Date: Fri, 20 Dec 1996 10:57:48 -0800 From: Aaron Fox Newsgroups: Subject: Attention: DAVE ROSS (re: "Ebonics") (fwd) A copy of a letter on the "Ebonics" controversy, FYI
To: Dave Ross, "The Dave Ross Show"
KIRO-AM Radio Seattle WA
From: Aaron A. Fox, Ph.D. Dept. of Anthropology The Univ of wshington

Dec. 21, 1996

Dear Mr. Ross

Normally I find your commentary to be informed and rational, and a pleasant change in these respects from the ranting and raving of uneducated and bigoted idiots which still dominates AM talk radio. But your discussion of the "Ebonics" issue has been in lockstep with the ignorant shows (Tom Lycos, for example, had a similar take on the issue yesterday). As a linguistic anthropologist, I feel compelled to mention the nearly 40 years of scientific research into these dialect issues, especially with respect to what linguists now call "AAVE" (for "African American Vernacular English").

You will find a discussion fo the grammatically *systematic* variations between AAVE and various other English dialects (such as so-called "Standard" English) in every college-level linguistics textbook. AAVE is NOT "bad grammar." It is a *dialect* of English which differs from other English dialects in entirely rule-governed and predictable ways, at levels ranging from its phonology (speech sounds, as for example what is called "consonant cluster reduction" makes "ask them" sound like "ax dem") to its morphology (the use of contractions like "ain't" for example) to its syntax. AAVE has certain grammatical properties which express concepts which "standard" English does not even grammaticize. For example, AAVE uses "copula deletion" (leaving out the verb "to be") to express what linguists call an *aspectual* distinction between a "one-time" punctual event and a continuous state or condition. If an AAVE speaker says "The coffee cold here," s/he means "this coffe I am drinking right now, here, is cold." If s/he says "the coffee BE cold here," s/he means "the coffee is always cold in this place." This only touches the tip of the iceberg. AAVE is NO less grammatical, no less regular or rule governed than ANY other English dialect. Whole books exist which discuss its structure, and I would be happy to send you a bibliography. The best recent summary of the research tradition is Marcyliena Morgan's recent "African American Vernacular English" in last year's *Annual Review of Anthropology,* the major peer-edited review journal in my field. Morgan (a Ph.D., of course) teaches anthropology and linguistics at UCLA. The major disagreement in the study of AAVE grammar is not its regularity and structure, but to what extent it reflects a grammatical influence from West African languages like Ibo and Hausa, which have similar aspectual systems and phonologies, or whether it is a variant of Southern US English and primarily reflects archaic forms of Scotch and Irish English dialects spoken in the Americna colonies during the days of slavery.

The chracterization of Black vernacular dialect(s) as "lazy," "ungrammatical," "street talk," etc. IS racist, a classic strategy of white racists who themselves do not necessarily command a prestigious register of English (I laughed my butt off listening to your callers rail about "bad grammar" in Black speech as they used forms like "exspecially," and "excetera" or pronounciations like "root" rhyming with "soot," dialect markers which would keep them from being taken seriously by an East Coast upper class lawyer, for example, who would hear a Northwest dialect as a "hick" accent.) We use dialect markers to socially typify and denigrate other speakers all the time. Native speakers of any particular dialect, especially the "standard" dialects (the highest prestige dialect in a society) tend to *naturalize* their own grammar as "correct" and see all variations from it as "bad grammar." The major influence on our dialect command is what we are exposed to as very small children. If a child grows up from 2-6 surrounded by AAVE, that is the (fully rule-governed, systematic) dialect s/he masters first; if a child is lucky enough, in this racist society, to grow up with a reasonable approximation of a prestige or "standard" English dialect from 2-6 (again BEFORE they ever go to school), they are *starting with a social advantage* in the first grade! They are NOT, however, any more or less intelligent because they are white, middle-class, etc. They just have a hidden advantage which starts the process of structural racism and class discrimination so early that it is inescapable for a significant number of children. Cruel, huh? The cruelty i compounded by the borrowing of expressions from AAVE by standard English ("cool," "bad" for good, are two simple examples) which continue the long history of White culture stealing from a Black culture which it overtly discriminates against.

Linguists have a saying: "A 'language' is a dialect with an army and a navy." All adult speakers with normal socializations and normal intelligence speak equally structured and complex languages. Some speakers happen to be socialized *BEFORE THEY EVER GO TO SCHOOL* (the crucial years for language acquisition are 2-5) into the "prestige" dialect of their language, the dialect with the army, navy, slave-catchers, politicians, executives, etc. Others are socialized into lower-prestige dialects and schools have to struggle to catch them up with the prestige variant. More often, these students are unfairly characterized as stupid, lazy, etc., and in a self-fulfilling prophecy they are condemned to low levels of education and self-esteem. This is why many middle-class and ambitious working-class Black parents DO want their children trained in standard English, and do not want concessions to "AAVE" ("street" or "home" language). But even these parents are conflicted, because in a racist society, AAVE is a *symbol* of Black pride and identity and a VEHICLE for Black community preservation. It is NOT technically speaking a distinct "language" from "English," but it is a very distinct, very regular DIALECT of English, as rich in expressive power as Northwest English, Southern English, New York English, Irish English or British English. (In fact there are regional variants of AAVE too).

I have gone on too long. I would be happy to photocopy and mail you some articles on this subject. Your show yesterday perpetuated ignorant stereotypes, and became a forum for some quite nasty racism (a lot of it intentional, the gleeful snarl of salesmen on their company-paid cellular phones who never lose an opportunity to say something nasty under the protective self-righteousness of their own unmarked status as white males. I wish I had as much time to call talk shows. Don't these people have work to do?)

If you believe in science, in rationality, in the disciplined scholarly study of such questions, you OWE it to your Black listeners and your educated listeners, as well as to any young people in your audience who might be led into ignorant mistaken assumptions, to correct the impression your show left. Thank you for your attention to this letter.

Sincerely, Aaron A. Fox, Ph.D. (white male, by the way) Assistant Professor of Anthropology Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music University of Washington email: WWW: