LINGUIST List 8.317

Tue Mar 4 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1.>, Chomsky on Ebonics?
  2. benji wald, Re: 8.285, Disc: Ebonics
  3. Shelley, Ebonics

Message 1: Chomsky on Ebonics?

Date: Wed, 19 Feb 1997 17:11:23 PDT
From:> <>
Subject: Chomsky on Ebonics?

>From an article on Ebonics by Christopher Hitchens in the current
(March) Vanity Fair:

Noam Chomsky, the founder of modern linguistics, said that while
there's no difference in principle between "I be" and "Je suis,"
and while pre-modern and pre-technological languages can be
extremely dynamic and complex, the chances of evolving one in a
ghetto were distinctly slim. "If it's taught, it has to be like
the way that Standard English is taught to unintelligible white
kids in eastern Tennessee - as a means of making them fluent."


Sandra Wilde
Portland State University (Oregon)
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Message 2: Re: 8.285, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Thu, 27 Feb 1997 18:47:49 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.285, Disc: Ebonics

Melvin Shearer writes:

>I can understand the we have many problems in this country with equal
>rights and race. but if we pass new laws to teach ebonics in our schools
>are we not seperating our cultures even more.

Although "teach ebonics in our schools" is a misconception, or at
least a misleading wording, of any proposal to acknowledge African
American vernaculars for educational purposes, the basic argument is a
familiar one used by some blacks and whites alike for ignoring
cultural differences (perhaps for fear they will be popularly
misinterpreted as some other kind of difference), as if it were "the
lesser of two evils" to do so. I suppose it would be a valid point if
everyone promised to ignore their own reactions to African American
vernaculars in judging and evaluating people, but I do not think it is
humanly possible to do this (for profound sociolinguistic reasons).

 The same fundamental argument is also used against bilingual
education by those who (claim to) fear that, say, acknowledging
Spanish for speakers who come to school without English skills will
lead to the drifting of the Southwest back to Mexico, or something
like that. This is based on a misinformed understanding of which
segments of the Spanish-speaking populations do not already speak
English as a or the home language, and of the supposed but erroneous
analogy between Spanish in the US (esp in the Southwest) and French
(or is it English?) in Canada (esp in Quebec). I won't go through all
the things which are wrong with such notions here. I will only
observe for the moment that ostrich-like behavior with regard to the
form of English (yes, English) spoken by most African Americans is not
going to close the huge social gap which has existed between African
Americans and neighboring populations since the inception of the US
(and before) and has continued to grow (though in perhaps
unpredictable ways, and NOT in ALL ways).

I remember a news item in the early 70s on the radio talking about how
in some wealthy white communities at the time, white parents were
buying black dolls for their preschoolers so that they would not grow
up prejudiced. Obviously there were no "real" black preschoolers in
those neighborhoods for these preschoolers to associate with. I can't
think of anything that would less prepare these white preschoolers for
encounters with actual African Americans than that strategy. What
would happen when they encountered real cultural differences,
including language of course, not to mention all the contrary
propaganda in the media (even at that time)?

Melvin continues:

>I have many Black friends and they speak the Kings English and like it.

So? "Some of my best friends..." uh, I forgot what I was gonna say.
Yes, the black dolls might have worked for such encounters. But, in
my opinion, African Americans and their cultures have more to offer US
culture and the world in general than the ability to replicate the
culture that Americans have received from that lovely island off the
west coast of Europe. African American replication of "standard"
culture was something that became a point to be demonstrated in the
past times when racist ideologies claimed that African Americans
didn't have the ability to do it. We have moved beyond that kind of
proving one's self now. Most African Americans don't give a damn
about doing it for its own sake. They're sceptical of that kind of
run-around. And it is part of the superficiality of the understanding
of "racial" problems in the US that anybody thinks "color" (or
appearance) is the root of the problem, such that cultural (including
linguistic) differences can be ignored.

I am also curious about how the writer was able to be so selective in
acquiring "Black friends". In any case, the implication of the
passage seems to be that African Americans would like "standard"
English if they got to know it, as if most of them consciously resist
it. Maybe I'm reading too much into the passage, but in case I'm not
I repeat:

African Americans and their cultures have more to offer US culture and
the world in general than the ability to replicate the culture that
Americans have received from that island off the west coast of Europe.

