Mumia, Ebonics, language and power

Mon, 20 Jan 1997 16:09:58 -0500


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Date: 01/16/1997 04:09 pm (Thursday) From: MELLON1 To: SAIS-SMTP(""), Subject: Mumia, Ebonics, language and power

It's a tribute to Mumia's courage and intellect that despite his own problems he can produce more insightful material on the current so-called "Ebonics" controversy, and is willing to do so, than such "progressives" as Maya Angelou, Ellen Goodman, or Jesse Jackson. Jackson equated Ebonics with "ungrammatical English" during a speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. as recently as last week (January 8th), i.e. *after* his alleged west coast recantation. Participants in the current "debate" in the mass media typically fail even to distinguish written and spoken language when laying down the law about "standard" and "non-standard" varieties in the classroom and in life in general.

As Mumia says, there are indeed numerous studies attesting to what its speakers already know - the legitimacy of Black English Vernacular (BEV), African American Vernacular English, Ebonics (it goes by these and several other names on the street and in the linguistics textbooks) as a rich natural language, one like any other with its own, regular, rule-governed grammatical systems - some of them more complex than those of so-called "Standard English" (SE), incidentally - a language that offers its speakers as rich a range of expressive and referential options as any other. It is one variety of that abstraction known as 'English', no better or worse than the hundreds of other varieties spoken in different parts of the United Kingdom, the U.S.A., Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, Africa and elsewhere, or by different networks of people living in those and other countries defined (to varying degrees) by ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, geography and other factors. If some varieties are socially stigmatized, in court, the classroom, employment interviews or wherever, it is because of the prejudices and power of those doing the stigmatizing, not because of intrinsic characteristics of the language varieties concerned. The Linguistics Society of America put out quite a decent resolution on BEV a few days ago. It is strongly supportive of the Oakland School Board's initiative, and of BEV in general, and provides a list of some 30 books on linguistic and/or educational aspects of BEV in the U.S.

There is nothing inherently superior or inferior about BEV linguistically. When it or one or another *variety* of English (like BEV) or any other language is held to be superior, inferior, more or less desirable, aesthetically pleasing and so on, it is simply a reflection of historically conditioned unequal power relationships among speakers of the different varieties. Some varieties of English commonly spoken by particular white socio-economic elites in (mostly southeastern) England used to be "required" by BBC announcers, for example, and other varieties "outlawed", until the 1960's, when a first Prime Minister (Harold Wilson) was elected who spoke with a regional accent. Now BBC radio and TV are staffed by news readers and reporters who speak a range of varieties of British English -Yorkshire, Scots, Irish, Welsh, etc. - including varieties developed by relatively recent immigrant groups, such as West Indians and South Asians. As power changed hands, which varieties of English were acceptable changed, too.

In just the same way, whole languages have always been, and still are, imposed by those in power on speakers of other languages with less or no power - English, Dutch, Afrikaans, French, Spanish and Portuguese, on the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas, for instance. It's not that, say, English and Spanish have inherent linguistic potential that makes them superior to, say, Urdu, Hausa, Navajo or Quechua (although for social or historical reasons, particular languages and varieties of a language may be more or less developed at any one time, most obviously in vocabulary); it's just that some people who spoke English and Spanish over the past 200 years or so had superior military force, imperialist ambitions, and were brutal killers. In just the same way, a few English-speaking societies today may well be speaking Chinese or some other language before the next century's out.

The stunning ignorance of self-appointed "progressive" experts like Jackson, not just the usual right-wing zealots, like George Will, about language in general and "Ebonics" in particular - and the willlingness of the mainstream (= state) media to accept them as authoritative on this and every other subject - is tragic for the children concerned, but it is nothing new. The same issues surrounding the use of standard and non-standard language varieties - not just in education, but in government, the (so-called) criminal justice system, healthcare, social work, and almost every area of social life - have come up time and time again around the world. Sometimes it's BEV, sometimes "Pidgin" (Hawai'i Creole English), sometimes Aboriginal English (in Australia), and so on. There is an extensive published literature on BEV, as indicated above, and on the same educational and social issues arising around the world with respect to the standard/non-standard debate, particularly in education. Those interested in reading a fairly easily obtainable article-length treatment might try an article by the late Charlie Sato, one of whose specialties this was. Charlie reviewed definitions of such terms as standard, non-standard, pidgin, creole, dialect and variety, surveyed research findings on educational models, and proposed a genuinely progressive solution involving the notion of 'additive bidialectalism'

Charlene J. Sato: A non-standard approach to standard English. TESOL Quarterly 23, 2, 1989, 259-282.

Many university libraries in English-speaking countries have TESOL Quarterly on their shelves. Other well informed, progressive work on issues of language and power, 'linguicism', and linguistic human rights in the U.S. and around the world can be found, among several other places, in:

James W. Tollefson (Ed.): Power and inequality in language education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Diana Eades: Aboriginal English and the law. Brisbane: Queensland Law Society, 1992.


Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (Eds.): Linguistic human rights. The Hague: Mouton, 1995.

Mike Long

O'ahu IWW GMB IU 620

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