Saturday, September 19, 2015

One more thing making me cranky

It occurs to me that if you wanted to design a course on sociocultural dysfunctions, you could almost use nothing but Republican speeches for the readings.  The topics would include sexism, classism, ethnocentrism...

Something else making me cranky

New rule*: If you're a politician, you don't get to talk prescriptively about "marriage" or "the family" unless you have taken a course in anthropology. And yeah, we want to see the transcripts.

What I mean is that unless your concept of "marriage" is comfortable with the tradition among Kenya's Nandi, which allows for a woman whose husband has died to marry another woman who will take on the status and role of "wife" so that the widow can slide into the status and role of "husband," you should keep your mouth shut.

*HT to Bill Maher.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Remembering 9/11

Yesterday was the anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, surely worth remembering.  But as fellow anthropologist Mark Moberg (University of South Alabama) reminds us, there was another 9/11 back in 1973:
Long before 9/11/2001, September 11 was a day of mourning for South Americans. The region's longest-lasting democracy ended with the military coup that overthrew democratically elected President Salvador Allende, replacing him with the junta of Augusto Pinochet that ruled that country for nearly 20 years. After Allende was killed in the coup, Pinochet suspended Congress, banned the opposition press, outlawed all political parties, directed the murder of an estimated 10,000 Chileans, oversaw the torture of many thousands more, and exiled more than a hundred thousand. Allende's crime? He had nationalized US copper corporations that had held Chile's economy in thrall -- the coup was directed, funded, and supported by the Nixon administration under "Operation Make the Economy Scream." In the words of Nixon's National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, "We will not allow Chile to go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people."

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A linguist in Wonderland...

So a couple days ago I had a brief chat with a reporter from the Jacksonville Time-Onion ("it stinks!"). It was about a thing going on here, wherein the parents of a young child are suing the school board because they don't want to provide speech therapy for their child. They think that because their child doesn't pronounce certain consonants at the ends of words, they need speech therapy. Someone at the school board has suggested that it might just be a dialectal thing; this angered the parents, who are African American. 
Plot twists to the story: The child is only about 3 years old; and the parents insist they don't talk like that.
I tried to provide a little perspective by pointing out:
  • It could be dialectal, since AAE often patterns to minimize word-final consonants, and also that it would be worthwhile to hear if the child pronounces the alleged missing consonants in other positions in words.
  • The pathologization of African American speech (and other) behaviors has a long, sorry, and racist history. 
  • Contrary to our folk model, peers and those a little older are more important to children's language development than are parents.
  • At only 3 years old, the child has barely had time to complete the process of language acquisition; chill out.
Here's what made it into the article:
However, Robert Kephart, a linguistic expert at University of North Florida, said the case raises a decades-old debate about dialect versus defect within the black community.
“There is a tendency that we have with labeling some of the things that African-American children deal with as pathology,” he said, pointing to the 1950s and 1960s when it was common practice for psychologists to label African-Americans as “cognitively deficient” for such things as speech.
Oh, and one more thing:  I don't know them, but I'm betting dollars to donuts these parents are over-achievers who are panic-stricken at the idea that their child just might grow up knowing some Ebonics.  We'll see how it plays out; I'll keep you posted.
Link to the Times-Union story here.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

August 6, 2015

It's that time of year again, but this time it's special: This is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima, followed a couple of days later by a similar bombing of Nagasaki.  As I'm sure I've mentioned before, this event resonates with me; perhaps a little more so this year, since I also turned 70 a month back.

And as before, I will state that I think these bombings represent the most egregious war crimes ever carried out by humans against other humans.  Of course whenever I do this, I get blowback from (usually) well-meaning friends who have learned over the years that these bombings saved many lives by bringing Japan more quickly to the point of surrender.

Most of what I have read about this suggests that this was not the case, and that in fact the main reason the bombings were carried out was to show the world, and especially the Soviet Union, that we had these weapons and we were crazy enough to use them.   Howard Zinn, the People's Historian, agrees with this, so I'll let him have the brief last word:

Monday, July 20, 2015

Catching up (again!)

I turned 70 on July 8, a milestone I guess if you count using a base ten system.  My sisters Susan and Mary came down from the wilds of Maryland to help me celebrate.  That's Mary on the left, and Susan on the right.  It had been quite a while since the three of us had been together, and it was an excellent and wonderful way to spend a birthday.

And in other news...
Is anyone else amused by the Trump/McCain thing, and especially at all the people in the media and elsewhere falling over each other to proclaim their belief that McCain is indeed a "war hero?"
For me McCain is not a genuine war hero. He would have been, if he had refused the order to drop bombs on people who had never done anything to us and whose chief crime was wanting to be free of French colonial rule.
Bill Cosby is in the news all day, every day, for allegedly(?) giving multiple women drugs and then having sex with them.  But he lost me way before this in the wake of the 1996 Oakland School Board's attempt to legitimize African American English when he referred to it as "that crap."  This is a person with a doctorate in education.  Of course, he was not alone: Maya Angelou and the Rev. Jesse Jackson also ridiculed the school board's perfectly reasonable (from a linguist's perspective) desire to use AAE as a positive part of children's language arts education.
Linguists get no respect, which is one of the things that make me cranky.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ebonics: Language or dialect?

