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John McWhorter on Talk of the Nation, "DEA Call For Ebonics Experts Smart Move", 9/6/2010. (Download mp3 here.)


  1. groki said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

    it's good to hear Dr. McWhorter's position on Ebonics–"it is very much a coherent, consistent and complex kind of English, just like all kinds of English are"–getting the airplay.

    and re TOTN's title: I keep misreading it, expecting a possessive apostrophe somewhere in Experts: headline writers be crashblossoming, I guess.

  2. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 6, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

    I like JW's discomfort with the word "ebonics." It does not sound like the name of a dialect. It sounds like a linguistic field for studying a dialect.

    How did this name come to be?

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 12:04 am

    SMJ: Ebonics was coined by the social psychologist Robert Williams in 1973 as a blend of ebony and phonics. See John Baugh's piece from "Do You Speak American?"

  4. Christopher said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 12:07 am

    I believe it is a portmanteau of "ebony" and "phonetics", so that probably why it sounds like a linguistic sub-field. I don't like term either, since it sounds too contrived and somewhat phony.

    Of course, it could be worse, and it could be called "language of colour".

  5. Alvin said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 1:44 am

    More likely, it's "ebony" and "phonics," so named because it is associated with African-Americans, though it is more so "urban" at this point.

  6. C Thornett said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 1:53 am

    As a side issue, I noticed that at one point the transcriber has 'cold switching' for what should surely be 'code switching'.

    Some years ago, I heard some Jamaican teachers arguing that standard English, by which I think they meant British English, should be taught almost as a foreign language in Jamaican schools.

    The large settled populations of people from the Sub-continent in UK cities seem to be developing a distinct version of English, distinct both from the different UK dialects and from Indian (or more properly, Sub-continental) English. (I'm not sure how much of the work done by Philida Schellekens is available online, but I have heard her speak on this.)

    From the pragmatic viewpoint of a teacher, these differences can be used to create a better awareness of the structures and processes of language as language, ideally enhancing the ability to use language and to code switch, just as learning a foreign language can enhance understanding of the first language.

  7. maidhc said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 4:40 am

    Ebonics used to be called Black English, also African-American Vernacular. The linked article describes the origin of the term Ebonics , but I'm not sure that it really works, because it reminds me of aerobics. My first guess would be some kind of martial art developed in the Harlem Renaissance.

    I've read about the different verb tenses in Black English, but I also hear many of the same usages from white Southerners. Is there a real linguistic reason to distinguish it from what I suppose would be called Southern Vernacular?

    Italian is an example of a language in which children who speak a number of different dialects learn standard Italian in school almost as a foreign language. I've read that Italian as taught in Italian schools has a lot of emphasis on formal grammatical structure. I've heard that there is quite an etiquette in Italian as to when to use dialect and when to use standard. (I don't speak Italian, so I'm posting these things that I've heard as a request for further comment.)

    British English has a good variety of dialects, but it seems to me you hear more of them now (e.g., on the BBC) than was the case some decades ago.
    US English doesn't have as much variation, so what there is may stick out more.

    Does Scotland Yard employ experts in Geordie, Ullans, Scouse and other dialects possibly spoken by criminals?

  8. Rodger C said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    @Maidhc: "I've read about the different verb tenses in Black English, but I also hear many of the same usages from white Southerners. Is there a real linguistic reason to distinguish it from what I suppose would be called Southern Vernacular?"

    The one that comes to mind in terms of your question is that no form of white Southern English, afaik, has a consuetudinal present, which is found in both Black English ("He be goin") and Irish English ("He bees going"). It's a substrate phenomenon in Irish English and has been explained as one in Black English too.

    And yes, "ebonics" is a word made up by educators that, imo, has become a drag on serious attention to this form of the language and should be retired.

  9. J. Goard said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    Wow, to be in a specialization like McWhorter's where a guy feels free to call up and basically say, sorry, Professor, but I respectfully disagree with your presentation of the scientific facts, on account of I was a Marine and knew a bunch of black guys there. Keep fighting the good fight for book learnin', John.

  10. George said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    maidhc: "I also hear many of the same usages from white Southerners. Is there a real linguistic reason to distinguish it from what I suppose would be called Southern Vernacular?"

