LINGUIST List 8.52

Sat Jan 18 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Stirling Newberry, Re: 7.1825, Disc: Ebonics
  2. alan harris, K-16: Other Editorial on Ebonics (fwd)

Message 1: Re: 7.1825, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Sat, 28 Dec 1996 04:52:32 -0500
From: Stirling Newberry <>
Subject: Re: 7.1825, Disc: Ebonics

Most, though not all, of the material on War and Romance is not generally
related to the topic of this list - and thus I do not recommend it other
than being placed in my signature in general; however the following is
abstracted from a larger article which bears upon the current topic:

Begin Extract - from Equality of Error
- - -
Or consider the following: in the late 18th century and early 19th century
there was a movement in Germany to move towards culture which arose from
folk custom, the leaders of this movment have names you can probably
recognize from these pages - people such as Goethe and Schiller and many
others - as well as in other places - such as Robert (Bobbie) Burns in
Scotland. Many of the things we think of as "traditional" from Highland
Kilts to the Christmas Tree were codified. The natural extension of this
program was the use of a "folk" language - starting with Burn's codfication
of the Scottish dialect of English and with the use of German as a
litterary language.

However as the transition from the basis of a polity being centered upon
flowing from the royal house which presided over it, to being some kind of
organic unity of custom and language. In many parts of Europe the logical
implication of the idea that one thinks in terms of ones own language - and
that, resurecting the greek concept - that those who do not speak your
language are thus different - were extended a step further - there was the
creation of a new language in order to underline differences that were felt.

The progression - the rise of German, the creation of "the Scot's
language", continued more strongly: the creation of Norwegian from dialects
and old Norse, and later on the creation of the Modern form of Czech - to
the end of the century with the resurgance of Finnish to replace Swedish as
the centerpiece of Nationalism in Finland. One can even argue that the use
of Hebrew as a spoken tongue in Isreal is merely the last example of a
people apart choosing a language which reflected that apartness. The
process goes as follows - there are almost always dialects abstracted from

In each of these cases the idea of a separateness was turned into full blown
Nationhood by a few things:

The creation of a Mythic Past - an ancestoral source for "the people" from
which its origina nad virtue derives.

The creation of a set of separate customs - usually wielded together as
more orgnaized and polished versions of practices already in place - and
the teaching of these customs as reflecting the values which set the group
desiring separation.

Lastly - and often most decisively - the transition of a language from a
parochial or dialectical fomr - a peasant tongue - to one capable of
litterary discourse - and later economic and political discourse.

These processes are being engaged in now in America, the sense of
separateness felt by many people labeled as black has proceded:

The label "African-American" and the tracing to a Mythic Africa as the
ancestoral past. This would include various controversies over Egyptian
Science - because Egypt makes a very impressive "civilized" well spring,
there are both moderate and extreme versions of this.

The creation of counter holidays to underline separateness - such as Kwanza
- manufactured names and dress - as well as self-segregation.

Some months ago drawn by this chain of logic I predicted the last step as
being a requirement - not know how close at hand this would be. There were
isolated examples, but in America on school district has proclaimed there
to be a "Black English" which is a separate langauge.

This is not to judge the process - a great deal of great art, thinking and
accomplishment has come out of the creation of nationhood from a vauge
sense of separateness, and a large society which refuses to integrate a
smaller section is more or less in the end asking for such a thing to
occur. One cannot point to any historical examples where nationhood arose -
in the end - without intense justification. To be a nation apart is a
difficult thing and one that in the end requires the kind of committment
that makes people want to live for it.

In a book I wrote, "Sorcerer's Apprentice" the economic diagram known as
"Alger Minimums" makes the prediction that when expectation of improvement
drops below the point where cultural mechanisms are capable of wroking
through even a possible path - the individual or group suddenly shifts the
way their thought is organized. In otherwords the social mechanisms
abruptly loose hold and the person leaves the society - either by
self-extermination - or by joiningor creating another society.

If indeed a sufficent number of people have reached this state in America -
then this new nationhood cannot help but suceded. If not it will be the
affectation of a few. However the very powerful alliance between those who
make art - and those who live a culture - is being forged - and that
connection - where by a group of people feel not just that a group of
artists speak for them - but that group of artists is proscribing a vision
of everyday life which is both separate from others - and liveable - often
sucedes depending on the quality of the work done.

It should be noted that racism - or at least a tribal sense of genetic
identity - is almost essential to a Nationalist program - the Nation must
be a self-sustaining thing apart - drawing all that is good from it
sources. Thus its original customs, land, language and lineage will in the
end be set as exemplars of what ought to be. The other end of this program
is of course the probelm that there is no such group of people on the
planet who are pure enough for purity - all of us are the creations of

One can trace this in Richard Wagner's evolution from Romantic Nationalist
to Nationalist. He is aware of the amount of interbreeding that has created
Germans. If the source of goood is from a moment in the mythic past - and
all contamination is bad - then one must become increasingly concerned with
purification of that blood. This trend is already seen in the modern
movement by the explanation of caucasian traits in American Blacks as being
the sole result of rape by masters. Doubtless such things occured - but if
the photographs are any record a good deal of the intermixing of races
occured after the Civil War as well. In any event the bones could tell us
wo what extent - and even where - what happened happened. But I doubt that
the proposition will be put to a test any time soon...