Actually, that is already obvious to anyone familiar with American
culture. And it also goes for the many other cultures (or should I
call them ""sub"cultures"?) that exist in the US, as everywhere else
in the world. In my opinion, reconciliation of cultures is the way to
go, NOT elimination of cultures. I don't think that even the
"standard" culture professes elimination of other cultures (it just
ignores them to the extent that it does not find them useful or
amusing). And if it did profess elimination of other cultures, I
could understand why resistance would arise and be widespread. Come
to think of it, maybe that has something to do with the problems of

Next, Wenchao wonders:

>Does anyone know offhand of good works of fiction written in
>Ebonics that they could recommend ... What I have in mind is something
>like Alice Walker's "The Color Purple", or the plays of Lorraine
>Hansberry, in which the bulk of
>the work is in dialectal language and grammar, replicating the actual
>speech of its African American characters.

The request has some assumptions that are not quite right. Written
works SUGGEST rather than REPLICATE the "dialectal language and
grammar" of African American vernaculars. There have long been
traditions for representing African American speech, and they change
over time as they become more and more separated from what they intend
to represent (if they were ever accurate in the first place), e.g., it
used to be sticking -s on all "present tense" verbs among a few other
devices. Now that one is more or less disused, since it is completely
divorced from current AA speech, and sounds archaic even as a literary
device (thus Alex Haley uses it for slavery times in his novel
"Roots"). Meanwhile, white writers like Styron add 1970s white slang
to the fictional characterisation of Nat Turner that makes him sound
like a late 1960s hippie, e.g., saying "white" things like "are you
shitting me?" (= "are you bullshitting/lying to me"?). Good authors
like Walker and Hansberry do not rely exclusively on literary
stereotypes received from previous authors following such a tradition,
but incorporate some fresh features familiar to them from speech into
their writing. The freshness and originality of such touches would be
more easily appreciated by readers familiar with the spoken sources
than other readers who are satisfied to "get the idea" that a
fictional character is an African American. Zora Neale Hurston's
writings were very much appreciated by later black authors because she
not only incorporated spoken elements into her represented speech but
also into her own narrative style as an African American woman who was
proud of her AA culture. She did that on purpose. She, like all
other well-known African American writers, could have written
exclusively in the standard if they wanted to. Zora was one of the
first who showed that she no longer felt compelled to "prove herself"
by sticking to Victorian-type written prose -- and she specifically
wrote in defiance of many of the other "Harlem renaissance" writers
who did think they had to prove their command of the standard. (Of
course, Zora had studied with the anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth
Benedict, so she was aware of the "cultural relativity" point of
view.) Still, her representation does not reflect AA vernaculars as
spoken in today's American cities (and wasn't intended to).

 The representation of African American speech in literature is a
separate area of a study itself, quite distinct from the study of
spoken African American vernaculars, and should not be confused with
it. Unless you follow studies of African American speech, or are
directly and intimately familiar with it, you don't have any way of
knowing to what extent the literary conventions for representing it
are realistic or not. If I change a fictional character's represented
speech from "isn't" to "ain't" that would be sufficient for many
African American readers to assume the character is African American,
but for many other readers to assume that the character is white,
either uneducated or talking informally. -- Benji
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Message 3: Ebonics

Date: Tue, 11 Feb 1997 11:32:35 -0500
From: Shelley <>
Subject: Ebonics

My opinion is that there should be more emphasis on improving the
overall education of African American children.

The development/implementation of Ebonics would be a disservice to the
very people it is trying to help. It's equivalent to putting a
band-aid on a gaping wound. I can speak out of experience when I say
that unique programs like this one have a way with hurting the
development of students rather than helping. I was involved with one
such program in elementary school which was supposed to help me with
math skills, it took me YEARS of my own hard work to catch up to the
rest of my peers. Luckily I had the confidence, opportunity, and
resources to do to just that. What I'm trying to say is don't single
this problem out - Improve the system! Don't allow them to place the
band-aid, force them to heal the wound. Better teachers, teaching
real skills, a safe environment for teachers and students alike.

Of course the above proposition will not be well excepted because some
Whites as well as African Americans believe that there should be
separation, there should be two distinct entities. Unfortunately this
will ultimately be a disservice to black students.

I believe that certain groups of people allow the existence of
programs like this one because they know they do not work. For what
ever reason they want to keep the people they are trying to "help"
un-educated. There was a program in Georgia (I'm sorry but I don't
remember the details). Basically they asked certain students who were
failing or planning to quit school if they would be willing to go to
summer school. Quite a few students decided to participate after it
was explained to these children (white and black) that it was
guaranteed that after that summer they would have the SKILLS they
would need to compete with their peers. They did not say it was easy.
Their workload was grueling - but there was no pressure to make a
grade, and there were plenty of teachers to help. This was not a
condecending class, it treated these kids as though they were "A"
students, they just had to catch up - and that meant hard work. BUT
these kids did it, and there was a REAL sense of accomplishment when
they were done, and I don't think I have to tell you that all stayed
in school and many went on to college.

Thanks, for letting me voice my opinion. Good luck! 
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