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The Limits of Standard English

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Few large groups of English speakers have borne as great a burden of stigma as black people. In the time of slavery, that stigma was enshrined in law—and even after emancipation, legal measures have been used to ensure that black people could not easily vote, could not access decent education and transportation, and so on. Since the civil rights era, many legal barriers to equality have been removed, but society has yet to catch up. As of the second decade of the twenty-first century, black people are almost five times as likely to be jailed as white people, despite making up only 13 percent of the population. It’s not surprising, then, that the dialect many black people speak is stigmatized, too—to such a great extent that it’s often denied the status of dialect, becoming merely “bad” English. That assumption has become so ingrained, it’s even taken up by some black people themselves.

“There is no such thing as ‘talking white’ … It’s actually called ‘speaking fluently,’ speaking your language correctly. I don’t know why we’ve gotten to a place where as a culture—as a race—if you sound as though you have more than a fifth-grade education, it’s a bad thing.” This was the argument of a young black woman whose video on the subject went viral in 2014. In her view, speaking what linguists call African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is not speaking “fluent” English. It is bad English—the kind of English that should be dispensed with by the time you’re eleven years old. As the journalist Jamelle Bouie wrote about the video, “the … ideas that black Americans disparage ‘proper English’ and education and use a ‘broken’ version of the language have wide currency among many Americans, including blacks.”

The funny thing is, most English-speaking people, wherever they live, are to some extent familiar with AAVE. That’s because of the powerful projection of black culture through movies and music, including the massive popularity of hip-hop. Despite being stigmatized in America itself, the dialect has cachet around the world, though arguably that’s because it’s seen as “edgy”—romanticized as the argot of gangsters and drug dealers. So when Britons or Australians read phrases like “I ain’t lyin,” “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it,” “He be workin’ hard,” they can identify the speaker as likely being black; they can conjure up the accent and intonation in their minds’ ear.

And yet because this dialect is one that’s very close to standard English, and is used by a group whose status is generally low, it gets branded as “sloppy speaking,” “slang,” or “ghetto.” The last label, although freighted with racial judgment, could at least make linguistic sense. We know that dialects emerge when there is geographical stasis. In areas of cities that are primarily black for a number of years, even decades, distinctive ways of speaking are likely to develop—more so given that the isolation is in this case both physical and social.

As Geoffrey K. Pullum makes clear in an article entitled “African American Vernacular English is not standard English with mistakes,” AAVE is a dialect no less complex or expressive than more prestigious forms of the language. It is rule-bound and systematic. It also happens to be the means of communication of a marginalized, often economically disadvantaged group of people. In fact, AAVE possesses at least one fine grammatical distinction that standard English completely lacks. Pullum explains that there is a “remote present perfect” tense in AAVE, evident in expressions like “she been married,” where “been” is emphasized. This doesn’t just mean “she has been married,” but “she is married and has been for some considerable time.” In a similar way, the AAVE form “be” + present participle—“be walking,” “be singing,” et cetera—is often mistaken for the equivalent of the English present continuous tense: “is walking,” “is singing.” In fact, it marks what is called “habitual aspect”—meaning the action is performed as a rule, not necessarily right this minute. “He be singing” therefore means not “he is singing,” but “he sings [as a hobby, or professionally].”

Another distinctive feature of AAVE is the use of the double negative, as in: “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it.” In standard English, this would be “I haven’t ever seen anything like it.” What is the reason for a double-up like this? If you say “I ain’t never,” don’t the two phrases cancel each other out? Aren’t you saying you have in fact seen it? That’s one argument for why this is just “bad,” irrational, sloppy English—but it’s wrong. What we’re seeing here is not logical negation but, as Pullum points out, a fairly common linguistic strategy called “negative concord”—negative agreement, in much the same way that, in French, nouns and the pronouns and adjectives used to describe them in a sentence must all agree in gender. Plenty of other languages have developed negative concord, for example Italian. “There is no one there” would be non c’e nessuno—literally “not is no one [there],” grammatically closer to the AAVE “ain’t nobody there.” It wouldn’t be plausible to accuse sixty million speakers of standard Italian of sloppiness or speaking in slang. So why would we do the same with AAVE?

