LINGUIST List 8.54

Sun Jan 19 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <aristarlinguistlist.org>


Directory

  1. Alison_Huettner, Ebonics
  2. SANDRAed.pdx.edu>, Ebonics and teachers
  3. benji wald, Ebonics: A report from the front

Message 1: Ebonics

Date: Mon, 06 Jan 97 13:15:43 EST
From: Alison_Huettner <Alison_HuettnerNL.CS.CMU.EDU>
Subject: Ebonics

I've been following the "Ebonics" debate in the papers (and needless to 
say, I'm horrified at the depth of public ignorance about language, but
that's not the reason for this post). In a couple of the news stories
that I read, it was stated that Black English "has the vocabulary of
English but a grammar based on that of Niger/Congo languages". The
journalist probably misunderstood what s/he was told -- "based on" is
pretty strong, maybe "shares some features of" is what s/he meant to
say -- but I'd like to know:

* what features are being referred to

* whether there's a theory of Black English origins postulating a more
 direct descent from West African languages (as opposed to the
 creolization hypothesis, which I was taught as an undergraduate)

Can anyone fill me in? Black English is not my field, but since I'm getting 
stuck educating the ignorant at cocktail parties, I'd like to have my own 
facts straight.

Thanks,
					-- Alison Huettner
					 huettnercgi.com
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Message 2: Ebonics and teachers

Date: Sat, 18 Jan 1997 15:17:43 PDT
From: SANDRAed.pdx.edu> <SANDRAed.pdx.edu>
Subject: Ebonics and teachers

I teach reading and writing methods courses to prospective and
practicing teachers and usually spend a class session on language
variation, including AAVE. I try to get across the following ideas:

1. English is a collection of dialects, none of which is more
"correct" than the others. English belongs to all its speakers, not
just a few subsets. AAVE, like other versions of English, is rule-
governed and expresses thoughts equally well (e.g., double negatives
aren't "illogical"). The students often accept these points at least
somewhat, but immediately respond, "Don't we have a responsibility to
teach "standard English" to students so they can get jobs?" etc.

2. The reason that some dialects have lower status is not because
they're linguistically inferior but because of who speaks them, e.g.,
because of prejudice. I try to soften this a little by saying that
it's normal to be ethnocentric about language and think that the way
we speak sounds right while the way other people speak sounds funny,
but that as educators we have a responsibility to have a more
informed view.

3. Given these linguistic and social facts, the educator has a
dilemma. "Correcting" students' language is unlikely to work and
sends a message that their language and that of their communities is
inferior. Yet shouldn't we give them the tools to live in a
prejudiced world?

4. I suggest the following:

For younger children, focus on self-expression, lots of reading and
writing, exposure to written language register through wide reading
of literature (including that written in AAVE - there are many good
children's books).

For older students (middle school and up) - study language variation
as part of the English language arts curriculum, including a clear
discussion of how AAVE is stigmatized for social rather than
linguistic reasons. (I think that this should be explored with all
students, not just those with stigmatized dialects.) At that point,
help students with stigmatized dialects explore the
possibility of bi-dialectism as a tool for survival in a prejudiced
world, but with the choice being theirs: any individual may prefer
instead to avoid employers who don't accept his or her speech. (An
analogy I sometimes use is a Southerner who goes north and is turned
down for jobs by employers who are prejudiced against her dialect.
She might choose to change her speech, or choose instead to find an
employer who will value her as she is.) I believe that we don't have
the right to make this choice for students, and that a solid
foundation in reading, writing, and oral self-expression is the best
preparation for acquiring the new dialect.

Personally, I think that far too much of the Ebonics debate has taken
for granted that language prejudice is just fine and that
the onus should be on speakers of AAVE to change.

Comments?

Sandra Wilde
Portland State University (Oregon)
sandraed.pdx.edu
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Message 3: Ebonics: A report from the front

Date: Sun, 19 Jan 1997 00:12:51 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Ebonics: A report from the front

Well, the ling.list has finally broken its wall of silence, though it has
not yet unleashed the backlog of opinions and comments on the "Ebonics"
issue that I expected. I was going to charge the editors with cowardice,
but that would have been unjust. They need some time with their families,
just as we all do, and I know they know just how to make up for it. It
just turned out to be about the worst imaginable moment for them to take a
vacation, as far as dealing with the issue of what. if anything
"linguistics" has to do with the outer world (or do we really give a damn?
Some, of course, don't. I accept that). The problem, as I see it, is that
the "Ebonics" issue is well on its way to being totally suppressed by the
organs of the dominant society -- with a panicky fury that is never
surprising when it involves challengers speaking in the name of African
Americans, and, for us linguists, when "sacred truths" about the
ONE-AND-ONLY-GOD, Standard English (yeah, the "S" *must* be capitalised!),
are questioned, albeit in an almost unbelievably incompetent way.