However we now come to the point of my distaste - it is clear that the
Romantic Nationist program is being enacted by a group of people who
simultaneously wish to suppress the information as to what it is doing - by
suppressing the clearest and most cogent experesions of past examples of
this program. And by attacking the very models which they are following.
This is the power of the Western Experience - to see conditions in the
present and to be able to understand the pattern which they are part of and
to trace past examples. The next step in the creation of a notion would be
the creating and publication of works in "Black English". This has several
advantages - first you don't need to bar the old works - because they are
not in the new language - the only ones that exist are those that are
translated - one is free to resynthesize basic symbols and one is also free
to almost plagarize older works. I have complained before about the loss of
German as a litterary language - English of this century has done the same
thing - that which is not in English does not, effectively, exist for

The reason one teaches the great ideas - is because one cannot escape
ennacting them - the question is only whether one does so well or badly.
- - -
End extract

For those interested in the whole article - which as I said is not an
article on Linguistics - the URL for the site is

One may directy access the cover by:

exact URL of the article is:

and is a version revised since its original posting.

Stirling Newberry
Boston, Massachusetts

"The true artist has no pride, he realizes that arts demands are limitless.
Though he may be well regarded by others - he sees only darkly how far he
is from his goal, when a purer genius shall stand before him like a distant
sun." Ludwig vanBeethoven
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Message 2: K-16: Other Editorial on Ebonics (fwd)

Date: Mon, 30 Dec 1996 02:55:34 -0800 (PST)
From: alan harris <>
Subject: K-16: Other Editorial on Ebonics (fwd)

FYI ("for your information")// cheers, ach
 Alan C. Harris, Ph. D. TELNOS: main off: 818-677-2853
 Professor, Communication/Linguistics direct off: 818-677-2874
 Speech Communication Department
 California State University, Northridge home: 818-366-3165
 SPCH CSUN FAX: 818-677-2663 
 Northridge, CA 91330-8257 INTERNET email: ALAN.HARRISCSUN.EDU 
 WWW homepage:

- -------- Forwarded message ----------
 Date: Sat, 28 Dec 1996 08:20:09 -0800 (PST)
 From: david klein <>
 Subject: K-16: Other Editorial on Ebonics

Friday, December 27, 1996 


Slaves risked death to learn standard English, which remains the language 
of survival and success in this country. 


After years of struggling with black student underachievement, the 
Oakland school board has just confessed to an "F" grade for its efforts 
and declared that it wants to attack the twin ills of illiteracy and 
verbal incompetence in English, epidemic among its black student 
population, by classifying "black English," or "Ebonics," as a second 
language of instruction. This we-can't-teach-'em-so-we-be- joinin'-'em 
surrender was the school board's first step in an attempt to qualify 
Ebonics for the same federal funds that fortify other bilingual education 

The U.S. Department of Education promptly rejected the novel idea. 
Ebonics--a crossing of "ebony" and "phonics"--is nothing more than a 
linguistic sham that, with porcine gluttony, vacuum-sucks every verbal 
deformity from plantation patois to black slang, from rap to hip hop, 
from jive to crippled English, and serves up the resultant gumbo as 
"black English." The school board's plan to use it in the classroom is 
retrograde in the extreme and insults the memory of valiant slave 
ancestors who made enormous sacrifices to try to learn the English 
language. Educating slaves was an illegal activity; if discovered reading 
or being tutored, they were maimed or put to death in keeping with 
provisions of the slavery laws of the day. 

What is appalling about the Oakland plan is the absolutely backward logic 
that supports it. Toni Cook, president of the Oakland Board of Education, 
asserts that, "Ebonics is a genetically based language structure" with 
origins in Africa. That is absolutely false. Professors of African 
language and literature in America's universities consider Ebonics to be 
nothing more than an urban language phenomenon, unique for its limited, 
enigmatic contexts, its fleeting definitions and its ever-present 
counterculture connotations. It is an American construction, neither 
known nor spoken anywhere in the huge continent of Africa. 

Hovering over this proposal is the specter of preferential hiring: Who 
would be considered "acceptable" to teach Ebonics--teachers of any race 
or only black teachers? And where, we must wonder, would the Oakland 
schools find the materials for teaching this pseudo-language, which has 
no textbooks, no verb conjugations, no reliable spellings, no rules and 
no documentation? 

