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Review of  Black Linguistics

Reviewer: Pratyush Chandra
Book Title: Black Linguistics
Book Author: Sinfree Makoni Geneva Smitherman Arnetha F. Ball Arthur K. Spears
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 14.2953

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Date: Wed, 29 Oct 2003 17:46:18 +0000
From: Pratyush Chandra
Subject: Black Linguistics

Makoni, Sinfree, Geneva Smitherman, Arnetha F. Ball and Arthur K.
Spears, ed. (2003) Black Linguistics: Language, Society, and Politics
in Africa and the Americas, Routledge.

Announced at

Pratyush Chandra, Indian Institute of Marxist Studies (Delhi Chapter),
New Delhi (India)

Whoever has a slight historical sense can easily understand the
underlying depth in DuBois' (1903) statement that ''the problem of the
Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line''. The color line
is not simply that of colors, it is the whole logic of colonization
that constitutes this hierarchic 'colored' division. We have seen
throughout the last century, inter-imperialist rivalry to gain access
to cheap natural and social resources, and have witnessed whole
continents getting united in the struggle for de-colonization --
Vietnam, South Africa, etc. And they have succeeded too. In fact,
exactly a hundred years after the great Afro-American writer uttered
this word we are a witness to the process of colonization and
de-colonization having traveled a full circle in the spiral path of
societal development. Still, the last century was different in the
sense of a lower degree of dispersal, and one could identify
particular zones of problems. But today one can actually really see
the Blakean ''world in a grain of sand'', contradictions intensified
at every level of the society. The color line too is 'dispersed' and
one can feel it encapsulated in each cell of the society. This
provides a greater opportunity to merge and converge the interests at
varied locations, along with facing far greater risks and
difficulties. The present book is the recognition of this opportunity
of realignment, bringing together linguists from North America and

The book starts with a foreword by a great African scholar-activist
Ngugi wa Thiong'o who recognizes the spirit of resistance inherent in
the life and toil of the oppressed masses, their 'no' to the Culture
of Silence. ''Languages meant to die have simply refused to
die. Languages pushed to the periphery have refused to stay in the
periphery.'' He calls for ''de-colonizing the mind'' by narrowing the
division between mind and body -- between the intellectual and the
common man.

This book is a collection of well- researched articles by Black socio-
linguists committed to their community and to the cause of eliminating
its deprivation. '' Black Linguistics must contribute toward an
understanding of the nature of oppression and strategies for
conquering it, or at the very least for containing it.'' (5) Being a
part of the project of ''decolonizing the mind'', ''liberation is
foremost in the thinking and intellectual practices of Black
Linguistics.'' (8) The editors of the book feel that it is only
through such tasks that they, as ''intellectual activists'', can
contribute in the advancement of language studies. ''The central issue
which we address in Black Linguistics is what 'being Black', or
'becoming Black', means in language scholarship. One critical thing
that it means, as this volume demonstrates, is that the Black
Linguistics perspective asks ''fundamental-liberation oriented''
question and candidly seeks to provide language solutions to
problems.'' (10)

The book is divided into three parts. The first dealing with
''ideological practices in research on Black Linguistics'' contains
three chapters. The first chapter by Donald Winford deals with
language ideologies surrounding the status of African American
Vernacular English (AAVE). It brilliantly explores the forms of
linguistic prejudice against AAVE, and successfully demonstrates their
ideological (in the sense of ''false consciousness'') character, by
detailing on the contrary factual materials. The chapter deals with
the prejudice concerning AAVE's history, which has been systematically
denied or defamed, except its ''British dialectal continuities''. This
feeds the notion that AAVE is simply a variant of English. On the
contrary, AAVE shows an African influence in phonology, vocabulary and
communicative styles. Further, there are other grammatical features
besides copula absence, like tense/aspect auxiliaries etc., which have
origins in the creativity and history of the speakers. Winford
criticizes the variationist approach that considers AAVE simply to be
derivative of Standard English (SE), denying its autonomy. He shows
that both AAVE and SE are socio-cultural constructs, ''the former
associated with the culture and social practice of the African
American community, the latter with some ideology of what ''correct''
linguistic behaviour should be.'' (29) In their function to
hierarchize speech, language ideologies like any other ideology
naturalizes relations of power and privilege, hence act as modes of
social control in favor of dominant interest groups. The linguistic
prejudice against AAVE represents the discrimination against the black
community, and deprives it in every aspect of its social life.

