Hooked On Ebonics Worked For Me

One of the more curious and more political aspects of language that one notices is the strenuous attempt that has been made by certain people to appeal for the linguistic status of Black English to be increased. Whether it has been called Gulluh, Black English, Ebonics, or something else of that nature, the language of black Americans has not typically had a great deal of official status in the United States (or in other nations, it should be noted). There has, without a doubt, been a certain amount of cultural cachet in that speech being seen as an argot of a criminal underclass, but this does not amount to the sort of official status that gives it the recognition some people crave, much less give it respect in the eyes of others. What is it that separates “bad English” from a dialect from a language? After all, English as a language has never had any problem accommodating any number of dialects. Among British settler colonies there exists various dialects of American English and Canadian English, to say nothing of the English spoken on the British Isles and on the Continent of Europe, or in Australia or New Zealand or South Africa. Beyond that there are a variety of regional dialects of English based on the interaction between English and local languages as diverse as Spanish and Hindi to Polynesian and various African languages. And even among those regionally accepted dialects, not all of them are viewed highly. I myself find most accents of English to be enjoyable but am irritated by the New York accent and am eternally grateful I never acquired the dialect of the rural Southeastern United States as my native dialect.

It seems pretty clear that the African American dialect, whatever one calls it, is of low prestige. I personally do not have a problem with considering it a dialect. It as its own characteristic grammatical elements and a certain degree of culture and history about it, with relationships on a dialect continuum extending through the Caribbean and elsewhere (as it bears remarkable similarities with other black English dialects in the UK and Caribbean, for example). The interaction between an imperfect knowledge of English, a desire for back talk that one also finds in the relationship between Tagalog and Spanish, and remnants of various African languages created a genuinely different sort of language that is nevertheless close enough to be part of the English family, if not a very well respected one. The goal of English education, such as it is, should be to encourage people to acquire the best knowledge of the best reading, speaking, and writing capabilities possible, regardless of one’s native dialect. To the extent that such dialects involve our identity, we should always be free to switch between them depending on what is most convenient in our lives. If we are speaking with family and friends, it should not be wrong at all to use any kind of dialect, but if we are speaking officially we need to make ourselves understood as credible people capable of communicating clearly in official and standard dialects, and those who cannot do so only have themselves to blame for failing to acquire the linguistic skills to cope with the demands of wider society when such knowledge and practice are freely available for all who desire it.

The call by linguists to respect AAVE, Ebonics, call it what you will, are not going to change the attitudes of people who do not find it to be an articulate or proper way of speaking. Leaning the formal structure of ebonics is not going to allow someone to function linguistically within American society as one whose communications are worth taking seriously and respecting. If as intelligent a man as Jeff Foxworthy can, as a well-educated White Southerner, make a whole career out of appearing to be stupid because of his southern accent, then black Americans are not going to appear to be intelligent to mainstream Americans by mastering the formal grammar and structure of their own even less respected dialect. To the extent that their knowledge that they are speaking a dialect of English gives them the confidence to master other dialects and other languages that better allow for communication with others, that is a good thing, but let us not deceive ourselves that academic instruction of such a language is in itself sufficient to bridge the gap between the speakers of “black American English” or any other similarly poorly viewed dialects and those who speak more prestigious dialects with more polished accents. Part of the skills of survival in the world we live in is being able to pass linguistically among other people and to make oneself understood by those whose backgrounds and ways of life are different from our own. If we cannot understand others or make ourselves understood, we have failed at the basic purpose of communication.

Personally speaking, I think it is a hopeless cause to get people to respect AAVE as a worthy and credible dialect of English for formal and proper and official use. Any efforts to use this dialect in instruction should be as a means of teaching standard English so that people can learn a form of English that will allow them to be respected and taken seriously in general society, in the workplace, in schools, and in the justice system. Attaining success in life in the United States requires mastering Standard American English, and to the extent that people rebel against this requirement, they have consigned themselves to failure by refusing to do what is necessary to thrive. It is not as if this is a secret matter. One of the reasons for the purported school to prison pipeline is the refusal of people to adopt strategies for succeeding in school, and thereby succeeding in life, and the adoption of hostility to mainstream society that inevitably leads to failure. Those who deliberately seek to celebrate that which makes them different can blame no one but themselves when their stubborn refusal to assimilate leads to predictable (if lamentable) hostility in response. Language, life everything else, is lamentably political all too often.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s