This article by Robert A. Leonard is as good a summary of how Black English should be viewed as any I’ve seen:

Any professional linguist will tell you that, as a language system of communication, black English and standard English are equal, in the same way that French and Greek and Chinese and English are all equal. They do things differently, but there is no factual way to say one is better than the other…

But if black English is not deficient, why do so many people believe it is? Because black Americans have a history of powerlessness. And every society I know worldwide looks down on the speech of the powerless. We learn this attitude unconsciously when we learn the million and one rules and beliefs of our society. Most of what we know we learn without being explicitly taught — by observation and deduction.

And Leonard goes on to describe this wonderful experiment:

Texas researcher Frederick Williams asked white student teachers to watch videotapes and rate black, Mexican-American and white Anglo children on whether their English was standard and how fluently they spoke. The white children scored highest. But the videotapes were specially done. Even though the visuals showed different children, there was only one voice track: standard English. Stereotypes were stronger than reality.

That should be taught to everyone as early as possible in the educational process; it might help avoid a lot of ignorant prejudice.

Many thanks to Ted Harlan for the link!

I can’t resist quoting part of Leonard’s bio:

Dr. Robert A. Leonard is Professor of Linguistics at Hofstra University. His specialty is Forensic Linguistics as applied to U.S. law. He directs the Linguistics Program, and is also Professor of Swahili… In the arts, Dr. Leonard co-founded and led the rock group Sha Na Na and as bass and lead singer performed at the Woodstock Festival, the Fillmores East and West, on television’s Tonight Show, and in the Academy Award-winning Woodstock movie.

Who said linguists were boring?


  1. But if black English is not deficient, why do so many people believe it is? Because black Americans have a history of powerlessness. And every society I know worldwide looks down on the speech of the powerless.
    I feel relieved. Ever since I read a comment by Toby (if I recall correctly) about women in his “Ebonics environment” speaking an “incorrect” form of English, I was looking for an appropriate way to respond to it (I know from personal experience what it means to be mocked for the “special” way you talk the official language when you come from a poorer area). On the other hand, not being American, and having never been to the US, I was afraid I might have misunderstood something (anyhow, I may post something over at Zhengming about the unpleasant aspects of my life as what I call a poulbot métèque).

  2. I just reread the post. Thanks again, that really means a lot to me, and explains a lot why I get so emotional whenever it comes to language.

  3. LH (and all Russian -speakers here), would you say this version of Russian “is not better than the other”, i.e. standard literary Russian as means of communication?

  4. Looks like somebody’s idiolect. But speaking about communication, I would say it’s just as good as “standard literary Russian” — everything is understandable.

  5. On that level I’d say BabbleFish understandable too.

  6. That’s amazing. I remember enjoying the Sha Na Na TV show as a kid!

  7. The point is not that all conceivable versions of a language (eg, Babelfish translations or the broken forms spoken by foreigners) are equally “good,” but rather that all forms of a language spoken natively are equally valid from a linguistic point of view (though not, obviously, on an equal level socially). No matter how despised a dialect may be, it is just as good a form of communication, and if (somehow) its speakers achieved power, it would (amazingly) turn out to have all sorts of beauties and capabilities never dreamed of before. Remember, English itself was the despised dialect of swineherds in the 12th and 13th centuries.

  8. While the point about stereotypes is well taken, it shouldn’t be linked to questionable assertions about the supposedly equal communicative powers of all languages and dialects.
    I know this is an article of faith among linguists, and it was drilled into me during my linguistics classes, but I have never yet seen evidence presented.
    To the contrary, the fact that literary and scientific achievement differs among cultures suggests that they aren’t equals in terms of what and how they communicate.

  9. What do you mean, no evidence? Every culture that suddenly achieves cultural flowering while keeping the same language is evidence — eg, England in Chaucer’s day or Russia in Catherine’s. How could they suddenly be capable of expressing all those things if their language was inherently impoverished? I’m sorry, but it’s up to you (if you don’t believe the “article of faith”) to provide evidence of a language or dialect that’s inherently incapable of “literary and scientific achievement.”

  10. Relatedly, Flitcraft at Metafilter on Scots.
    [oh, and Sha Na Na rawks!]

  11. Doesn’t the section about “standard American English” sound almost *exactly* like what David Foster Wallace recounts in his essay “Tense Present”? That’s what struck me immediately after reading this article.

  12. Chaucer! Ahem.
    Just being the devil’s advocate here — what about Piraha? I may have missed the end of that argument, but didn’t it seem that Piraha speakers have trouble counting, arguably because their language doesn’t include numeral words? If that really is how it works, then Piraha could be considered an example of a language inherently incapable of supporting certain kinds of scientific achievement.
    (I am not arguing that Black English is similarly limited, let’s be clear on that. I only raise this as an interesting thing to consider)
    Another point is that unless I am mistaken a lot of scientific and cultural achievement in English is linked to borrowed words, is it not? For science, you have a lot of vocabulary from Greek and Latin (and other languages) borrowed both for status and to differentiate the formal scientific concepts from the common English concepts. And in the arts there is a lot of borrowing from older languages as well, again for status but also because the English critics in question were consciously modelling their analyses on ancient classical theories (protagonist, tragedy, etc.).
    It does not have to be that way, of course; i am not an expert on Chinese science but afaik it does just fine by coining new Chinese words for scientific concepts using existing characters and pronunciations, rather than importing vocabulary directly like English did.