The second chapter by H. Samy Alim dealing with Hip Hop language
further explores the relationship between the ideological role of
language and identity formation. It begins with a note on stylistic
variation in African American Language (AAL) and the style-shifting
phenomenon. It goes on to concentrate on the theme of how Hip Hop
artists construct a street conscious identity through language.

In its pursuance of the theme of linguistics of liberation the third
chapter by Velma Pollard traces the language and history of Rastafari
culture. This particular ''Dread Talk'', as it is called, was
constructed in Jamaica. Although the movement deifying the then
emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassi started in 1930, but the language
evolved after two decades or so, gaining prominence with the songs of
Bob Marley, who sang ''Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None
but ourselves can free our minds.'' Eventually, Rastafari culture and
music have gone beyond Jamaica, with even non-blacks adopting
them. The I-aric (importance of the phono-semantically rich sound
/ai/) language or Rastafari ''wordological'' innovations have affected
not only the lexicon of Jamaican English, but also other languages.

The fourth chapter (first of Part 2 on ''conceptualization and status
of Black languages'') written by Zaline M. Roy Campbell begins the
discussion on ''promoting African languages as conveyors of knowledge
in educational institution'', and provides an overview of the
challenges faced by the educators in postcolonial Africa. After
discussing on how the colonial legacy of prioritizing the languages of
colonial rulers developed a ''mental colonization'' resulting into a
marginalization of common masses and their language, the author goes
on to narrate the experiences in different African countries. Despite
contradictions, the African countries are positively empowering the
native languages. ''At the turn of the nineteenth century, Europeans
were engaged in elaborating African languages for their own
purposes. By the end of the twentieth century, Africans in some
countries had begun to re- appropriate their languages. The challenge
for African scholars in the new millennium is to extend this vision to
empower African language.''(98-99)

The subsequent chapter by Hassana Alidou develops on the same theme
with regard to specifically Francophone Africa. An interesting aspect
discussed is the neo-colonial subversion of the ''post-colonial''
education system in these countries -- how through financial aid and
donation, the erstwhile colonizer, France, is essentially helping its
publishing industry to profit. This fact never allows any African
language to come up as a viable alternative to French, as this would
mean a loss of ''a large textbook market'' that these countries have
become. Further, ''since most countries rely heavily on international
aid, ministries of education and governments in general have very
limited power to implement education and language policies not favored
by the major donors to a given country's educational programs.'' (112)

Chapters 6 and 7 written by Nkhelebeni Phaswana and Sinfree Makoni
respectively study the South African context. The South African
Constitution recognizes eleven official languages which assigns dual
task for the government -- firstly, to sustain a multilingual and
multicultural environment, and secondly, to promote and elevate the
status of African languages. Phaswana reevaluates the state
institutions' performance in this regard through a study of official
documents and linguistic performances and ideologies of the
representatives in South Africa's National Assembly and portfolio
committee rooms. It provides a historical survey of language question
in the context of colonialism and apartheid. ''So long as the national
government uses English and Afrikaans as the only languages of record
in Parliament, those who continue to fight for the use and recognition
of African languages will continue to be regarded as uneducated and
uncivilized, and their voices ignored and ultimately regarded
silences. That will be the betrayal of our freedom and democracy, for
freedom can only be fulfilled when the languages of the people are
utilized in all segments of the society.'' (130)

