Days Black People Not Re-Enslaved By Trump

Saturday, August 28, 2010

RE: To Be or Not to Be

Dr. Goddess posted an entry on her blog about Ebonics entitled To Be or Not to Be: Revisting the Ebonics Controversy. There she does as the title suggests and defends the existence of Ebonics. I am not an adherent of the "Ebonics as distinct language" argument and so what follows is a critique of the good Dr's piece.

Her piece has this statement which is at the heart of my disagreement:

Ebonics (African American Vernacular English), thus he posted this picture on his brief

You'll note that it says Ebonics (African American [sic] Vernacular English). You'll note that during the debate on Ebonics, particularly around the Oakland School District controversy the use of "language" was depreciated in favor of either dialect and vernacular.

What is "Vernacular"?

As an adjective we find the following defintions

(of language) native or indigenous (opposed to literary or learned).
expressed or written in the native language of a place, as literary works: a vernacular poem.
using such a language: a vernacular speaker.
of or pertaining to such a language.
using plain, everyday, ordinary language.
of, pertaining to, or characteristic of architectural vernacular.
noting or pertaining to the common name for a plant or animal.
Obsolete. (of a disease) endemic.

We can dismiss definitions one and two because Ebonics is not native to either Africa or strictly speaking, America.
Definition 3 makes sense because it discusses the use of language. Similarly definition five makes sense because when we observe it (or read it in the case of Zora) we see that it is definitely a plain, everyday and ordinary language for a number of people (some of whom are not black). Clearly by calling it "African American Vernacular English" there is an admission that this is first and foremost English and secondly it is reference to English as commonly used by African Americans. Since it is English, then it is not a separate language.

Dr. Goddess then goes on to quote from Spoken Soul by John R. Rickford:

But treating Spoken Soul like a disease is no way to add Standard English to their repertoire. On the contrary, building on Spoken Soul through contrast and comparison with Standard English, is likely to meet with less resistance from students who are hostile to "acting white". It is also likely to generate greater interest and motivation, and as experiments have yield greater success, more quickly.

That is a matter of conjecture. Students who have the idea that speaking "Standard English" is "acting white" have a larger psychological problem I've addressed this phenomenon elsewhere [1,2]. I dare say that they are victims of parents who themselves do not value the mastery of one's "primary" language. Let me use myself as an example.

When I was growing up I was taught to read by my mother. She taught me phonics and was very adamant that I pronounce and annunciate. Anyone who knows me knows I annunciate. I do not recall ever saying "axe" for "ask". "Likkle" for "little" or other common African-American or Jamaican vernaculars. I recall one evening at a parent teachers night I swallowed a consonant at the end of a word. My mom stopped me and asked "What did you say?" and had me repeat the word properly. The lesson was clear. Unless I was with my friends or in some other social environment, common "street talk" was not acceptable.

But again the point here is that John's position is not only debatable but it also does not show that Ebonics is anything other than a form of English language usage.

Dr. Goddess then points to the 1977 text Talkin and Testifyin a text that is in support of the idea of Ebonics. Ironically you'll find again that the book is classified under "English Language"

It is interesting reading the early pages of "Talkin'" and referencing Dr. Goddesses piece. There is a whole discussion of "be" and "bes" as used by Detroit African-Americans. Still though even reading pieces of the text it is still evident that these examples are clearly incorrect grammar structures. In other cases there is a comparison of tone and inflections in African-American vernacular and the Boston accent, something I had pointed out to an individual on Twitter. There I was arguing that if we are going to argue that idioms and pronunciations of words constitute a language then even in England you'd have to declare a multitude of languages.

Dr. Goddess then posts a series of questions:

Our discussion led me to observe four pertinent issues/questions that arose from the debate:

1. What is the extent of African culture on the Diaspora (especially in America?)

2. To what extent does mainstream mockery of all things Black/African influence our desire to disassociate from them?

3. Does racial discrimination in education and employment mean we should assimilate, fight or be otherwise ashamed?

4. What parts of slavery or slave culture are actually African culture misunderstood and how do we determine the difference?

So as a person who rejects "Ebonics" as a distinct language and who also rejects White Supremacy and actually practices an African Religion (something most African-American scholars who prop up Ebonics do not do), let me address those questions in order:

1) The effects of African cultures on the Diaspora varies with population and usually relative populations of Africans to whites. Since Africans came to the Americans from a variety of geographic locations with varied languages (and many with knowledge of multiple languages) we should be careful and specify what "African culture" we are referring to. An good example of the diversity of expressions would be the forms of Ifa found in the new world. It has different names and spellings for various orisas and most importantly some of them combine religious forms and icons from non Yoruba religions. Still though, many Ifa pracitioners recognize those diaspora Ifas as Ifa. Even as we call them Candomble or Santeria. When we see Santeria we see Ifa with Catholic idiograms and images. We do not say it is Catholicism with Ifa images.

2) The extent of mainstream mockery is large, even among those who are highly educated in them. Going back to the religion issue I brought up we should ask why are so many learned African American scholars still Christians when their research must have shown that Christianity is not the original religion of most Africans? I think that question is important. Religion informs a lot of people's morals and worldview. It heavily influences concepts of right and wrong and for many people is a transmitter of culture. If scholars who are attempting to impart an appreciation and even adoption of African culture and value in their lives are unable to break free from a clearly imposed religion, we need to ask what other things they are willing to allow black people to remain hooked into. It's a fair question particularly if they are going to suggest that those of us rejecting Ebonics are falling under the ideological sway of white supremacists.

3) Assimilation and discrimination are entirely different issues altogether from 'Ebonics". I don't think anyone is arguing that black people should not speak how they like with and to each other. Just as no one would assert that Chinese should not speak whatever they do, or the French, Italian or whatever. However; in an English speaking country our children ought to understand that mastery of that language is paramount. This isn't even about shame. It is simply about knowing what is correct. It's one thing to say "where they at?" knowing that it should be "Were are they?" It's entirely different when someone does not realize that "where they at?" ought not be written on a school paper unless you're writing like Zora.

4) This is a good question. When one looks at the gold encrustment (for lack of a better term) of the Ashanti and then look at the affinity of chunk gold jewelry on display of 80's era rappers one must propose that there is an African connection there. When one looks at Criss-Cross' "Jump" video and then look at the Massai you have to wonder. When you see step shows and Boot dances you have to admit that African-American culture has many "Africanisms" that are often not consciously acknowledged. There are all manner of Africanisms in black churches some that would pass for so called 'voodoo' ceremonies. Don't tell them though.

So we can do studies to see behaviors that are traceable to African cultures such as libation pourings, sankofas on burial grounds, etc. That said though, when referencing language we have to be careful when assigning "African derived" to common vocalization errors such as "them" and "dem". In this case we note that the the "th" sound and the "d" sound involve very similar tongue placement. Since children are subject to imprecise motor control such a mistake can easily become "vernacular" when adults who have not mastered a language fail to correct such mistakes likely because they do not realize they are mistakes. Similar issues can be made between 'Think" and "T'ink" and "those and "dos (pron: doze)"

Carrying on, lets look at Dr Goddesses' next example:

These questions led me back to the Rickfords' text and I found more great gems, including the fact that, in 1972, psychologist Robert L. Williams [not the DEA, not "The Man"] coined the term, "Ebonics" and via his varied testing, demonstrated that:
Many of the terms are not slang...these historically "black" words refer to unique aspects of the black experience, including the physical attributes, social distinctions, and cultural practices and traditions of African Americans.

 Perhaps the funniest example is when he relayed the following:
Many blacks don't realize that their use of many of these words differs from that of other Americans....When a group of African American college students was told recently that ashy in the sense of "dry skin" was not standard English usage---you wouldn't find it with that meaning in standard American dictionaries, much less British ones---they were bowled over.