Needless to say, I have learned much about the issue since my last posting,
including having read the text of the Oakland school board resolution that
started this whole thing (more accurately, started the current phase of
it), so I am using the word "incompetent" above charitably. I did not
venture into the various web-sites and other electronic discussion groups
which expressed the gamut of opinions, both good and evil, about the issue,
but I was supplied with many of them by correspondents with whom I had
personal dialogue -- sometimes to fulfill my yearning to address discussion
to this list. My own thinking went through a number of rapid phases, and
is still evolving. I admit that I was more interested in the reaction,
both private and media, to the issue than in the resolution itself. About
the resolution there seems to be a continuum of opinions with regard to
motives, ranging from political opportunism to romantic idealism. I will
leave it up to readers to arrive at their own conclusions about such
motives, based on other ideas and sources of information (assuming they can
weed out the disinformation), but I will excerpt (how do you spell it?)
below thoughts I expressed in private correspondence, where, as I said
above, I probably would have sent such thoughts to the Ling.list if it had
been in a receiving mode.

The following are in chronological order:

I hope and really have no doubt that Ebonics will not become a popular term
- but I hope even more that it will not end up being used sarcastically to
discredit the linguistic "legitimacy" of Black English -- vernacular.

(actually, in the streets, the term is sometimes being refashioned as
"eubonics", something that we linguists can perhaps appreciate more than
those who have settled on this remodelling.)

The "good" part (of the media attention paid to the issue) seems to be,
according to news I have seen on CNN recently, that it is making people
aware of certain problems of the type ... for which I gave an example of
Labov's suggestions: pin/pen.

(the example was that "pin: pen" are pronounced the same along with all
other short i and e before nasals in just about ALL African American
vernaculars, as well as most Southeastern and many Southwestern dialects.
Labov had noted that (white) teachers in the North who were not aware of
this would correct young African American children who read "pen" with the
pronunciation "pin", and vice-versa (more rarely), as if they had decoded
the word wrong. The student in turn would not understand the correction.
One of many examples that puts substance into the mutual ignorance which
can be a catastrophe for the teaching-learning process. Maybe you're bored
with details, but they will still be there after this whole episode is
erased from public memory. My paragraph continues...)

After 30 years it seems maybe the message will get through, and inner city
teachers will get a different attitude, and just maybe the information they
need -- just "maybe", I have my doubts because I wonder if it's possible in
the ongoing (and I mean long-term) political climate. Change of attitude
will be meaningless and unmaintainable without the information on the
varieties to help maximise effectiveness of whatever teaching strategies
can be devised -- for whatever purposes.

(Even this, I think, is too optimistic. I'll get back to it later, but, at
this point, let me observe that before a dominant point of view becomes
established in the leading media, such things get through the media that
wouldn't have later -- because they wouldn't be to the "point of the public
debate" anymore.)

The same report mentioned LA schools thinking of adopting a similar
resolution -- and a short piece covering the Mexican American community as
well, to the effect that not only the African American community needs
recognition of a nonstandard form of English to be taken account in
teaching. But then the Chicano spokesman self-derailed by referring to
"Spanglish", a stereotype of the mixing of Spanish and English, which is
NOT the English spoken in East LA or anywhere else. ... The English
proficiency tests, of course, made monolingual Mexican American English
speakers look like limited English speakers, and would have had the same
effect on inner city black children (and Appalachians etc, of course) if
the same tests were used on them. .... With this "Spanglish" concept I
can see the dangers lurking ahead. And they threaten to replay
misconceptions and problems from the past.

(the "..." omits me having said these things about Mexican American English
a long time ago, but who cares? I may be proud that I said it, but I'm not
proud that the message is gone with the wind.)

... We can't be surprised if these issues keep recurring. It took a long
time for "standard" English to reach its supremacy, and it'll take a long
time for the dogmas which support it to be altered for practical purposes.
The fact that the issues challenging these dogmas are not totally and
immediately suppressed by the media (who are guardians of the standard,
even if they aren't aware of how) is what's perhaps surprising. ... The
more privileged would rather switch (to accepting the standard as the one
and *only* God) than fight. The Chomsky documentary on the news media
starts with a quote from Milton, something like "they put out their eyes
and then accuse them of blindness."

(Actually, standard English is still struggling for ABSOLUTE supremacy.
Labov's life work documents that local fragmentation makes this goal
unattainable in principle. Hence. the vigilance with which vested
interests using the concept of "standard English" will remain forever firm.
Linguists are one of the few groups with "credentials" that stand in the
way. Accordingly, they cannot expect to get the favorable treatment that
"defenders" of the standard get in the public media, and the lumping of
linguists who talk about AAVE/BEV with those who talk about "Ebonics" and
"a separate language" is now well under way in the media aimed at the
reading/voting public. On to the next message...)

