. It sounds like a relexicalized version of the language in
>publications. Actually, there must be a continuum, otherwise the
>kids wouldn't be able to talk to their parents....

I responded (maybe even misinterpreting what the correspondent was talking

... What you're referring to reminds me of things I have also read in
university black student newspapers. The grammar is standard but
colloquial or slang terms are sometimes used to appeal to the sense of
community -- especially to a sense of social connection between those in
the universities and people in the streets. That should be a familiar
issue to you, at least because it is a very public issue. ("We cannot
leave our less "fortunate" brothers and sisters behind -- because what
happens to them has serious consequences for us too.")

Beyond that, lexical age-grading is a more consistent and, I think,
traditional process in black communities than in most US communities.

(That's my basic point here, which I am referring to as a(n) hypothesis.)

Since an older generation will often continue to informally use words which
were age-graded for their generation as they get older (in speaking to each
other), lexical innovation functions to distinguish the speech behavior of
a younger generation and overtly (purposely) mark the distinction between
generations. Generational distinctions function in a different way in most
black communities than in most other US communities. EG, the idea that a
parent can also be a "friend" to one's child makes less sense to most
African Americans than to many other Americans. A "parent" simply has
certain rights and privileges that a "friend" doesn't have, and, by
extension, that applies to older and younger generations in general.
(Here's a good fictional example. In "Boyz in the Hood" when the mother
calls the son and the son answers the phone with "who this?", the mother
says, "what kind of way is that to talk to your MOTHER?" But when, on
another occasion, the father answers the phone with the same expression,
the mother ignores it and gets on with what she wants to say.)

One example is the use of "cat" for "(male) person" in my generation, and
it is still sometimes used. But it "dates" a person -- and that's what
it's supposed to do, because of the age-grading standard. "dude" replaced
it for the next generation.

( What I'm saying is that it functions differently in the African American
community than in other American communities. Whether it originated as a
slang term in the African American community is a separate and open
question. In much earlier American usage, a "dude" is a city person as
viewed by a country person, as in "dude ranch". The OED can only trace it
back to the late 19th c. New York City, where it refers specifically to a
person by the style of clothes such a person wears, where clothing is
obviously a socially distinctive characteristic that differentiates people
into groups. The citations in the OED identify it as "slang", but not as
"black" -- not that any dictionary has ever reliably made such distinctions
of origin.)

 Cross-generational communication, of course, does take place in the
African American community, and different generations are familiar with
each other's generational words (to a great extent). And because they
understand the generation-marking function, they are not generally
irritated by the younger generation's slang, but amused. So, generational
norms separate who is likely to actually use one or another word. This is
part of the untold story of the function of AAVE "slang", which I will tell
with greater precision and organised evidence some day (probably).

That's the end of what I wrote. So now you're all invited to either
augment or attack the hypothesis.
- Benji
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