Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Ebonics - Alive and Well at PGW

"Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about." Benjamin Lee Whorf

The immigrant-rights movement is gaining steam. And why not? We're a nation of immigrants after all. Unless we're Native Americans, all of our ancestors came from some other country.

The vast majority of those immigrants learned to speak English. That's not the case any more. It's not even true of many native-born Americans. And that bothers me.

English as a Second Language is a fact of life in American schools and workplaces. A Spanish-speaking option is universally offered for voicemail, TV, radio and web sites.

As much as I believe that all who want to work in America should also want to learn our language, I'm even more concerned about native-born Americans who can't--or won't--speak proper English.

I'm especially teed off at major corporations with major public presence and influence who seem to eschew the opportunity--the obligation really--to set high standards of correct grammar and speech.

Watch the local TV news any night in any city and be prepared to cringe at mangled grammar, not just from poorly educated interviewees, but from reporters and anchors who should surely know better.

And in Philly, call the behemoth Philadelphia Gas Works utility company at 215-235-1000 and listen to a friendly, well-modulated female voice say,"Thank you for calling PGW." So far, so good.

But wait.

Next sentence: "Your PGW representative is required to axe a short series of questions to insure the accuracy of your account information."

Required to 'AXE'? Say what?

There's more. The recorded voice goes on to note that "gas prices will rise significantly" and to remind low income customers needing assistance to "axe a PGW representative for more information."

This woman can pronounce 'significantly' without a flaw, but she can't manage the word 'ask'? And either nobody caught it, or nobody cares. I frankly don't know which is worse.

PGW is clearly channeling Ebonics. A classic language controversy from the 1990's.

Ten years ago the Oakland, CA school board made history by passing a resolution declaring the slang used by many black students was a genuine African American language called Ebonics, or Black English or African American Vernacular English. The board resolved to include Ebonics in teaching Standard English.

The rationale seemed reasonable: many black children enter school having heard English spoken only in a specific dialect of African American culture. Ebonics would help teachers show these children how to translate that dialect to the 'language of wider communication'.

A logical proposition on its face, but it somehow got translated by the media into a concept that African Americans should not be penalized by school or society for speaking what was in essence their own language, albeit street slang.

Again, a fine theory, but in the end not a practical one. As a San Francisco Examiner editorial noted at the time, "[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 controversy raged. Not just in the media. We're talking a Linguistics brouhaha among scholars from prestigious universities around the country. Penn, Princeton, Stanford, Michigan. They published scholarly papers and treatises, often with unintentionally hilarious--and arguably racist--examples.

Ebonics Notes and Discussion

John R. Rickford, Professor of Linguistics, Stanford University, December, 1996

(1) Some sample sentences in AAVE/Ebonics, with discussion of the ways in which they show the systematicity of AAVE:

AAVE: "She BIN had dat han'-made dress" (SE: She's had that hand-made dress for a long time, and still does.)
AAVE: "Befo' you know it, he be done aced de tesses." (SE Before you know it, he will have already aced the tests.)
AAVE: "Ah 'on know what homey be doin." (SE: I don't know what my friend is usually doing.)
AAVE: "Can't nobody tink de way he do." (SE: Nobody can think the way he does.)
AAVE: "I ast Ruf could she bring it ovah to Tom crib." (SE: I asked Ruth if/whether she could bring it over to Tom's place.)
Not surprisingly, Ebonics as a legitimate language to be taught in schools eventually went away.

But the slang itself still thrives as a cult language, popularized and integrated into modern culture by the music and entertainment industry. So of course it's become part of the common vernacular. Bling. Ho. Wassup. You probably know more of those words than I do.

Let's be very clear about something. My intention is not to demean or denigrate people of African American descent. I am truly disheartened that slang has become so acceptable as everyday speech, many people can't distinguish it from correct English.

And those who can't speak English properly are doomed to a life of low level jobs for substandard pay.

So I have one special request of PGW: please don't expect me to answer any more personal questions until you can ASK me properly.



Blogger PuckPan said...

I'm sorry Sally - perhaps you don't mean it this way - but calling a race-based language "slang" does denigrate that race.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Sally Swift said...

No, it doesn't. Slang is used by linguists and dictionaries to describe any offshoot of any language.

Here's Webster's definition:

1 language peculiar to a particular group; a: ARGOT, b: JARGON
2 an informal nonstandard vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech

9:48 AM  
Blogger misplacedmtnman said...

Good article and well written. I enjoyed it. This needed to be said.

2:36 PM  
Blogger PuckPan said...

Would you agree then that Yiddish is slang - and would you say the things about its proponents that you imply about the proponents of Ebonics?

A bit too close to home? Then what about Cajun?

The purpose of language is not just to communicate - it can be a cultural "fence" to create identity - and separation. These can be negative qualities - but (as I'm sure you will agree), they can also be positive - and yes they can also be bigoted.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Sally Swift said...

I have allowed the above post to publish in order to demonstrate the insidiousness of anti-Semitism, especially when used by pseudo-intellectuals who have no credible way to make their case.

And for the record, Yiddish is not slang: a High German language written in Hebrew characters that is spoken by Jews and descendants of Jews of central and eastern European origin.

10:48 AM  
Blogger PuckPan said...

So in other words it is different - depending on whose ox is gored?

Why don't you just admit you POV re. ebonics reflects a sense of cultural and perhaps recial superiority on your part.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Sally Swift said...

Here's my POV re you: you're a thoroughly annoying gnat, not to mention an idiot.

And since this is my blog, that will be the last word on the subject.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Patrick Eckhardt said...

Research has found AAVE grammatical structure to have its roots in Western African languages. When these languages melded with English, a new dialect was formed. Both the Linguistic Society of America and the Center for Applied Linguistics recognize its status as a dialect.

If what you say is true, then American English is merely slang for RP English, which is merely slang for Middle English, which is merely slang for Old English.

Language is fluid, it must be, or we would still speak the "Engliscgereorde."

8:33 AM  

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