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African American Vernacular English


Your assignment for Monday: Having read the textbook's linguistic explanation of AAVE, go on to read the Wikipedia summary of the "Ebonics" controversies of the 1990's. Here is a link: Ebonics.

Then read Brent Staples' condemnation of the proposal reprinted below. Staples, a highly respected Black editorial writer for the New York Times, wrote a particularly effective response to the controversy that was typical of many writers, both Black and White. While much has changed in the past 30 years, teachers of writing in particular are still working to come to terms with these issues.

And finally, read my essay on Standard American English (SAE) below.

The Oakland, Calif., school board deserved the scorn that greeted its December edict declaring broken, inner-city English a distinct, ''genetically based'' language system that merited a place in the classroom. The policy is intended to build self-esteem for failing students by introducing street language as a teaching tool. In theory, teachers would use street talk as a ''bridge'' to help children master standard English. But as practiced elsewhere, so-called ''ebonics'' instruction is based on the premise that street English is as good as or better than the standard tongue. This means that students could use urban slang in their schoolwork.

Oakland's attempt to link genes and language was both racist and idiotic. Yesterday's Senate hearing underscored the plan's weaknesses, and brought the city's superintendent under heavy attack. Outraged by the city's proposal, one Congressman even suggested restricting Federal aid to the Oakland district.

After the initial barrage of criticism in December, the Oakland board seemed to backtrack, voting last week to drop an explosive passage that spoke of a ''genetically based'' language. But the board signaled its true intent by saying it would ''embrace'' broken inner-city English, encouraging children to speak and write it in school. The sanitized resolution is no better than the original. It patronizes inner-city children, holding them to abysmally low standards.

The Los Angeles Times reports that while blacks make up slightly more than half the student population in Oakland, they account for 71 percent of the special-education pupils and only 37 percent of those in programs for the gifted. Educators elsewhere might suggest other remedies -- early intervention and tutoring programs, a stronger and more coherent curriculum, a forceful effort to persuade parents to support at home what teachers try to accomplish at school.

But the Oakland resolution recommends nothing of the sort. It is, rather, a 60's-style rant that condemns politicians while absolving parents and communities of any responsibility for failure. It blames the Federal Government for not providing more money. It blames several former governors for rejecting bills that declared so-called ''black English'' a distinct language. It blames the teachers for not communicating in urban English -- and offers them bonuses if they do. Most catastrophically of all, in the name of promoting ''self-esteem'' the board has conspired to lower the performance bar, declaring all students to be ''equal'' regardless of whether they have difficulty speaking, reading, writing or understanding the English language.

The Oakland strategy is in no way unique. As Jacob Heilbrunn illustrates in the Jan. 20 New Republic, so-called ''black English'' -- or ''ebonics'' -- programs have flourished in California schools since the late 1980's, when San Diego began four pilot programs. The programs can be found in San Diego and Los Angeles, where the program is said to reach 31 schools and 25,000 students. ''Ebonics'' has become a multimillion-dollar affair, with academic theorists, lushly paid consultants and textbook writers all poised to spread the gospel.

Some defenders say ''ebonics'' functions as a bridge between street and standard English. But in practice, time that should be spent on reading and algebra gets spent giving high fives and chattering away in street language. As a San Diego instructor told The New Republic, ''If a writing assignment is handed in, written in the home language, the teacher will say, 'I like this. This is good. . . .' They will not say, 'This is incorrect.' '' ''Ebonics'' theory licenses this approach. As one of its founders wrote 20 years ago in The Journal of Black Studies, the theory avoids giving standard English ''a higher status than it deserves.''

The Oakland policy will further isolate children who are already cut off from mainstream values and ideas. But its most corrosive effect may be to drive out the middle-class families that keep schools and other city institutions afloat. Imagine yourself a parent with the Oakland resolution in one hand, an application to private school in the other -- and a streetwise teen-ager to educate. What would you do?

And finally, now read my draft essay on SAE

Talking about Writing in “SAE”

John Webster

So, if people have often worried about dialects and errors in their or other people's English, what is “Standard English”? Is there such a thing? Should there be? Well…

First, “Standard English” (sometimes abbreviated “SAE”—for “Standard American English” or SEAE—for “Standard Edited American English") is one of many “dialects” of English, though certainly the most widely used of American dialects,and almost all speakers of American English will have that dialect among any others you may speak and write. That is not because Standard English is any better (or worse) linguistically than any other version of English. Any linguist will tell you that all dialects of English are equally rule-governed and complex, even if the rules for one dialect differ from the rules of another. Rather, SAE is called “Standard English” because it is the default dialect of English that is taught in most schools and which is used in most kinds of communications via TV or radio.

But that is not the whole story. SAE has a complex history, and it has changed much over the years, and is still changing. It is what linguists term a “prestige” dialect of American English, and that means that many users of English believe it is the best form of English, and many believe they speak and write in it as well. And many do indeed write in SAE, and many speak in it, too, though if you listened carefully it would be a very unusual speaker who did not follow the phonological rules of elision and deletion and allophonic substitutions you will have learned about when dealing with the phonology of English. So yes, “Standard American English” does exist—though, again, it is changing constantly just as do the dialects of any language.

