Lexicon Valley: Is Black English a Dialect or a Language?

A show about the mysteries of English.
Feb. 27 2012 1:30 PM

Is Black English a Dialect or a Language?

Listen to Slate’s show about America’s fraught relationship with Ebonics.

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Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 4: Jumpin’ Salty in the O

Kathryn Stockett’s dialogue-heavy The Help, the novel that was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie, caused a stir over whether a white writer should try to depict African-American English. But wait, what is African-American English exactly and isn’t it called Ebonics? Bob Garfield and I sift through the history, misconceptions, and reality of a vernacular wrapped in a dialect inside a language.

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Below is a transcript of this episode:

BOB: Mike, we're recording this before the Academy Awards and one of the big contenders is the movie The Help, adapted from a book and it's up for best picture, among other Oscars, and it may or may not win but it did created something of a sensation and a whole mess of controversy over some of the language within the film.

MIKE: Before the movie even came out, the book and the author, Kathryn Stockett, sparked a kind of debate, which I think was very succinctly summed up by a woman named Teresa Wiltz. She's the senior editor of Slate's sister publication The Root. She posed the question last summer: "Can a white woman,"—Kathryn Stockett, the author, is white—"Can a white woman truly tell the stories of black women using old-school Ebonics? Should it matter?" So, many people wondered whether Kathryn Stockett got the speech patterns of her black characters right. Some people questioned whether she had the authority to render them in the first place. And still other people were wondering, what is this speech pattern? I saw in a forum on WordReference.com, somebody excerpted a series of passages from The Help and asked, "What is this language called? Is it politically correct to call it Ebonics?" Somebody responded that Ebonics was, quote, "an artificial dialect/language."

BOB: And you can see where someone might suspect that. It sort of does have the whiff of, uh, Kwanzaa—you know, kind of an invented holiday built to suit a whole bunch of different requirements. But Ebonics isn't linguistic Kwanzaa, is it Mike?

MIKE: Well, the term Ebonics was coined in the 1970s by an African-American psychologist named Robert Williams. It means simply "black sounds." So, sure, the term is contrived but what it's describing is not. The problem I think many people have with Ebonics is they don't really understand what it is. Is it a language? Is it a dialect? Is it broken English? What does any of that even mean?

BOB: Yeah, quick follow-up Mike. Is it a language? Is it a dialect? Is it broken English? What is it?

MIKE: Let's first remember what happened the last time—which was, you know, the first time and the last time—we had a kind of national conversation about African-American English. This was back in 1996, when in Oakland, Calif. the board of education passed a resolution affirming what they said had already been recognized by linguists, that there is such a thing as an African-American language distinct from Standard English. And the board of education there resolved to come up with a new academic program, and I'll quote directly from their resolution: "A program for imparting instruction to African-American students in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining the legitimacy and richness of such language ... and to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language skills."

BOB: I remember this vividly. I mean, I think I remember this vividly. What I recall is that when the council passed this resolution the rest of America, mostly white America, freaked out on the grounds that this was just more paternalistic catering to the underclass that was going to keep that very underclass from ever getting into the mainstream of American life. And they just wigged.

MIKE: Yeah, if you read contemporary media accounts, you get a sense of just how huge a controversy it was—headline news—and I managed to dig up some comments by politicians at the time, including Mario Cuomo. Remember, Cuomo was no longer governor of New York but he was still a very outspoken voice in the Democratic Party, in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and here's what he said:

CUOMO: It is a lowering of the bar. It is a surrender, saying, well you know the best we can do is this inadequate new language that won't be sufficient to really educate a person for this current competitive environment. So it's wrong.

MIKE: Another comment I found was by Joseph Lieberman, also a Democrat at the time—he's since become an independent. Here's what he said in 1996.

LIEBERMAN: It is a teaching down instead of a raising up. You know part of the problems in our society are a failure to draw lines and say that some behavior is acceptable and some is not. The same is true of language and education. Some kinds of language are unacceptable, some are acceptable and preferable.

MIKE: So, these statements were entirely representative of the sort of unfortunate, I would say, level of discourse around this issue at the time, not just by white politicians but also by some African-Americans. For example, the poet Maya Angelou was quoted in a newspaper at the time saying, "I'm incensed. 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 said that in Oakland, "madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language."

"You don't have to go to school," he said, "to learn to talk garbage."