  13. People often get hung up on vocabulary. Vocabulary is irrelevant; of course a language spoken by a “primitive” people is not going to have the words needed for an “advanced” culture, but if cultural contact brings new knowledge and spurs development in science, for instance, the words will either be borrowed or invented from native stock, and either way they’re just as much a part of the language. Can it possibly make the slightest difference that English uses the borrowed oxygen while Russian uses the native kislorod? Would our science be somehow more authentic if we said “sourbirth” or the like? As for Piraha, who knows what the hell is going on there? I’ll wait till the facts are better known and assimilated before I start making sweeping changes in my ideas about language and culture.
    moxy: Yeah, I thought of DFW too. But it’s a natural tack to take if you have any sense.

  14. What “ideas” in language and culture made you to put quotations around primitive and advanced?
    Isn’t black English is a drivative from English? Russian of Lomonosov and English of Chaucer were not based on some other language, were they?
    In terms of communication, to understand black English, people have to speak and understand standard English first – not the same in case of Greek or French: there are no middle man there.

  15. I’m not trying to argue about the authenticity of borrowed vs. native-derived vocabulary — just pointing out that if a language happens to lack the specific tools to discuss some new development in the world, native speakers throughout the world have historically had no problem creating these tools (by borrowing or recombining or whatever). I mean, we seem to be in agreement about that. Perhaps I didn’t make my point in bringing that up as clear as I should have.
    I do think it is of great interest where the words come from, though, if only from a sociolinguistic point of view.
    And yes, even if Piraha does turn out to be a case of language limiting scientific achievement (counting), the very fact that we’re all so shocked and fascinated by this suggests that in the vast majority of cases, languages ARE equal, as you say and I think most of us believe.

  16. LH: you know this already, but it’s a point that isn’t made often enough in language circles online. Vocabulary is only irrelevant in a general sense–at a given time and place, it’s very relevant. It’s not economic of my time to go and promote words for stacks and queues and doubly-linked lists as Gaeilge, if I want to go and talk about computer science using that language. (And any interlocutors, who understood the area, would switch to English, were I to use the English terms directly.) So, here and now, English is more suited to that subject than is Irish.
    Similarly, Sakao is much more suited to talking about the various sub-types of intersex pigs than is English. 🙂 And is thus better than it.

  17. “How could they suddenly be capable of expressing all those things if their language was inherently impoverished?”
    That’s the point. They weren’t capable until they evolved to a certain point.
    Defining languages as equal in terms of “inherent” capability, including the capability to evolve into something completely different in the future, renders the concept almost meaningless in practical terms.
    I’m talking about snapshots of current capabilities in practical terms, not some nebulous concept of inherent capability.

  18. Just thought of something.
    “Fenya”, slang of criminals in Russia, is understandable for Russians (to a certain degree) and has ability to invent new vocabulary for new concepts. Would you call it a separate language in it’s own right?

  19. Piraha isn’t the only language that defies our expectations. There is a New Guinea language called Kalam that Andrew Pawley did the original (I believe) work on. When I first saw it I wrote to him and everybody I could think of who knew about New Guinea languages, and everyone assured me the data was good. Sorry I can’t recall details; but some Pawley papers are:
    Andrew Pawley, 1987: “Encoding events in Kalam and English: different logics for reporting experience” In: R. Tomlin (ed.), _Coherence and Grounding in Discourse_, pp. 329-360. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
    Andrew Pawley, 1993: “A language which defies description by ordinary means” In: W. Foley (ed), _The role of theory in language description_, pp. 87-129. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

  20. boo, there are many good reasons for differences in achievement between cultures, and none of them involve language. There are so many ways that any two cultures can differ that picking language as the primary motivator for achievement is completely baseless. I suggest you read “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jered Diamond.
    Tatyana, Black English is a derivative of English the same way French is a derivative of Latin. Knowing Latin won’t help you speak fluent French. Black English is more recent, so it is still very similar to English, but one could certainly learn Black English before learning Standard English, and many black children do exactly that. Nobody invented Black English; it evolved naturally, just like French, Italian, Spanish, etc evolved naturally from Latin.

  21. Ben, I’ve had enough experience with computer languages to know that the language you choose as a medium for development is extremely important in determining how successful you are. They really aren’t all equal.
    Human languages, while much more complex, share this trait.

  22. ben,
    so if kid learns slang first that makes the slang a language? Children of inmates in Siberian camps learned to “botat’ po fene” (to speak criminal Russian slang) before they learned standard Russian; that makes “fenya” a language?
    This logic reminds me of putting on trousers thru the head.

