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!).

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The next time, there will be Hell to pay

I haven't blogged much (or enough) lately, partly because so much crap has been going down and my ADHD makes it hard to focus: ISIS (or ISIL, or whatever; Al Shabaab; Boko Haram; the Republicans; and so on...

Maybe I'll eventually get around to some of these, but for now I've been thinking about the "religious freedom restoration acts" or whatever they're called. Can't we agree that it's a tad nonsensical to imagine that stories told by Iron Age Middle Eastern goat-herders should be taken as a guide to living in the 21st century? The authors of the Bible, etc., simply did not have either the scope or depth of knowledge of human nature that we now possess. Give these poor, long-dead people a rest, for Vishnu's sake!

And, perhaps, can we agree that the raison d'etre of these acts is bogus.  Business people claim that that by providing goods and/or services to homosexuals, they are violating their religious principles.  Say again?  They act as though they are being coerced into homosexual acts or getting gay-married.  No!  They are business people being asked to not discriminate among the people who come to them for their goods and services.  That's not making them gay, that's good business!  What is the matter with these people?

And while we're on the subject, we know that this is really about "Christian freedom," not any other religious freedom.  The Christians, we hear (no need for citations) feel oppressed, bullied.  There's a "war on Christianity."  I don't see how how they come to that conclusion.  If anything, the (some) Christians have been bullying everyone else ever since the nation was founded (and before that, too).  I personally have spent a lifetime, now almost 70 years, being bullied by Christians.  Bullied into reciting the Lord's Prayer, bullied into saying or pretending to say grace at the table, bullied into moments of silence while we thank the Christian god for something or other.

I recall a visit to our house by a family a couple of years ago.  The father considered himself to be a preacher.  As they were getting ready to leave, he asked us to join hands while he thanked God for our opportunity to visit together.  I felt bullied in my own home, but I let it go out of politeness, or at least that's what I told myself.  But I was seething with anger inside, and I wanted to say something along the lines of "How dare you come into someone else's home and presume that they share your religious beliefs and behaviors?"

I was as I say "polite" this time.  No more.  No more being bullied.  The next time, there will be Hell to pay...

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Friday, February 27, 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015

New rule*

Am I the only one who gets a twinge of cognitive dissonance when I hear the name of the terrorist group Al- Shabaab? Shouldn't they be required to pick a more evil-sounding name, rather than one that makes me think of a 50s doo wop song?


*Apologies to Bill Maher.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Darwin Day!

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809.  Here's a little tribute to him by a banjo-playing friend up in North Carolina, Donald Zepp.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Anti-vaxers are making me cranky!

A handful of semi-random and in some cases minimally supportable thoughts on the anti-vaccination crowd, spurred by our recent measles "outbreak."

  • I suppose there are some folks who haven't heard about measles in so long, they just assume there's no longer such a thing in the world to worry about.  And so they don't.
  • Some people are against vaccinating their children because numbnuts like Michelle Bachmann have convinced them that vaccines cause mental retardation, autism, or whatever.  Unfortunately, too many Americans are simply not scientifically literate enough to evaluate these kinds of statements, and so they simply take whatever the numbnuts say as truth.  This is a failure of our educational system.
  • And then, there's the cultural thing: The US's extreme independence training and accompanying lack of social responsibility.  It is out of this cultural tradition that we get what I call the right-libertarianism of people like Rand Paul, etc.  This folk model tells us that it's not only OK, but "American," to be what any objective observer would call selfish to the point of dysfunction.  Whatever we do–smoke, drive drunk, walk around carrying a gun, not vaccinate our kids, etc–is ok, because how these behaviors affect other people just does not matter.
  • And of course, there's the religion thing.  For some, vaccination is in  defiance of God's Will: if God didn't want children to die from the diseases we vaccinate them against, He wouldn't have created those diseases in the first place.  Who are we to challenge Him?

These are all bad reasons for not vaccinating your children against what are essentially easily preventable diseases.  In a less independence-trained, and more dependence-trained society, people would care more about how what they do affects others.  Unfortunately, we do not live in that kind of society.