So, what does that mean? Let’s start with some linguistic observations:

1. The practical value of having a single dialect as the “standard” dialect is primarily that of universal comprehensibility--NOT Perfection or Rigidity. In fact, no version of any language can be perfect and unchanging. Any language can have a form that more or less every speaker/writer of the language is familiar with, but that language will still be changing, usually in small ways, to be sure, every single day of its existence. (Shakespeare was writing in what in his time was "Standard English," but few now would say they think we should still all speak like Shakespeare.)

2. Standard English is not linguistically any better or any worse than any other dialect. In fact, depending on who is speaking and for what purposes they are speaking, other dialects and registers of English (a register is a kind of subdialect used by a group of some kind—often defined by a profession or pursuit of one kind or another, like the language that coders use to carry out their work or the language of soccer players or of golfers) may actually be more effective. Most of you use slang expressions with your friends—expressions that SAE does not usually include like “ain’t” “cain’t” and “what the f***?” But that doesn’t mean slang expressions are less effective in such usuages. Indeed, the reason you use them is that they are MORE effective in particular language settings: your home, among good friends, with other people who have language backgrounds like your own.

3. Originally, the “standard” form of any language usually became standard by virtue of being the dialect spoken and (at least as important) written by the socially most privileged speakers of that language. The British talk of “the Queen’s English” as Great Britain’s standard English because it is the dialect generally spoken by royalty and the upper classes. Others who would like to get ahead in the world have often worked to acquire that dialect in order to seem more educated and better connected socially than they may actually be. But like SAE, the Queen’s English (aka Received Pronunciation, or RP) is not more logical or more capable of complex expression than are other widely-spoken dialects in the United Kingdom.

At the same time, neither are they invariant and rigid. In SAE, and really, in RP, too, there are no real "authorities" who decide what is "right" or "wrong." Instead they are are varied and dispersed all across the country.

So in fact, like a number of other dialectal forms of English, SAE is really only an amalgam of the spoken and written output from speakers whose modes of speaking are heard, copied, and used in schools, books, magazines and, increasingly, what we find on the internet.

All this means that SAE does not have an official grammar and vocabulary. Speakers of SAE depend on family, community, teachers (in various classes), the language of broadcasters or of rock stars they hear on air waves--all inputs that are absorbed into whatever grammatical understanding they already have. Those inputs can promote or change a pronunication or, just as likely, introduce new idioms to our idiolects (a word that means the form of a language that any particular person speaks--a version of SAE that is in various ways unlike that of any other speaker of the language).

4. All of this means that SAE as a stable and consistent form of English is pretty much a myth. Yes, there are thousands of teachers nationwide whose job it is to use whatever versions of SAE they themselves speak (often inconsistently guided by dictionaries or style manuals as to what "good" English is) to work with their students, beginning in the lower grades, of course, and continuing throughout middle and high schools to assure that their "English" is something close to what that teacher thinks is SAE. It is essential to note, however, that the corrections teachers impose on their students are not and, statistically speaking, could not be entirely consistent. Spellings have been standardized via dictionaries, and most teachers share the essential grammer of the language, but in other ways, pronunciations and grammatical varience and usages are not fully consistent. Some ban the word "I" in "formal" writing, others allow "I" but forbid starting a sentence with "And," while still others insist that a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.

What is consistent for many students are teachers' efforts to exclude whatever forms of English don't match their understandings of what "good" English is. But in fact, for those students who grow up in communities and homes that are saturated with broadcasts and readings and speech exchanged with family or friends, SAE is actually acquired rather automatically.

But this does not describe every student's experience. For many children grow up in families that have language conventions that include non-English languages or, in the case of some Black Americans, Black English (BE, usually termed AAVE or simply AAE--African American English) either of which can differ from SAE in multiple ways--and this is where trouble can begin, because when SAE is imagined to be the "target" version of language to be used in school, and when training for that use is begun early on before these children have been fully exposed to a form of English that other students have learned more or less automatically, the result can be a "language gap" between students' home language and whatever version of SAE their teachers use.

So there are in effect different cohorts of students: those who have already developed a relatively full version of SAE, those whose first language may not be English, but have made progress in acquiring SAE, and those who speak a dialect of English which is deeply learned as a first language, and for which SAE may in some degree seem like a second language. The biggest such dialect in most of America is Black English. Of course, not all Black students speak Black English, and some who do may have had sufficient exposure to SAE either in the home or via television, radio, and other media to be part of the group that has already mastered it. But students whose first language is not English are in the situation Juan Guerra describes in "An Embodied History of Language Ideologies," and may be disadvantaged by the gap between what they bring to their classes and what their teachers do to introduce them to SAE.

All of the above is an effort to describe the background of students for whom a new approach to English language teaching called "translingualism." Translingualism is less a language or dialect itself than it is an embrace of language as poly-linguistic. Translingual teachers are trained to treat students' home languages/dialects with respect and admiration and not condemnation as "inferior" or "ungrammatical." It is a stance that works to remove the stigma of not-knowing fully either the grammar or the phonology of SAE, and can also supply them with support and respect for the languages/dialects they bring to their new classrooms.

All in all, then, SAE is and will remain the near universally mastered language of schools, businesses and broadcasting, and we do profit from being able to use SAE to connect across dialects. But many linguists have now come to believe that we would do well if we could also value the other languages and/or dialects students acquire in their homes and communities.

For more on BE go to this Dictionary webpage and a piece by linguist Taneesh Khera.