Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Ebonics interview

On Tuesday morning I was interviewed by News 4 Jacksonville (WJXT), our local television station. The interview, which you can see here, was prompted by a recent call from the Drug Enforcement Agency for "linguists" who could assists their agents in understanding the language on surreptitiously recorded telephone calls between drug dealers and customers.

In the interview, I pointed out that Ebonics (African American Vernacular English) is a valid form of human language, with all the linguistic properties of French, Spanish, or any other language. I suggested that a combination of phonological, grammatical, and lexical features of AAVE could easily combine to render it not understandable to people unfamiliar with this language variety,  and I gave a couple of examples (not included in the video):
She be working at Publix.
It's a book on the floor.*
I also offered the opinion that there might be ethical issues involved when professional linguists take on the task of helping the DEA carry out its policies, and I drew the analogy with the American Anthropological Association's resolution condemning the use of anthropologists by the military in the "Human Terrains System" in Iraq and elsewhere. This sort of made it into the video, though they didn't show me saying it.

However, what's really interesting are the comments posted by people who saw the report. Here's a sample:
Some people are so lazy they can't even muster enough energy to talk right. Pathetic.
Ebonics is now a dialect because white people are scared to tell them they are stupid, let's just call the elephant in the room out, the 60's are over, it's time for blacks to come on over and sit at the American table, obviously having a culture within a culture isn't working for them.
How the he!! is Ebonics considered a dialect? It sounds like your talking with a mouth full of sh!t 
And here's my favorite:
I get the need for the "translators" but for some academic walking brain to classify ebonics as a dialect is further proof of just how far society will go to coddle those too lazy to speak properly!
There was at least one relatively positive comment:
Back in the late 80's while in college, I took a linguistics class. The teacher was black, of an island nation not Africa (This is relevant due to the topic). I don't recall the details, but he did make a convincing stand regarding Ebonics as a dialect. I know Ebonics just sounds like a bunch of uneducated talk, but before you jump educate yourself a bit.
It's interesting. As of this writing, there are about 150 comments posted, nearly all deriding, in one way or another, the idea that Ebonics could be a language. This suggests a catastrophic failure of the public school "language arts" curriculum. If the topic were physics, most people would defer to the physicists; if the topic were digestion, even though most people can digest food, they would still defer to the gastroenterologists. But if the topic is language, everyone thinks they're a linguist.

*She works at Publix (it's her job, she may not be there right now).
There is a book on the floor.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Taking the "broken" out of "broken English"

My presentation at the meetings of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics last week centered on sharing a teaching strategy for reducing the prejudice I encounter, in my classes and elsewhere, toward "non-standard" varieties of language. These include African American Vernacular English (AAVE), any of a number of creole languages (Jamaican, Haitian, etc.), and even my own Upper South variety of Appalachian English.

This is clearly a problem that isn't going to go away soon. Every semester for the last 20+ years I have faced a new group of students in my introductions to linguistics, and every semester these students bring with them the very same nonsense about the nature of language, and the nature of English. Some of that nonsense: English has five vowels (because there are five or six, depending on how you count, vowel letters); the articles (the, a/an) are adjectives that modify their nouns; sentences containing "double negatives" actually are affirmative; dialects that deviate from "standard English" are inferior, stupid, illogical, etc.; and so on, and on.

Because I work on "non-standard" languages, I may have heard all this more than most. In 1979, while gathering data for a description of the English Creole spoken in Carriacou, Grenada, I had one person, a visitor from Canada, tell me that Carriacou people had no right to their own words for things (mug for pitcher, for example), and that their children should be taken away and placed in standard-speaking homes because if they spoke Creole all their lives, their brain cells would deteriorate. During the same fieldwork, a Grenadian physician told me that if I were successful in showing that Creole speakers followed grammar rules, that would show that they were human beings worthy of better treatment than that usually dealt out to them. And that same year, in the National Geographic Magazine, Ethel Starbird wrote that people of St. Vincent, Grenada, and the Grenadines speak English "with a certain free-form style."

