Why Ebonics Is No Joke
Jill Kitson: Welcome to Lingua Franca. This week: why Ebonics is no joke. Geoff Pullum on African-American Vernacular English.
MUSIC - Pollywanacraka
In December 1996, when the Oakland, California, School Board announced its plan to use Ebonics, or African-American vernacular English in schools, critics all over the world ridiculed the policy, dismissing the vernacular of black Americans as slang or Standard English with mistakes.
Geoff Pullum, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says the critics were wrong. African-American English is not slang and it's not Standard English with mistakes. Here he is to explain why.
Geoff Pullum: It is unusual for a policy announcement at a city School Board meeting in California to trigger a worldwide media frenzy. But one School Board meeting in December, 1996, did exactly that. Within days of the announcement, School Board members could not leave their homes without being besieged by journalists. They were vilified, ridiculed, and attacked in newspapers and magazines around the entire world. Why?
The Board had issued a statement to the effect that it was changing its educational policies with regard to one aspect of the local linguistic situation. They would pay more serious attention to the language spoken at home by most of the district's school students. Its status would be recognised, teachers would be trained to look at it objectively and appreciate its merits, and it would be used in the classroom as appropriate. The New York Times reported this much quite fairly. Yet opinion writers proceeded to fall upon the topic like starving dogs attacking a bone. They ridiculed, they sneered, they frothed, they flamed, they raged, they lived off the story for weeks. The talk radio switchboards lit up, intemperate opinions flared. What was going on?
The answer lies in the fact that the language being recognised by the School Board was not Spanish or Polish or Russian or any such relatively uncontroversial language. The city was Oakland, a poor city on the east side of the San Francisco Bay where half the population is African-American, and the language was the one that linguists usually call African-American Vernacular English.
Now the trouble is that most speakers of Standard English think that African-American Vernacular English is just bad speaking, English marred by a lot of ignorant mistakes in grammar and pronunciation. Or worse than that, a repertoire of mostly abusive street slang used by an ignorant and dangerous urban underclass. An editorial in The New York Times a few days after the first news report said the Oakland School Board had 'declared that black slang is a distinct language.'
We can get that myth out of the way right at the start. The Times should be ashamed of itself. The Oakland School Board never mentioned slang, and never intended to imply anything approving about it.
Slang is a finite collection of vivid, colloquial words and phrases associated with a subculture and not yet incorporated as part of the mainstream language. But no subculture's slang could constitute a separate language. The mistake is like confusing a sprinkle of hot sauce with a dinner. Slang has no grammar of its own, it is a small array of words and phrases used under the aegis of some ordinary language and in accordance with its grammar. The majority of slang words and phrases are in the language already, and are merely assigned new slang meanings by some subpopulation.
Oakland's announcement was pompous, badly written, and filled with provocative references to 'African Language Systems'. But it didn't mention slang, and its intent was clear enough: the Board wanted to acknowledge that African-American Vernacular English was distinct in certain respects from Standard English and proposed to be responsive to the educational implications of that fact.
Buried among the jargon of the announcement was a mention of a name for African-American Vernacular English suggested by a black scholar in 1975 but never adopted by linguists: Ebonics. That misbegotten word, concocted from 'ebony' (a colour term from the name of a dark coloured wood) and 'phonics' (the name of a method for teaching reading) was destined to attach to the Board members as if chiselled into a block of granite and hung round their necks. They would never hear the end of it.
One problem with the name was that it lent itself irresistibly to stupid puns and jokes. The Economist picked it up and printed a brief story headed 'The Ebonics Virus', a tasteless reference to the then recent outbreak of the horrible Ebola fever in Zaire. The subliminal link there is clear enough: nasty things out of Africa!
And people rapidly invented other 'onics' words to mock the idea of letting African-Americans have their own claim to a language. 'Will Jewish people propose that their way of speaking English should be designated Hebonics? Huh? Will old people say their problems are caused by the fact that they speak Geronics? Huh? Could stupid people complain that they were the victims of their native language, Moronics? Huh?'
Cartoonists seemed to find these possibilities endlessly amusing, and the jokes kept coming for more than a year. But they didn't make me laugh.
The topic was a joke because of what the majority of English speakers think about African-American Vernacular English, that apart from the special slang, it is just English with a lot of grammatical mistakes. They also think it's an impoverished version of English with a lot of grammatical mistakes. Alberto Manguel wrote in the August 1998 'Australian's Review of Books' that black English is 'nothing but a vastly impoverished version of Standard English.' He gives no evidence for that at all.
I don't know how you measure poverty in a language. But on the bit about grammatical mistakes, people are simply wrong. There is a difference between making grammatical blunders in Standard English and speaking correctly in a different variety of the language, one that has a slightly different grammar. And that's the case here. African-American Vernacular English has a regular, systematic grammar of its own.