  23. To Tatyana,
    “Fenya” may not be a separate language, but a terrible interesting one.
    [LH filters tell me: Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: by. ru]
    http://discussio. by. ru/tem_01.shtml

  24. Tatyana-
    Black English is not just a compendium of slang or alternate pronunciations of words, it has other characteristics like habitual tenses unavailable in standard English. As a black child who learned Black English first at home, then standard English at school and in the wider community, I can attest to that progression. Admittedly, it was always a mix of both, there was no radical change from one way of speaking to antoher. I may have been putting my trousers over my head, but that was the way I used to get dressed.
    While the similarities between computer and human languages are very interesting, the vast differences between the two make your comparison untenable.

  25. I would greatly appreciate if linguists out there provide me with guidance: what defines a language vs.slang?
    Is it “having habitual tenses”? Really, I’m most curious.
    Mr.king mob, I don’t doubt the progression you described exist, and I sympathize with you – having dressing habits like yours must made it hard for you to adapt to “wider community”.
    I myself was having a 1-2 yrs culture shock when I arrived in US being confident in my English comprehension to discover I understand only geographical names in the speech, and only after I saw them written behind TV commentator on the background map. But somehow it didn’t dawn on me to claim that English I learned in Russian-Tatarian high school and later in Russian-Udmurt University is a separate language, equal to American English.
    That reminds me of the episode of *Friends* when Pheobe teaches Joey to play guitar – not using notes, the standard way, but by her own devised system of terms – and prohibits him to see the textbook intil he’s prone to “corruption”.

  26. I am not black, but a white, Jewish American female who lives and works in a predominantly black urban environment. There are distinct cultural and linguistic differences that I observe daily in my interactions with Ebonic-speaking peers, many of them little children.
    One of the tenses that I’ve heard from Ebonic speakers (and the Spanish-speaking ESL kids I teach who are learning black English from their peers) is the following structure: “Ï been knew that.” The standard English rendering of that is along the lines of the longer “I’ve known that for a long time” or “I already knew that.”
    Another Ebonic variation that all my second language learners are acquiring from their peers is the over-generalization “ït’s mines”. It’s yours, it’s hers, it’s ours, it’s mine, instead of it’s mines. BTW, I’ve never heard an adult ESL student over-generalize that structure.
    Some of the Ebonic lexical items may also be shared by white Southerners. All yáll is the kind of super-plural of yáll, which fills the English lexical void for a plural form for you (ustedes en español). I have heard white Southereners use that one. A pen is never a pen, which could be confused with a pin; it’s a ink pin. Which reminds me, an before a vowel sound in a noun seems to be eliminated.
    People don’t converse, but the children in my school better not be standing around conversating.
    I guess for me it’s just another “language” to acquire and I refuse to not understand it completely.

  27. Tatyana, I tremble to ask you what your opinion is of Ukrainian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Polish, and the other off-dialects of Russian.
    Black American English has never been developed as a language of culture and education. This is for historical reasons, not because there’s something wrong with Black English per se.
    Europe is full of languages which used to be ignorant peasant languages and which now are national languages. Finnish was scarcely a written language (except for church stuff) before the XIX-c. Catalan has been up, then down, and now is up again. Scots used to be a language of high culture and now people are trying to revive it. Demotic Greek was despised by classicists during the XIX-c.
    And so on.

  28. Ben: What is a habitual tense?
    Toby: Very cool! I wonder if Southerners inherited “y’all” from the “ustedes” of the Spaniards who explored a lot of the South and West, not to mention all those hispanohablantes south of the border?
    Tatyana: When you spoke the English you learned in school, could your classmates understand you? If they did, I’d say it is a language equal to American English — just not one with many speakers!
    boo: Having written, at various times, QBASIC, Perl, C++, Java, z80 assembly language, PBASIC, and HTML, I agree that every computer language is much better suited to some tasks than to others. However, in my experience, human languages are far less varied than computer languages — comparing English, Black English, and Spanish is like comparing C++, C#, and Pascal. Each language has its own syntax and vocabulary, but in terms of program structure they’re essentially the same. All three languages have the same basic capabilities, and a program written in C++ probably couldn’t be improved by porting it to Pascal, and vice versa.
    Besides, since when does the language you speak on the street have to be capable of great technical accomplishments? Do Germany, Argentina, and the United States lag behind in theoretical physics because standard German, Spanish, and English don’t have words for “p-brane”? Are the Chinese and British unable to read Western sheet music because “sfortzando,” “crescendo,” and “dal segno al coda” are Italian?

  29. How is modern Ebonics related to the dialect(s) of antebellum slaves? that of Porgy and Bess? Is it a product of continuous development all the way from the cotton (or even sugar cane) fields to the inner cities? Or was there a moment–perhaps a few decades ago–when most African-Americans (at least in the cities) spoke nearly-standard American English–i.e., has the black dialect been diverging from the standard one since relatively recently, after previous black dialects all but merged into it?
    Old black dialects have already proven their potential for creative expression–take the huge blues tradition for example.

