Date: Mon, 30 Dec 1996 23:55:54 -0800 (PST) From: "Charles J. FILLMORE" Subject: ebonics Sender: To: Cc: MIME-version: 1.0 Precedence: bulk

Leanne Hinton suggested I send this to you. The topic might have been talked out already, but here it is.

Semantics and the Ebonics Debate
Charles J. Fillmore
One uncontroversial principle underlying the Oakland Unified School District's December 18th "Ebonics" resolution is the truism that people can only learn from each other if they speak the same language. Anyone who doubts this has only to read the current public debate about the resolution itself. Large numbers of educators, bureaucrats, commentators, and experts have been weighing in on the meaning of the resolution in the last two weeks. Superficially it may appear that these people all speak the same language, but the evidence contradicts the appearance. All of the key words that keep coming up in these discussions clearly mean different things to different parties in the debate, blocking successful communication and making it too easy for each participant to believe that the others are mad, scheming, or stupid.
* * *
As far as I can work it out (not from the language of the resolution but from the board's recent "clarifications"), the pedagogically relevant assumptions behind the "Ebonics" resolution are as follows: The way some African American children speak when they show up in Oakland's schools is sufficiently different from standard English that teachers sometimes can't understand what they are saying; such children do not succeed in school and typically fail to acquire the ways of speaking that they'll need in order to make it in the world outside their neighborhoods. Schools have traditionally treated the speech of these children as simply sloppy and wrong, not as evidencing skills and knowledge the children can build on. The proposed new instructional plan would assist children in learning standard English by encouraging them to compare the way they speak with what they need to learn in school, and this cannot be accomplished in a calm and reasoned way unless their teachers treat what they already have, linguistically, as a worthy possession rather than as evidence of carelessness and ignorance. An important step toward introducing this new practice is to help teachers understand the characteristics of their students' speech so they can lead the children to an awareness of the difference. * * *
I would naturally have described that as "building on their knowledge of the language they know for acquiring the language they are learning in school." But in the description I just gave I worked hard to avoid using the word "language", since that is one of the words responsible for much of the confusion in the discussion around the school board's decision. The others are "dialect", "slang", "primary language", and, unfortunately, "genetic". Neither side in these debates uses these words in ways that facilitate communication. Perhaps a linguist can introduce some much-needed clarification.
The words "dialect" and "language" are confusingly ambiguous. These are not precisely definable technical terms in linguistics, but linguists have learned to live with the ambiguities. We can use the word "language" to refer simply to the linguistic system one acquires in childhood. In most normal contexts, everybody grows up speaking a language. If there are systematic differences between the language you and your neighbors speak and the language my neighbors and I speak, we can say that we speak different dialects.
The word "language" is also used to refer to a group of related dialects, but there are no scientific criteria for deciding when to refer to two linguistic systems as different dialects of the same language or as different languages of the same language family. There are empirical criteria for grouping ways of speaking to reflect their historical relationships, but there is an arbitrary element in deciding when to use the word "language" for representing any particular grouping. (Deciding whether BBC newsreaders and radio evangelists from Lynchburg, Virginia, speak different dialects or different but related languages is on the level of deciding whether Greenland is a small continent or a large island.)
There is a different and misleading way of using these words for situations in which, for social or political reasons, one dialect comes to be the preferred means of communication in schools, commerce, public ceremonies, etc. According to this second usage, reflecting a kind of folk theory, what the linguist would simply call the standard dialect is referred to as "the language", the others as "mere dialects", thought of as falling short of the perfection of the real language. An important principle of linguistics is that the selection of the prestige dialect is determined by accidental extralinguistic forces, and is not dependent on inherent virtues of the dialects themselves. According to the folk theory, the "dialects" differ from the language itself in being full of errors.
I've been reading the San Francisco newspapers these last two weeks, and I see a disturbing source of chaos in the ways commentators choose to describe and classify the manner of speaking that is the target of the Ebonics resolution.
(1) Some participants in this debate think that what is called black English is merely an imperfectly learned approximation to real English, differing from it because the speakers are careless and lazy and don't follow "the rules". It is "dialect", in the deprecating use of that word, or "slang".
(2) To most linguists black English is one of the dialects of American English, historically most closely related to forms of Southern speech but with differences attributable to generations of social isolation. For a linguist to describe something as a dialect is not to say that it is inferior: everybody speaks a dialect.
(3) And some people say that while black English has many of the trappings of English, at its structural core it is a continuation or amalgam of one or more west African languages.
The views summarized in (1) are simply wrong. The difference between the views identified in (2) and (3) is irrelevant to the issue the board is trying to face.
* * *
The Oakland resolution asks that black English be recognized as the "primary language" of many of the children who enter Oakland schools. What this means is that it is their home language, the form of speech the children operated in during the first four or five years of their lives, the language they use with their family and friends. An early explanation of the purpose of the new program (Chronicle 12/20) is that it "is intended to help teachers show children how to translate their words from 'home language' to the 'language of wider communication'."
If this is the intended meaning, it makes sense to talk about a person's primary language, meaning the language learned in early childhood, but many of the people who worry about whether black English is or isn't "a primary language" must be thinking of something else.
The Chronicle (12/20) asked readers to send in their opinions "on the Oakland school board's decision to recognize ebonics, or black English, as a primary language". Both the Chronicle and the Examiner used the phrase in ways that depart from the intention in the resolution. The Examiner (12/20) attributed to Delaine Eastin, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, the worry that the decision to "recognize" black English could lead students to believe "that they could prosper with it as their primary language outside the home." An Examiner writer editorialized (12/20) that "[i]n the real world of colleges and commerce and communication, it's not OK to speak Ebonics as a primary language. Job recruiters don't bring along a translator." The Chronicle (12/24) accounts for Oakland's sudden fame as happening "all because the school board voted to treat black English like any other primary language spoken by students."
It's hard to imagine that all these commentators were worried about whether there really are people who have black English as their primary language. Perhaps the term "home language" wouldn't have created so much misunderstanding.
* * *
The critics have also worried about whether black English "is a language". One way of understanding the question is whether it is a language rather than a mere collection of "mistakes". (This seems to be Ward Connerly's view, and his answer is that it isn't a language.) Another is whether it has the full status of a language rather than a dialect, in the folk use of these words mentioned above. (This seems to be the view attributed to James Baldwin, in a 1979 article quoted by Pamela Budman, Chronicle 12/26 Baldwin thought it "patronizing" to speak of black English as a dialect rather than as a full-fledged language.)
On the question of whether there is a definable linguistic system, spoken by many African Americans, with its own phonology, lexicon and grammar (and dialects!), there is already a huge body of research. (For an excellent bibliography see the web site The question of whether twenty-seven thousand African American children in Oakland schools come from families that speak that language has to be an empirical question, not an issue for tapping people's opinions.
The Chronicle (12/20) explains the nation's shock at the news of the resolution by "the Oakland school district's decision to recognize the African American vernacular as a language." Under the headline "Ebonics Isn't a Language" in The Examiner (12/25), Education Secretary Riley is reported as warning about the dangers of "[e]levating black English to the status of a language".
When the Examiner issued its invitation for readers' opinions (12/23) the phrasing was: "Will recognition of black English as a language help African-American students succeed?" Some readers might have understood the question as asking whether there is such a language at all, others as whether it is a language separate from English in the way that French and Hausa are, and still others as whether Oakland was proposing that black English become one of two standard languages to be used in the city's schools. It is amazing to me that the issue was thought of as deserving treatment as a yes-or-no question. It is even more amazing that so many readers felt they were qualified to answer the question.
* * *
One of the claims contained in the resolution is that Ebonics is not a linguistic cousin of English, but is really more directly descended from West African linguistic stock. This issue really muddies the pedagogical problem the schools are facing. Instead of focusing on the cognitive consequences in American schools of students' having black English (whatever its source or status) as their primary language, the board chose to confuse the world with an irrelevant claim about language classification.

