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Insanity Central
Fighting the good fight against the forces of chaos, one day at a time.
IBARW: A Linguist's View on Racism. Please read this, folks. 
11th-Aug-2007 01:12 pm
A little bird told me that it's International Blog Against Racism Week. Clearly, as it's now Saturday, I'm a bit behind. I fell into a bit of a hole last night before bedtime, reading various blog entries about racism, white privelege, and how best to be an ally. I always like feeding my head, and this is certainly the whole-grain muesli of brain food (as opposed to reading fanfic or random websurfing, which is more like the pick-mix gummy-candy of brain food).

I did find some reasonably good advice about how to combat racism as a part of the priveleged group (at least, priveleged race-wise; the lack of a penis attached to my body means I'm not in the priveleged group sex-wise), and I thought I'd share a bit of what I learned.

Anti-Racism for Dummies White Folk

First and foremost: Don't be a bystander. If you encounter someone behaving in a racist way, call them out on it. Like a small child spreading their feces on the wall, if they are not reprimanded, how are they ever to learn that their actions are wrong and unacceptable?

Secondly: Don't expect a cookie or a pat on the head from people of color for deigning to give up some portion of your privelege. It's not about you. It's about them. If you're serious about being an ally, do so with humility, patience, and willingness to accept both criticism and leadership from people of color. Don't do it because you want to be popular (with white people or with people of color), don't do it because you want credit or adulation (because the only people likely to give it to you are white people, and they're really not the important audience here); doing it to salve your guilty conscience is at least a start, but at the heart of it all, if you're going to be an ally to people of color and work to end racism, do it because it's the right thing to do.

Thirdly: Educate yourself. Learn what white privelege really means, and learn what hardships people of color have faced and continue to face. Don't rely on second-hand knowledge, pat sound bites, or trite delusions like "This is 2007! Racism is a thing of the past!" You can never learn enough, but you can definitely learn too little.

Finally: Being an ally is a process, not a label. Don't rest on your laurels. You may have been a poster-carrying anti-racist back in your college days, but if you've comfortably settled into all the benefits that white privelege entails without ever questioning your entitlement to them, it's any person of color's right to ask "What have you done for me (or, more importantly, the cause) lately?"

My Own $.02 as a Linguist

The above is a synthesis of both things I knew before, and things I read last night. Now, however, I would like to add my own commentary, which is borne out of what I have learned as a linguist. It is, in many ways, riskier for me to say, because it addresses behavior that I have encountered my own (white) friends displaying, both in real life and on LJ. I'm not going to call anyone out by name, especially because those of you it applies to will doubtless recognize your own behavior in it, and I because don't want to alienate my friends any more than saying this certainly will. But for those whose behavior I am commenting on, I would ask you, after any initial ill-feeling this may cause, to give careful thought to your own behavior and how it contributes to perpetuating institutionalized racism, as well as reflecting your internalized white privelege.

The behavior I am referring to could be referred to as "linguistic racism" or "linguistic intolerance". Specifically, making negative commentary about the way a person speaks (or writes, if their written language reflects their dialect) when their speech patterns are particularly reflective of their race. Or, to stop beating around the bush: some of you really get your panties/briefs in a twist when faced with variants of English other than your own, especially when they are African American English, and comment about certain features being "wrong", and how "everybody knows" that this word, word order, negation pattern, pronunciation, etc. is "right". In the distant past, before I made the change from being a prescriptivist ("this is how language is supposed to be") to being a descriptivist ("this is how language is"), I was guilty of it myself many times, but I have, by virtue of learning, realized the error of my ways. I would like to pass on some of what I have learned.

So, by now, those of you I am addressing probably know who you are. I hope you're still reading, and I hope you will allow me, as a linguist, to give you a quick introduction to sociolinguistics and how language reinforces power structures.

Standard Language, or, Sociolinguistics 101, Week 2 or so

There are, for most languages in this world, or at least for those which have a written version and/or function as a national language, varieties of the language that are considered "correct", "standard" or "good", and varieties that are considered "incorrect", "non-standard" or "bad".

