ilona the pest

insecurity + narcissism = awesome!

Friday, January 05, 2007

norwegian, cantonese, and ebonics

i've been having a lively debate in the "comments" section of my last post (the one about old english). so lively, in fact, that i figured it would be more fun if i reproduced it out here so everyone could see.

some anonymous prescriptivist wrote:

So you are pro-ebonics then? I'm sure people used to pronounce things differently in the past, but we live in the present. There's a proper way to pronounce things now. Beacuse you found some peasant pronounced ask like "axe" hundreds of years ago, doesn't excuse illiteracy and lack of academic drive today.


the pest replied:

So you are pro-ebonics then?

that question has a ridiculous premise: how can you possibly be "for" or "against" a dialect? languages are value-neutral (except to the extent that linguists value ALL languages). to a linguist, the natural diversity of languages is extremely valuable, because it provides fascinating clues into the history of cultures and the patterns that govern the shifts that occur in all languages over time, among other things.

people who speak cantonese are not speaking mandarin incorrectly. people who speak danish are not speaking norwegian incorrectly. people who speak black english vernacular (or "ebonics") are not speaking standard english incorrectly - they are speaking a different dialect of english that is equally legitimate, internally consistent, and lovely.


the prescriptivist retorted:

people who speak cantonese are not speaking mandarin incorrectly. people who speak danish are not speaking norwegian incorrectly. people who speak black english vernacular (or "ebonics") are not speaking standard english incorrectly - they are speaking a different dialect of english that is equally legitimate, internally consistent, and lovely.

Those are bad analogies. Danish and Norwegian are different languages, not dialects. Ebonics is just improperly spoken english, NOT another language. You cannot compare a different language to a dialect. How is ebonics legitimate? The California school system was basically going to give up on black children and say ina racist manner "we think Blacks are incapable of speaking english properly, so we'll just teach them the improper english in school". Would you write any of your memos or briefs in Ebonics? Why? Because it's not proper english.


and the pest concluded:

Those are bad analogies. Danish and Norwegian are different languages, not dialects. . . .You cannot compare a different language to a dialect.

remind me, which of us has a degree in linguistics, again? oh yeah, that's right: ME. danish and norwegian are mutually intelligible, yet they're called different "languages". cantonese and mandarin are NOT mutually intelligible, yet they're called "dialects". i chose those analogies to demonstrate that the line between "dialects" and "languages" is often difficult to discern. it's more helpful to view varieties of language as falling on a spectrum from similarity to dissimilarity, with similar varieties usually termed "dialects" and further-apart varieties termed "languages".


Ebonics is just improperly spoken english, NOT another language.

that's exactly what the speakers of "proper" latin thought about speakers of what became italian, french, spanish, etc. your prejudice toward the language of the less privileged classes is as old as language itself, son.


Would you write any of your memos or briefs in Ebonics? Why? Because it's not proper english.

first, i'm not fluent in black english vernacular, so i couldn't write briefs in that dialect even if i wanted to. second, the legal profession is extremely conservative. you succeed for your client by winning over the usually conservative, usually white, usually male judge, who is steeped in the formality of the ancient profession. in fact, the legal profession is so conservative that its lexicon includes a large number of outdated words - remnants of old english, middle english, and middle french - that the rest of the english-speaking world has long left behind.

anyhow, anyone can see that there is a dominant dialect in this country, which we could call standard american english. as usual in societies with multiple thriving dialects, the variety that came to be thought of as the "standard" language happened to be the dialect of the privileged classes. thus its careful use conveys a sense of education, wealth, power, and whiteness (since whites are the dominant group from whence that particular dialect emerged). that's why lawyers master that language. but it hardly justifies promoting the eradication of alternate dialects with the fallacious argument that such dialects are simply "mistaken" versions of the "original".

if you want to learn more about black english vernacular (or african-american vernacular english, as it's also known), check out the wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_American_Vernacular_English

12 Comments:

  • At 7:23 PM, Blogger Pud said…

    "in fact, the legal profession is so conservative that its lexicon includes a large number of outdated words"

    don't forget, they also wear robes. and wigs (in england).