So, over the years I have developed a way of approaching the problem. It involves some linguistic sophistication, so I usually do it toward the end of an introductory linguistics course. Now and then, though, I do it as a Lone Ranger exercise (ride in, fire a few silver bullets, ride out). This might be, for example, a literature course in which students are reading a lot of AAVE. The target language is most often AAVE or Appalachian, but sometimes I'm asked to do the exercise for Gullah in a course on the peoples and cultures of the Sea Island, and every couple of years I do it for Caribbean Creole in my own course on the West Indies. The language can change, but the method and many of the details remain much the same. For this iteration, I am using the English Creole spoken in Carriacou.

The strategy is to begin with examples of things people notice that make Creole seem unlike English. Usually, this involves features that are "missing," features that may be attributed to a lack of education although in fact they are simply features of the language in question. Here are a couple of things that might be perceived as "missing" in Creole:
The plural suffix (-s)
The possessive suffix (-'s)
Dental fricatives (the "th" sounds)

The trick is to show that these features are not necessary for something to be a human language. For example, many languages do not overtly mark number on nouns. Two that come quickly to mind are Bambara, a West African language, and....  wait for it.....  French!  Here's how this looks (note that in Bambara, the number follows the noun):
English:     one cow...      three cows
Creole:       wan kow...     tri kow
Bambara:   mishi kele...   mishi saba
French:       une vache...   trois vaches
Okay, I know what you're thinking: the French plural vaches has an -s on the end, so it's not an example. But here's the thing: both vache and vaches are pronounced [vaʃ], roughly the first syllable in the name "Vashti."

Let's take the possessive suffix. Note the following.
English:     Anansi's shoulder
Creole:      Anansi shōlda
It's pretty easy to find languages that do not require marking on nouns for possessive.
Bhasa Indonesian:     kuda Ali   (Ali's horse)
Urhobo Isoko:           emete ose  (daughter [of] father; father's daughter)
So, neither a plural affix nor a possessive is required for something to be a human language. But what about those dental fricatives?
English:     thin,  then
Creole:       tin,  den
It turns out that the sounds [θ], as in thin, and [ð] as in then, are quite rare among the world's languages.  And furthermore, we can say that Creole speakers use [t] and [d] as substitutes for them, much as English speakers substitute an aspirated alveolar [tʰ] for unaspirated dental [t̪] in Spanish words like taco.  This process of sound substitution happens whenever languages collide, so it's ton be expected in creole languages.

So, something doesn't need possessive or plural affixes, or "th" sounds, to be considered an example of human language. But what does it need? We'll tackle that issue in the next installment.

Starbird, E. 1979. Taking it as it comes: St. Vincent, the Grenadines, and Grenada. National Geographic 156 (September 1979), pages 399-425.

Conference blogging 3

We're back home now, but I have to share this. In one of the panels I met a Cuban musicologist who had been part of a team recording folk music on Carriacou back in the 1980s, just before the Grenada Revolution imploded and the US did their "intervasion," as some Grenadians called it.

So, here Rolando Pérez Fernández presents me with a copy of the record he produced from that fieldwork. I promised to reciprocate by transcribing what I could of the French and English Creole that might be heard on the record. But first, I have to find someone to convert the analog LP to digital. Wow!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Conference blogging 2

Well, it's surprisingly hard to keep up with blogging when you're at a conference of linguists and what you mostly want to do is talk. This is probably more true of me than most, since I'm the only linguist at my university.  It's rare that I'm surrounded by people who totally understand concepts like allophone and absence of copula.  Too much fun.

Also, it's hard to be cranky when the view from your hotel balcony is of the Caribbean Sea. The waves are rolling gently over a line of reefs a few yards off the beach, and a humongous hummingbird flits around in the tree just outside. I am playing hooky from a session going on now to write a bit here before we meet downstairs for lunch.

Today is the third day of the conference, and my two duties are scheduled for tomorrow. I chair a session on varieties of French Creole in the morning, then in the afternoon I do a presentation on a tentative method I've worked out for reducing linguistic prejudice among my students against African-American and other "non-standard" forms of English.

One of the really cool and satisfying things about these conferences is that I get to meet and interact with people whose names were in my dissertation bibliography these many years ago: in particular this time folks like Mervyn Alleyne, John Rickford, and Bernadette Farquhar. It was Farquhar's 1974 dissertation on Antiguan Creole, discovered by me at the University of Florida Library's Latin American Collection in 1978, that as I told her yesterday "ruined my life, but in a good way."  Her description of Antiguan Creole led me to conceive of doing similar work in Carriacou, where I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1971-74.