The former varieties, almost invariably, have their roots as the geographic dialect associated with the center of economic or political power in a nation, specifically of the upper and upper-middle class of that area, and are perpetuated as being the "standard" of that language by the media, first through printing (standardized spellings are usually those phonetically closest to the power-dialect at the time when the orthography is fixed, orthography being a fancy-schmancy word for spelling) and later through audio/audiovisual media.

The latter varieties, almost invariably, are varieties associated with those who are disenfranchised from the echelons of power: dialects associated with poor, rural, or working-class-urban people, ethnolects (the dialect of a ethnic group) of those at the bottom of the power structure (historically in the US, that of African Americans, as well as other groups such as Latinos), and those who have not had access to standardized education for several generations.

As those of you reading this are intelligent people, I assume that you can connect the dots and see how being the native speaker of a standard or near-standard variety immediately makes you less likely to be disenfranchised from power than being the native speaker of a non-standard dialect. This doesn't necessarily have to be about race: I think back to the way we mocked the Texarkana/Oklahoma dialect when I was growing up in Kansas, or the way we mocked the West Virginia dialect when I was in college in Ohio. But it takes on a certain degree of insidiousness when it is directed at linguistic traits associated with African Americans. Any sort of "my variety is better than your variety" behavior (be it language, skin color, hair type, what have you) reinforces racism, just as "men are adjective-er than women" reinforces sexism, "fat people are are lazy/unattractive/stupid/whatever" reinforces sizism, etc.

I would also point out that non-standard varieties are by no means "incorrect" in a communicative sense: if a speaker's utterance gets the speaker's meaning across to the hearer, then it is communicatively correct. Non-standard varieties are internally consistent and systematic (unless they are in their initial stages of development, which none of the varieties I have discussed are), both in their pronunciation and their grammar, not "bad" versions of Standard English.

As it is most relevant to the occasion (International Blog Against Racism Week, if you'd forgotten during my brief sociolinguistics lesson), and as it is the variety about which I have done the most reading and writing, I will confine the rest of this discussion to African American English (hereafter AAE).

African American English

First, a couple of disclaimers: I am not a native speaker of AAE, nor do I speak it as a non-native speaker (as I do with Danish, and, to a lesser degree, German and French). I have studied it from a linguistic and sociolinguistic standpoint, which makes me roughly as qualified to talk about it as I am to talk about Norwegian. However, as with Norwegian, I've done a fair amount of my homework, and I can quite happily refer you to further information written by native speakers who also happen to be linguists. I am not an authoritative or exhaustive source, but I feel sufficiently qualified to interpret the authoritative sources to a lay audience.

Next, a couple of definitions and clarifications: AAE is a variety of English spoken by African-Americans. It is not, however, monolithic. Not all African-Americans speak AAE, and some speak it only when speaking to other African-Americans. In addition, there is a fair amount of geographical variation in AAE. AAE is not merely slang, although slang is an important aspect; by slang, in this context, I mean the temporally ephemeral "in-language" spoken by youth and young adults.

Most other aspects of AAE cut across age lines; while this does include some vocabulary, it primarily includes pronunciation and grammatical features. I will comment on those features that I most frequently see white people commenting negatively upon: pronunciation differences, negation patterns, and auxiliary verb usage differences.


AAE has several pronunciation differences from Standard American English (hereafter SAE). The most noticeable for SAE speakers are AAE /f/ : SAE /th/ (e.g. toof, birfday), and consonant drop of /r/, /g/, /t/ and /d/ (e.g. AAE libary : SAE library, AAE I'unno : SAE I dunno, AAE I'm'onna : SAE I'm gonna). These pronunciation features are not the result of laziness, any more than your saying I dunno instead of I don't know is laziness.

Language communities always change their sound systems to increase economy of motion, until such point as ambiguity appears and new differentiations must be made (which is why we have consonants at all, and are not perpetually going in the direction of an all-vowel language, although I sometimes wonder about Danish). Sound change and sound variations in any language happen along these lines, and to attribute laziness or other judgments of character (be they negative or positive, though they are usually negative) to African Americans because of these differences is racist. It would be no less absurd to say that immigrants from China or Japan have trouble distinguishing /r/ and /l/ because they're good at math. Hello? Stereotyping, anyone?