It is in the article by Sinfree Makoni that the question of linguistic
identity has been discussed cogently as an ideology. It shows how such
identities are systematically invented and 'legitimated' through
sanctified constitutional provisions in South Africa. ''The South
African constitution, by recognizing nine African languages as neatly
divided, 'bounded units' ... or 'hermetically sealed units' ... is
socially alienating and cognitively disadvantaging to the very people
it is intended to serve.'' (132) On the one hand, this creates
''imagined'' linguistic communities 'atomized' from each other,
''where the existence of separate indigenous languages is taken as
self-evident, unproblematic, and an uncontested socio-linguistic
fact.'' (134) Makoni shows how this is a colonial legacy established
by missionaries, where ''faulty transcriptions and mishearings'',
together with the choice of diverse orthographic systems, all played
their part. On the other hand, these invented units do not account for
the linguistic differences within the so-called African
languages. Hence, ''there is a very sharp disjuncture between language
praxis and standard forms of the languages,'' leading ironically to
further alienation of the common masses, which was sought to be
eliminated by the policies. The pedagogic implication is also quite
clear -- the whole notion of educational right of the masses to be
taught in their mother tongue fails, ''as the notion of ''mother
tongue'' may mean very different things when used for institutional
purposes than when used in the real world.'' (138) Another effect of
this 'officalisation' of some standardized forms of speech would be
''plural monolingualism'' opposed to a genuine multilingualism ''since
all the country's languages are officially recognized, all one need do
is become competent in the standard version of his/her own language.''
(139) Makoni calls for a ''disinvention project'' against the above
''misinvention'', based on the perspective of viewing different
African languages as multilayered and interconnected chains. He
concludes, ''The metaphor that most accurately applies to the African
situation is not self-enclosed partitions, but ''frontiers.'' The main
strength of the ''frontier'' metaphor is that it resists notions of
barriers and works on the basis of interconnectedness, unlike the
underlying construct forming the basis of notions about language in
the South African Constitution. Conceiving of language as
interconnected patterns enables me to talk about the number of
languages a speaker controls.'' (144)

The third part dealing with ''inclusion and exclusion through
language'' starts with a study of discriminatory linguistic profiling
in the US. John Baugh begins by citing legal paradox regarding
linguistic profiling of ''sounding black'' and narrates his personal
anecdotes on such profiling in his searching for accommodation. But he
thinks that ''just as linguistic diversity has been used to accentuate
differences among us, it also unites us into the bundles of linguistic
enclaves that reinforce our heritage and pride in our ancestry,''
which are multiethnic. (163) He calls for accentuating ''the benefits
of preferential linguistic profiling, while discarding the tradition
of discriminatory linguistic profiling that fans the embers of racial
discord.'' (166)

The ninth chapter by Awad El Karim M. Ibrahim is on the role of
language in ''becoming Black''. The essay shows how continental
Africans coming to North America suddenly confront themselves as
blacks and how language learning, in this case AAVE, which they learnt
through Hip Hop helped them in ''becoming black''. Without forgetting
their African language and culture, the code-switching becomes a norm
among them -- switching between mother tongues, French, ''standard''
English and Black English. The author explains this scenario with an
anecdotal presentation. ''Becoming Black -- or entering already
pronounced regimes of Blackness -- meant joining the exiled category
of Blackness; exiled because of the history of colonialism, the middle
passage, and slavery.'' (182)

The final chapter of the book by Arnetha F. Ball provides a cross-
national comparative study ''based on an innovative teacher
educational course implemented over a three-year period in the US and
South Africa in an effort to help teachers become better prepared to
teach culturally and linguistically diverse students.'' (186) The
target is to analyze educational institutions as linguistic
gatekeepers, and teachers as agencies for language ideologies. The
study shows how critical education of teachers can conscientise them
and through coupling of intellectual activity ''with interactive
participation in carefully designed classroom activities'', their
commitment towards the society and against ideologies denigrating the
oppressed could be developed.

On the whole, the book stands out as a sociolinguistic contribution in
building up the counter-hegemony against language ideologies that tend
to ''hierarchize'' linguistic praxes and sub-standardize languages of
the oppressed. It is a ''critical reading'' of the world from a socio-
linguistic point of view. The biggest asset of the book is that the
contributors are critical participants of the linguistic praxes on
which they reflect. To paraphrase Paulo Freire (1994), these
educators- educatees because of their own experiences ''have reacted
almost instinctively against any word, deed, or sign or racial
discrimination'' (and that is why the texts frequently become

