Arts Listings

Book Review: Author Examines African-American Language

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday June 06, 2006

If you live anywhere near the inner city or have occasion to have business there, this may have happened to you. Walking down a street near dusk you meet a young African-American man, clothes sagging, walking toward you. As you get closer, you can hear him talking, and, although you can’t make out the words, it seems as if he may be signaling commands to one of his partners who may be behind you, or else he’s crazy and talking to himself. In either case, it doesn’t seem good. 

You contemplate breaking and running, but you don’t want to embarrass yourself if you’re wrong and, besides, what would be the use (he is, after all, a young black man and he can almost certainly beat you to the corner, flat out). So you continue to walk, stomach queasy, heart thumping in your chest. And as you come closer, the young man’s words become clearer, and suddenly, it comes to you. 

Oh, snap! you say (or oh, goodness! if you don’t happen to be black yourself). You’ve heard this before! He’s not signalling and he’s not crazy, and if he’s armed with anything, it’s with harmony, as Naughty by Nature used to say. He’s rapping. 

It happens a thousand times every day—maybe a hundred thousand—young African-Americans—men, mostly—sitting somewhere or walking down the street, practicing their raps. 

There have been at least three great fusions of African and European cultures during the four centuries of the American experiment: music and dance, sports, and language. 

In football and basketball especially, it is widely acknowledged and accepted that African-American athletes have virtually revolutionized the way games are played. The fusion of what was thought to be the incompatable African and European music scales on the Southern slaverytime plantations—the creation of the bended so-called “blue” notes—led to the sound explosion that gave birth to both blues and jazz and most modern American music. The same is true for dance, where it is difficult to imagine what American dance forms would be like without African infusion. 

In each of these areas, black performers and performance are universally accepted and applauded. 

Only in the area of language is there still considerable controversy, even though  

listening to the young rappers roaming the inner city streets, studios, and stages, you are immediately struck by their complex rhythm patterns and the sometimes mind-numbing, warp-speed blending of rhyme and word-sound and cultural context. 

To succeed in this game clearly takes intelligence. Moreover, rap is only the latest in a long line of African-American mastery of English wordforms while bending and blending it to their own particular ends, from black preaching to Brother Rabbit storytelling. Why, then, does so-called “Black English” get such a bad rap? 

In his newly-published book The Sociology of African American Language (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Berkeley linguist Charles DeBose attributes that to the “stigma” that European American slavemasters imposed upon their African captives. 

“When a particular language, or way of speaking the common language of a society, is associated with persons of elite status,” he writes, “the ability to speak the language, and to speak it ‘correctly,’ may serve a legitimating function. That is, the superior position of the dominant group is justified by their ‘proper’ speech; and the subordinate position of marginalized groups is legitimated by the characterization of their language in such pejorative terms as ‘poor,’ ‘slovenly,’ ‘broken,’ ‘bastardized,’ and ‘corrupt.’ … In slave society, … hegemony was exercised through the power of words like ‘savage,’ ‘primitive’ and ‘heathen,’ used in conjunction with the presupposition that being ‘civilized’ is a prerequisite to full participation in American democracy. … In the present Post Civil Rights era, the stigmatization of Blackness as a rationale for denial of full and equal status in American democracy has outlived its purpose. 

Nevertheless, the idea that African American language is tantamount to ‘Bad English’ remains embedded in the hearts and minds of the public.” 

Instead, DeBose argues that there is no such thing as “bad English” or “broken English” that “deviates” from the norm, but rather that American English—as all language—is divided into distinct dialects, each of which has its own set of complex—and within itself “correct”—rules of grammar. 

In the world of linguists, all of us speak dialects. The stigma against Black English, he says, is not an objective linguistic formation, but is the last residue of the system designed to keep people in slavery by convincing them of their own inferiority. 

Nowhere was that stigma more apparent than in the 1996 political firestorm over the Oakland Unified School District’s ebonics controversy. 

“Citing the continued poor educational performance of African-American students in its area schools,” this reporter wrote at the time, “the Oakland Board passed a resolution that: (1) the primary language of a majority of African-American students is not English, but a heretofore little-known language called Ebonics; (2) Ebonics is ‘genetically based’ in Africa; and (3) the Oakland Public Schools would be directed to set up training programs for teachers so that they could instruct African-American students using the language of Ebonics, both to maintain ‘the richness and legitimacy’ of Ebonics itself and to help the students learn English. Finally, and perhaps most provocatively, the Oakland board suggested that funding for the Ebonics program could come from federal education ‘second language’ funds earmarked for students whose primary language is not English. For a while after that it was hard to sort everything out, what with all the hollering and the blood and the hum of the chainsaws. In a fierce-hot reaction that rolled over the country and back with interwarp speed, Oakland's Ebonics policy was both ridiculed and denounced on talk shows and op-ed pages and in newsgroups everywhere.” 

DeBose devotes a full chapter to the Oakland Unified ebonics issue, explaining both the positives and the pitfalls of Oakland’s approach from a linguist’s point of view, with an emphasis on analyzing it as what he calls “a case study of language planning.” 

DeBose uses the controversy to advance his contention that what he describes as the “surface differences” between what is commonly known as Standard English and the dialect that most African-American children speak at home and among their peers “are [not] of a sufficient magnitude to constitute a barrier to teaching and learning” in and of themselves. Instead, DeBose advances the argument that “whatever language barrier might exist consists mainly of teacher attitudes. … [T]he teachers’ lack of knowledge of the linguistic nature of Black English causes them to react to it in the speech of students in ways that are detrimental to the learning process.” 

In other words, he says, the fundamental Oakland Unified ebonics proposal that “training programs for teachers [be set up] so that they could instruct African-American students using the language of Ebonics, both to maintain ‘the richness and legitimacy’ of Ebonics itself and to help the students learn English” was fundamentally correct. 

But the Oakland ebonics contoversy, as important as it continues to be in the discussion of Black English, is only a small portion of DeBose’s book, where he presents a history of African American language, breaks down its peculiar grammar and structure in a chapter engagingly and appropriately entitled “We Be Following Rules,” and closes with a detailed invitation to readers to join him “in an imaginary journey from the status quo of American educational policy to a possible future in which African American language is seen by the average person asi it is presently seen by linguists: as an instance of normal language.” 

“The Sociology Of African American language” is an academic book, and readers not familiar with that style of writing will find the going a little dense. But as DeBose argues, the put-down of black language is part of “the stigmitation of Black American identity [that] has functioned historically to exclude persons of African descent from full participation in American life. The stimatization in question is so deeply embedded in the fabric of American society that its full significance has tended to escape the attention of scholars of African American language.” 

In this book, DeBose attempts to help correct that oversight, so that in advancing the acceptance of black speech by the linguistic academic community, the advancement of Black America itself will eventually be enhanced.  


Charles DeBose reads and discusses his new book The Sociology of African American Language at La Peña, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley on Thursday June 8, 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.