Multiple negation is grammatically correct, although not obligatory, in AAE, just as it is in many of the world's languages. Double negatives do not logically equal a positive, and acting as though they do is just pedantic. Let's face it, SAE speakers: If an AAE speaker says "I don't know nothing", you know perfectly well what they mean, even if you would say "I don't know anything" in your dialect. To act as though you don't is asinine, and to mock or criticize African Americans on a feature found in many of the world's languages is racist and ignorant.

Auxiliary Usage Differences

This one gets a bit more into what I, as a linguist, find most fascinating about AAE, and what, other than slang, is most likely to cause communicative difficulties between AAE and SAE speakers. However, even if you never use these traits yourself, it takes only a little bit of learning to grasp the differences, which will go a long way towards aiding communication.

Copula drop / Persistent be

Copula is the linguistic term for the verb to be in English and its semantic equivalents in other languages, specifically in the sense of equating two things or making a statement about the subject of a sentence. In AAE, sentences of this nature do not require the use of am, is, or are. For example:

AAE: He here.
SAE: He is here.

AAE also features a usage of the bare infinitive be which does not have a direct, single-word correlate in SAE, sometimes referred to as "persistent be" (linguists refer to this as an aspect marker, which means it communicates information about whether an action or state of being is in a completed or ongoing state). For example, by means of contrast:

AAE: He sad.
SAE: He is sad (right now).

AAE: He be sad.
SAE: He is sad all the time. or He is a generally sad person.

Remote past aspect marker BIN

This marker is related to been, but many linguists write it as BIN to denote the fact that it is stressed. Where as been is used in much the same way as in SAE (to denote the perfect progressive, although frequently with the auxiliary to have dropped, e.g. SAE: I have been walking / AAE: I been walking), BIN denotes action begun in the remote past. Again, this is a single marker in AAE that requires the use of a longer time phrase in SAE. Depending on what type of verb it is used with, it can denote either action that is completed or action that is ongoing. For example:

In answer to the question, "When are we supposed to be at our friends' house for dinner?"
AAE: I BIN told you that.
SAE: I told you that a long time ago. or I already told you that.

In answer to the question, "Do you want to go for a walk?"
AAE: I BIN walking; I'm tired now.
SAE: I have been walking for a long time; I'm tired now.

I hope this serves to highlight some of the linguistic traits of AAE. If you want to learn more about this variety, but don't want to spend any money or very much time, I suggest you check out the Wikipedia entry on the subject. If you are willing to spend a bit of money, and the time involved in reading a whole book, I would recommend Lisa Green's excellent African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. John Rickford's book is also good, but if memory serves, he is a native speaker of a Caribbean creole, while Green is a native speaker of AAE. Also, I find Green's book vastly more readable and enjoyable, as Rickford's is to some degree a compilation of prior articles, book chapters, and presentations rolled into one.

But what about Good GrammarTM??

I can just hear some of you shrieking that question in response to some of the things I have said above. To which I respond: I encourage you to recall that "good" grammar is really "the grammar spoken by the powered classes" combined, in the case of English, with some rather ridiculous rules exapted by scholars of Latin (a dead Romance language) and applied willy-nilly to English (a living, changing Germanic language with heavy Romance influences). (I would happily refer you to reading material on the ridiculous history of Latin-derived prescriptivism in English, but at the moment I don't remember where I read it. If you are interested, I'll do some searching.) Secondly, language is neither good nor bad, it simply is. Language serves the function of providing a means of communication to its community of speakers, and to apply moral judgments of "good" and "bad" to different varieties serves to reinforce injust power structures.

Therefore, I urge you to think carefully about your position on grammar, and move away from the useless good/bad dichotomy into more realistic labels like "standard/non-standard grammar" (better, but not perfect; it does at least recognize the existence of a standard variety, even if it does devalue other varieties), or better yet "genre-appropriate" style or grammar.

Communicative Genre, or, Sociolinguistics 101, week 4 or so

All communication takes place in one or more genres, depending on the people involved, the medium of communication used, and the intention of the utterance. The thing that gets the grammar-totalitarians' (apologies, but that is really how I've come to think of them, and that is actually my kindest term) collective knickers in a bunch seems to be predicated upon the notion that the style which is the accepted standard of formal, written communication should be applied to all genres. Hooey, says I. There is absolutely no good reason that spoken language should be held to the same standards as written language (try looking at a really accurate transcript of spoken language sometime, if you've never done so). Trying to do so is ridiculous and pedantic. Different media of communication (spoken, written, emailed, text-messaged) have different styles, typically dependent upon the length of the utterance, the intended audience, and the permanence of the medium.