  30. Michael Farris says

    “I would greatly appreciate if linguists out there provide me with guidance: what defines a language vs.slang?
    Is it “having habitual tenses”? Really, I’m most curious.”
    No, slang is a kind of word (or longer fixed expression). Every living language has slang.
    Balck English isn’t only slang, though of course, Black English slang tends to heavily influence slang of Standard American English (SAE). But Black English has different (patterned) rules of morphology and syntax that differ it from SAE. It’s not comprable to either immigrant second language English (as in your case) or regional variants of SAE (like my rural Floridian dialect).
    Black English is to SAE roughly what Byelorussian is to Russian. It’s describably on its own as an complete spoken language system. It’s independent in terms of phonology, morphology and syntax (though it overlaps a good deal with Russian). It can be and is learned as a first language though you’ll have to look very hard to find monolingual adults.
    Both are also victims of prejuidice. From what I’ve read, attempts to improve the status of Byelorussian run into the hurdle that from the point of view of Standard Russian speakers (which almost all Byelorussian speakers become to a greater or lesser degree) literary Byelorussian seems kind of ridiculous (“like a peasant trying to discuss physics” is how one person described it to me).
    (I think I might be able to substitute “Ukrainian” for Byelorussian but Ukrainian has a stronger literary record than does Byelorussian and apparently Russian speakers can overcome the giggle factor in listening to Ukrainian.)
    There has been no attempt to create a literary Black English for similar reasons.

  31. Michael Farris says

    “How is modern Ebonics related to the dialect(s) of antebellum slaves? that of Porgy and Bess?”
    The origins of Black English are in the US south but the language of Porgy and Bess is not real Black English (it’s a wonderful work of musical theater, but the language seems all wrong to me).
    “Is it a product of continuous development all the way from the cotton (or even sugar cane) fields to the inner cities?”
    Well it continued to evolve in the rural south as well.
    “Or was there a moment–perhaps a few decades ago–when most African-Americans (at least in the cities) spoke nearly-standard American English”
    As far as I know, that has never been the case. Actually, IIRC Black English was once spoken by white (including elites, maybe even especially elites) in the south.

  32. I am immersed daily in an environment where black vernacular English or Ebonics is spoken and I really hesitate to call it a language or even a dialect. Rather, it seems like a variant, not dissimilar from a regional variety of standard American English. Rarely is it unintelligible to an attentive native speaker of English who wants to understand it.
    Another bunch of examples for all y’all who never hear it. “Who book?” means whose book and at first it through me for a loop, until I saw the kid holding a book. Another example of a dropped terminal s occurs in the possessive form: I went over my uncle house. In elementary school language arts, children learn the standard possessive form and at times use it in unmonitored, spontaneous conversation.
    “There go your daddy” means the obvious, even if he’s sitting there and not walking.
    It’s rich and there are so many examples.

  33. I could be completely misremembering a bit of information learned years ago, but here goes….
    I was reminded of this last week when Language Log mentioned that “Talk Like a Pirate Day” is fast approaching. Black American English, Jamaican patois (and related West Indian patois and creoles), along with stereotypical “pirate talk” (e.g, “We be sailin’ the seven seas in sarch o’ booty, aaarh”) are all derived from Congolese River Patois, the mixture of English, Dutch, Arabic and West African languages that was the language of the slave trade and of all trade along the middle passage. It is still used as a lingua franca in the Congo river basin today.
    Black English is probably the most remote from Congolese River Patois due to years of isolation and the efforts of both well- and ill-intentioned reformers, but I believe that contemporary Jamaican Patois and Congolese Patois are still mutually intellegible.
    Of course, all we know of real “pirate talk” is what survives from literary sources, but “middle passage” traders would’ve been known to Stevenson when he created Long John Silver, although he surely cleaned it up for Treasure Island. The simplified conjugation of “to be” is the link to middle passage trade.

  34. It seems to me that BVE or Ebonics is a Creole that came from the pidgin of African slaves from different tribal groups talking among themselves. Every theory always puts the slave master in, but most communication certainly was African to African, of differing tribal languages.
    Another example most of the white staff members at my school didn’t understand: The school secretary mentioned that there would be a “repass” on Friday and she’d be collecting money. One of the black teachers didn’t like the word because it reminded her of someone dying and the meal after the funeral, and no one had died. The white teachers realized that the school secretary was referring to a staff luncheon.

  35. There has been no attempt to create a literary Black English for similar reasons.
    So much for James Weldon Johnson. Zora Neale Hurston. Langston Hughes. Ralph Ellison. Toni Morrison. So much for the entire Harlem Rennaisance. So much for Robert Johnson and Leadbelly and, and, and… And while we can argue the merits of rap, I didn’t think the label “literary” necessarily implied anything about merit.
    Maybe I’m missing something, maybe I’m oversensitive, but it seems that the definition you all are working from here is, “If it’s literature, it’s not Black English, and if it is Black English, it’s not literature.”