AAVE often leaves out what linguists call the “copula”—that grammatical form of the verb “to be” (in other words, not the form that means “to exist,” as in “there once were dinosaurs,” or “to be equal to”—as in “God is love”). So a black speaker might say “How you doing?” or “You late.” But the standard forms of many languages do this—for example Arabic, where “You are late” is Anta muta’akhir—literally, “You late.”

None of these facts dampened the controversy in 1996 when the school board of Oakland, California, passed a motion addressing AAVE, which it called “Ebonics.” The board made clear it would recognize the dialect used at home by many of its pupils and would deploy it in the classroom, for example to “translate” standard English sentences so that students could understand them better. It is a mark of the stigmatization of AAVE that this move was met with fury, igniting a debate across the United States. A widespread assumption was that it was an example of “political correctness gone mad,” where a clearly substandard form of the language was being elevated simply because it was used by black people. The desire to bend over backward to accommodate an ethnic group’s sensitivities was trumping the need to deliver a high-quality education to the students of Oakland. The move was condemned as dumbing down, and of depriving black students the means by which to improve themselves. It was criticized by pundits both black and white. The civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said: “While we are fighting in California trying to extend affirmative action and fighting to teach our children so they become more qualified for jobs, in Oakland some madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language. You don’t have to go to school to learn to talk garbage.”

Given just how disparaged AAVE is, it’s not surprising that it was viewed as “garbage.” And it’s certainly true, given the way such attitudes permeate the worlds of employment and higher education, that students who could not master standard English would be at a disadvantage. But would using AAVE in classrooms squeeze out standard English, or aid its speakers in getting to grips with the more prestigious variety? Here’s what the Linguistic Society of America said in a 1997 resolution: “The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American Vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as ‘slang,’ ‘mutant,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘defective,’ ‘ungrammatical,’ or ‘broken English’ are incorrect and demeaning.” Not only that: “There is evidence from Sweden, the US, and other countries that speakers of other varieties can be aided in their learning of the standard variety by pedagogical approaches which recognize the legitimacy of the other varieties of a language. From this perspective, the Oakland School Board’s decision to recognize the vernacular of black students in teaching them Standard English is linguistically and pedagogically sound.”

In other words, using AAVE to help students acquire standard English actually speeds up that process. So why the fuss? Really, it just comes down to the closeness of AAVE to English—which enables it to be regarded as merely a sloppy version of the latter—combined with the extreme stigmatization of black people, such that symbols of their culture, including dialect, denote worthlessness. Among white people, anger at the normalization of AAVE might have been rooted in fears that it would, as a result, be in a better position to “contaminate” standard English.

Politics and language frequently collide in this way; how could they not? The way we speak becomes distinctive when we are separated from outside influences, either geographically, socially, or both. Over time, distinct dialects become powerfully symbolic of those networks. They can be badges of pride, or of shame. They can be elevated to the status of “language,” remain dialects, or get disparaged as slang. But these decisions are mostly sociopolitical, to do with stigma and status. The linguistic categorization starts with the idiolect—the forms of speech used by a single person. A collection of mutually intelligible idiolects forms a dialect. Where two dialects are not mutually intelligible, they are often called “languages”—unless there is a political or cultural reason not to regard them as such—as with Arabic, for example.

Languages don’t have hard borders. In places where populations have been stable for many centuries a dialect continuum can develop, as in southern Europe, where Italian blends into French and then to Spanish. So what is Italian? What is English, French or Spanish? Are they objects you can point to? Where do they begin and end?

In truth, of course, the mistake lies in taking languages to be “things,” analogous to objects. Once again, we find ourselves under the net. Because we can say “I learned Spanish” using the same syntax as “I kicked a ball,” we take the shorthand—Spanish is a “thing” that can have something done to it—to be reality.

Languages do exist, but they are not necessarily the things we take them for. On the one hand, we each have an understanding of at least our mother tongue that allows us to produce sentences in it according to certain rules. I say “I kicked the ball” not “the ball kicked I.” That knowledge of rules in our brains is one part of the reality of a language. The other part is its existence as an autonomous system, a means of communication whose form is negotiated between speakers. It is not fixed, but changes as it is used in millions of separate interactions.

David Shariatmadari is a writer and editor at the Guardian. He studied linguistics at Cambridge University and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he now lives.

Excerpted from Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth about Language. Copyright © 2019 by David Shariatmadari. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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