In addition, the people doing the talking also sets the genre. And this is really the crux of the matter. We, as white people (most of whom qualify as middle-class and well-educated), have no right to impose our expectations of spoken language style on African Americans, particularly when two or more African Americans are communicating with each other, and we just happen to overhear them. It doesn't stop most of us from doing so, consciously or unconsciously, but it's still racist, and it's still wrong.

As far as when an African American is communicating with a white person, it's entirely up to them whether they want to speak AAE, SAE, something in between, or a combination of both. Here, again, is where white privelege creeps in: most white people assume that it is the obligation of the person of color to normalize their speech to our standard. After much consideration, I disagree. What I would challenge you, as a member of the priveleged group, to do is this: when speaking with a person of color, meet them at least halfway, if not further. Educate yourself about the differences between SAE and AAE, such that they no longer present a barrier to communication. You don't have to be able to speak a language or variety fluently in order to understand it (I'm much that way with Norwegian). If the AAE speaker uses a word or phrase you don't know, ask what it means, without being arrogant or condescending. Don't try to make them feel inferior about their variety of English. Be as patient and open-minded as you would be when speaking to a native speaker of British English, Indian English, Singaporean English, or any other of the world's myriad Englishes (and yes, it is quite legitimate to talk about English in the plural).

Lemme sum up

Since this has become something of an essay, I feel like I should write a conclusion, but I really hate doing so. I will just leave you with the key points I tried to make: African American English is a variety of English no less valid or correct than any other, blind adherence to standard language in all genres perpetuates racism and injustice, and if you're white, you should educate yourself on white privelege and its ramifications in your society. Thank you for your time and attention if you managed to read this all the way through. I welcome reasoned discussion in the comments.
11th-Aug-2007 01:52 pm (UTC)
Mad love to you for this post. A few times in my life, I've tried to argue this very point with some of my 'grammar nazi' (their term, not mine) friends, but I am simply not the linguist you are. I'm putting this post in my memories, and I may even save it to my hard drive for later (with credit to you), so I can refer to it when I need good...data? reference material? Good stuff to quote, is what I mean.

The thing for me is that I definitely didn't grow up hearing 'Standard' American English in my home or even in school, BUT I had a lot of TV in my life and I was an early reader. As you know, 90% of the people on TV sound the same (particularly in the US 1980s and 90s, which is the time I'm talking about), and most books for young people are very carefully written in SAE. So, in spite of what I heard at home, it was pretty clear to me, even when I was very young, how I 'should' speak and write, and so I did, for the most part.

Just for information's sake, the dialect I heard included Spanish words and some related/influencing usage, PLUS a lot of 'below-the-poverty-line' rural AE. I posted a list some time last year of some of my best remembered terms from my childhood, but I don't know if it's worth digging up right now.

My point is that linguistic racism (also classism, sexism, and other isms) is so damned insidious. I had 'better' grammar and spelling than my own family by the time I could read than they had at any point in their lives because SAE was so pervasive around me, and that 'better' English actually caused an emotional distance between myself and my family. And I'm sure it does in other families where SAE isn't the first language or primary usage of the adults.

In other words...I don't need to do an 'in other words', do I? You know what I meant. Linguistic 'correctness' is damaging, not just in the broad sense of a Dominant Group demeaning and subjugating a Minority Group, but also in the much more personal sense of a Dominant Group infiltrating and unraveling Diversity from the inside out.

It makes me mad now, but before I had any linguistic training or a social perspective beyond the Dominant one in America, I really had no idea that language is an organic thing. It's meant to be fluid, if you ask me, and placing it in any structure that's too rigid is actually harmful to the language itself by way of cultural exclusion. Couldn't a language eventually die if it fails to evolve? *sigh*

You said it better, of course. :)
11th-Aug-2007 02:26 pm (UTC)
Mad hugs in return for the mad love! You're welcome to use my words with credit; and you're more than welcome to use the facts and concepts contained herein without it. There's really not much that's new in this post, just the collection of readily-available knowledge and dissemination to an audience that has, perhaps, not yet seen it.