  36. So much for James Weldon Johnson. Zora Neale Hurston. Langston Hughes. Ralph Ellison. Toni Morrison. So much for the entire Harlem Rennaisance.
    “With things going so well I distributed my letters in the mornings, and saw the city during the afternoons. Walking about the streets, sitting on subways beside whites, eating with them in the same cafeterias (although I avoided their tables) gave me the eerie, out-of-focus sensation of a dream. My clothes felt ill-fitting; and for all my letters to men of power, I was unsure of how I should act. For the first time, as I swung along the streets, I thought consciously of how I had conducted myself at home. I hadn’t worried too much about whites as people. Some were friendly and some were not, and you tried not to offend either. But here they all seemed impersonal; and yet when most impersonal they startled me by being polite, by begging my pardon after brushing against me in a crowd. Still I felt that even when they were polite they hardly saw me, that they would have begged the pardon of Jack the Bear, never glancing his way if the bear happened to be walking along minding his business. It was confusing. I did not know if it was desirable or undesirable.”
    –Ellison, Invisible Man
    Well, it’s certainly English, and Ellison was certainly black, but.

  37. I’m late to this party, but how is it important that the experiment by Williams that Leonard cites is about 30 years old? (Found reference here.)
    My feeling is that, while plenty has changed in American culture since the early Seventies, attitudes toward Black English have been fairly consistent. I can cite only anecdotal evidence, though.

  38. Day worth remembering – I made Mr.Emerson-Zizka “tremble”!
    Belorussian, Ukranian, Polish and Russian are full-fledged languages, with their dialects and many regional variants, not mentioning 100s if not thousands, years of history, plentiful literature and folklore traditions. (Mike Farris, contrary to your belief, there is a majority of Belorussians who’s native language is Belorussian, even though for the past 70 years this language was de facto persecuted; the sentence you quote undoubtedly was uttered by a non-Belorussian. Try to tell a Pole his language sounds funny.)
    In my layman’s mind, native language is something that developed over centuries of common history, something that unites an ethnicity (with all it’s tribal and clanish differences and corresponding dialects) – usually living on common territory (like French), but not necessarily (like Yiddish). There are also ambassador languages, natural (English, Chinese), or constructed (Esperanto).
    Everything else is slang. Street, professional, gang or age-related – but slang.
    On the other hand, language directly relates to social matters (sorry, LH, you can look on the two separately only in a lab, not in real life).
    Depending what your goal is, you’ll encourage it to elevate into a dialect>language or discourage to disappear entirely.
    If you want to separate/segregate/establish as uniform nationality certain group of people – you’ll encourage social/legal/economic developement from slang to language.
    If America wants to be a melting pot (sorry for this tired cliche) – let’s better say soup and not a concoction of raw vegetables in a pot of water, the goal as I see it is assimilation of the elements under unification language – English.
    Black English, as far as I understood from reading the above very informative comments, is a remnant of ambassador language and at the same time is a tongue of poverty, ghetto and segregation. Would you want to conserve it?
    My grandmother followed the same logic when she refused to teach my mom Yiddish, even though it was her own native language. “This is a language of depravity”, she said, language of slavery and shame. My kids will not be subjected to it”
    I don’t blame her.

  39. “In my layman’s mind, native language is something that developed over centuries of common history, something that unites an ethnicity… There are also ambassador languages, natural (English, Chinese), or constructed (Esperanto). Everything else is slang. Street, professional, gang or age-related – but slang.”
    Sounds reasonable to me. Could you define “ambassador language,” and explain how it’s different from “slang”?
    You, of all people, though, should know that your personal linguistic argot, charactarized by the misuse of standard terms like “native language” and “slang,” as well as bizarre constructs like “ambassador language,” is completely invalid, and must not be used in the Language Hat community, lest the user doom himself to ostracization and economic failure.
    “Black English, as far as I understood from reading the above very informative comments, is a remnant of ambassador language and at the same time is a tongue of poverty, ghetto and segregation. Would you want to conserve it?
    My grandmother followed the same logic when she refused to teach my mom Yiddish, even though it was her own native language. ‘This is a language of depravity’, she said, ‘language of slavery and shame. My kids will not be subjected to it’
    I don’t blame her.”
    For centuries, Judaism was a religion of slavery and shame. Shall we smother it too, stamp it out of existence because, if it’s not good enough for the others, it’s not good enough for us either?

  40. Aaron,
    I’m surprised you even bothered to answer me, with my bizarre constructs and misuse of standard terms (standard terms? I thought standard was a curse word?)
    I wasn’t aware there is a “LH community”. And, to tell you the truth, I never cared for opinion of any communities/crowds/political parties/religious organizations/neighborhood watches.
    I, of all people, am not afraid of ostracization (you can guess why, I’m sure). As to “economic failure” – since, as I said, I am a layman and have no linguistic/academia affiliations – I’am very much satisfied by my financial situation.
    Since this blog is not your property, I’d like to know is your generous “shut up” offer autorized by rightful owner?

  41. There are black families that hate BVE or Ebonics and just plain call it bad grammar or street language, not permitting it in their homes. There are black families who insist that their children speak standard, proper, grammatically correct English (oh, here come the complaints, but then again all yáll speak standard English anyway). Some realize that speaking Ebonics may be a comfortable change in language register for casual, informal talk, it may also brand its speakers as substandard amd marginalized. But this mentality, once quite popular with black middle classes even during segregation, seems to be fading.
    And Tanechka, my Russian Jewish immigrant grandparents made sure my father learned English and not Yiddish, wanting him to be an American, not a speaker of a dialect of German (though they could have spoken Russian at home, zhal.) I imagine your relatives wanted to insist that Russian was spoken to un-ghettoize the younger generation and thoroughly Russify them.