People who don't know the language talk about how the word 'be' is used in the wrong places. They think black Americans say, 'He be laughin'.' When they should say 'He is laughing', and that's treated as one of the many amusing pieces of evidence that they don't speak English correctly. It's not true. The African-American Vernacular English usage they're referring to is in fact a device for expressing what's called 'habitual aspect'. 'He be laughin' is grammatical in African-American Vernacular English but it doesn't mean 'He is laughing', it means 'He habitually laughs.' If you want to say 'He is laughing' right now, in this language, you say 'He laughin'.'
Now that raises another point about the item grammarians call the copular verb 'be'. People say that black Americans are so lazy and careless they leave out forms of this verb like 'is' and 'are' altogether. They say 'He rich' instead of 'He is rich'; and they say 'Dey ugly' for 'They are ugly', and so on. Well, those words do indeed get left out, but there is nothing careless about this; there is a grammatical rule here, and it's rather complex to state. Here is a brief version.
In African-American Vernacular English you may omit forms of the copular verb 'be' provided all of the following conditions are met. (I will give you seven conditions. Take notes.)
1. It musn't be accented. You never leave 'is' out of something like 'There already is one!'
2. It mustn't end the sentence. You never say, 'I don't know what it is' without the 'is'.
3. It mustn't begin the sentence. You never leave out the 'is' in a question like 'Is dat right?'
4. It mustn't be an infinitive. You never leave out 'be' in something like 'You got to be strong' or an imperative like 'Be careful', or in one of those habitual aspect cases like 'He be laughin'.'
5. It mustn't be in the past tense. You never leave out 'was' or 'were'.
6. It mustn't be negated. You never leave out 'ain't' from something like 'He ain't no fool.'
7. It mustn't be first person singular. You never leave out the 'am' of sentences like 'I'm yo' main man.'
Only when all these conditions are met,(plus one or two others I left out for simplicity), can you omit a form of the verb 'be'. Now that's not a simple set of conditions. This is a language, with rules of its own, and they're not quite the same as the Standard English rules, despite the fact that the vocabulary is mostly the same and the whole system is close enough to be treated as a dialect of English by most linguists.
There are a lot of other details of the grammar of African-American Vernacular English that are quite clear and systematic but do not match Standard English. For example, it has what linguists call Negative Concord, like Spanish, Italian, Russian, Polish and plenty of other languages. And it has something called Negative Inversion, which means auxiliaries often go before the subject when they're negated.
In Standard Italian, the way to say 'Nobody telephoned', is 'Non a telefonato nessuno', literally that's 'not has telephoned no one.' The 'non' at the beginning and the additional negativity of 'nessuno' 'no one' are both required. Italian demands that a sentence like this be negated in a particular way, the Negative Concord way, and it needs both 'non' and 'nessuno'.
In African-American Vernacular English, the way you say the same thing is 'Ain't nobody called.' The auxiliary 'ain't' is first, it's negative, and in a negative clause the way you say 'anybody' is 'nobody'. There's only one negation, but it's marked at two places, the 'aint' and the 'no'. Just as plurality is marked twice when you say 'The children were good' in Standard English; it's marked once on 'children' and once on the word 'were'.
Facts of this sort about the grammar of African-American Vernacular English have been known to American linguists for decades. That's why we were dismayed at the ignorance betrayed by the media commentators' angry and offensive attacks on American-American Vernacular English and the Oakland School Board.
They confused lexicon with syntax, accent with dialect, difference with deficiency, and grammar with morality. They made amply clear the deep hostility and contempt whites feel for the way underclass blacks speak. Right-wing commentator George Wills called it 'the patois of America's meanest streets', as if this dialect was so depraved it could only be spoken in slums. Another thing that came out was the deep shame felt by Americans of African descent for being associated with people who speak that way. Former Black Panther party official, Eldridge Cleaver, published an article in The Los Angeles Times in which he compared acknowledging African-American Vernacular English in the schools with condoning cannibalism. I swear this is true.
The saddest thing is that in their scramble to find words to evince their fury and contempt at the native language of many poor black Americans, columnists both black and white ignored the genuine issues of educational policy that had motivated the Oakland School; Board. There is educational research showing that it does work better to introduce children to schooling through a dialect they understand. It works better for rural Norwegian kids being introduced to Standard Norwegian; it works better for black American schoolchildren. It has been carefully evaluated on both groups.
This should be simple enough: it has beneficial effects on your ability to learn if your teacher speaks your dialect, doesn't blame you for speaking it, treats the way you speak with some modest amount of respect, and helps you in your transition toward the standard language, instead of mocking you. Those beneficial effects are lost if African-American Vernacular English is treated like a deformity, or a foul disease, or a sign of ignorance and intellectual sloth, or like Standard English with mistakes.
So, I hope I've made it clear why I don't find the jokes that have gone around the world about 'Ebonics' to be the slightest bit funny.
'Hey, are One Nation supporters going to claim they have a separate language too? Hansonics? Huh?'
Give me a break!
Jill Kitson: Geoff Pullum, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
MUSIC - Pollywanacraka
Lingua Franca with Jill Kitson Saturday at 2.45pm, Repeated Tuesday at 11.45am
© 1998 Australian Broadcasting Corporation