Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What do "White" people know?

In my linguistic anthropology class we are doing semantics, the study of meaning.  Yesterday, the class was presented with pairs of sentences, and asked to decide whether their meanings were the same or different.  For the purpose of this exercise, three kinds of "meaning" were considered: referential, social, and affective meaning.  Referential meaning has to do with what the sentence (or word or phrase) refers to externally: 'the dog' refers to a definite member of the genus Canis.  Social meaning is what the sentence implies about the speakers' membership in some social group or the context (e.g. formal, informal) surrounding the speech event.  Affective meaning is what the sentence implies about the internal state of speakers with regard to what they are saying.

An example might help.  Here are two sentences:
  • I don't see anything.
  • I don't see nothing.
These sentences are the same referentially; they both refer to my not having anything in my field of vision. (Yes, I know, some grammar nazi will try to chime in and claim that the second means that I do see something, but that's just nonsense.)  They are also the same affectively, in that we can't infer anything about the speaker's inner state.  However, they are different socially: we might infer that the speakers are different, with the second belonging to a group that uses non-standard English; or, we might infer that the same person said both but in different social contexts.

Now, in the class yesterday one of the pairs of sentences was this:

  • Is there a Miss Smith in this office?
  • Is it a Miss Smith in this office?

The students presented all sorts of contorted calculations attempting to construct different referential meanings for these two sentences. For example, the 'it' in the second dehumanizes Miss Smith; and so on.  Not one of these students recognized that the second sentence is from African American English, and that it's referential meaning is the same as the first one.  Not one.  I should add that the students in this class were all "White," or rather, none of them belonged to the US hypodescent group labeled "Black."

This led me to wander a little off topic in the class, by questioning whether the lack of knowledge that White people typically have about Black people contributes to situations like what we see happening in Ferguson, etc.  Of course, this little bit of AAE grammar is a little thing, almost inconsequential in itself, but not knowing lots of little things adds up to not knowing a lot.

And, why don't White people have this knowledge?  Why is it that at no time in their "language arts" classes have these students been presented with facts about the linguistic variation that exists all around them?  They've had to wait until they got to university, and then happened to take linguistics for one reason or another.  And some of them are English Education majors, destined to themselves be language arts teachers.

The answer, it seems to me, is that we don't value what Black people know.  To the extent that it differs from more mainstream English, their speech is just a broken, deficient form of that wider English.  Nothing to see here; move along...


  1. Well, I've been exposed to lots of AAE speech, and I've either never heard this construction, or perhaps simply never noticed it. And believe me, I've heard and noticed many others that I recognize instantly as typical AAE speech.

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  3. It depends on the variety of AAVE and the type of English you interact with. Here's a good chart showing the variations in existential subjects across English varieties.

    {link didn't work before}

  4. It's notable that this feature may have gone out of style in many communities. While not an AAVE usage, the one reference that sticks in my mind is from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" where the Misfit, summing up his dejected view of the universe, says, "It's no real pleasure in life."

    Ms. O'Connor was an unfailing observer of Southern language and it's highly unlikely that she would have employed this phrase for the Misfit -- who notably also employs double negation ("Don't see no sun"), demonstrative them ("Watch them children") and, of course, "ain't"-- unless it was in common currency among speakers, perhaps from a particular social stratum, in contemporary Central Georgia.

  5. I remember being confronted with this construction in your class and being similarly puzzled. I still have yet to encounter this construction firsthand, but I believe the point is that I shouldn't pass judgement on people's way of life without having much knowledge about that way of life. I also remember my perspective on race/racism changing a lot by taking your class and others while in college (yours + Cartwright's Caribbean lit class changed me profoundly). Although I agree that younger students should learn English differently than they are now, I hope the lesson here is not that we should be exasperated over what isn't taught but that we should be excited at what we can show our students now.


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