  42. This may be apocryphal, but Stalin is supposed to have said that “A language is a dialect with an army.”

  43. I’d like to know is your generous “shut up” offer autorized by rightful owner?
    No. Aaron, you have the same right as everyone else to put in your two cents here, but please don’t attack other commenters that way. I share Tatyana’s feelings about communities/crowds/political parties/religious organizations/neighborhood watches, and as far as I’m concerned the “LH community” is just a bunch of individuals who enjoy hanging out here. I’d like to keep it a pleasant experience for all of them. Thanks!

  44. Dave: That was no Stalin, that was Max Weinreich! (And he said it in the “language of depravity.”)

  45. I didn’t think so; thank you, LH.
    As to the interesting analogy with computer languages: via Avva on the bloggroll to the right I came across this funny curiosity.
    It’s in Russian, so I’ll explain the situation.
    Living in Russia girl asked her French friend to buy a Harry Potter book for her, wrote her postal address in Russian and sent the letter by an e-mail. Her friend unquestionably copied the address as he saw it on on his screen, made a package and mailed it.

  46. “The Spanish language seems and will always seem ridiculous to Italians for the same reason that a monkey strikes man as ridiculous – great similarity joined to important differences. But this laughing at Spanish is… also open to reciprocity, since it is natural that Italian, by the same token, seems absurd to Spaniards.”
    –Giacomo Leopardi

  47. (P.S. – it’s necessary to see the picture in order to understand Tatyana’s story. Same thing happened to me, actually, while living in Turkey – my father’s browser used a different encoding than my browser, so the address got all kinds of screwed up, but my package nevertheless arrived. Though naturally the strange characters were fewer.)

  48. Thanks for linking to that story, Tatyana (and PF) — I had meant to do it, but forgot!

  49. Michael Farris says

    Tatyana : Actually it _was_ a native speaker of Byelorussian who told me that. And I’ve heard of similar statements from others. A story about a Byelorussian magazine (in a Polish newspaper) had a statement by the editor that he was trying to prove that it was possible to write about anything and everything in Byelorussian (apparently a hard sell). The fact that president for life (and then some) Lukaszenko doesn’t speak Byelorussian and likes to close down publications in that language hasn’t helped the status of the language.
    HP: There has been no attempt to create a standard written language around Black English. For linguists, the term ‘literary language’ doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with literature as such. ‘Literay language’ just refers to a standardized written form used for purposes of formal publishing. You’re right that many great African American authors have incorporated elements of Black English into their writing, but they were not trying to create a new standard.

  50. Michael Farris,
    Lukashenko is Eastern Ukranian ethnically and permanent Soviet citizen ideologically. Belorussian identity, including language matters were surpressed by different occupying powers (including Polish) for a long time. For reading on this topic I can recommend Live Journal by Belorussian blogger Wlodek who writes only in Belorussian (and often comments in this language in someone else’s blogs). Btw, in his last post there is a funny joke on Lukashenko’s linguistic abilities.
    Toby: indeed. To the extend that my mom became a first generation college graduate and specialist in “Pedagogy of Russian language and Literature in Middle School”.

  51. It seems that, like Yiddish, Black English has little social value outside of the community of speakers. I suppose it is irrelevant to linguistic classification, though.
    A literaturoved would probably take a different angle. Yiddish was once called “jargon” but the emergence of major Jewish writers legitimized it, so to speak. But is it technically possible to write a novel entirely in Ebonics?
    Russian borrowed a few dozen words from Yiddish (some are of Hebrew origin). So did American English. (I have a theory that schmo and Russ. chmo are basically the same Yiddish word.) Ebonics is also influencing mainstream English, but since Black English is more about grammar than vocabulary, will this impact persist?
    By the way, would it be correct to assume a child of well-educated African-American parents living and going to school in a place like Alaska would not be exposed to Ebonics at all?

  52. Michael Farris says

    “Lukashenko is Eastern Ukranian ethnically and permanent Soviet citizen ideologically.”
    Yes, a truly nasty piece of work. I actually think he’s been getting crazier (if possible) lately.
    “Belorussian identity, including language matters were surpressed by different occupying powers (including Polish) for a long time.”
    True enough. At present, though, IINM a fair amount of Byelorussian content is generated from within Poland (since the country itself isn’t too safe).
    That’s also my point, there’s no objective reason that Byelorussian should have second class status among its own native speakers, but that does seem to be the case.
    Similarly, there’s no objective reason that Black english should be stigmatized. Just about all the criticism I’ve seen of Black English seems like plain old ugly prejuidice (with no grounds in linguistics whatsoever).

  53. Tatyana, Wlodek writes in Ukrainian. A namesake, Uladzimir Katkouski, blogs in Belarusan.
    For a Russian (and I dare suppose for a Pole or Ukrainian as well), Belarusan is a bit of a pain to read because no matter if using Cyrillic or Latin, its writing system puts too much emphasis on phonetics. Even loans get transformed: what was product(um) in Latin is produkt in many a Slavic language, but not in Belarusan: it has pradukt. “Occasional” is not okkazional’nyj, as in Russian, but akkazijanal’nyj; “contamination” becomes kantaminatsija, and so on.

