Saturday, June 7, 2014

My problem with Maya Angelou (and Jesse Jackson, and...)

This post is prompted by Maya Angelou's passing a few days ago. I was privileged to see her perform at UNF some years back, and of course she was very, very good at what she did.  What she was not good at is being a linguist.  And she's not alone.

When the Oakland School Board tried to declare African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or Ebonics) a language separate from English back in 1996, a shitstorm ensued, as everyone in the country (it seemed) came down on them.  The school board made two fatal errors:
(1) They used the term "genetic" in trying to trace the West African roots that help make AAVE different from English. This was a mistake, because people were able to take a descriptive term out of context and accuse the school board of claiming that there were "genes for" AAVE, or something like that, which is of course biologically false. 
(2) In attempting to claim the status of "language" for AAVE, they broke a rule established by Max Weinreich back in the 1940s: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy."  Nearly all linguists know that there is no qualitative difference between a "language" and a "dialect" and that, indeed, everyone speaks a dialect.  Languages are social constructions of convenience that encompass in some cases widely divergent dialects; dialects, the stuff on the ground, are what is real.
So... by making these errors, they left themselves open to all sorts of ridicule.  We can ignore the ridicule coming from the Cracker class, at least for now.  But the ridicule also came from people who one wishes had known better, and the result was yet more evidence that we need linguistics and anthropology taught to everybody, in the public schools:

Maya Angelou:

  • The very idea that African American language is a language separate and apart is very threatening, because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard English.

Jesse Jackson:

  • I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace. . . . It's teaching down to our children and it must never happen.

    And, perhaps most disturbing...
  • You don't have to go to school to learn to talk garbage.
No, Maya, what encourages students "not to learn standard English" is just the opposite: pretending that there's no linguistic difference, that AAVE consists of nothing but mistakes and deviations from the standard, is what fools students into imagining that they already know the standard.

And no, Jesse, making students aware of the systemic linguistic differences between AAVE and standard is not "teaching down" to them; it is respecting their intelligence and ability to live up to what ought to be our expectations for them.

And of course, Jesse, AAVE is not "garbage."  Decades of research by far too many language scholars to list here has shown that if AAVE is "garbage," then so is English and every other language on the planet.  And that was a pretty despicable claim for one who claims to be a civil rights leader.

The reality is, we need people with real knowledge about languages and culture (i.e. linguists and anthropologists) in leadership roles in this country.  Instead, we get people who are illiterate in these areas, people who are only capable of vomiting up what amount to racist claims.  Yes, racist.

By the way, there were even Senate hearings on this.  If you ever want to be driven to poke your eyeballs and eardrums out with toothpicks, watch US Senators try to ask questions of linguists.

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