BOB: Huh. So, what Jesse Jackson has to say is interesting on two counts. The first is that Jackson, when he found it politically convenient, or socially, was perfectly capable of sort of slouching back into non-Standard English, the black vernacular. But apart from that, he and Angelou and Cuomo and Lieberman, whatever you think about their take on Standard English, they were reacting, as I understand it, to something that the Oakland school board never did. They never suggested that their curriculum should be taught in Black English as a substitute for Standard English.

MIKE: Yeah, that's more or less correct. The resolution was widely misinterpreted, according to member of the school board, which then amended the resolution a few weeks later to make clear exactly what they were proposing, which was essentially this: To acknowledge that many African-American kids came to school speaking a language, whatever you wish to call it, that was not Standard English. And to use the language those kids were speaking in the classroom as a way to "transition" them—that's one of the words they added in the amended version—"transition" them to English.

BOB: So, they will use the vernacular in teaching kids how to go beyond the vernacular and talk Standard English.

MIKE: Well, they probably wouldn't say "vernacular" and I don't think they would say "go beyond." They would say "transition" from one language to another, which implies there's a kind of bilingual education going on, which means, because of various federal funding for such programs, that the Senate got involved. An appropriations subcommittee held a two-hour hearing in part to determine, in the words of Arlen Specter who led the hearing, whether Ebonics was "a language, a dialect, or vernacular speech."

Okay, so here's my seemingly absurd metaphor of the day. Asking whether Ebonics is a dialect or a language is sort of like asking whether a squash is a fruit or a vegetable. For one thing, it's both. But, more to the point, vegetable isn't even a strictly defined biological term. Language, dialect, vernacular—as if even among linguists any of those terms are strictly defined. They're just not. Which is why in the Oakland school board resolution you see them point out that Ebonics is sometimes called "Pan-African Communication Behaviors," sometimes called "African Language Systems." There's a linguist at North Carolina State University who's been studying African-American speech patterns for 40 years. His name is Walter Wolfram and he told me that there's been at least half a dozen preferred terms among his colleagues in that time. Here's Wolfram.

WOLFRAM: It was originally called Nonstandard Negro Dialect, then it was called Black English, then it was called Vernacular Black English, and then it was called Ebonics, and then it was called African-American English, and then Vernacular African-American English, then it went back to Ebonics and now it's either called Ebonics, African-American English or African-American Language. Now why do some people call it "language" and some people call it "English"? Calling something a language has more status, and the fact of the matter is whether something is a dialect or a language turns out to be a highly political determination. A language is a dialect that has an army.

BOB: Very good line. And I appreciate your invocation of the squash analogy, but surely there is a difference between a dialect, which is deemed a kind of bastardization of pure language, and a language itself with a set of rules, and vocabulary, and syntax, grammar, and so forth.

MIKE: A couple of things. First of all, you seem to be assuming that African-American English does not have a set of rules and grammar all its own, and we'll get to that in a minute. But also, think about the words you're using Bob. Bastardization? Pure? They, I think, reveal a kind of personal bias about what's a language and what's a dialect and what's worthy. There's a really good example I think that gets to the point that Wolfram makes when he says "a language is a dialect with an army." Think about Cantonese, which is sometimes referred to as a variety or dialect of Chinese, even though it's largely unintelligible to a Mandarin speaker. Norwegian and Swedish, on the other hand, have national political borders around them, elevating their status in a sense, and those two languages are largely mutually intelligible. So, there's something called the Principle of Linguistic Subordination, which is, you know, more or less what it sounds like. If a people are socially subordinated then their language will almost always be as well, and some would say that's a part, at least, of what African-American English is struggling against.

BOB: All right, I take your point and I stand, you know as usual, humiliated. But it almost hardly seems to be the point when we're talking about Ebonics, because Ebonics is so widely regarded, including by, you know, Jesse Jackson, as a "garbage" dialect. That it is not just different from but less than Standard English. Does it have merit as a stand-alone tongue?

MIKE: So, Wolfram says that one thing all languages have in common is a system of rules that undergird the conveying of meaning. That doesn't mean that you can't break the rules, it doesn't mean that the rules don't change or even that the rules are written down somewhere. I mean, there are about 6,000 or so languages currently spoken on the planet. Only about 200-plus of them are written. That doesn't mean that the rest don't have a set of overarching rules. African-American English has what Wolfram calls a "precise and consistent pattern." That's indisputable, he says. One that's often distinct from Standard English. Here's Wolfram again with an example.