  54. But is it technically possible to write a novel entirely in Ebonics?
    Of course. Novels can be written in any language, but most languages don’t have the cultural-literary context for them (for that matter, most languages aren’t even written down). If a great writer decided to write a novel in Black English (to be distinguished from a novel in Standard English with a few token elements of Black usage), a publisher decided to take a chance on it, and it actually sold, it would be a giant stride forward in terms of general acceptance of the language. But I’m not holding my breath.
    Just about all the criticism I’ve seen of Black English seems like plain old ugly prejuidice (with no grounds in linguistics whatsoever).
    Amen. And thanks for all your informed commentary in this thread; you’ve made life easier for me!

  55. Alexei – aha! that’s why I had no difficulties whatsoever in reading his blog!
    You’re right, I linked the wrong man, sorry.
    Both are fine read though.
    I know, I’m endangering my dear life now, but I still have a question:
    if quoted above professor/band musician advocates studying black English as means of installing ethnic pride and appreciacion of their heritage into slave descendents (did I get him right?) wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage them to study the primary sources, i.e. the languages of their African Ancestors?
    [I do have more questions, but while I may be masochistic I’m not suicidal.]

  56. Eve Léonard says

    It seems to me like this issue is similar to that of France French vs Québec French.
    There is a general prejudice, in France, that Québec French speakers are uneducated and have an “inferior” culture, whatever that means. I have been ridiculed in France merely because of my accent, when I had made no mistake at all in my grammar or choice of words. My in-laws (and husband), having had an English Canadian life in Québec, feel the same way. Québec French is seen as an ignorant’s only choice.
    Granted, it is probably much easier for me since an ocean separates Québec from France, but I feel many of the issues are strikingly similar.
    There are also the English-French frictions; even with the rise of the current French-speaking crop of fine minds, it is still viewed as the language of “new money” and is not to be taken too seriously in business matters…
    Sorry I got on so late in this thread, it is most interesting!

  57. Eve, I understand your comments and lived in France, and am aware of the French feelings towards Quebec French (no accent for me, as I’m writing en anglais). Don’t feel bad: they make fun of Belgian and Swiss French, too. And use a racist word to describe French when spoken by Africans. And don’t get me started on what they think of Arabs who are Francophones.
    BVE aka Ebonics is not to be thought of as a separate language. I am imersed in it daily. It’s English. For a book to be written in it, it would be mostly the dialogue or a character’s inner monologue. And it’s English, with heavy phonological differences from SAE, some morphological, syntactic pragmatic and semanitic differences. For those of you in the Language Hat community (it wasn’t my choice of words, but it works)who are not native or native-like speakers of English, you may find it difficult to understand. But I assure you, most native speakers of SAE CAN understand BVE with exposure to it and an open mind. It must not be thought of as a distinct language, but as a patois.

  58. Eve! Great to see you in this thread, and I think that’s a good comparison. (Sorry I didn’t get a chance to look you up when we were in Montreal, but we were only there for two days — maybe next time!)
    Tatyana: While African languages certainly contributed to the history of American blacks, the influence is pretty remote at this point, and the practical value would be limited. Black English, on the other hand, is what many blacks speak natively, and in terms of both pride and ease of learning Standard English it makes sense to teach Black English as a self-contained system of communication. (Once you teach “He be there” as a habitual tense, you can explain that in SE there’s no direct equivalent, so you have to use adverbs in many cases to make the meaning clear: “He’s [normally/usually] there [every day/most times].”)

  59. It seems that, like Yiddish, Black English has little social value outside of the community of speakers.
    An hour of MTV and an afternoon in a predominantly white high school might suggest otherwise. Borrowings from Black English has great relevance in those marketplaces. White kids unironically drop words and constructions from BE like they’re passwords.

  60. Exactly, j.streed: that’s the result of massive “diversity” brainwashing in schools and media/MTV which our esteemed host and so called LH community evidently support.
    As a member of interested public, I’d rather see that this country has uniform educational policy, language aspect of which is this: Standard Literary American English is official and mandatory language. If anybody wants to study anything else – Native American, Latin, Spanish, Welsh or Black English – go ahead and do it as a foreign language. Your local school doesn’t have the program? This is democracy, baby – work on it. Chinese-American parents find resources for teaching their kids in Sunday Chinese language schools – and they are not very rich people either (by paying their own money, not the taxpayers’). The same thing should be a rule for Russians, black Americans, Puerto-Ricans and anybody else: no ESL.
    I can understand (we’re all humans) the urge of linguists who want to indulge into as many different language studying as physically possible (ehm*perverts*-aside), but to make public to pay for this folly by turning slang/dialect/whatever into language claiming a piece of public funds pie is a bit too much.
    Clue rotten tomatoes.

