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...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

November 22, 1963

Today is the day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

I was in my first year at St. Johns College, Annapolis, Maryland.  I was about to go for a run before my Dad picked me up to drive home for Thanksgiving.  As I was leaving the dorm someone yelled out that the President had been shot, and we spent some time listening to a radio.  The run was scuttled.

On the drive home Dad and I listened to the radio in the car.  As I recall (it's been a while) he didn't say anything.  He had always been a Republican, and later became a fan of Rush Limbaugh etc.  I am not sure how he felt about what happened to Kennedy.