WOLFRAM: So, for example, if you say something like, "My ears be itchin'," it means, “Okay my ears are habitually itching.” So, it refers to habitual action. Now, if we were saying the same thing in Standard English, we would have to say something like, "My ears usually itch." So we have to do it with an adverb. People hear it, they think, oh that's just a nonstandard English form, but the fact of the matter is that that form has a highly precise and consistent pattern and has a meaning that separated from the Standard English forms as well.

BOB: Now this gets a little awkward Mike, because we're getting into a realm where the very constructions we're describing are often invoked as caricatures to kind of ridicule the speakers and all of black culture at the same time in a very Amos-'n'-Andy way. But I guess the point of this is that there's, there's nothing inherently ridiculous about these constructions you're describing.

MIKE: Well, yeah, I mean I think that's the Principle of Linguistic Subordination at work. Instead of taking the time to understand and celebrate this linguistic diversity in our midst, we simply mock it. And, you know, it's interesting that some people who have historically celebrated African-American English are fiction writers, because, well, you know if you create characters and you want to respect them then you have to portray accurately the way they talk. In the early 1980s, Toni Morrison referred to the "five different present tenses" of African-American English. A linguist named John Rickford at Stanford, and others, have since codified many tenses, including the five that Morrison was most likely referring to, and I'll quickly run though those five using Rickford's nomenclature.

So you have the present progressive—“she talking” —which means in Standard English "she is talking”; the present habitual progressive—“she be talking”—which means "she is usually talking" (that's like the example that Wolfram cited); the present intensive habitual progressive—“she be steady talking”—which means "she is usually talking in an intensive, sustained manner"; the present perfect progressive —“she been talking”—which means "she has been talking"; and the present perfect progressive with remote inception—“she BEEN talking”—stress on the "been," which means "she has been talking for a long time and she still is talking." So, as John Rickford points out, if you say something like "she BEEN married," it means "she has been married for a while and still is." And yet when he put that statement to 25 white people and 25 African-Americans, while 23 of the African-Americans understood the woman to still be married only eight of the white people did. The point being, there is a "precise and consistent" pattern at work here, if you know it.

BOB: So where did it come from? I mean if you go back to slave life, these forced immigrants from various parts of Africa with very different native tongues were suddenly prevailed upon to speak English and, you know, apart from some Southern dialect, they were confronted with Standard English. So whence Ebonics?

MIKE: This is an area where there is some considerable disagreement. For example, one theory notes that African-American English has elements in common with certain Colonial dialects of Irish and English immigrants—the "habitual BE," for example. Many Irish and English were indentured workers and plantation overseers and, according to this theory, would have had sustained contact with black slaves who may have adopted some of these speech patterns. According to another theory, black slaves developed a Pidgin English in the Caribbean and in the South that later evolved into African-American English. Walter Wolfram favors a third theory and believes that African-American English incorporated elements of some of the African languages that many slaves spoke.

WOLFRAM: The absence of the "be" form, as in something like "he ugly" or "she nice," is attributable to that original contact situation. In pronunciation, the absence of certain final consonants, such as "bes" for "best," is something that would be derived from the contact between African languages and English. So there are some aspects of African-American English that go back to its ancestral past and of course there are things that have developed over the 20th century that have made African-American English much more distinct than it may have been a hundred years ago.

MIKE: Wolfram points out that what is particularly interesting about the way African-American English has evolved over the 20th century is the way in which it's been influenced by social forces. He says that a hundred years ago, African-American English was not tied very strongly at all to ethnic identity and that that has changed dramatically. He told me about a study that attempted to tease out the pejorative view among some African-American kids towards the notion of "acting white." And they found that the number one attribute of "acting white" was "speaking white," talking white.

WOLFRAM: And that sort of identity factor makes choices about language, and speaking in a way that's discernibly African-American, a much more complex personal and social kind of decision. Which makes teaching Standard English not simply a matter of learning a variety, but a matter, to an African-American young person, of choosing an identity that may be dissociated from the community where he or she was raised and with which they identify.

MIKE to WOLFRAM: Pedagogically, how does one approach that then?

WOLFRAM: Well, pedagogically I think the way we need to approach it is to admit the truth about dialects, that in certain contexts speaking African-American Vernacular has clear advantages. In other contexts it has clear limitations. We need to get to a position where we're not simply saying you need to talk right, but saying you need to be sensitive to the different situations in which language is used and how you may be perceived in those different situations.

MIKE to WOLFRAM: What then do we have to say to those who continue to call it lazy grammar and inexcusable for its incorrectness?

WOLFRAM: Look, education is supposed to be targeted toward truth about things. The myths that we have about language differences, including African-American English, are akin to a modern geophysicist saying that the planet Earth is flat. To say that someone has no grammar when they have this highly complex grammar is a continuing tolerated form of discrimination in our society.