A Chronicle editorial (12/20) after surveying some black English dialect features, stated that "Such variations amount to a dialect of English -- not a separate language." My Berkeley colleague, John McWhorter, was quoted (Chronicle 12/21) as saying "Black English is a dialect -- it is not a separate language". Here I am sure that he meant that black English is a dialect of English.

The Examiner (12/24) wrote about the School District's attempts to explain "its decision to adopt black English as a separate language" but the next day (12/25) quoted incoming board president Jean Quan as saying "We never said it was a separate language."
What turns on the answer to this question? One possibility is that if black English is something other than a variety of English, that should allow the school district to qualify for funds dedicated to bilingual education. Whether or not this was the intention of the board, it is certainly true that many people assumed that it was. The Chronicle (12/20) reported quite straighforwardly that "[t]he educators hope to win federal bilingual dollars to help pay for the program." On the next day the Chronicle added: "Education officials in some districts, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, say they are intrigued with what Oakland did and might do the same -- primarily to seek federal bilingual education funds." San Francisco school board member Dan Kelly too "would support a move to have the federal government recognize ebonics as a separate language for purposes of funding bilingual education." Whatever the intentions of the board might have been, observers read a local policy decision urging the recognition of black English as the primary language of many students as a request for federal governmental recognition of black English as having a status relevant for federal funding purposes. (A Chicago Tribune editorial, quoted in the Chronicle 12/28, assumed that giving ebonics "the status of a language" would entail "qualify[ing] the children who speak it to receive federally funded bilingual education.")

Whether or not the board intended to ask for Title VII funds, for bilingual education, to support the plan, the resolution did suggest that they intended to use Ebonics as a language of instruction. Explaining things to children in a language they understand is one thing; teaching that language to the children is something else, and this is the possibility that raised some alarms.