     
  • At 7:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ilona, you are wrong. According to you, english is just a dialect of German perhaps? Or maybe it's a dialect of Frisian, given Frisian is the closest language there is to English?

    The Romans died out, the language evolved into Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, etc. There are no native Latin speakers anymore. It's an extinct language other than use by religious entities. The new languages have proper rules for how they are spoken correctly. English has the same rules. You are from MD, you know some people speak "balmerese" in Baltimore, though it's rare these days. That's also improper english. You're just doing your PC brigade thing, excusing lack of education. Ebonics is NOT related to the languages spoken by lower class english people in days of yore. It just might sound the same because they were not educated. You are perpetuating the placing blacks in a lower category, by thinking they aren't capable of speaking the language properly of being educated, so you want to allow it to happen, to continue, though it hurts them with jobs, and getting ahead in life. All so you can sleep better at night. Shame on you.

     
  • At 8:39 PM, Blogger ilona said…

    The new languages have proper rules for how they are spoken correctly. English has the same rules. . . ."balmerese" in Baltimore [is] also improper english.

    actually, the only "rules" that matter (from a descriptive linguist's point of view) are rules that are internally consistent within a given dialect. speakers of any given dialect, whether it's "balmerese", black english vernacular, southern american english, or standard english, maintain internally consistent "rules". (a nice overview of the many, many internal rules of black english vernacular that distinguish it from standard english are documented in the wikipedia article i suggested you read - but i guess you aren't interested in educating yourself? your loss.)

    only variations from rules internal to the speaker's native dialect could be termed "mistakes" - and even then it's less useful & interesting to condemn "mistakes" then to analyze nonstandard usage as evidence of where the ever-evolving language is heading.
    as i think i've said before, today's "mistakes" are tomorrow's standard language.

    for instance, remember when english required separate cases for all nouns, depending on whether they were used as a subject, object of an action, instrument, etc.? of course you don't, 'cause the english we speak today has lost all of those cases (except, in a limited way, for our personal pronouns). the first english-speaking pioneers to drop noun cases were almost certainly criticized by their more conservative peers in the same way that prescriptivists today criticize any usage that varies from the fleeting and unnatural ideal of standard english.

     
  • At 5:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ilona, this is the true test, say you become a member of your firm's hiring committee, and you're going to hire one new associate, one that speaks standard English, and one that speaks only Ebonics. Which one are you going to hire?

    Your answer is why your viewpoints will keep the speakers of Ebonics in a permanent underclass in this country unless people like you stop thinking Ebonics is acceptable, because you don't think it's acceptable. I hate to quote Bush here, as I hate his guts, but he was right when he said that "soft bigotry of low expectations" thing.

     
  • At 8:33 AM, Blogger ilona said…

    Which one are you going to hire?

    of course a lawyer in the united states who speaks only black english vernacular would have more difficulty than a lawyer who is fluent in standard english. most law firms probably wouldn't hire a lawyer who only speaks japanese, either. but that's not because japanese is "unacceptable" or "bad" - it's only because, as i said earlier, the law is a conservative profession, conducted in this country in one particular language, which happens to be a blend of modern standard english and a peculiar ancient legal lexicon. fluency in that language is extremely helpful in the effective representation of clients.


    your viewpoints will keep the speakers of Ebonics in a permanent underclass in this country unless people like you stop thinking Ebonics is acceptable, because you don't think it's acceptable.

    i absolutely think BEV is more than acceptable - it's valuable linguistically and culturally.

    i also believe that teaching fluency in standard american english should be an essential part of public education in this country. how could anyone disagree with that concept? standard english is the language of power in this country - it's the language of most business, government, courts, media, etc. it's the lingua franca spoken by almost every person in the united states that allows everyone in our diverse nation to communicate, no matter what their native tongue.