BOB: Huh. Tolerated discrimination. That's also very well phrased by Wolfram, and in this case unfortunately the tolerated discrimination was not just in the white world but among the likes of Jesse Jackson and Maya Angelou, which makes me wonder how this all played out way back when the Ebonics issue was such a hot-button in Oakland, Calif.

MIKE: Well, I think it was this tolerated form of discrimination that the Oakland school board was attempting to address in its resolution and, you know, Jesse Jackson had something of a change of heart. It was just a week or two after he referred to African-American English as "talking garbage" that he met with members of the school board in Oakland and then gave a press conference, and I'll play just a little bit of that press conference and you can hear for yourself what he had to say.

JACKSON: If our youth hear and speak in one language pattern, and go to school and they're taught in another language pattern, there is a cultural conflict of having to unlearn the language they heard and spoke, learn Standard American English which is the goal, thus to have something called a transition.

MIKE: So you hear Jackson invoking the word "transition," which, as I mentioned, the school board adopted in its amended resolution. And you said that you remembered the controversy but I guess you don't remember how it ended up playing out. I would imagine most people don't remember that.

BOB: No, you know you remember the story. You don't remember the correction.

MIKE: [laughing] Right.

BOB: What was the correction?

MIKE: First of all, Peter King, a Republican representative from New York, from Long Island ...

BOB: Peter King, the same one who today is warning us every 20 minutes about the threat of Muslim life and Sharia law in our society, that Peter King?

MIKE: Same Peter King, yeah. He introduced a resolution in the House that would prohibit federal funds for programs involving Ebonics. Richard Riley, who was the secretary of education under Clinton, said effectively don't worry, federal funds for bilingual education will not be spent on Ebonics. As we mentioned earlier, the Senate held a hearing and the very first person to speak after Arlen Specter’s opening remarks was a one-term Republican senator from North Carolina named Lauch Faircloth and here was his, I guess what I would characterize as less than enlightened opinion.

FAIRCLOTH: I simply want to say that, that I think Ebonics is absurd. This is a political correctness that simply has gone out of control.

MIKE: Next up at the hearing was Rep. Maxine Waters, who was chair of the Congressional Black Caucus at the time. Here's a bit of what she had to say.

WATERS: Children continue to come to school day in and day out with these different language patterns and it's a problem. We should commend the Oakland school district for finally saying to everybody let's recognize that this is happening. Many linguists have stated that Oakland's decision is credible, it is rational and a potentially effective way to improve the academic standard of its students.

MIKE: After Maxine Waters, there were members of the school board who spoke in defense of their resolution. Robert Williams, the man who coined the word Ebonics, spoke, as did a number of linguists, most notably William Labov, who is sometimes referred to as the “father of modern sociolinguistics.” He stated emphatically that Ebonics was not simply slang but rather, and I'll quote directly from him, rather "a well-formed set of rules of pronunciation and grammar that's capable of conveying complex logic and reasoning." He also said, which I found very interesting, that African-American English was more different from Standard English than any other dialect spoken in continental North America. And when all was said and done at the hearing, Arlen Specter sort of summed up by stating that the essential debate and difference of opinion was over whether Ebonics was an effective bridge to teaching Standard English or whether it was simply a distraction. Fast forward to May of 1997 and here's the opening sentence of ...

BOB: Wait, hold it. [Bob makes "rewind" sound.] OK now go ahead.

MIKE: [laughing] Thanks, uh, Foley artist. Here's the opening sentence of an article in the New York Times: "Four months after Oakland, Calif. became the nation's first school district to declare that blacks speak a separate language called Ebonics, the Oakland schools task force studying the subject has come up with final recommendations in a report that does not mention Ebonics at all." The piece went on to quote the school board president, who said that the task force was probably trying to steer clear of any indication that they were going for bilingual funds and that "it may have also been an emotional decision: I think they took so much ribbing for this they may have just backed down." And, you know, Wolfram told me that he thinks that if this debate were to take place today that it would probably play out in a very similar way, and that most likely a hundred years after the Oakland resolution we'll still be trying to get people to understand what African-American English is.

BOB: Yeah, but, the racists will be in hovercraft.

MIKE: [laughing] Can't wait for those flying cars.

BOB: Can't wait.