... I got around to reading the Oakland resolution just before I got my new
e-mail. What a mess!

Although my scholarly view is quite negative about what is going on, I may
not have as harsh a view of it in the overall social context as (many other
scholars, maybe many keeping it to themselves). Again, my reference in my
ling.list message about "desperation" as a motive remains a consideration.
That is, although we are dealing with half-baked ideas, truths and wild
"propanganda" in the resolution (and reactions to it), the educational
situation for most African Americans is quite grim (evidently more so than
for other people -- but I think we can focus on one people's plight at the
moment, for purposes of discussion, without risking invidious
comparisons). And the institutional structures and resources which must
be moved to even attempt to change this are complex, daunting, difficult.
And whoever has the authority. limited or broader to act, is basically
unwilling to do anything about it -- because that's their default position
when they don't "have to". Therefore we might see the resolution and the
movement it represents as a grossly inflated opening position designed to
provoke negotiations with the "authorities" toward a much more moderate and
perhaps "reasonable" compromise. In short, we're dealing with a
negotiating tactic. I suspect that this has been appreciated by numerous
school districts across the country where it is reported that similar
resolutions, some less extreme, are being discussed or adopted. I think
the movement (such as it is) is likely to fail in its larger aims with a
fairly cheap buy-off, but that is another matter. Meanwhile, the variety
of considerations about African Americans and education that may be longer
lived are unpredictable, and may not be entirely negative. Anyway, we live
in a society which continues to have a great deal of ugliness (involving
fear and coercion), and some of the methods used in dealing with it are
patently ugly, but learned to be (temporarily) effective from previous
experience (cf. riots). As scholars, of course, we resent misuse and
misrepresentation of scholarship, but if our scholarship is worth
*mentioning* to an uncomprehending world, we ought to be able to use it to
make some constructive suggestions in the larger social context. If we
can't, what's the point of criticising from our narrow perspective without
awareness of what effect that will have on the larger social context? At
least, that's the issue I'm now grappling with -- and I think we might have
something constructive to say if we can interpret the larger social
situation accurately, along the lines I have suggested above.

(So I interpreted the "Ebonics" resolution as "shock tactics", ugly
responds to ugly.
 I think the above clarifies what I said about "money (for education)" and
"desperation" in my first response, and also addresses the charge of
political opportunism that some critics of the Oakland school board
levelled. I may have been charitable in talking about an opening
negotiation tactic with regard to the Oakland school board, but maybe not,
and in any case, such an interpretation makes sense as the "movement"
spread to other districts. Some observers, under the rubric "(reverse)
racism", were sensitive to the implication that Oakland intended to get
more money for black, and only black, teachers, an impression that the
resolution encourages in some of its specific prose, but this is really a
matter for negotiation, since the arguments were NOT forthcoming for
whether or not that would contribute to better teaching strategies for the
kids under peril, and, is (scholars take notice!) an issue for
hypothesis-development and RESEARCH. Continuing in that vein, I wrote ...)

The bottom line is: if it's true that BEV accounts for much of the failure
of African Americans in school, and in getting good jobs, whether
discrimination against BEV has been used as a cover for unacceptable more
direct racism or for practical purposes that apply to all individuals in
confronting the institutions which control sources of income and quality of
life in our society, and that the educational establishment has failed to
give many/most/whatever African Americans control of the tool of standard
English that they need to protect themselves, then somehow the right to an
equitable education (a legal right underlying federal funding for language
minorities, for example) is being denied, and the educational establishment
MUST respond. Of course, there are a lot of contentious if's in the above,
and that's where we linguists come in, with what we already know, and what
further research we can propose to do toward checking out such allegations.
Nobody else can do it! (or really wants (us?) to.)

(I apologise for the tortured prose, but I can't stop to fix it now.
Again, the thinking is optimistic, but you gotta think that way if you're
interested in the relation between linguistic research and the society that
allows/tolerates it. Now, getting back to my interest in media reaction, I
wrote with respect to the "(reverse) racism" charge, which it seems has not
actually gotten big play in the media and remains only an implied
undercurrent ...)

I suspect that some elements behind the media will act toward total
suppression of the issue, and I see this as a tactic toward that end, a
"backlash" kind of tactic which has had some success when leveled for
example against the concept of "affirmative action." So, for example, the
recent successful California resolution against affirmative action asked,
"shouldn't EVERYBODY be treated equally? shouldn't nobody be discrimated
against?" rather than, "don't WHITE MALES (whoever THEY are?) deserve the
SAME chance for opportunity as everybody else?" (which would also be
misleading, but less sympathetic to more voters). By the way, the trend
indicated by the imminent collapse of affirmative action, whatever the
Attorney General says, may be one element contributing to the "desperation"
that I read into the Oakland resolution.

