So, when I put the following question on the last test, I fully expected it to be a throwaway, a sure couple of percentage points for everyone:
TRUE or FALSE: When Ebonics (AAVE) speakers say Mary pen for Standard English Mary's pen, they are demonstrating their lack of the concept of possession.Imagine my surprise when I found that only 67% of the students answered (correctly) "false," while 33% answered (incorrectly) "true."
This is after spending 15 weeks with a professor whose entire research life has been spent investigating, analyzing, writing about, and teaching about "non-standard" languages. A professor whose interest in these languages was jump-started back in the late 1970s by Bill Labov's classic article "The Logic of Non-Standard English," which should have killed these ideas, but obviously didn't.
Another question, this one also a presumed freebie:
According to your professor, the decision to call vernacular forms of language, such as Ebonics or creoles, a "language" or a "dialect" is based primarily on: (a) science (b) linguistics (c) logic (d) politics.The correct answer is (d). In this same class, only 39% answered correctly; 61% were incorrect. All those who answered incorrectly chose (b). Again, this after repeated iterations of Max Weinreich's classic aphorism: "A language is a dialect with an army and navy." Plus a discussion of the brouhaha surrounding the Oakland (California) School Board's attempt to designate Ebonics a "language" for educational purposes (the African American community of Oakland does not have its own army and navy).
This same question, with slightly different answer choices, was on the final test in my other class, an introduction to linguistics for English and English Education majors. In this class, 83% gave the correct answer (politics); only 17% were incorrect.
What does all this mean? Are English majors "smarter" than Anthropology majors (and by "smarter" I mean only better at living up to the expectations of professors, nothing more)? I don't think so, generally, but the performance of the Anthropology majors in my class this semester, with a few exceptions, was certainly disappointing. For example, despite my constant needling, threats at testing (some carried out), talking about their importance, etc., they refused to commit to memory the required symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Of course, this was true of some in the English linguistics class as well.
Overall, it was a somewhat frustrating semester.
Labov, W. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Pages 201-240.