I'm sorry for the rift that language caused you with your family. I'm a little surprised you didn't end up being bi-dialectal, SAE/family dialect. I would be interested to see that list, though; although I'm most likely going to end up in psycholinguistics/cognitive-science, I cut my teeth on sociolinguistics/dialectology, so it's still near and dear to my heart.

language is an organic thing. It's meant to be fluid, if you ask me, and placing it in any structure that's too rigid is actually harmful to the language itself by way of cultural exclusion. Couldn't a language eventually die if it fails to evolve?

Die? Probably not. Most languages don't die until their last speaker does. While this is a danger for many of the world's languages (don't get me started on linguistic diversity and language death, and the influence of colonialism thereupon, we'll be here all day!), it most definitely isn't for English.

Lose important domains? Quite possibly. Danes are grappling with this at a national and political level right now; English has virtually supplanted Danish in most IT-language, and is the daily language of operation for many international businesses in the country.

Have an increasing divergence between its written and spoken language? Definitely -- it's already a matter of some difficulty in English (hence problems with spelling, which was once more or less phonetic), and even more so in French, since they have a (reeeeeally conservative) formal academy that issues rules for such things.

This also leads to ramifications for teaching children to read, since studies have shown that children have an easier time learning to read the more closely the written material corresponds to their dialect. This is one of the social justice issues around AAE, which I debated touching on, but decided I didn't want to open up that can of worms as well in my post.
11th-Aug-2007 05:43 pm (UTC)
I'm a little surprised you didn't end up being bi-dialectal, SAE/family dialect.

Oh, I did. I am. The thing is that I still take on whatever dialect I'm most exposed to. I usually sound like I'm from wherever I'm living. Which is problematic... I have to speak very carefully around people who speak heavily 'accented' English, because I don't want them to think I'm making fun of them. It's almost reflexive to adapt, but I can control it and talk 'Standard' when it keeps me out of trouble.

Of course, I wish I had more people actually speaking languages other than English around me so I could pick up more than just the highlights. But whatever.

Back when I worked for Ivan the Linguist, it used to cheese him off that he couldn't tell where I was from or what languages I spoke by listening to me speak. I finally took pity on him and called my dad while I was in Ivan's office so he could hear me speak my 'original' dialect. He didn't believe it. ;)

While I was in his office, I learned a smattering of French (Belgian vs. Parisian), Swahili (LOVE IT!), and Spanish (from Spain), and I was exposed to some Hebrew, Navajo, Portuguese (European and Brazilian), Russian, and Japanese. Nowadays I hear a lot of Haitian and Arabic, but not much else other than English in one dialect or another.

Lose important domains. Very well said, I think. My other friend in Europe is a native French speaker, lives in Rome, and yet uses English 90% of the time at work and in writing. WTF? English is such a mishmash of rules and words and sounds from other languages that you'd think it'd make more sense to stay the hell away from it if you had other options, just for the sake of clear communication. ;) But I digress.
11th-Aug-2007 06:02 pm (UTC)
I feel truly sorry for any academic who does not have English as their mother tongue, and as an academic, I feel blessed that I do. Having taken a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, I got a very good insight into just how horrible English is to learn as a non-native speaker.

Yeah, Swahili rocks! I've sung one song in it, and frequently hear another (it's the start-up music for Civilization IV), and I just love the phonology of it. So mellifluous...
11th-Aug-2007 06:29 pm (UTC)
So mellifluous...

There's a 'rule' about vowel sound placements per syllable that I think makes it that way. Like when they adapted certain English words into Swahili (please pardon the unfortunate spelling that follows): Ranibo Tiroti for the Rainbow Trout that were introduced to Lake Victoria, and biskeli for bicycle are my two favorite examples of this.

And there's also where they place the emphasis of words, which syllable, that is. Generally on the second-to-last of a word, isn't it? I can't remember now, but when I was studying, that was the single trick I learned to keep me from dropping back into an 'SAE-speaking-Swahili-ish'.