(Some might retort sarcastically that affirmative action does give them the
SAME chance -- rather than "better" chances, but let's not get into that
right now. Instead, back to my diary...)

First, the new interesting story would be, according to what I just heard
on the (formerly MacNeill-) Lehrer report, what activities and people were
behind the recantation of the Oakland board, about Ebonics is another
"language", that anything but Standard English would be taught (or used?)
in the classroom. (Was it some cheap buy-out, secret deal, "gentlemen's
agreement", I referred to in earlier ramblings? Or was it simply
overwhelming intimidation?) One thing I infer is that they were not able
to muster the kind of community support they would need to stick to their
guns. That is, the majority of active parents and/or activatable people
themselves believe that whatever you call it, it is "improper ENGLISH", and
the resolution makes no sense to them, nor does its arcane terminology
impress them (hence, "genetically" had to eliminated in the recantation,
that was specifically mentioned in the anouncement). The arcane
terminology would, of course, include the word "Ebonics". So, the whole
thing seems to be on the way to blowing over -- or "suppressed", as I
suggested earlier.

(Yes. The "genetic" thing really got picked on, and automatically put the
school board in a defensive position. My guess was that they were
initially surprised to find out that they were NOT the ONLY ones who didn't
know what it's meaning was in linguistics. I was more surprised that Rubba
couldn't figure out what they must have meant, even without reading the
text. But then, she probably did, and was just asking for confirmation.
Vocabulary is a difficult thing. I once offended an East Indian- American
woman by characterising the Hindu caste system as "conservative". She took
exception to me saying that" Hindus are supporters of Newt Gingrich". And
now on to linguistics...)

Whatever else it is, we see a defeat for linguistics, the way I see it,
because in a garbled way the resolution was trying to use the linguists'
"equality of all languages" argument. That message was not allowed to get
through -- and, of course, the Board was not capable of stating it in a way
that would make recognisable that they had adopted this position so dear to
linguists.

(By the first "it" I mean the suppression of the "Ebonics movement" -- as
an initial bargaining gambit. I continue to our favorite theme of why
aren't we more effective in getting out the message about "equality of
languages"...)

And that's what linguists have failed to communicate to teachers. But it's
not as easy as they often seem to think, and the structure of EVERY society
is against the notion. In order to really appreciate the point, the
teachers would have to be able to suspend their *visceral* reactions to
speech (and many other forms of student behavior) so that students do not
detect how they really feel. (This amounts to suspending judgment on how
educable the student is -- at least educable by the particular teacher who
has responsibility for the student.) This is not easy, since they, like
everyone else in any society, will not feel they are obliged to suspend
such visceral reactions in their life outside of the classroom. This is
more an obstacle than getting them the information they need to devise the
right strategies for teaching students standard English and whatever-- and
even that is a difficult task, involving (A) getting it to begin with (B)
getting it to THEM.

(OK. Does that answer the question? By the way, note the outline of the
research proposal at the end. That's how it's done. Fill in the specifics
for yourselves. And finally ...)

Above I tried to explain why we haven't done a good job of it. I left out
the part about we're really not interested (unless there's some reward for
us). We have our own more limited purposes for accepting the equality of
languages. (And that doesn't change our own visceral reactions either...

(Good for you if your reaction was "speak for yourself". So go out and DO
something, then. And I DON'T mean beat up ebonicists. Now just for fun,
here's my analysis of why some people said they saw the word "Ebonics" as
"demeaning" ...)

 The "demeaning" thing must have to do with the whimsical structure of the
word: "Ebony" (like the magazine) but like a color and a piece of wood,
used to describe a human being. Ebony + Phonics = Ebonics. It's not as
clever to many readers as it was intended to be. .... And. finally, maybe
some linguists feel the -onics/phonics element is demeaning to the notion
of "language" since it is a relatively simple-minded approach to the
teaching of reading by sounding out spelled words (and what's the "e" for
in "pen"? sometimes they spell it "pin" sometimes "pen" according to what
the word means, not how it sounds. Get it? we've come full circle.)

(Did I quote myself somewhere saying "Ebonics" was chosen as a first move,
along with other non-mainstream-linguistics words precisely because it
avoids calling AAVE/BEV "English"? Well, it doesn't matter anymore.)

That's enough of me quoting myself. Now I wanna see what else the
Ling.list has to say about the Ebonics issue. I think I left plenty of
room for argument. (By the way, "argument" is another one of those tricky
words. Sometimes when I use it informally people say, "oh no, it's not an
*argument*" as if that word had to mean the kind of thing that neighbors
call the cops about. Does that happen to anyone else? What's with this
word "argument"?) -- Benji
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