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.


  1. Holy hell. I never cease to be amazed at what the anonymity of the internet will bring out in us. I might have to use this in my class next week. After searching a bit and finding the written article/comments, I'd really like to point out to the majority of the commenters that they are, in fact, not using "proper English." I suppose that means they are too lazy, dumb, or [insert skin color] to learn the English language and talk right.

    One of the comments (I think it was on another article for the same topic) made an interesting point that law enforcement agencies were recognizing AAVE as a language and recognizing a need to bridge the language gap, yet schools still do not acknowledge these things. We are willing to take action on this issue if it means putting black drug dealers in prison, but we aren't willing to take action it means helping people from diverse backgrounds communicate effectively.

  2. Kate, This is definitely classroom material! It's data, and I'll be using it in my class next week. Plus, the comparison between law enforcement and education is right on.

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  5. RAWRGH. I keep making typoes, sorry for the deleted comments.

    My question: Would AAVE be considered a creole, a pidgin, or neither/both?
    If I remember correctly, a pidgin is a coming together of different languages in its first form (i.e. at a port, commerce hub, gathering place, etc) and a creole has grammar--usually 2nd generation of speech so that people can communicate more effectively with less confusion... I'm not sure where AAVE fits into this.

    Also, the comments you sampled are so ignorant! Hardly anyone is an "expert" at the English language (and its many rules/nuances), yet so many want to tout their vague understanding of grammar and speech! Is it hard to see that sometimes groups of people do not wish to speak the same language of those they are surrounded (and sometimes in the past conquered) by?-- and that, that is their right! Especially in this country. RAWRGH

  6. Donatella: Sorry I'm slow to respond. The evidence is pointing to an origin of AAVE within the Atlantic Plantation Creoles, which include Jamaican, Barbadian, Belize Creole, and so on. Linguists are still divided about their ultimate origin, whether they emerged from a pidgin (which has no native speakers) or emerged in a context of restricted second language acquisition, or maybe something else. But the issue of whether AAVE is a legitimate "dialect" or "language" or whatever is settled as far as the people who spend their studying it are concerned.

    Again, my conclusion is that the ongoing public ignorance regarding the nature of AAVE, and indeed language in general, reflects a failure of our "language arts" curriculum.

    And by the way, there was actually a court case in 1979 that decided the issue: AAVE is a legitimate dialect of English and teachers in schools must use knowledge of that fact in their identification of and teaching English to AAVE speakers. A brief summary is here:

  7. Nothing divides people faster or more completely than the inability to communicate. Creating a new language for "your people" is almost as stupid as recalling your ambassadors when you are mad at another country.


Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.