My one wish with regard to Swahili is that every episode of Sesame Street I see be done in Swahili. It's already such a musical show, and then add to that a more melodious language than English? *swoons* And it would be so much fun! XD
11th-Aug-2007 07:14 pm (UTC)
After some digging, I found my old list. It's incredibly incomplete, but I'm merely a linguistic hobbyist. ;)

Here's the link.
11th-Aug-2007 02:28 pm (UTC)
'grammar nazi' (their term, not mine)

Glad that they feel empowered to own that phrase; grammar-nazi and grammar-fascist were the two terms I debated using while worrying that they were too potentially alienating.

When I was a chemistry teacher, I referred to myself as a "safety fascist", and still do upon occasion.
11th-Aug-2007 05:51 pm (UTC)
I've got a vicious one among my in-laws. She wrote some simple rules-for-reference for 'good' grammar and put them on her website, and some English teachers asked if they could print them for use in their classes. She's much less a bitch about 'perfect' English than she once was, but I think it's only because she's such a geek she had to make allowances for leet-speak. ;P I like to wobble-talk in and out of SAE around her, just to keep her off-balance. Remarkably effective tactic around upper-class and upper-middle-class white folks who need to loosen up a bit.

safety fascist is a right awesome term. *thumbs up*
11th-Aug-2007 06:05 pm (UTC)
I wish I could wobble a bit further away from SAE myself. My mother dialect is the variety of Midwestern English that, through an accident of hiring back in the 60s/70s, became the standard pronunciation of American media English (basically, the main news anchors for ABC, NBC and CBS at that time through about 1995 were all midwesterners, IIRC). I can slip into slightly-more-midwesty pronunciation, but that's about it. I can sort of spoof the Texarkana/Oklahoma accent (I do a pretty good impression of my 8th grade algebra teacher), but that's about it.

Although, nowadays, I can confuse SAE speakers by code-switching into Danish, which I do without thinking quite a lot of the time.
11th-Aug-2007 06:40 pm (UTC)
through an accident of hiring back in the 60s/70s, became the standard pronunciation

A similar thing happened in the airline industry. Ever notice how 90+% of all airline pilots in the US sound like Chuck Yeager? It's because he was so influential a test pilot, and all his best flyboy buddies were from his neck of the woods. Now it's just one of those things. Wherever you're from, you sit in the pilot's chair and you start talking a little bit like you were made in the Virginias.

For me, the only thing I can say to explain how/why I wobble between dialects so much is because I never felt strongly associated with any single dialect. SAE doesn't much define my identity, if you know what I mean. Neither did my mother dialect. *shrug* I haven't found one that does, but then, I haven't found myself in any place that I seemed to belong with the language-users, either.

Perhaps I should look further into the deaf community for that sort of thing. I love sign languages as much as vocal languages, but I've never been very exposed to them. Plus, at the rate my hearing is going, it'll be important to sign well by the time I'm a grandmother...

Whatever. I have got to find me a non-English language teach who doesn't mind that I've too full a plate right now to sit in a classroom for several semesters. I need some non-native American friends in this town. Actually, I should probably make some IRL friends regardless of the languages they speak. I'm just much better at the LJ thing, you know? ;P
11th-Aug-2007 05:21 pm (UTC) - as a self-proclaimed grammar nazi ...
I am happy to agree with about 95% of your post. I'm all too familiar with the disparity between standard english and it's nonstandard correlaries. I can ... well, I used to be able to, I'm not so sure these days, it's been so long ... uh, in my youth I was able to drop into a fair amount of AAE typical in my neighborhood and schools. It's worth noting that many of the differences weren't nearly as prominant, being a predominantly middle class area. My only real gripe here is that some schools have gone so far as labeling AAE as "ebonics" and gone to some lengths to even teach it. Which, in and of itself, not a catastrophy, but given that the schools in question are generally poor, inner city and predominantly African American to begin with ... it hardly helps the students deal with the standardized printed language.

So I guess my only caveat in regards to your post is that everyone should be required to learn, not only standard english, but also which situations require its' use. I have no problem when people use nonstandard language in casual speach. I have some issues with nonstandard english in written form, of any kind, but that's because I have trouble deciphering anything written that doesn't conform to my understanding of visual language. Probably related to the dyslexia, I'd imagine. My main language complaint, however, is when people are supposed to be speaking or writting in some sort of formal manner (college essays, newspaper/magazine articles, public speaches) and can't master at least the basics of "proper" grammar. I've seen some truely horrific stuff when it comes to college essays that aren't even related to a dearth of reasoning, logic and actual understanding of the topic. We're talking improper punctuation, mixed verb tenses, nonsensical sentence structure, random fluctuations between active/passive voice ... the list goes on. What's truely mind-boggling is that, half the time, the students in question don't even TALK like that, but as soon as they put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, I suppose) everything goes pear shaped.

