LINGUIST List 8.73

Wed Jan 22 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Tom Sawallis, Ebonics
  2. Johanna Rubba, Re: 8.55, Disc: Ebonics

Message 1: Ebonics

Date: Mon, 20 Jan 1997 14:58:34 +0000
From: Tom Sawallis <>
Subject: Ebonics

 We linguists are missing the point in at least 2 ways in the Ebonics
controversy, first with regard to the linguistics, then with regard to the

 We have been discussing, with reporters and on this list, all the various
things we know about dialects and languages, and about Black English
Vernacular (BEV) in particular. We have explained at least that:

 Everyone speaks a dialect.
 A language is a dialect with an army.
 BEV is a dialect, not a separate language.
 Particular ethnic groups do not genetically favor particular languages.
 There is no unified African substrate source for BEV.
 The tense-aspect system of BEV is different from that of standard English.
 Consonant reduction is phonology, not lethargy.

All this is true, but it is substantially irrelevant. We have allowed
ourselves to be drawn into this set of distractions primarily by the use of
the terms "language" and "dialect" in the popular discussion of the Ebonics
controversy. This has managed to divert our attention from facts that we
all know, but have failed to note and apply:

 Children already speak a language before they first attend school.
 The role of formal schooling in first language learning is minimal.

 We need to recall that the problem the schools are trying to address is
failing grades not in language classes (Spanish, French, ESL, ...), but in
language arts classes. While schools may call this subject matter either
"Language" or "English", we linguists are perhaps the only ones with the
standing to point out that what they teach is not actually language and not
simply English, but rather reading and writing. The class activities for
which the students receive failing grades are written texts and tests on
reading material, not ineffective debating, uninspiring oratory, or mumbled
and accented oral interpretations.

 The important linguistic point that we should be bringing to the general
discussion is that there are radical differences between written and spoken
language, and indeed, that the "Standard English" we want students to learn
should really be renamed "Standard Written English" (let's call it SWE)
since nobody speaks it natively. We should be talking about how writing
(for communication at least, and typically for literary expression as well)
requires an unnatural, but ultimately worthwhile, analytical attention to
word choice, rhetorical organization, and grammar. Why is this so?
Because in contrast with speakers, writers have no access to intonation,
they are often uncertain of the identity of their audience, and they lack
the interactive luxury of responding to listener needs with repetition,
explanation, or elaboration. To write effectively, a student must develop
a different set of language tools than those acquired through spoken
intercourse. Naturally, a student who learns the intricacies of written
English will, as a side effect, develop a formal spoken register with the
same characteristics, but that register does not develop in the absence of
writing skills.

 It is a truism that SWE is closer to some dialects than others, and that
some students, including those whose native dialect is BEV, will have
further to go than others from their ideolect to approximate SWE. It is
also a truism that no-one is a native speaker of written language; even
northern white students with no educational disadvantages have to work
hard, and some fail.

 This is where we are losing an important political opportunity. If we
spend our meager time in public view accepting people's focus on the
differences between BEV and SWE, then we are ultimately contributing to the
continuation of ethnic and racial divisions in our society, when we could
be helping breaking them down. Yes, there are identifiable dialect traits
that divide us -- and in more ways than just black vs. white, yet all
students have the same kinds of problems with reading and writing: learning
phoneme-grapheme correspondences, attending to the likely generality of our
vocabulary, envisioning the probable level of knowledge common to our
intended audiences, figuring out how to encode irony -- and even simple
contrastive word accent -- when deprived of intonation, ... All students,
black and white, rich and poor, must learn these lessons in order to write
well. We should be emphasizing that the vast majority of the work in
learning SWE is an experience shared not just by black and white American
schoolchildren, but also by children in East End London, Glasgow, Cardigan,
Dingle, Soweto, Alice Springs, and Calcutta.

 So this is more than a potentially unifying experience for Americans.
This is a bond we share with literate English speakers around the world,
and ultimately with speakers of every written language: French, Spanish,
German, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, etc. We, as linguists, are
uniquely well placed to emphasize this as a shared _human_ experience.

 If we want to be useful in the Ebonics discussion, we should politely
insist that the well-meaning (but poorly conceived and badly reported)
intent of the Oakland school system was off target. The time, effort, and
money that was to have been dedicated to teaching teachers about BEV would
be much more profitably spent teaching them about the differences between
spoken and written English. Explaining to a student how not to use the
habitual copula of BEV is pointless if the student can't access the
different pronunciations of "though, through, tough", can't distinguish
between "its" and "it's" or "there" and "their", and can't understand the
difference between direct and indirect quotes. On the other hand, students
who get through such basics might well be able to use their
(extra-curricular) understanding of dialect traits like habitual copula to
appreciate language effects not only in Toni Morrison, but also in Kipling,
Monty Python, and films like _My Cousin Vinnie_.

 And to recognize the instances when it can be helpful to display their
multidialectalism in job search situations, for instance.

 To summarize what I believe are the most useful messages we can convey:

- The Standard English which we want students to learn is essentially a
written phenomenon, which no-one speaks natively.

- All students who learn to read and write must accomplish a remarkable
feat of linguistic skill and learning. Still, this feat is within the
reach of speakers of all English dialects, including BEV.

- The difficult experience of learning literacy in English is an
experience that unites us all, black and white Americans together, but it
furthermore unites us with literate English speakers of the entire world,
and ultimately with literate speakers of all the world's languages.

- Students can best be helped to learn Written Standard English by
teachers acquainted with certain basic linguistic concepts. These include:
language as rule-governed behavior, dialect differences as a natural and
universal fact, pronunciation differences as phonological patterns rather
than lethargy, nonstandard sentence structures as possible dialect rules
rather than simple errors. We should encourage teacher training in these

- Students tend to achieve higher literacy skills in environments where
reading and writing are respected, encouraged, and practiced regularly.
Such environments are less often available for lower class and
geographically or socially isolated students. We should encourage support
for these students, through such efforts as Head Start, after school,
library, and tutoring or mentoring programs.

 One more thing. Public school teachers are overworked & underpaid, often
undertrained, and occasionally stuck teaching out of their fields. They
are justified in resenting their situation. That does not mean, however,
that they have anything but the best intentions regarding their students.
We must not mistake their inexperience with linguistic theory regarding
dialect, writing, and composition for disrespect or racism. If we do that,
we will disaffect the people from whom we most need cooperation and
enthusiasm. We should acknowledge their good intentions, and try to
provide them the tools, both intellectual and practical, to do their job.

 Happy Martin Luther King Day and Happy Inauguration Day to all.

Tom Sawallis
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Message 2: Re: 8.55, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Mon, 20 Jan 1997 13:52:30 -0800 (PST)
From: Johanna Rubba <>
Subject: Re: 8.55, Disc: Ebonics

Whenever this 'language vs. dialect' question gets posed to me, I feel 
like I am departing on a game of Twister.

I have finally decided to say something like this: whatever kind of 
critter Ebonics is, standard English is, grammatically speaking, the same 
kind of critter. I also struggle with analogies like roses and trees --
just trying to get the notion of _dialect equality_ across.

anybody else out there got a good answer for this?

Johanna Rubba	Assistant Professor, Linguistics ~
English Department, California Polytechnic State University ~
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407 ~
Tel. (805)-756-2184 E-mail: ~ 
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