LINGUIST List 8.287

Thu Feb 27 1997

Disc: Lg and Public Behavior (was Ebonics)

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Magda Ciesla, Social Impoverishment and Language Deficiencies
  2. Michael M. T. Henderson, Public Behavior
  3. Carol Anne Seflinger, response concerning public/private behavior disc.

Message 1: Social Impoverishment and Language Deficiencies

Date: Wed, 5 Feb 1997 15:51:00 -0800
From: Magda Ciesla <>
Subject: Social Impoverishment and Language Deficiencies

I read with great interest Marc Hamann's post and his observations on
white North Americans' lack of community sense under the subject
header "Ebonics". I would like to take my comments on this topic out
from under the heading "Ebonics" because what I wish to say is
primarily not on that topic (though related to it), and because I want
to avoid seeing my comments bypassed by those who are tired of reading
"Ebonics" posts :-).

A cautionary note: my tongue is pointing toward my cheek...

I take it to be evident that major differences in collective world
view and cultural practice between two groups of people are
necessarily expressed in the language they use. (I am using in this
context a very broad definition of language.)

Anybody who did not know from observation or second hand reports *how*
members of the Japanese or Klingon culture differ in their cultural
habits from ours (I am speaking here from the point of view of a
"white" North Anmerican, probably also classifiable as "middle class")
would certainly be able to make substantial inferences based *solely*
on a thorough study of their language!

As an immigrant from a different culture (albeit one who came to this
continent a long time ago) I share the perception of, not only
difference but, deficiency as described in the following (quoting Marc

 For example, he said, when you got on a bus in Malawi, as you were
 sitting down, you would greet the people around you, and open the
 possibility of conversation. The North American habit of trying
 real hard to pretend that our fellow passengers do not exist struck
 him as lacking a community consciousness.
 Perhaps what is really striking here is not that African Americans
 have a strong sense of community and greet each other, but rather
 that white North Americans are sadly deficient in such a sense.

In other words, "white" North Americans, deficient in a sense of
community, are socially impoverished.

I would like to suggest that we should be able to find our social
impoverishment reflected in our language. Furthermore I propose that
monolingual speakers of our variety of our language are not competent
to understand and express the reality (experience) of members of
socially richer cultures.

>From that arises the suggestion that if we want to involve ourselves
in a meanigful and productive way in the discussion of Ebonics and
other socio-linguistic phenomena we must move it out of the realm of
our ("white") language and culture: invite competent speakers of AAVE
to analyse standard North American English and its shortcomings as
compared to their own language for our benefit.

Yours truly: Magda Ciesla
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Message 2: Public Behavior

Date: Sat, 08 Feb 1997 11:55:14 -0600
From: Michael M. T. Henderson <mmthUKANS.EDU>
Subject: Public Behavior

Benji Wald's remarks on public behavior in different countries reminded
me of a phenomenon I've been increasingly struck (and annoyed) by in the
seven years since I've had to use a wheelchair or other assistive device
to get around. I call it "smile for the cripple". All of the people I've
seen do it are white females. It includes brief eye contact and a broad
smile (lips closed) for about 2.5 seconds, beginning the instant she
sees that I am--no threat? Being a northern European, I haven't had the
gumption to ask complete strangers what prompted them to smile. I rarely
smile back, but I haven't been able to stop myself from making a sort of
grimace which could be interpreted as acknowledgement if the smiler
wants to think it is.
Very few African-American women show this behavior. They act like
northern European males in this regard, acting as if I were invisible
(which I find preferable to the smile). Males of all colors generally
ignore me, but open doors or offer to help me up a steep hill if it
looks as if I'm having trouble.
My wife agrees with me that the smile may be engendered by the obvious
fact that I would be unable to catch a fleeing female, so it's safe to
smile at me even though I'm male.
I have yet to experience other cultures in this condition, so I'd be
very interested in hearing from other gimps (as we call ourselves) about
similar or different experiences.

Michael M. T. Henderson
Linguistics Dept.
University of Kansas
Lawrence KS 66045-2140
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Message 3: response concerning public/private behavior disc.

Date: Sun, 09 Feb 1997 17:53:59 +0100
From: Carol Anne Seflinger <>
Subject: response concerning public/private behavior disc.

'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.'

Re: This part of the quote from Benji Wald's intriguing message on 
public/private behavior among different cultures: this humble grad 
student is curious as to how one can be positive in determining what 
is and isn't marked behavior. Can one not also suppose, if the phrase 
"pole" is commonly given, that that is marked behavior? That saying 'I 
hope you're OK' in East Africa, is their way of saying "whoops"? Even 
if it sounds more concerned, it is short, succinct, and potentially 
'markable'. Just wondering. 

Carol Anne Seflinger.
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