As a black American myself, I find truly surprising and disheartening 
Cook's use of the term "genetically based." Certain much-maligned, 
contemporary writers with names like Jensen, Shockley and Murray have 
often been accused of using these identical words to assert that blacks 
are an inferior race from whom very little good can be expected. 

The Oakland plan is nothing more than inverted racism. Like drive-by gang 
shootings and riot-inspired community burndowns, it is one more example 
of how black people can commit acts of racism against themselves. 

By proposing this plantation-era plan, the school board promotes a form 
of segregation that will only make its black students prisoners of their 
own achievements. Separate has never been, nor will it ever be, equal. 
Black students need to renounce Ebonics for the fraud that it is and 
become aggressively involved with their teachers and other students in 
learning standard English. 

To succeed in the 21st century, all of the children in school today in 
this country will need to speak and write not only English proficiently; 
they will also need to know other languages. The safety and security of 
their future will depend on how well they communicate and get along with 
each other. 

Standard English will continue to be the primary language of higher 
education in America and the common language of trade and commerce in the 
global village. 

An African, Kofi Annan of Ghana, is the newly elected secretary-general 
of the United Nations. His rise to this lofty world leadership position 
ought to be viewed by the Oakland school board as a unique learning 
opportunity: He is a black role model, an American-educated economist who 
speaks flawless English and other languages--Ebonics not among them. 

 - - -
James E. Shaw Is a Consultant With the Los Angeles County
Office of Education

Copyright Los Angeles Times 

On Sat, 28 Dec 1996, steven oppenheimer wrote:

Dear David and Colleagues,
Thanks for the great article. How do you transfer such articles to 
email? Regarding Black English, I think a commentary in Friday, 
December 27, l996 LA TIMES, p.B13 titled "Black English Has Its Place",
by Ron Emmons, Asst. Professor of English, Los Angeles City College,
expands upon Sharon's illuminating opinion and those of others who
responded to her. Emmons states "In a district where 53% of the students--
but a disproportionate 71% of the special education classes--are African
American, the board (School Board) is admitting that present methods
of instruction are failures." I believe that Oakland did take the right
step because the attempt was to get much more federal money to try
other approaches to improve English instruction for these students in
Oakland Unified. The federal government, however, seems to disagree
and the money probably won't be forthcoming. The dismal record of producing
people who have English skills that are accepted in the workplace, the
boardroom and the university is clear in Oakland. They want to try a new
approach and I think it is an approach that may help and certainly can't
be any worse than what we have at present. According to Emmons, "the American
Speech, Language and Hearing Association classifies black English as a
"legitimate social dialect with unique lexicon, grammar, phonology, syntax
and semantics." "Black English is already respectable. It's in the music.
And from there it has enriched the fabric of American English." Emmons
goes on to give examples of hundreds of new words that have filtered
into "legitimate" American English lexicon, that came from Black English.
Steve Oppenheimer

On Sat, 28 Dec 1996, david klein wrote:

Union-Tribune Editorial 

Don't dilute them
Education standards should stay high

December 16, 1996 

President Clinton says he supports national education standards to help
gauge what students are learning in public schools, but he opposes the
federal government telling school districts what to do.

He need not worry about the feds imposing national standards anytime soon.
The process of divining what students ought to know is being played out at
the state level, as it should be.

Last year, the California Education Roundtable commissioned a study of what
students should know before entering college or the work force. Phase one,
which consists of creating high school graduation standards in math and
English, will be completed this month. The more ambitious challenge of
devising a grade-by-grade assessment program will not be completed for
another year or so.

Ron Ottinger, newly elected president of the San Diego Unified school board,
is not content to wait that long. To his credit, he's pushing the district
to come up with content standards before the state issues its guidelines.

Two state panels charged with devising graduation standards for English and
math have been holding public hearings for nearly a year. The final hearing,
earlier this month in San Diego, resulted in a spirited debate.

Numerous individuals blasted the math standards and the new math curriculum
as a colossal waste of time that will cause even more confusion among
students. Supporters hailed the math standards and the curriculum alike as
challenging and clarifying. 

Considering the mess the proponents made of math instruction the last time
they tinkered with the process, we share the critics' skepticism.

The controversy over English standards was no less intense. That task force,
headed by Rudy Castruita, San Diego County schools superintendent, fielded
objections from several teachers who proposed a provisional high school
diploma for students whose first language is not English.

Castruita correctly opposed this two-tiered approach, which would have set
lower English standards for immigrant students and thereby undermined their
ability to succeed in an English-speaking society. Castruita knows whereof
he speaks. Raised by his grandparents in the gang-infested barrios of El
Monte, he began kindergarten not speaking a word of English. But he worked
hard to learn the language, made good grades and gained a college scholarship.

The goal, Castruita emphasizes, is to ensure that a California high school
diploma means something. That's why it's so important that the statewide
education standards not gravitate toward the lowest common denominator.

Copyright 1996 Union-Tribune Publishing Co. 

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