LINGUIST List 8.419

Thu Mar 27 1997

FYI: Ebonics article acknowledgments

Editor for this issue: Susan Robinson <>


  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum, Ebonics article in _Nature_ --acknowledgments

Message 1: Ebonics article in _Nature_ --acknowledgments

Date: Wed, 26 Mar 97 11:58:28 -0500
From: Geoffrey K. Pullum <>
Subject: Ebonics article in _Nature_ --acknowledgments

My commentary on African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) in this
week's issue of _Nature_ ("Language that dare not speak its name,"
27 March 1997, pp.213-214) is an attempt to put before scientists (and
science journalists) some views on the Ebonics brouhaha that are a bit
more in line with the LSA's unanimously passed resolution of January 1997
than most newspaper and magazine coverage has been. It may be useful as
a short (two-page) article linguists can refer intelligent laypersons to
if and when the business of expounding on the Ebonics issue ever begins
to pall. It was was motivated by my hope that one day AAVE will not be
exclusively described in terms of dumbness, deviancy, and disease ("The
Ebonics virus" was the title of the Economist's article on the topic!).
However, attempting to write about the topic for a wider public has
taught me that we still have a long way to go.

Working on the article taught me something else as well, something that
motivates the present posting. I learned that _Nature_ maintains a
policy of never publishing acknowledgment notes. It also discourages
multiply-authored commentaries. The conjunction of these policies raised
a problem for me, since I did not work on this topic alone, and I have
a number of people I want to thank. I would like to take the liberty
of making my acknowledgments public via the LINGUIST list.

First, Steve Pinker of MIT, who suggested to me after the business
meeting at the LSA in Chicago that I should try writing a piece such
as this. Steve was most generous with his time and energy in reviewing
an early draft. He encouraged me through the period when I was finding
out that the New York Times (which had falsely asserted that Oakland
"blundered badly" because it had "declared that black slang is a distinct
language") was not interested in publishing anything that disagreed with
its ignorant and hostile attitude. (The Times informs contributors of its
lack of interest simply by and never responding; they throw your article
away and tell you nothing, and after three weeks you take the hint.)
Steve also suggested that I contact _Nature_. Without Steve Pinker's
generously proffered assistance and valuable advice, the article would
not have been published.

Second, the Big Guy. Naturally, I did not think of writing about
AAVE without asking John Rickford of Stanford University for help.
I sent John an unsolicited rough draft at a time when his phone
was ringing off the hook with calls from journalists and he had to
be in class within an hour. Nonetheless, he instantly made time to
supply lengthy and detailed comments, inside news, helpful ideas, and
important references. I want to express my gratitude to him for so
selflessly assisting me in what a lesser man might have regarded as a
raid into his research territory, and for devoting time and thought to
saving me from some errors. (There are doubtless some left; he bears
no blame.) Much useful information may be found on John's web site,
at I plundered it,
and so can you.

Others also helped a lot; for comments, conversations, suggestions,
references, newspaper cuttings, criticism, and fact-checking I thank
many colleagues and friends at Santa Cruz and elsewhere: Giulia Centineo,
Sandy Chung, Stuart Davis, Donka Farkas, Jorge Hankamer, Junko Ito, Nikki
Keach, Bill Ladusaw, Jim McCloskey (who did an arduous newspaper library
search for a quote he remembered seeing), Armin Mester, Jaye Padgett, Tom
Wasow, and Arnold Zwicky (who sent a care package of xeroxed editiorials).
My most assiduous writing critic was Barbara Scholz, who gave crucial
comments on many drafts, and my editor at _Nature_ was Maxine Clarke, an
intelligent and effective professional who made it a pleasure to deal
with the proofing and design stages.

And an indirect debt is to Robert B. Le Page, founding chair of the
sociolinguistics-dominated department at the University of York where
I did my undergraduate degree, a department in which the study of
creole languages was central rather than peripheral, and in which
enlightened attitudes toward them were the norm. Because of that
environment, and the contacts I had there with West Indian linguists
like Donald Winford, I started with the advantage of being aware of
much of the classic literature on AAVE and creoles. In fact I was
astonished to see ancient slanders against AAVE rearing their ugly
heads a quarter of a century after I thought they had been put down.

Credit for any good my article may do in spreading the word is shared
with all the people I have mentioned above.

Let me finally take this opportunity to answer a few questions that
I think linguists might well ask me about the article:

(1) Why so few (just 10) literature citations?
Space limitations. I owe more debts to the literature than I had room
to cite. I did manage to cite the most vital source, Bill Labov's
extraordinary 1969 article "The logic of nonstandard English" (if ever a
linguistics paper should have won some kind of major prize...); but the
reader will see that I also owe something to other works of Labov's,
and to Charles Ferguson's contribution to the Dell Hymes collection
Pidginization and Creolization of Languages, "Absence of copula and the
notion of simplicity," and many other items would have been relevant.

(2) Why have I replaced the virtually standard term AAVE by "African
 American English"?
Because I did not want even a hint of common lay prejudices to infect
attitudes through the term "vernacular", popularly associated with
slang; I'm trying to get across the point that AAVE is just another
natural language.

(3) Why no mention of phonology?
Space; the phonology paragraph ended on the cutting room floor.

(4) Why the downplaying of the idea that African languages influenced
 the origin of AAVE?
A personal judgment; although I have no doubt that some of the signs of
aspect as opposed to tense in the AAVE verb system might be causally
connected to the aspect systems of West African languages (and indeed,
the verb _dig_ might have an etymology in Wolof _degan_ "understand"),
I think the dangers of overstating the African connections of AAVE loom
far larger than the opposite; AAVE is a West Germanic language, not a
West Atlantic one.

(5) What is the status of this distinction between Zero copula,
 Variable Copula, and Overt Copula languages?
No theoretical status; just a rough-and-ready typology aimed at making
a single point: languages differ according to whether the copula is
always audible (Japanese), reduced to a mere suffix under some conditions
(Turkish), or realized as zero under some conditions (Russian). Again,
AAVE is just another natural language. Those missing copulas are not a
sign of careless or ignorant speakers, just a sign that while Colloquial
Standard English is in the category that Turkish belongs to, AAVE is in
a different category, the one that Russian belongs to.

(6) Why isn't the title "The language that dare not speak its name"?
 Why that missing definite article? Careless and ignorant omission?
No; just width. _Nature_'s house style on article headline font sizes
enforced the deletion and spoiled the literary allusion!

Geoff Pullum Stevenson College University of California
(408)459-4705 Santa Cruz, CA 95064

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