I know a lady, through an online community, who taught English at a level that was more than likely remedial, or very close to it. Her approach to getting most of these kids, who were often poor inner city types, to even see the point of learning standard english involved assigning them to watch television. She had a list of shows that showed people speaking in a variety of ways. I know that various incarnations of Star Trek were on the list, as well as a couple of dramas and such. Her whole point was that in all of these shows, people often switch between "standard" English and various less formal versions, depending on the situation. She used the shows as a tool for showing kids that they can learn standard English without having the give up the way they talked on a daily basis and that certain styles of english were more appropriate for certain functions. She had a lot of success with that approach, as I recall.

I know that growing up with an english teacher for a grandfather, my sense of the english language is more than likely a bit more ... formal? standardized? rigid? ... than most people's. But I now find that essays are a breeze to write, textbooks aren't an ordeal to read (well, mostly ... there's no accounting for the dullness of the book in question) and political "mumbo-jumbo" is not only NOT confusing, but I can usually see straight through all the big words thrown in to make politicians sound better right through to the "I don't actually know what I'm talking about and I hope you won't notice" issues.

I'm not saying everyone should be required, or even necessarily encouraged, to talk like an english teacher. But they should be taught to understand one. And they should definately be encouraged to learn, not just more vocabulary, but also more complex vocabulary. They may never use it, but when they see it or hear it later in life, they won't be intimidated by it. And quite frankly, that's just as important as getting the rest of us to stop sneering down our noses at people that don't sound just like us, ne?

(please forgive any spelling errors ... spell check is a bitch to utilize on comments)
11th-Aug-2007 05:57 pm (UTC) - Re: as a self-proclaimed grammar nazi ...
My only real gripe here is that some schools have gone so far as labeling AAE as "ebonics" and gone to some lengths to even teach it. Which, in and of itself, not a catastrophy, but given that the schools in question are generally poor, inner city and predominantly African American to begin with ... it hardly helps the students deal with the standardized printed language.

See, I've read a bit of the ebonics debate, which got unfortunately skewed coverage in the media (there was an excellent book on it published recently that several linguists contributed to). The crux of the matter was based in what I mentioned above in my reply to sandykidd, namely that studies have shown that children have an easier time learning to read when the variety of written language with which they are presented is consistent with their own dialect, especially when there are dramatic differences between their dialect and the standard written language. If literacy rates in inner-city black children can be improved by making their first reader in some sort of standardized written AAE, then I'm all for it. However, note that I said *first* reader: the dialectal reader should be a stepping stone to SAE, not a stopping point.

I agree that children should be taught SAE, regardless of their mother dialect, lest they be excluded from access to materials written in it. However, placing that instruction in a context of "home language" vs. "school language" for young children, and "Standard English" vs. "Black English" for older ones, as well as teachers not devaluing the children's native variety, is absolutely crucial. I wish more teachers (white or otherwise) would take the view of "we are teaching monodialectal students to become bidialectal", rather than "we are correcting their 'bad' English". Teaching young black children that their dialect is sub-standard, whether explicitly or implicitly, disenfranchises them from the learning process by striking a blow at the heart of their identity.

As far as college essays go, mastering the standards of formal written English is one of the necessary tools for achieving success in college (at least if you're in a discipline where you have to write), and I would expect no less of any student of mine (which is a relevant proposition, given that I hope to be a college professor), and I will be no less harsh on a student's essay than any self-proclaimed grammar nazi. My reason for this is that it is a specific genre, with specific standards, and you have to master those standards to master the genre.

That said, if I had, say, an undergraduate linguistics student who was African-American, and s/he had already proved to me that she had mastered the genre of academic writing to a sufficient degree, and wanted to submit an essay (particularly on an AAE-related topic) in AAE, I'd say "Sure!", and just ask that s/he provided me with a glossary of words and phrases I'm unlikely to know. John Rickford and a few of his colleagues presented a paper at a conference on language variation several years called "Rappin' on the Copula Coffin" which was actually done as a rap, and it was very well-received.
11th-Aug-2007 06:19 pm (UTC) - Re: as a self-proclaimed grammar nazi ...
"we are teaching monodialectal students to become bidialectal"

OMG, that would be heavenly, wouldn't it?

it is a specific genre, with specific standards, and you have to master those standards to master the genre.