  61. BVE/Ebonics should not be taught like high school French or Spanish. It’s too much like English. Yet all teachers, especially those working in mostly black schools, need to understand it and be familiar with it. As does a language, Ebonics has regularity, though I hesitate to say it has its own grammar. Yet it is not a language, as it is English. But a source of pride? If a white child says “I ain’t did my homework”, it’s thought of as bad grammar. If a black child says it, is it Ebonics? For years, middle class black educators (mostly female) had the role of teaching or exposing their charges to standard American English. They didn’t call what the child spoke anything but bad grammar. And believed it was a style of speech that kept people from moving upward.

  62. Though I can teach Spanish or French, Tatyana, please don’t do away with ESL. It’s what I teach, mostly to immigrant children, who don’t stay in it long. We do a good job and the children master English as well as subject matter. Then they exit from ESL services and are mainstreamed.

  63. Toby, you’re addressing the wrong person. I have no influence on programs or public funds distribution, I’m just grumping: my son started his freshman year at [very] expensive University and I’d prefer my money went to a normal experienced professor for his math class (it’s his major) instead of cheap empty-headed graduate student he has for a teacher. Instead University seems to be able to afford an expansive Ph.D staff for “Diversity education”…

  64. Tatyana, I appreciate your passion in this matter, but that’s not quite what I meant . . . and I’m afraid this whole thread is getting terribly tangled. I’m kind of sorry to have added my frayed bit to the mess.

  65. Jason, I don’t know what you talkin’ bout. Ain’t nothin’ tangled ’bout this thread ’cause we havin a conversation. And Tanya, I jus messin wid ya. I know you can’t eliminate government programs.

  66. Apologies: that should’ve been “cue”, not “clue”.

  67. Yeah, I think we’re having a pretty good conversation here. Just don’t anybody get out of line…
    *taps pool cue against bar*

  68. Doug Sundseth says

    To my mind, the differences between modes of verbal communication exist on a continuum that runs from (approximately) accent to dialect to language. Along the way, there are variations described as patois, creoles, pidgins, etc. Unless I am much mistaken, there are no bright lines between these; there is no single word order or tense change that unmistakably marks the transition from dialect to language. Rather, the technical discussion is one of whether differences are more language-like or more dialect-like, and some situations are arguably either.
    As an example, American English (hereafter American) is pronounced differently than English English (hereafter English) — I’ll skip the examples. American is spelled differently than English in many cases (grey/gray, colour/color, etc.) American uses different words than English in many common contexts (lumber, pavement, football, etc.; English-American dictionaries are available, though they aren’t called that usually.) American uses different orthography than English in at least some cases (ligatured ae and oe are hardly ever used in American). American and English are grammatically different in regular ways (IBM has/have decided to support Linux…, different than/to, etc.)
    I contend that the differences create a different dialect, not a different language, but only because of the degree of difference, not the kind of difference.
    To the extent that such a distinction allows a teacher to more easily communicate differences to a student, it seems quite useful (see LH’s example of “he be there” as a habitual tense above.)
    Unfortunately, the language/dialect difference is too often used as a proxy for other arguments. Any answer to the question, “Is Macedonian a language or a dialect*”, for example, could get you beaten in the wrong bar. Though the argument uses the terminology of linguistics, it is actually about politics on the ground.
    Much the same attends the argument about BVE/Ebonics (or Lallans, a subject of this same discussion elsewhere recently). It seems uncontroversial to me to argue that it exists somewhere on the continuum between dialect and language. It certainly shows the attributes of language to some degree, but it is also completely intelligible to most speakers of standard literary english. FWIW, my opinion is that it stands rather closer to the dialect end of the above-mentioned continuum than the language end, but I believe I understand the position of those who disagree.
    Doug Sundseth
    ps. I hope this comment will not require Mr. LH to come out from behind his bar.
    *Please don’t answer this question here, my interest is only vague and academic; the same is unlikely to be true of others.

  69. Not at all, an excellent discussion — in fact, the next drink’s on the house!
    *raps bar with knuckle*
    (Funny, I was just discussing Macedonian with Kiril, the Mad Macedonian.)

  70. Your discussion is very interesting. Personally, I stand for the pure language. Many countries already have the problem of dialects. If we go on with that, we’ll face a kind of babel…

  71. A wonderful discussion. Just rereading it now, in 2022, 20 years after I wrote the article that prompted this excellent, thoughtful exchange.
    Unfortunately, not much has happened in the intervening 20 years to lift the stigma against Black English/African American English/AAVE/Ebonics among the general public–but at least there are now another 20 years of linguistics and forensic linguistics students who have been taught about it, and other dialects, and languages.
    Since I wrote that article I started an MA in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra University. We deal with all aspects of the intersection of language and law, and this is certainly one. The reception of different dialects and accents in court has, of course, serious repercussions and there is solid research on stigma resulting in skewed justice. This is a very complicated dynamic and an area ripe for study. Also, the situation of AAE is difficult in other ways—see the excellent “Testifying while black: An experimental study of court reporter accuracy in transcription of African American English”

    Best to all,


  72. Rob! Thanks very much for dropping by and adding an update (even if not a very cheery one); it was interesting to reread the thread after all these years.

  73. Hi Rob, nzuri kukuona, heri ya mwaka mpya!

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