    recognizing the importance of fluency in standard english does NOT require condemning languages or dialects other than standard english as "unacceptable" or "bad", as you apparently believe. do you also think we need to tell native speakers of spanish that it's a "bad" language? do you think the romanian government can't teach romanian effectively to ethnic hungarians without telling students that hungarian is a "bad" language? there are thousands of examples from across the globe of interactions between minority and majority languages. supporting fascistic enforcement of monolingualism by advocating the outright suppression of minority languages does not place you in good company.

    in sum: i don't believe that effectively teaching standard english requires discouraging bilingualism. we can teach speakers of other languages and other english dialects to become fluent in standard english without criticizing, forbidding, or otherwise suppressing their native languages.

     
  • At 2:32 PM, Anonymous Some Different Guy said…

    ilona said: recognizing the importance of fluency in standard english does NOT require condemning languages or dialects other than standard english as "unacceptable" or "bad", as you apparently believe.

    What are the ways in which you think languages can be considered inferior or superior?

     
  • At 6:10 AM, Blogger ilona said…

    What are the ways in which you think languages can be considered inferior or superior?

    none. that's like asking, "which is the best and worst color?" or "which is the best kind of tree?" you can't compare natural phenomena like that.

    some languages have fewer phonemes (sounds), which is easier on your mouth, but requires longer words. some languages have complicated noun-case systems, which allows free-floating word order, but requires you to memorize tons of annoying noun cases. in other words, for every increase in one type of efficiency, there's a trade-off. but all languages effectively convey the information their speakers want to communicate. there is simply no objective way to compare the "merit" of languages.

     
  • At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Some Different Guy said…

    Hey, what's going on here?

    As I try to respond to ilona's last post, it keeps disappearing and reappearing.

    ilona, I think you have a gremlin in your blog.

     
  • At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Some Different Guy said…

    Doh!

    I think I just figured out the problem. I use Firefox and must have accidentally zapped the text of ilona's 6:10 am response with my Remove It Permanently extension.

    Well, I'm too sleepy to respond right now anyway.

    Go to bed, knucklehead.

    Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

     
  • At 2:53 PM, Blogger wt said…

    That "soft bigotry of low expectations" line was Bill Cosby's, not Bush's.

     
  • At 1:41 PM, Anonymous Rob Gullixson said…

    I don't know whether the debate here is whether Ebonics is linguistically valuable or socially acceptable...you (this is the "collective" you - and will continue to be used as such) seem to be conflating the issues.

    If you are speaking abstractly about the technical aspects of language (eg - commenting that a speaker is only "wrong" if they break the rules of their own dialect/language), then I'd have to assume you are correct. (I'm not a linguist, nor have I even studied linguistics). From a semantic perspective, the argument seems sensical.

    However, to argue in a social context that Ebonics should be recognized as a distinct cultural characteristic is a foregone debate. It already IS used as a distinguishing characteristic - but not in a way adventageous to the speakers.

    Much like our clothing, our home furnishings, our tastes in various media and food, our manner of speaking is used as another indicator of class. You can have a debate regarding the morality of making such judgements, or even their reliability. I'll admit to lacking a citable study of this phenomenon, but if you're candid with yourself (divesting yourself of PCisms and idealist notions of "equality"), you'll likely be hard-pressed to find a non-Ebonics speaker who would NOT claim there's a social tendency to associate it with being "lower" or "working" class - or who does not believe it to be associated with lack of education.

    Interestingly, you'll probably find people (yourself included) more inclined to claim OTHERS make this evaluation, but make some sort of allusion to being an exception. Moreso, you'll almost certainly find someone speaking Ebonics quick to rail against such associations as ridiculous, inaccurate, etc etc etc.

    Why so touchy? Probably because in America we've been encouraged to ignore the reality of "class" - which, since it's real, leads to a lot of internal conflict.

