Friday, June 22, 2012

Legitimacy of Ebonics

Since Oakland Public Schools decided to pass a measure acknowledging the legitimacy of Ebonics as an English dialect, the controversy surrounding Ebonics has been hotly debated. Linguists have supported Ebonics, while some are very much against it. I do not know if I will add anything new to this discussion. What I will do is discuss prestige languages, what they are and where Ebonics fits in.

For those of you familiar with my writing, I like to jump right into the topic. You will never have to worry about having to read fluff or filler in my essays. So, lets hop to it. 

The prestige dialect is the dialect spoken by the wealthiest and most prestigious members of a nation. Within the nation, there may be many other spoken dialects. These are considered to be beneath the prestige dialect. The attitudes that we form about these dialects are usually attitudes we hold about the group of speakers. Linguist Heinz Kloss once wrote, "Different languages and dialects (ausbausprache) are accorded prestige based upon factors which include rich literary heritage, high degree of language modernization, considerable international standing, or the prestige of its speakers."

Those who comprise the prestige dialect do not want to give up their position of prestige. It is kind of like being part of the cool clique in school. No one wants to be out of that group. This is one of the reasons Americans feel so threatened by Spanish. They are afraid that they will not sit at the cool table anymore.
Foreign language acquisition is a politically charged issue. Republicans criticized John Kerry for being able to speak French. They criticized Obama for saying that American children should learn another language. It appears to me that they think all other languages are inferior to English. What I find most interesting about that opinion, is that these people usually cannot speak another language. It is fascinating to me that a person can make a judgment of another language without having any knowledge about it.  We must remember that we are talking about politics – not intelligent thinking.

The issue of black English or Ebonics is a very sensitive topic for me. In one sense, I must acknowledge that spoken Ebonics does what language is supposed to do – communicate. On a purely linguistic ground, all languages and all dialects have equal merit. The function is the same - to communicate. Ebonics succeeds at achieving this goal. Ebonics is seen as inferior to standard English because it incorporates poor verb conjugations, "Where you was." "I be here." But also, it is spoken among urban black Americans. If it was spoken by wealthy white Americans, it would be the prestige language.

In one sense, I want to defend it as a legitimate form of communication. In the other sense, I have to think about what Heinz Kloss wrote, “rich literary heritage, high degree of language modernization and considerable international standing.”
The French have Les Miserable, the English have Romeo and Juliette, Italy has Inferno, the Chinese have 紅樓夢  Dream of the Red Chamber, and Ebonics has....errr. Okay, never mind....

The United Nations has hundreds of translators, for languages like Korean, Urdu, Swahili, Afrikaans, Russian, French, German.....and Ebonics? Nope, never heard of an Ebonics translator working for the UN.

Then I have to be open minded. One of the things that Moses McCormick talks about often. Even though I personally abhor Ebonics, one must remember that these children grow up hearing only Ebonics. Children grow up in urban areas and ghettos, hearing standard English only from television. The only way these children will learn standard English is from reading or their public schools. Then they are expected to make it in a world where they must speak standard English in order to be gainfully employed. Language is so much a part of who we are, that these children must feel like an out-group.

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It goes without saying that black children are not the only ones who grow up speaking bad English. In Virginia I knew two Caucasian females who spoke the worst, most trashy ghetto English that I ever heard in my life. These girls grew up in a home where both parents spoke this trash language. So even though Ebonics is usually an urban black problem, it is a problem accompanied with education, poverty, and low income. Ebonics makes me cringe just like bad spelling makes me cringe. I know plenty of white people who do not know how to properly conjugate verbs or spell basic words. Sometimes, it is like they do not know how to use the f7 key on their keyboard.

Although Ebonics is a legitimate form of communication, it marks an underclass and maintains the underclass. It is something that people have to just stop doing. My philosophy about bad behavior is simple - just STOP doing it. Yes, it is that easy. I like to say that life is easy - people make it complicated. 

Make a choice and follow through. Parents need to stop speaking Ebonics at home with their children. They should not allow their children to do it either. It is that simple. If linguists can manage to learn to speak three, four, and five languages fluently - you CAN make sure your children know how to speak ONE language fluently. It is not what people want to hear, but it is the truth.

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