The resolution declares that "the Superintendent in conjunction with her staff shall devise and implement the best possible academic 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." That looked to some people like a decision to hold classes in ebonics. (The belief that this is what they meant led Jesse Jackson to say that children would be better off studying Spanish.)

To resolve these various misunderstandings, the board has hired the PR firm of Darolyn Davis, whose job, according to the Chronicle (12/24) is "to help them explain that they have no intention of teaching children to speak black English -- ebonics -- or applying for federal bilingual dollars to their program under false pretenses."
* * *
The next word to worry about is "slang". This term is usually used to refer to ephemeral faddish locutions usually associated with schools, sports, music, and entertainment, existing mainly for expressing temporary group solidarity, especially among the young and hip. But it has been one of the favorite dismissing words of the critics of the school board's actions. Jesse Jackson is quoted in the Examiner (12/22) as saying, "in Oakland some madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language." To which he added, "You don't have to go to school to learn to talk garbage...."

The Chronicle reported (12/21) that "[s]ome scholars call it slang, criticizing Oakland for legitimizing error-ridden speech." (What are these people scholars of, if they can decide that something is slang?) We learn that in addition to the Rev. Jackson, Ward Connerly calls it slang, and complains, "Now we're going to legitimize it." Shelby Steele (Chronicle 12/20) calls black English "merely slang". Listeners to talk shows (Chronicle 12/21) learn "that Oakland is giving up on conventional English and diverting black kids into classes taught in slang." A Debra Saunders piece (Chronicle 12/24) writes that black parents "may not welcome a philosophy that elevates slang." All of these quotations suggest that their authors do not believe that there exists anything deserving to be treated as an actual linguistic system in the speech of the students in question. The most stunning such judgment comes from Ward Connerly (Chronicle 12/21): "These are kids that have had every opportunity to acclimate themselves to American society, and they have gotten themselves into this trap of speaking this language -- this slang, really - - that people can't understand. Now we're going to legitimize it." Mr. Connerly seems not to believe that the children in question have acquired a way of speaking through the normal process of language acquisition. * * *

The most controversial paragraph of the resolution introduced the word "genetics" into the debate. It is really difficult to know what the writers of the phrase had in mind. In the language of the resolution, "numerous validated studies" have demonstrated "that African Language Systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English."

This was interpreted by many as meaning that Black English is biologically innate in its speakers. There is a metaphorical linguistic concept of "genetic" relationships, as when we say that Spanish and Italian are genetically related to Latin, but neither the language of the resolution nor the board's later clarifications have brought their usage any closer to the linguistic notion.

The biological interpretation was certainly motivating Debra Saunders in her Chronicle piece (12/24) which ended, "Apparently the board hasn't noticed that many black students speak English just fine, thank you." That would be impossible, she suggests, if ebonics were innate.

The board has since explained (Chronicle 12/25) that they were not claiming "that black people have a unique biology" but merely (Examiner 12/22) that ebonics has a "historical and cultural basis". A clarification appearing on the OUSD's web page states that "[t]he term 'genetically based' is a synonym with genesis ... used according to the standard dictionary definition of "has its origins in.' It is not used to refer to human biology." Something is missing, if that was the board's intention: the phrase "is genetically based" means nothing standing alone. It ought to be followed by something beginning with the word "in".
* * *
There is a common-sense core to the Oakland school board's plans. All over the world children show up in school speaking a variety of language that differs in some great or small way from the variety they're about to start learning. Where the discrepancy is slight, and where (as in most parts of the world) nobody would think of telling the children to give up their home language, the difference can be easily bridged. But in all cases it is just commonsensical for teachers to do whatever they can to make students aware of the differences. The case made by the board is for doing this in a way that isn't demeaning to the children. Such elementary concern for the children's self-esteem has been ridiculed by some as a meaningless gesture of "political correctness", a belief that children should never be corrected. But clearly, a child who can say freely, "In my dialect we say it like this" is better able to profit from a language-learning experience than a child who is simply always told that everything he says is "wrong". * * *

The language used by the Oakland school board in formulating the resolution has occasioned great and continuing misunderstandings, leading to worries about whether the city of Oakland's reputation has been so seriously damaged that employers will stay away. Yet board members, insisting that they will never modify the language of the resolution, have instead hired a PR firm to help them justify the language they already have.

Perhaps the board of the Oakland Unified School District should do what they want their students to do: learn the language of the larger community so that they can accomplish what they want to accomplish in that community. (And maybe in the process of changing the way they communicate what they originally wanted to say, they might consider making some changes in what it was that they originally wanted to say.)

They have made an important proposal, that the feedback needed for helping speakers of nonstandard English to learn the language of the school will be more effective if it is presented as "translating" from a home language rather than as "correcting mistakes". The school district has made the case that the problem is especially serious for African American students in Oakland. It's not going to be easy, but if sensitizing teachers to, and teaching students about, the phonology, lexicon and grammar of the home language will make it possible for African American students to move more easily into competence in standard English, they should go for it.