    I am reading "Language and Ethnicity" by Carmen Fought rat now ('right now' to non-Southerners). She addresses this in the book. Yes, AAV in the South is influenced by the white, Southern dialect. However, it also has distinct features like some of those mentioned in the McWhorter interview. For example, white Southerns do not use the 'habitual be' or delete our copulas.

  11. Cath said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    Don't know about Scotland Yard, but there were reports in the BBC a while back about a translation company recruiting Glaswegian interpreters to help out in business meetings, to much mirth (link here). Presumably the same principle.

  12. James said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    I want to find the Marine, have him read the transcript of his phone call, and ask him if he thinks it represents "proper" English. This isn't to say that my spoken English would fare any better than his, if it were given the same treatment.

    I work with an older black man who always talks about how I talk "proper", and I have tried to tell him a hundred times that I just talk white. I don't think he'll ever get that my language isn't any better than his language.

  13. Diane said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    @C Thornett

    I was under the impression that "Proper English" is *already* taught almost as a foreign language in Jamaican schools. I am Jamaican American and I can tell you that patois has much the same standing amongst educated Jamaicans as black English has amongst educated African Americans: If you can't speak Proper English you're uneducated; if you won't, you're low class.

    My sister, who is a doctor, once heard a call put out in her hospital for a "Jamaican-to-English translator." At first she thought the hospital staff must be really ignorant to not know that Jamaicans speak English, before remembering that patois is pretty well incomprehensible to people speaking American English, ourselves included. (Our mother flatly refused to let us learn patois when we were growing up, and consequently our cousins used to have fun with us by talking in patois so we couldn't understand them). So yeah, if the patient was a Jamaican who didn't speak Proper English they probably did need a translator.

  14. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    @J. Goard: In the Marine's defense: If you've been reading Language Log for any length of time, you know that the media's "experts" are often self-appointed BSers; and little of what Dr. McWhorter said would be instantly recognizable as science to someone unfamiliar with linguistics. So while we know that Dr. McWhorter genuinely knows whereof he speaks, we shouldn't be too hard on callers who don't know that.

    (Besides, I've seen laymen argue with doctors about medicine, with lawyers about the law, with physicists about physics … I think it's worse for social scientists, because many people don't even recognize in the abstract the idea that someone can be an expert in such fields, but in general, regardless of the specialty, when reality and common sense are at odds, there will always be people who choose common sense.)

  15. Notlitotes said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 4:47 am

    I was surprised at his comment that there is no evidence that dialect is worthy of attention in education. The majority of studies I've seen suggest that children learn better when their home dialect is validated, and when they are taught in their home dialect.

  16. David said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    I am always struck with Americans' discomfort with the idea of multiple dialects of English as legitimate ways of speaking. I'm currently living in German-speaking Switzerland, where the passion for very local dialects is incredible. People are very proud of their own dialect, and actively enjoy the occasional misunderstanding that results.

    Since Swiss German has no written form, the schools must teach Hoch Deutsch very early, and they certainly approach this it as if they are teaching a foreign language. Its actually quite difficult for the kids, since Hoch Deutsch has a lot more grammar than Schwyzer Düütsch.

    One anecdote that always makes me smile: An American colleague in a multinational company said something to the effect that he needed to cut a Swiss colleague some slack, since English was a second language. Actually, for many Swiss, English is more like a fourth or even fifth language.

  17. Rodger C said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    Here in Southeast KY I have many students who can write perfectly competent standard English but wouldn't be caught dead speaking it with one another, let alone with their parents, who'd perceive this as disrespectful. These parental attitudes are one thing keeping the language alive. And I engage in a good deal of "cold switching" myself.

  18. George said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    David and Roger:

    While we may speak of our non-standard dialect as slang or not 'proper' language, it is one of the most important ways that we express our ethnicity. Standard language is very much associated with whiteness among ethnic minorities in the U.S.

  19. Allison said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

    Do we need translators for Black English/Ebonics? Are we talking about making ourselves understood or are they looking for people who can speak it non-natively and confound native speakers into believing they're native speakers as well (a perhaps important skill if you're attempting to infiltrate a drug ring) or are we talking about listening to wiretaps and understanding them? As a native speaker of white, northwest American English, I really think it'd be hard to confuse me with Black English – the structures are recognizable, if not grammatical to my ear.