If I were learning to write in French or any of my non-native languages, I'd be expected to learn and apply their standards, just for clarity's sake. There's nothing wrong with that; clear written communication is a tool, and you want the best tool for the job you're doing at the moment. Which is why I feel I can't gripe too much about leet-speak, lol! ;)
11th-Aug-2007 06:12 pm (UTC) - Re: as a self-proclaimed grammar nazi ...
Hail the conquering heroes, right?

Throughout history, it's been the privilege of the Ruling class to declare their language and how they use it as the Official speech of whatever region they rule over. And to enforce the use of their language however they wanted. Once upon a time (and still today, really) people were tortured and even killed for speaking their native languages after they'd been conquered. The truth is that much standardization in English and other languages is kept in place not to facilitate learning or communication, but to subjugate non-native speakers, or speakers with different dialects.

Not that standardization is inherently evil; there is much to be said for consistency when it comes to literacy. It's true that throughout the history of writing, nearly as much has fluctuated and changes as has in language itself. Such inconsistency can cause difficulties in clear written communication, and so it makes sense to have simple and clear rules of engagement.

I happen to think that language should be allowed to adapt like any living thing, and that while it would be foolish to throw out the rules of 'Standard English' altogether, American society would probably be better united if it didn't insist that its Official Language & Usage be the only acceptable version educationally and professionally. But that's just my opinion, really. :)
12th-Aug-2007 04:29 pm (UTC) - Re: as a self-proclaimed grammar nazi ...
Hail the conquering heroes, indeed. The same thing that's killed numerous languages around the world has also resulted in some of the peculiarities of English. So many of the things that we have two (or more) different names for are the result of the wholesale import of words/language of whoever was ruling that cold, damp island right next to the rest of Europe. Pig/pork, cow/beef, chicken/poultry ... leftovers from French rule ages ago, when the famers kept the old names/language and the aristocracy spoke french.

Standardization is useful for being able to go from one place to another and still understand what's being said. But yeah, there's all that other garbage thrown in with it too.
11th-Aug-2007 08:48 pm (UTC) - Re: as a self-proclaimed grammar nazi ...
My only real gripe here is that some schools have gone so far as labeling AAE as "ebonics" and gone to some lengths to even teach it.

Are you referring to the Oakland school district in California? I was under the impression that they were planning to teach it to teachers who didnt understand it, and that got intepreted as teaching it to students.
11th-Aug-2007 11:51 pm (UTC) - Re: as a self-proclaimed grammar nazi ...
I would assume that, and/or the previous case in Ann Arbor, MI. I don't recall the mechanics of the case; I've only just skimmed what the linguists wrote in response, but I can dig out refs if anyone is interested (the last 1/3 or so of the Rickford book I mentioned above is on educational implications, but there's been another book recently that was strictly about the Ebonics kerfluffle. Lemme see...

Ah yes, Ebonics: The Urban Education Debate, edited by Ramirez et al. I skimmed a couple chapters of this, including the introduction, about a year ago. I seem to recall it being pretty solid.
12th-Aug-2007 04:33 pm (UTC) - Re: as a self-proclaimed grammar nazi ...
I'd not heard about the case in Ann Arbor, but I do remember the wank fest over the Oakland district. Sadly, I'm not terribly conversant on what the reality of the situation was, only what the media made of it. But I've heard folk make the arguement that kids should be taught in ebonics, just like all the other ESL kids. Of course, ESL programs are an etirely different can of worms in some parts of the country ...
12th-Aug-2007 01:01 am (UTC) - Re: as a self-proclaimed grammar nazi ...
By the by, I note that you're a moderator on DeadBroWalking. I would muchlike to join, as I've become a very squee-ish fan of Henry on Eureka (even though he seems like a quintessential magical negro in some ways), and was a squee-ish fan of Dr. Franklin on Babylon 5 from wayback. Would that be possible?
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