No Respec’

Ain’t no reason is an interesting, if short, look at languages as they are spoken, and what it means for the speaker. Focused on the language of Ebonics or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), it looks into the cultural development of languages and how we describe them:

Folks who paid strict attention in Linguistics 101 — I majored in the subject — might remember pidgins and creoles. A pidgin is a simplified, ad-hoc language shared by speakers who lack a common tongue. It borrows rules and words from all languages involved, and has its own rules as well. But a pidgin isn’t a full language; it lacks the rich vocabulary and structure.

creole, on the other hand, develops when children start learning and speaking the pidgin as their primary form of communication. Those who speak a pidgin have a native tongue and may speak several languages, and they are well aware that the pidgin is an amalgam. But a creole is the mother tongue of the speaker, who has likely heard and spoken it from infancy while being raised in a world in which pidgin may be the lingua franca.

The debate over … AAVE is really the same ages-old linguistic debate between prescriptivists and descriptivists played out another way. Prescriptivists want to freeze the language as they believe it either is or should be spoken — for instance, they object to the increasing use of “they” as a singular pronoun — while descriptivists aim to document how people actually speak.

The article shows how AAVE has parallel’s with French and Japanese although I think the parallels to other languages described in the text are a little thin, if vaguely interesting – it could as easily be said that many poems use the same emotions or words, that many movies use the same actors, that many painter’s use the same colour paint.

More interestingly it does allude to the fact that despite the widespread use of English, languages are not loosing their individuality:

You might assume — I did — that AAVE is a blip in the move toward the homogenization of language over time due to television, movies, the Internet, and our increasing connectedness. But we’d both be wrong. Wheeler notes that recent work by William Labov at the University of Pennsylvania shows that dialects are diverging in the United States.

“We change and become similar in language only when we’re in true contact, in authentic linguistic contact, with our interlocutor,” Wheeler says. This requires proximity and true two-way conversations by speakers of different dialects. But media isn’t “linguistic engagement,” she notes, and thus doesn’t influence people’s modes of speaking as much as one would intuit.

Couple the failure of the Internet and mass media to assimilate AAVE with the reality that African American populations are increasingly separated from white populations by socioeconomics, and the only reasonable expectation is, Wheeler says, “the divergence of the language.”

Unfortunately buried deep in the article is it’s strongest point – that speaking differently, pidgin, creole or just with an accent – is enough to cause discrimination.

Many of us unfairly judge others based on how they speak. Kenneth the page, on the late, great 30 Rock, spoke with a southern accent meant to exemplify his yokel-ness. Maybe you think that British accents sound dignified, or that the Minnesota accent on display in Fargo betrays its speakers’ intellectual inferiority.

“People don’t always realize that dialect prejudice still exists,” Wheeler says. “Reminding them, and explaining notions like the grammatical rules that govern AAVE — that’s a true ‘aha!’ experience. That alone is important, and people can grasp it — and grasping it, that’s actually a big thing.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who famously rarely speaks in public proceedings, grew up speaking Gullah, a creole spoken around the southern Atlantic coast. Justice Thomas told high school students in 2000 about Gullah, “People praise it now, but they used to make fun of us back then.”

Wheeler says that most teachers and school systems are ill-equipped to sort this out. She says, “The testing system remains entrenched in proper grammar, bad grammar, right and wrong. There’s no room for anything else. It’s appalling.”

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