The conference, incidentally, is celebrating the late Richard Allsopp, a scholar of Caribbean languages who has very unfortunately passed away but who I had met some years back. His magnum opus I suppose is the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, published by Oxford in 1996, with a 2003 paperback edition from the University of the West Indies Press.  However, it was earlier article* on Africanisms in Caribbean creoles that contributed most to my own research by documenting how idioms in African languages had been carried to the New World by slaves and relexified to produce expressions such as "cut-eye" and "hard-ears." 

More later...

*Allsopp, R.  1977.  Africanisms  in the Idiom of Caribbean English.  In Language and Linguistic Problems in Africa, ed by P. Kotey and H. Der-Houssikian.  Columbia SC: Hornbeam Press.  Pages 429-41.

Monday, August 9, 2010


From a friend:
Did you know that the words "race car" spelled backwards still spells
"race car"?

That "eat" is the only word that, if you take the 1st letter and move
it to the last, spells its past tense, "ate"?

And if you rearrange the letters in "so-called tea party Republicans,"
and add just a few more letters, it spells: "Shut the hell up you
free-loading, progress-blocking, benefit-grabbing, resource-sucking,
violent, hypocritical assholes, and face the fact that you nearly
wrecked the country under Bush."

Conference blogging

This week we're at the meetings of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics, in Barbados. Life is pretty good!  We arrived yesterday late afternoon, after being delayed for two hours in Miami. The two hours were spent sitting on the plane, first waiting for the arrival of a replacement copilot, and then waiting for a pretty vigorous thunderstorm to calm down.

Amazingly, although we're deep in the Tropics, it's cooler and more comfortable here than Jacksonville has been this summer.  We've been consistently in the high 90s or at 100, with heat indexes in 105-110 range. Here, today, it's in the mid-80s and there's a wonderful breeze coming in off the water, which is maybe at most 100 yards from our hotel room.

While waiting to board in Miami several conference attendees joined us, including the Society President John Rickford and his wife Angela, who have researched extensively on African-American English and its uses. More attendees appeared at breakfast this morning. It's always fun to meet someone you've known, and who has known you, from publications, but whom you've never encountered in person until a conference.

It should be a good time...

Friday, August 6, 2010

The most destructive use ever of weapons of mass destruction

This is the 65th anniversary of the US's bombing of Hiroshima, followed shortly after by a repeat on Nagasaki. As I wrote last year:
I was just under a month old on August 6, 1945. On that day, a US bomber dropped the bizarrely named nuclear bomb "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan, killing up to 140,000 people, 80,000 of them instantly. Three days later, US forces dropped a second bomb, "Fat Man," on Nagasaki, killing another 80,000. Besides those who died, many survivors lived with terrible injuries, and for many years babies were born deformed by the lingering effects of the radiation.

So, in less than a week 64 [now 65] years ago, the United States of America committed the two most destructive uses of weapons of mass destruction in the history of humankind. The usual defense is that it was necessary to end the war, but this is subject to debate. There is also evidence that the real purpose was to show the Soviet Union that we had the Bomb and we were crazy enough to use it, needed or not. I don't know which is true, perhaps both are. What I do know is that possession of nuclear weapons by the US makes me just as nervous as their possession by any other nation. And why shouldn't it, given that we are the only ones who, so far, who have actually used them?
This year, has posted a gallery of unpublished images.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

New Blog Link

There's a new link over on the left to the blog Anthro Jack, written by a friend from the Anthro-L list. Anthro Jack is now participating and observing in the predominantly Cree speaking community of Chisasibi, a town near the  eastern shore of James Bay in northern Québec. AJ is investigating the role of alcohol in the culture and society of Chisasibi.  Fascinating stuff, check it out!

For me, one interesting thing going on in Chisasibi is that they use the Cree syllabary to write the language.  The word Chisasibi looks like this:


Too cool!

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Primate Diaries is now in exile

Eric Michael Johnson has taken his excellent blog, The Primate Diaries, off of Scienceblogs, but he's still writing. He calls his new blog The Primate Diaries in Exile. Check it out.