[I posted this to a linguistic anthropology listserve on January 16, 1997, in the wake of the Oakland brouhaha.  Still relevant, I think.]

A language is a dialect supported by armed forces.

What does this mean? Everyone speaks a "dialect", i.e., a variety of human language. Those who happen to be in control get to call their variety a "language" , with all that implies, which is often negative for those who do not happen to speak that variety.

There is no -linguistic- difference between a language and a dialect. Each has all the features necessary for human language; or, each is a full realization of universal grammar, or the language bioprogram, or whatever, if you believe in such things and wish to state it in those terms.

Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are all varieties of human language. They are labeled "languages" because in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, respectively, the speakers of those varieties are in control. But, they are so mutually intelligible, they could easily be classified as "dialects" of "Scandinavian".. In fact, "Norwegian" did not become a "language" until "Norway" became a state separate from "Denmark" earlier in this century; prior to that, it was a "dialect" of "Danish".

On the other hand, the many varieties of human language spoken within the state of "China" are not mutually intelligible. Nevertheless, they are called "dialects" of "Chinese". Do I have to spell out why?

Another factor in language and dialect is speakers' attitudes towards each other. If people want to understand each other, they may think of their different language varieties as dialects of the same language. If, for some reason, they stop wanting to communicate with each other, they may begin thinking of them as separate languages. This may have nothing to do with the structure of the varieties of language under consideration.

Which brings us back to Ebonics (let's call it BE to make typing easier, OK?). BE is a variety of human language. It never was, strictly speaking, a regional variety; it is and always has been a social variety, existing alongside other sorts of English. It is not monolithic by any means, so there is some variation within what might be covered loosely by the term "Ebonics". There is some disagreement about just how it originated, but it's absolutely not, and never has been, "slang', "argot", "degenerate English", "cognitively deficient English", or "lazy English". And, of course, it is not "genetically based" as the Oakland School Board so boneheadedly put it (unless of course you mean that it's just like all other languages. And, by the way, isn't THIS a great example of why we need anthropology and linguistics in the public schools??). And, BE can be described using the same toolbox linguists use for any of the world's varieties of language: it is systematic, patterned, rule-governed, etc. For a while, it seemed to be assimilating to standard English, but then in the 80s ("Reagan Revolution"; catsup = vegetable) it started moving away again, perhaps because many of its speakers realized that there simply was no point.

Now, why might people want to label BE as a separate language? I think because for most of its history it has been labeled "bad English"; not even a "dialect". Recall that the educational psychologists of the 50s told us that its speakers were cognitively deficient because they produced sentences like 'The girl pretty' with no "linking verb". They had no real language. Apparently, these "doctors" had never studied Russian, which also allows predicates to consist of only an attributive, with no linking verb: 'Dyevushka krasivaya'. For the most part, even BE speakers themselves have been flamboozled into believing this (note that they are some of the most vocal critics of the Oakland proposal). What makes this situation so easy to maintain is that BE speakers (and others) so rarely have had the opportunity to look upon BE from a linguistic, i.e. scientific, perspective.

Calling BE a "language", then, is a political statement. It says (to me, at least) "our speech must be recognized and respected as a manifestation of the human Language potential, universal in all humans, but denied us for centuries by an ideology which claimed that it was merely a deformation of the speech of those who enslaved us, caused by our own (a) laziness and/or (b) subhuman linguistic ability."

Apparently, Oakland thinks it might be healthy to try breaking out of this pattern. Try something different, since the old racist notions about BE and the programs of action resulting from them don't seem to have worked. Let's give children (and others) explicit knowledge about both BE and standard English so that they know, consciously, what to do to move from one to the other. Note that this does NOT mean teaching the kids BE; they come to school already native speakers of it. Nor does it mean requiring teachers to speak BE. It does mean insuring that teachers have a scientific perspective on both BE and SE and the relationship between them. Perhaps most important, from my point of view, it means that teachers should know what a sentence like "The girl pretty" does NOT mean (linguistic deprivation, cognitive deficit, etc.).

Speaking as a linguist, I think that Oakland is on the right track. I wish they could have stated their aims better and thus given the inevitable attackers a bit less of a target. Are all linguists going to agree? Certainly not. From the perspective of Greenberg, a historical/comparative linguist, calling BE a separate language is probably absurd. From the perspective of the children affected, however, I think Oakland is correct. It's correct because it formalizes a respect for the intelligence and knowledge that these children come to school with, a far cry from what has usually happened to African American children in this country.

I should add that this is not "mere opinion". Studies from various parts of the world have shown that this is precisely what is needed to help people operate with a national language that is different from the home language. My own work in Grenada was along these lines, too.

To make something like this work, a lot of people (teachers, parents, children, others) have to learn a lot. Learning involves change: change in neural circuitry, in behavior patterns, etc.). But wait! Conservatives, who largely rule our country, tend to be opposed to change (I checked in my American Heritage). Therefore, conservatives tend to oppose learning!! (I don't think I need to defend this point too strongly, given recent postings here and over on sci.anthropology newsgroup, not to mention Gingrich's "history course".) This means it will not be easy, and in fact we have seen how the buzzards start circling as soon as there's a slip-up ("genetically based"?!?- Yikes!).