An interesting observation that still does not prove a distinct language. That a group uses English words out of a "white" context does not make a distinct language. Taking on the example of "Ashy" it is clear that by observation it is highly unlikely that white people (forget the tanned ones) would even consider using a word that normally describes the end product of combustion to describe the state of ones skin. Though it is recorded that whites do use a form of ash (ashen) to describe a particular state of complexion. The fact that "Ash" is an English word (apparently of Germanic origins). Knowledge of this word by an African person would be due to familiarity with English. That a noun became an adjective in vernacular use would be hardly surprising to any English speaker. In any case Ashy may not show up in the dictionary in 1972 but it is present in 2010. In fact Mirriam-Webster notes it's origins to the 14th century which is clearly prior to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Dr. Goddess then references American Regional English (DARE):

One result was a comprehensive picture of which terms were used among Black speakers...[such as] whist...bubba...bad-eye...bad-mouth...big-eye [and even suck-teeth. And guess what?].....Like suck-teeth, these are translations into English of literal & metaphorical expressions in West African languages (e.g. Mandingo da-jgu & Hausa mugum-baki for bad-mouth, and Igbo ima oso, Yoruba kpose, Hausa tsaki, Efik asiama, Kikongo tsiona & Wolof cipu for suck-teeth sound).

While I believe her argument would have been better served by making examples of actual African words used in African Vernacular such as "Funk"(a reference to the smell of a hard working man. See Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit) and "Jazz/Jizz", her examples only do more to undermine the idea of Ebonics as a distinct language The author of the above quote clearly states that these phrases are translations of phrases from Yoruba etc. into English. I am sure that the same thing can be said of French, Italian, German and other immigrants to the US whom had to adopt English.

Lets look at two well known "Englishes" American and British. If you have a word processing program you will usually have an option to use British or American English. You would think that these are two different languages but they are not. American and British English share the same rules of grammar as well as the vast majority of it's vocabulary. The reason there is a different dictionary is because there are differences in spelling such as "center" and "centre". "Labor" and "labour". One doesn't want to have your spell check trip up on "wrong" spellings even though both Americans and Brits know that "center' and "centre" are the same thing. That "Theater" and "Theatre" are the same things. We know that "erm" and "umm" signify the same mind state but a different pronunciation. We know That "chips" and "fries" are the same thing.

Ultimately while I agree with Dr. Goddess that there is often a desire to minimize Africanisms in America due to shame and that there are a number of people who reject the notion of Ebonics because they reject their roots, to make that assumption of all those who critique the concept is wrong. I think that it is equally wrong to elevate what is demonstrably bad grammar and poor English mastery as something worthy of pride. I honestly believe that doing so will continue the abysmal performance of African-American performance in math and verbal tests.

Let me close with a discussion of an example from Malcolm Gladwell's work 'Outliers". Gladwell discusses the Chinese and math. He noted that the language structure of Chinese makes learning math "easy" From what he writes, the way one says "multiply" actually describes the steps needed to be taken to multiply. So the Chinese who masters his language has a better chance at mastering math.
Similarly my own observations during tutoring has shown that many students with math issues also have reading issues. Students who have problems with word problems typically have low reading comprehension skills. recent research shows that African-American children are typically exposed to far fewer words than white children during their formative years[3]. If years 1-5 of a black child is spent hearing fewer words and hearing many of those words used incorrectly is it any surprise that child then has issues in school? And we want to compound that issue by validating those speech structures? I cannot back such an idea.

This is not like teaching a child Chinese, Yoruba, Wolof or Spanish as a second language. Those languages are clearly distinct in vocabulary and grammar that a developing brain is unlikely to have translation issues that are unavoidable when someone is unable to comprehend "standard" written (or spoken) English because of a lack of exposure to it. I wont even get into the discussion of how txt messaging language is creeping into common language and how students (white even) are having difficulty properly writing.

So do African-Americans, like any other American ethnic group have a "special" form of English vernacular? Yes.
Is it a distinct language like English is to Spanish is to French is to German? Wolof to Yoruba to Housa? No.
Should African-Americans be ashamed to speak it? No.