May 20, 2004

Seven years waiting for a reply on Ebonics

Seven years is probably long enough to wait for a reply to a letter before concluding that there will never be a reply. April 23 passed this year, like six before it, with still no reply to a letter about African American Vernacular English that I sent on that date in 1997 to the well known African American columnist William Raspberry (Pulitzer Prize nominee and recipient of several honorary doctorates), who writes for the Washington Post. So I think it's time to just post the letter on Language Log for others to see it.

I wrote the letter a few months after the disastrous press reception of the Oakland, California, school board's declaration on the possible educational importance of classroom use of what they most unwisely called `African Language Systems'. At just one point they also mentioned the name `Ebonics', and that was the name the press picked up on as they went into an orgy of riducle and outright hostility. (If you don't know the story, John Rickford's writings might be the place to start reading.) At the time, my own unwise practice (as in my commentary "Language that dare not speak its name" in Nature 386, 27 March 1997, 321-322) was to call the language in question African American English (AAE), since that was shorter than the familiar linguist's term African American Vernacular English (AAVE). What's unwise about that is that of course millions of African Americans don't speak the language at all; it is a vernacular dialect restricted mostly to uneducated residents of segregated areas. (I have corrected AAE to AAVE in the letter below.)

The occasion for writing the letter was that I had just seen the remarkably unfunny humorous column Raspberry published in the Washington Post on December 26, 1996, right after the Oakland story broke. Like everyone else, he was indirectly mocking the Oakland Unified School District and the idea of making an unprejudiced judgment about the sociolinguistic situation of many of Oakland's black schoolchildren, and directly mocking `Ebonics'.

Raspberry's column was bad, I mean ba-a-a-ad, in the Standard English sense, not the AAVE slang sense. The column was probably produced hastily, perhaps during what may have been a bibulous Christmas Day. I rather I hope he is ashamed of it. I won't explain all of the column, but basically it involved an imaginary alter ego of Raspberry himself getting into a cab in Washington DC and having a conversation, full of misunderstandings, in which the cab driver speaks AAVE and Raspberry does not. For example, the cab driver says 'Sup? (for "What's up?") as a greeting and the fictional Mr Raspberry thinks he is being asked if he would like to sup, so he says he has already dined (I did warn you that it was not funny). At the end, when he learns there is money in giving classes on AAVE, the fictional Mr Raspberry suddenly starts speaking it himself (as if all black people really do know it deep down).

My letter about this lame column was relatively friendly, though, because I sought information. I wanted to know something about him. I've shortened the letter a little below, removing some further boring friendlinesses that did not advance the main content (stuff about how it was ironic and perhaps apparently presumptuous for a white linguist born in Britain to be writing to an African American journalist about the grammar of AAVE). But perhaps the reason my letter met with seven years (so far) of stony silence was that nobody likes to be accused of being linguistically clueless, and what I had to say to him was at root, however politely cloaked, that he didn't know a single thing about the language he was mocking. This is extraordinary, because he was born in Okolona, Mississippi, in 1935, and I would have thought that would have put him in a monolingual AAVE community, but as I argue in the letter, it's as if he had never heard the language at all. Here's the letter, placed on Language Log for the record in case it has more interest to you than it apparently did to its distinguished addressee.

Stevenson College
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA 95064

April 23, 1997

Mr William Raspberry
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street NW
Washington, DC 20071

Dear Mr Raspberry,

I have only just seen for the first time your column of December 26, 1996, "To Throw in a Lot of 'Bes,' or not? A conversation on Ebonics." There was one thing about it that fascinated me.

I'm a linguist, and one of those who claim that African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a consistent language with its own rules. What I noticed was that your piece includes two paragraphs -- just 32 words -- in which the characters speak entirely in AAVE. But there appear to me to be grammatical errors in the AAVE. Not cases of difference from standard English, which is of course what correct AAVE frequently has, but rather cases of difference from AAVE as I know it. Let me run through them.

First, you have the cabbie saying What you be talkin' 'bout, my man?. But the uninflected be of AAVE is normally a habitual aspect marker. Your cabbie does not mean 'what do you habitually talk about?', he means 'what are you talking about right now?'. Surely the normal AAVE for this would be What you talkin' 'bout?, with the zero copula, not the uninflected be.