The contributors have succeeded in problematizing the positivist
notion of 'neutral' observer-researcher that dominates in the academic
practice, especially in socio-linguistics. They have exposed the
ideological aspect of such neutrality and societal biases inherent in
it. But I think in their zeal, they have erred in their judgments
regarding 'Chomskyan' (generative) linguistics. They think language to
be a ''social practice'' embedded in the social being of humans, which
is indeed correct at its face value. But for them, the generativist
approach eliminates the sociality of human language. I perceive this
idea to be akin to saying that discussing human biology amounts to
denying the social nature of human beings. Further, this view tends to
the same empiricist fallacy of descriptivism, which is rampant in
social research celebrating varieties, particularism/specifism and
overlooking the dialectics of concrete and abstract, of general and
particular, that constitute the reality. With regards to the
generativist approach, I better quote Uriagereka (1998) that lucidly
questions the false dichotomization of the study of ''triggering
input'' (that includes social aspects too) along with its varied
results and the 'abstract' language faculty:

''Of course they're [Chinese, Swahili, Navajo, Basque, or Hebrew]
different, but you'd be surprised how similar they are at a moderately
abstract level. Not only do they all use words and phrases, and
comparable phonological processes and basically identical semantic
analyses, but in fact, once you get down to analyzing what's
structurally possible and impossible in all of these languages, what
you find are essentially the same processes. So much so that it's
reasonable to conclude that we all speak Human language -- just Human,
for short -- with mere dialectal variations among ourselves. But of
course, first of all, without any triggering input, human LADs
[language acquisition devices] couldn't have acquired a language; and
second, dialects of Human must be explained as much as Human must, and
we must relate to the LAD's workings: since the input varies, the
output varies.''

The innatist perspective simply provides an insight into the general
linguistic capacity of humans. In fact latest developments in
linguistics especially, minimalism and biolinguistics, provide a
scientific base for exposing the 'ideologised' realm of language
hierarchy, standardization etc., which I think is the aim of the
contributors of the book. But as Darwin's theory led to Social
Darwinism/socio-biology and genetics to reductionist explanation of
everything social in terms of genes, social ideologies manipulate
scientific findings for rationalizing social phenomena. But does this
mean repudiation of the science itself like Lysenko and Stalin did
with regards to genetics? This would only mean creating more
ideologies. In fact, what is urgent is to understand these findings
and unfold their real implications, and expose the ideologies that
seek to use them to naturalize some social values inherent in a
particular socio-cultural environment. For example, the insistence on
the cipher-like character of the production of language varieties (to
reveal unto friends and conceal unto enemies) by some linguists seems
to me to be such naturalization, as it universalizes and
de-temporalizes the notion of competition. This provides
socio-linguistic research with a new agenda that presumes
collaboration between socio-linguistics and generative linguistics. As
Winford in his chapter himself says, ''It is high time we reassert the
complementary relationship between studies of I(nternalized)-language
and studies of E(xternalized)-language, rather than treating them as
polar opposites.'' (24)

Despite this peripheral, yet vital, mistake, the book is a marvelous
contribution in the study of identity question and the role of
language in its formation. The essays establish a solid agenda for
further research in the field, and for socio-linguistic contribution
countering the ideologies and biases. Such works become furthermore
urgent as one must remember that now the ''color line'' is not so much
colored, as it is systemic and structural, having agencies at every
level, earlier as ''compradors'' now as legitimate representatives (as
Alidou, Makoni and others successfully show). Hence what is needed is
''critical reading'' of everything around us from a socio-linguistic
point of view. The authors have taken the first few steps towards such
exposition, and we expect more from them and from others.


Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Republished in Three
Negro Classics (1965), New York: Avon Books.

Freire, Paulo. 1994. Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the
Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Uriagereka, Juan. 1998. Rhyme and Reason: An Introduction to
Minimalist Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Pratyush Chandra is associated with the Indian Institute of Marxist
Studies (Delhi Chapter) and has worked on identity question in India
with relation to Hindu-Urdu conflict.

Pratyush Chandra is associated with the Indian Institute of Marxist
Studies (Delhi Chapter) and has worked on identity question in India
with relation to Hindu-Urdu conflict.