["Ebonics" by Big L playing:

Check it, my weed smoke is my lye
A ki of coke is a pie
When I'm lifted, I'm high
With new clothes on, I'm fly
Cars is whips and sneakers is kicks
Money is chips, movies is flicks
Also, cribs is homes, jacks is pay phones
Cocaine is nose candy, cigarettes is bones
A radio is a box, a razor blade is a ox
Fat diamonds is rocks and jakes is cop
And if you got rubbed, you got stuck]

MIKE: So here's today's coda. I wanna emphasize what is probably really obvious, that we all have our own individual relationship with and interpretation of language. I know that sounds totally, absurdly self-evident but I think it's worth saying because, you know, a conversation like the one that we've been having gets really tangled up—maybe even necessarily tangle up—but nevertheless tangled with some overgeneralizations. And I wanna play several minutes of a conversation I had with Teresa Wiltz, who I quoted earlier. Her piece in The Root was in part what led to this discussion about Ebonics and I found out only after talking to her that she kind of hates the word.

WILTZ: It just sounds like this crazy made-up name—which it is, I mean all words are just, you know, sounds that we make up—but it just sounds like something out of an SNL skit to me, you know, "hooked on Ebonics." It's just this kind of visceral reaction I have to it.

MIKE to WILTZ: But the question that you posed in your piece on The Root last summer was, "Can a white woman truly tell the stories of black women using old-school Ebonics?" You used the word.

WILTZ: I did, I did. And I think because it has become a shorthand, so it's a way to kind of conjure an image of a particular way of speaking quickly. So, even though I don't particularly care for it as a word and try not to use it myself, you know it is out there and as a writer, you know, you use the tools you have to convey what you're trying to talk about.

MIKE to WILTZ: Is there a term that you prefer?

WILTZ: Probably Black English.

MIKE to WILTZ: And you grew up speaking Standard English and only Standard English. You don't count yourself as fluent in Black English. Growing up, did you take a pejorative view of Black English?

WILTZ: Um, it's kind of funny. I grew up part of the time in New York and part of the time in Atlanta, and when I was 12 we moved to Atlanta. And I'd always gone to private schools. I wanted very much to go to public schools and my parents relented and let me go to a primarily-black seventh grade in Atlanta. So, you know, seventh grade is a fraught year for anyone, and then if you're a skinny, you know, yet-to-hit puberty kid coming in with a New York accent you're just a target. So I tried to, you know, I remember coming home and trying to drops my "g"s and use double negative and everything and my parents just had a fit. They were just like we don't speak that way in this house and you're not gonna speak that way either. So, I mean it was something I tried on like kids do. They try on a persona, they try on a different way of speaking, a different way of dressing and so it was something I tried to do but it certainly wasn't authentic.

MIKE to WILTZ: It didn't fit.

WILTZ: It didn't fit. But, having said that—you know and I've also been told all my life I sound like a white girl, whatever that is; I mean I sound like me—but having said that I mean I think about Obama. We're in the same generation, the same age group and I think a lot of middle-class, upper middle-class, college-educated, professional black folks do what he does. So, he has a standard way of speaking. He generally speaks Standard English, but if he's around other black people he's gonna kind of slow down his speech a little bit, he's gonna drop some "g"s and I think a lot of us do that.

MIKE to WILTZ: Yeah, it's called code switching ...

WILTZ: Right.

MIKE to WILTZ: And you change your speech patterns depending on who you're with.

WILTZ: Right, and sometimes it's conscious and sometimes it's not conscious. So, you know, if I were to write The Help I would sound pretty tone-deaf and ridiculous trying to you know have my characters speak in that dialect because it's not something I'm fluent in. It's not something that comes naturally to me, and I think with dialogue you have to really, it has to be in your pores, you know, you have to really be able to convey it without coming off as illegitimate.

MIKE to WILTZ: Did you get a sense that Kathryn Stockett did not really do her homework and that she did not accurately portray this dialogue?

WILTZ: I cringed when I read the dialogue. I just thought it came off as really ham-fisted and there was a college-educated black character who is forced to work as a maid, if I'm remembering correctly, in the book and she didn't speak Standard English and it stuck in my craw. I did not like it. But I will say that Black English in the hands of white artists has always been a loaded issue. I mean, that's something that dates back to the early '30s, late '20s with a radio show called "Amos 'n' Andy." The original actors, the creators of "Amos 'n' Andy," were two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. They played these black characters with, you know, broad black dialect and it really perpetuated stereotypes. So, it's a trigger.

MIKE to WILTZ: Thanks so much Teresa.

WILTZ: Thank you for having me.

Mike Vuolo is senior producer of podcasts and editor of @lexiconvalley.