Second, you have the cabbie saying I don't be offerin' you my grub. Again, this is clearly present progressive -- it is what is happening right there and then he is referring to, not some habitual state of affairs. So the be seems wrong here too. Maybe utterances like I don't be lying do sometimes occur in AAVE for 'I am not lying', but I've never heard the construction or encountered any reference to it in the research literature; whereas I've heard I ain't lyin' hundreds of times (as in the blues song 'I Put a Spell on You', where I ain't lyin' is used as a perfect rhyme for because you['re] mine; he doesn't sing, *I don't be lyin').

And in the same example, the don't seems likewise wrong. AAVE is like Finnish in that it has a separate copular verb of negation meaning 'not be', pronounced ain't, and you need that here. The normal way to say 'I am not offering you my food' in AAVE (if AAVE speakers really do use the word grub for a fish fillet and small fries, a point on which I will trust you) is I ain't offerin' you my grub. (For a more distinctively AAVE utterance you could have had your cabbie say, I ain't offerin' you no grub, with the multiple negation marking that is such a distinctive feature of AAVE, but which doesn't occur in your AAVE dialog.)

The fourth apparent error is also in the cabbie's speech. He says, I be sayin' hello. Once more, 'I habitually say hello' does not fit the context; the cabbie is explaining that his initial utterance, 'sup, was a greeting. It is quite unusual to find I be sayin' with the meaning 'I am saying'. There is an utterance containing they be sayin' quoted from the speaker called Larry in Bill Labov's paper 'The logic of nonstandard English', and it is quite clearly habitual in meaning. There are no occurrences anywhere I have found in which the meaning is progressive. In this example, the copula cannot be omitted, however: *I sayin' hello would be ungrammatical. In Hungarian, the zero copula occurs only in the third person, and in AAVE it is not permitted in the first person singular. So the most likely form we would get for this meaning would be I'm sayin' hello.

And fifth, at the end you have the Raspberry alter ego switching into AAVE for the punchline, as he realizes he could augment his columnist's salary by giving language lessons. Well, he shouldn't give up his day job, because he doesn't appear to know this language. Maybe you be onto somethin' dere, my bruvah, he says. But once more it is the immediate present he is referring to: he doesn't mean 'maybe you are habitually onto something', but rather, 'That's a good idea.' I'm quite sure that the most usual way of saying this would be Maybe you onto somethin' dere (second person, so you do get the zero copula).

There are other errors, too, in the things you have your characters say about AAVE rather than in it. The claim by the cabbie's brother-in-law that you have to "leave off final consonants" is an example. From the cabbie's first word, 'sup, there isn't a single final consonant missing in any of your AAVE dialog. (Words like somethin' are not missing a final consonant; n is the final consonant; standard English has ng instead, a velar nasal instead of an alveolar one, but in both dialects the word ends in a nasal consonant.) Unillustrated in your dialog is a process of reduction that gives AAVE res' for 'rest', respec' for 'respect', han' for 'hand', and so on. But it's quite tight and systematic; the rule is (at least approximately) that a word-final stop consonant is elided if it is preceded by another consonant of the same voicing. In words like belt and dump, all consonants are pronounced (t and p are voiceless but l and m are voiced), and likewise in Fats (s is a consonant of the same voicing as t, but it is not a stop so it is retained). The cabbie's brother-in-law would have us believe that in general or at random the last consonant of an AAVE is or may be dropped. That's dead wrong; his wife's brother deserves a better mentor.

I grant you, the Oakland School Board's resolution was badly written and at some points really stupid; it deserved much censure for its Afrocentric posing (AAVE is not a West African language in origin) and its clumsy formulations. But deep down, there are linguistic and (more importantly) educational issues on which the board is exactly right. Every time I saw another black columnist come out and join the ridicule chorus, as you did (more amusingly than most), it grieved me. The folks your alter ego accurately calls "the unlettered black masses" suffer so much, and take so much undeserved contempt and abuse. It is just not appropriate to add insult to this injury by showering ridicule, contempt, and abuse on the structurally interesting dialect they happen to speak. I was really sorry that virtually every columnist in the USA chose nonetheless to do just that.


Geoffrey K. Pullum
Professor of Linguistics

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 20, 2004 04:26 PM