  20. George said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Maybe an example of the utility of a translator could be taken from McWhorter's comments. 'She be walking' could be wrongly interpreted as 'she is walking' vs. a habitual act. Another example might be lexical such as AAVE 'bad' = SAE 'good.'

  21. Rodger C said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    @George: I should have made it clear that my students are nearly all white, though Appalachian whites have been coded as somehow doubtfully white since Jefferson's time, partly on account of the way they insist on talking.

  22. D. B. Propert said,

    September 8, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    With regard to Jamaican dialects, some scenes in "The Harder They Come" are subtitled.

    And when substitute teaching in Richmond City Schools a generation ago, I would occasionally encounter students who assumed that as a white man I could not understand them if they switched to the local dialect.

  23. maidhc said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 3:11 am

    George, one of the things that brought this subject to my attention was hearing white southerners delete copulas, because I had read that it was only found in Black English. I admit that I haven't heard the habitual 'be' used.

    Habitual 'be' is found in Irish English because it is a tense in Irish. Any effort to develop a connection with Black English should probably include a.) Irish sent to Barbados as slaves under Cromwell, b.) Gaelic colonization in North Carolina after the failure of the 1745 Rising (these people made the mistake of being on the wrong side during the American Revolution, hence the rapid dissolution of the colonies afterward).

    I have read claims that the unique style of singing psalms found in the Gaelic Presbyterian church has influenced singing styles in Southern black churches. Whether the influence extended to verb tenses I leave to others to determine.

  24. George said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 5:55 am

    maidhc: "one of the things that brought this subject to my attention was hearing white southerners delete copulas."

    That is interesting. I am from the South and have never noticed this as a regular feature. Also, Fought ("Language and Ethnicity") doesn't mention this as a feature of White Southern speech. I would be interested to know where you hear this. Could they be mimicking Black speech?

  25. George said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    maidhc: Sorry, I wrote too soon. I did some more searching and found that Fought does mention some zero copula in European-American speech.

    She says, "Woffram (1974) found evidence that copula absence among European-Americans in the rural South came from African-American speakers. Hazen (2000) also found some degree of copula absense among European-Americans in his study."

  26. Rodger C said,

    September 9, 2010 @ 8:23 am

    @maidhc: Gaelic psalm singing style, precentor and all, is preserved intact in white Old Regular Baptist churches in Appalachia. I posted a video of it on an Appalachian scholarly listserv, and one respondent said that without the caption she would have taken it for a recording of her grandparents' church with the sound blurred to unintelligibility.

  27. Jo said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    @maidhc: I'm not a linguist, I just live in Italy, so take this with a grain of salt. Many Italian dialects (unlike AAVE) are simply incomprehensible to a non-speaker: if I listen to a friend from Campania, Sicily or Veneto talking to a family member on the phone in true dialect, I won't understand a word of it. A native Italian speaker from a different region might catch the subject of the conversation, but that's about all… and as for Sardinian, forget it, it's a different language. Some others, like Roman and Tuscan, are considered variants rather than dialects in the general Italian sense (though I think they are such in the linguistic sense), particularly the latter, since standard Italian is directly derived from it; still, non-Tuscans will look at you oddly if you use certain words, some of which sound terribly archaic, and the accent is recognizable a mile away.
    As for etiquette, it's obviously not polite to use dialect if there are people around who can't understand you or in more formal contexts, though older, less-educated speakers may have trouble knowing what's standard and what's not (I recall the mother of a friend in Puglia who clearly thought she was speaking Italian all the time, but clearly wasn't). Kids learn standard Italian in school and I wouldn't say that it's taught as a foreign language, except perhaps in truly bilingual areas where, for example, German is spoken; otherwise, it's a matter of pointing out which terms are dialect and which are standard. If anything, spelling may be a problem because Northerners tend to pronounce double consonants as single and Southerners, vice-versa.

    I think the use of dialect carried a higher social stigma a few decades ago, when a substantial portion of the population had not grown up with television, quick transportation and good public education and had more trouble speaking Italian. A middle-aged Sardinian lady (fine, it's not a dialect, but I'm sure the same held true elsewhere) was telling me last week that her mother discouraged speaking Sardinian at home when she was a kid because it was "common". Now, if anything, dialects have become a point of pride and even a political tool: last year, the separatist, anti-Southern (and anti-immigrant) Lega Nord proposed that teachers, many of whom come from the South, should have to pass a test in the dialect of the region where they want to work.

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