    This is AMERICA. We're equal! How does that work? Well, as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg writes in "Talking Right," by conflating issues of culture and economics. In the political realm (and, following suit, much of the media), there is an emphasis placed on "issues" - gay marriage, racial discrimination, VALUES, etc. We're presented as a country ideologically divided. Interestingly, the statistics tend to show much greater agreement than we're led to believe. But that illusion of discord leaves the majority of Americans ignoring issues more relevant to our personal lives, issues that are also noteably near-univeral (since, statistcally, the rich occupy a VERY minority status) The main issue being the significant role money plays in our lives.

    As Noam Chomsky likes to point out, every day we spend squabbling about issues like gay marriage (should they be able to? yes - but why are you worried about that - you still don't have health care...) is another day that SOMEONE is making millions more due to policies that favor the rich. (There's also keeping us wrapped-up in our consumer habits...but that's a conversation for another blog).

    Economic class is the pink elephant - and any allusions to it (eg - that speaking Ebonics might keep you from getting the lawyer gig) tend to result in emotional responses, peppered with lots of PC - but often deluded - claims. In short, it's a "touchy subject." We WANT TO BELIEVE that it's a "cultural" trait, and thereby should be preserved, defended - even appreciated. But that sensitivity arises because most people know, somewhere in their minds, that - whatever it SHOULD BE - it, in fact, IS an unspoken tag of economic class.

    What a lot of people don't seem to realize is that the economic elite probably LOVE Ebonics. I wouldn't be surprised if they're funneling money into the campaigns supporting it. Why? Because its "cultural" recognition - just like a t-shirt plastered with "DKNY" - creates an illusion of acceptance into prosperity. People THINK (or let themselves believe) that by having a manner of speaking "recognized" and "made acceptable" that the negative connotations will evaporate. It's the same attitude that leads PC Washington to cycle through from "fatty" to "obese" to "metabolically challenged." Speaking of linguistics...can anyone assure me that the change in title has stopped overweight people from being made fun of?

    I feel there ARE merits in debating such issues - it encourages thought, which is a quickly evaporating phenomenon in American culture. However, I think it is equally important to recognize the character of abstract arguments - which often involve idealistic claims that do not allow for reality.

    In our current culture there is such an overabundance of information that we are forced to make evaluative judgements based on immediate indicators - clothing, grooming, speech. They are the 32-piece place setting's of our age, extremely subtle and evolved tools used to determine who "truly belongs" and who is "pretending." From working in fashion the past 5 years, I have seen the economic "illusion of belonging" more clearly than most. "True" designer labels do NOT plaster their logo's all over. Those pointy-toed heels you wore last year? They'd already been replaced twice by the "truly-in" people.

    If you are a proponent of "cultural equality" in America, keep on keeping on. Nobody should be discouraged or disallowed from practicing their own non-invasive behaviors. However, if - as the "lawyer hiring" argument leads me to believe - it is an argument of "opportunity" (which 9 times of 10 in such contexts means "FINANCIAL opportunity"), Ebonics is like a flashing neon sign saying, "Rich people, I am not one of you." Even if you're far more intelligent, better-read, and better-qualified than the person behind the desk.

    In our "land of opportunity," an image has been constructed of a room full of people with money spilling from their sleeves, who when you walk in will welcome you with open arms saying, "Well done! You've made it!" Well, people need to wake up - that door's locked pretty tight, and there's a guy standing outside waiting to read your ID card; if getting to that room is what you want, don't stamp "MIDDLE CLASS" - or worse, "LOWER CLASS" in giant letters across your name tag. IF that's where you want to go.

     
  • At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Since when is wikipedia a scholarly source? Anyone can edit it, and quite often do.

    If I even used wikipedia on one of my sources, in high school, I would have got an 'F'.

    If I got the folly to try that in my college, I would expect to be kicked out for pure naivety.

    Sadly, I expected better from you.

     

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