Date: Tue, 31 Dec 1996 14:21:44 -0600 (CST) From: Shana Walton Subject: Oakland's Ebonics (fwd) Sender: To: (linguistic anthropology) MIME-version: 1.0 Precedence: bulk For those of you who don't get the American Dialect Society list, thought you might be interested in this post. Maybe it was posted to LINGUIST-L.
shana walton FYI. Comments and suggestions on the appended essay are welcome. Dennis _______ Dennis Baron 217-333-2392 Department of English fax: 217-333-4321 University of Illinois email: 608 South Wright Street Urbana, IL 61801
Oakland's Ebonics by Dennis Baron
In November, 1986 California began a new wave of language legislation when it passed a voter referendum making English the official language of the state. Ten years later, the Oakland, California, School Board reversed the English-only trend and drew national attention by declaring Ebonics, or Black English, the speech of many African Americans, to be a language in its own right, not a dialect of English. The School Board justified this by citing research into the West African origins of some aspects of Black speech.

Someone once said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. The schoolchildren of Oakland, California, who are predominantly African American, do not have the kind of might that brings with it linguistic prestige. The School Board tried to do something to change the negative image of Black language by calling it Ebonics and asking teachers to learn something about the speech of their students.

But the American public reacted to the School Board's declaration of linguistic independence as it would to any act of secession. Black leaders and intellectuals condemned the Board's action. They denounced Black speech as slangy and non-standard, unworthy of the classroom, despite the fact that many of Oakland's students were bringing it to school.

Commentators white and black condemned the separatism that would result from any recognition of Black English. They warned that Oakland's Ebonics would give schoolchildren a misplaced sense of pride. Their continued use of Black English would surely exclude them from higher education and the corporate boardrooms of the nation.

Cynics saw the move as yet another gaffe of political correctness, an overzealous Afro-centric reflex, or a disingenuous ploy for Oakland to get its hands on more bilingual education dollars, though the federal government ruled years ago that speakers of Black English did not qualify as bilingual for funding purposes.

But a quiet minority wondered whether Oakland was simply trying to question why a preponderance of African American schoolchildren wind up in remedial and not gifted programs. Suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, Oakland school board members too have been trying to figure out just what they did mean by their vote. They didn't want to teach Ebonics, they wanted to teach about Ebonics. They wanted their students to learn standard English. Perhaps approaching it as a foreign language might help where other methods have failed. And one or two people have asked, just what is a language anyway, and why do people get so upset about language that they feel compelled to vote it in or out?

We can say that two people use the same language if they can understand one another's speech. If they can't understand one another, they are speaking separate languages. But we define languages politically and culturally, as well as by degree of comprehension. Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible, yet both are Chinese. They are held together on the mainland by an army and a navy and a common writing system, and they are held together internationally by a cultural definition of what it means to be Chinese. Serbian and Croatian are mutually intelligible, though they use different alphabets, but because of their armies they now live apart as separate languages. Noah Webster once argued that American and British English were separate languages.

Language both shapes and reflects reality. A few years ago the sociolinguist William Labov warned that despite the unifying forces of mass communication and public education, the speech of American Blacks and whites was diverging, a sign that the social distance between the two groups was increasing rather than decreasing. The Oakland School Board's action draws our attention to this uncomfortable fact.

The linguistic differences that exist in the United States are symptoms of separateness, not its causes. If Oakland is prepared to characterize its students as strangers in a strange land, in need of training in English as a Second Language, it is doing so out of a fear that we really are drifting farther apart.

Making English official, as California and twenty-five other states have done, will not ensure that everybody speaks English. I doubt that elevating Ebonics to the status of a language, and employing ESL methods will get Oakland's students to use standard English or score higher on standardized tests. But even if minority students use the majority dialect, they may find that it takes a lot more than speaking standard English to get accepted into the mainstream. Sometimes it takes an army and a navy. Or the Supreme Court. Or the Civil Rights Act. Or perhaps a school board waking us up to a long-neglected problem. _______________
Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. _____________________________________ Dennis Baron Department of English office: 217-333-2392 University of Illinois fax: 217-333-4321 608 S. Wright Street home: 217-384-1683 Urbana, IL 61801