July 18, 2005

Proper Ebonics of all things

Yesterday, The New York Times had a story about a young black woman from tough streets in Jersey City who is coaching an actress on playing her in a movie. She mentioned teaching the actress how to "speak Ebonics the correct way."

Have academic linguists finally had a public impact beyond the education school circuit?

Remember, before the Oakland controversy over the use of Black English in the classroom ignited in October 1996, no one beyond a few Black English specialists even knew the term EBONICS, which had been only one of many terms proposed for the dialect over the years, and had never really caught on.

It had just happened that a person or two favoring the term had caught the ear of the Oakland school board. When the media got hold of their infamous resolution to use "Ebonics" in the classroom, suddenly the whole country was referring to black America's home dialect with a term that I, for example, only knew from aging and semi-professional literature until then. It was as if suddenly the public was referring to alcoholism with an antique term like dipsomania. Linguists' hope that terms like "African American Vernacular English" would catch on were dashed.

At the time, I regretted the term's clumsiness. It has always sounded like some kind of linguistic proctology to me. But over the years, it has become so well-established among journalists, educators, and the lay public that resistance is futile.

But meanwhile, since 1996 linguists involved in the controversy have also shaken their heads over the fact that once the dust was settled, the general public still thought of Ebonics as a big joke — bad grammar, just "slang" or a combination of the two, propped up by a school board angling for bilingual education funds to line their own pockets with. The string of books that linguists wrote for the general public on Black English have been minor sellers at best, largely appealing to the already converted (this includes my own THE WORD ON THE STREET).

And yet -- here is an 18-year-old black girl who casually refers to speaking Ebonics "the correct way." Importantly, she was about nine during the controversy, which means that she has grown up in an America where the "Ebonics" term has been common coin. She would not have, and could not have, spoken of "Ebonics the correct way" before 1996 because the term had had no public exposure. But — she would certainly not have said "proper jive" or the like, except in jest. Nor would terms like African-American Vernacular English or Black English Vernacular, which only a linguist could love, ever have made their way into her heart.

But "Ebonics" is one word, and perhaps the EBONY connection helps in terms of memory-friendliness and identification. In fact, that the term at first sounds like a bit of a joke might have enhanced its staying power in the long run — one does not forget the word once one hears it.

I wonder if this young woman might represent a new generation of black kids who spontaneously think of Black English as a legitimate way of speaking, as something that can be spoken "right" or "wrong"? Perhaps the sheer existence of an entrenched and resonant name for the dialect has had an effect that we could not have predicted.

To be sure, the example the girl gives is a matter of having the freshest slang. But then few people besides linguists have much but a vague sense of what grammar is, and then, the typical white youngster would be unlikely to refer to their in-group slang as a matter of "correct" versus "wrong." In this girl's comment, we might hear an easy linguistic confidence that is exactly what "Ebonics" advocates see as lacking in speakers of the dialect.

Posted by John McWhorter at July 18, 2005 10:14 AM