Race, Class, and Talking Proper


Talking that Talk: Language Culture, and Education in African America

To get honesty out of the way at once, so I can get on with the business of book-reviewing:

Professor John Baugh, now of Stanford, was for some years an esteemed colleague at U.T.—Austin. Distinguished Professor Geneva Smitherman of Michigan State (“Doctor G”) has been a friend for thirty years and says nice things about me in her book. Both Baugh and Smitherman are black. Neither will like my review. The grandson of slave-owners, I’m a good Anglo-Saxon (known ancestors English, French, Scotch, Irish, Welsh, Italian, Dutch).

Among linguists, a sense of humor is considered unprofessional. Among white linguists, critical reading of black colleagues is taboo. I maintain that without laughter, life’s not worth living, and that refusal to criticize the work of black colleagues is the ultimate condescension. I should add a) that I make no claim to be a linguist, just a linguist-watcher, and b) that my own language is Old High Honkian, learned long decades ago in Decatur, Georgia, and cherished to this day. I’d no more change it than tell Doctor G she don’t talk proper.

Now for the review.

John Baugh reports that his parents, who both have doctorates, made a big deal of talking proper in their household. I judge from his own account that their effort still shows in their son’s work. To speak plainly, Baugh sets himself up as a bit of a guru, and his style is marked by what I call linguistese. When, for one example, he should simply write “is political,” he timidly circumnavigates the truth: “The only justification for using the terms ‘correct English’ or ‘proper English’ appears to be politically motivated” (emphasis added). To Baugh’s great credit, however, when the school board in Oakland, California, passed its much damnified Ebonics resolution (which Baugh twice calls “infamous”), he eventually spoke out loud and clear against improper judgments of impropriety.

The term Ebonics, angrily put together from ebony and phonics in 1973, has been given widely varying meanings; but for present purposes it can be translated as “the vernacular language of black folks.” That “primary language” of Oakland’s African-American pupils, the school board declared in December, 1996, is “genetically based and not a dialect of English.” Its roots are in West Africa. Like “others whose primary languages are other than English,” African-American pupils would therefore profit if they were instructed both in Ebonics and in English by properly trained and rewarded teachers.

The school board’s well intended, badly written, and deeply divisive resolution let loose public hell. It even caused some consternation (unexplained) in John Baugh’s family. He himself, as a favorite pupil of the eminent sociolinguist William Labov and as an established independent scholar, couldn’t tell young blacks in Oakland that they didn’t speak English; but he chose to break his vexed silence and write his book when Brent Staples in The New York Times (January 24, 1997) called “vernacular African-American English” bad names like “street language,” “street talk,” “urban slang,” “broken inner-city English.”

Baugh resented such denunciation of “the unique linguistic heritage of American slave descendants” (he won’t call them African Americans because Edmund Morris, Ronald Reagan’s Kenya-born biographer, appropriated that name for himself); and after replying to Staples in the Times, he accepted an invitation from Oxford University Press to write about the foofaraw. In rightly denouncing the denunciation of Ebonics, Baugh had the security of a contemporary resolution by the Linguistic Society of America. The L.S.A. declared, as all competent observers would, that “there are individual and group benefits to maintaining vernacular speech varieties,” that “there are scientific and human advantages to linguistic diversity,” and that “for those living in the United Sates there are also benefits in acquiring Standard English” (which, as Smitherman says, might less judgmentally be called “the language of wider communication”).

Beyond Ebonics has a “Forward” by Dell Hymes (emeritus at Virginia), a “Preface” by Baugh, extensive “Acknowledgments,” nine chapters, three documentary “Appendixes,” a four-page bibliography, and an “Index.” The book is full of useful information, but maybe the most important chapter is the ninth, “Beyond Ebonics: Striving Toward Enhanced Linguistic Tolerance.” Its admirable sentiments, unfortunately, don’t offer much that’s both new and significant. Already in his “Preface,” Baugh stated his “ultimate aspiration for a future in which linguistic bigotry becomes a relic of the past”; but he seems to think of himself as a political centrist, shuns conflict, yet is well aware that after decades of academic oratory, “the vast majority of the important practical issues pertaining to African-American language remain unresolved.”

I believe deeply that a scholar “devoted to the educational welfare of the poor” and inimical to “linguistic bigotry” should also damn the brutal distinctions of social class. He can leave the middle of the road to dead armadillos. As a deeply divided man attempting dispassionate scholarly discussion, Baugh makes an interesting and respectable figure; but poor folks can’t eat sympathetic academic words, and rich and powerful class-warriors just ignore academic piety. I decided that my own life hasn’t been totally wasted when I was told that the departing Chancellor of the U.T. System had gone out of his way to mark me as a troublemaker. Thank you, Excellency!

Geneva Smitherman wasn’t born to bedoctored parents. The daughter of a black preacher (the Reverend Napoleon), but the first member of her family to go to school beyond the seventh grade, she was born in the sharecropping community of Brownsville, Tennessee, went “up South” when her family moved to Chicago and Detroit, and mastered street smarts in adventures which she promises to recount in a “work in progress” (Memoirs of a Daughter in the Hood). Quick intelligence made the future Doctor G ready for university work by age fifteen. A highly articulate woman (I once sat beside her as she eviscerated John Simon on a Dick Cavett show), she was promptly informed that she had flunked the speech test for prospective teachers. She has never forgotten or forgiven that absurd judgment.

Helped by a teaching assistant who sensibly taught the stupid test, Smitherman learned not to say “mouf,” passed the exam, and went on with her higher education. She encountered linguistics in the classes of Donald J. Lloyd at Wayne State; but the best of her education came from her independent reading of people like W.E.B. Dubois, Carter G. Woodson, Frantz Fanon, and the linguists Lorenzo Dow Turner and Beryl Bailey. Her studies have paid off in thirty years of teaching, research, and publication, perhaps most notably in the two books Talking and Testifyin and Black Talk, and in the present anthology of her best “articles and essays.” Its title reflects her long and arduous effort to enliven her “language of wider communication” with a vernacular admixture.

Talkin that Talk is a more ambitious book than Beyond Ebonics – sometimes too ambitious, as when Smitherman gets beyond her depth in reviewing Noam Chomsky’s Language and Responsibility. The first four of the book’s six parts are entitled “Ebonics, Language Theory, and Research,” “Language and Education of African Americans,” “Language and Culture,” and “Language Policy, Politics, and Power.” Language theory, language and culture, politics and power — all in one book? My responses ranged from “Admirable!” to “How could she!” I was most put off by what I took to be a strain of ethnic separatism. If ethnic or ancestral separatism should ever become truly dominant in the United States, my extended family (black, white, brown; Catholic, Protestant, Jewish) would simply be destroyed, and I personally would be subject to vivisection.

Whatever the differences, however, between Beyond Ebonics and Talkin that Talk, the two books agree completely that Ebonics is a legitimate language and not to be insulted by the likes of Brent Staples (or John Simon). Smitherman states the further consensus of linguists that Ebonics shows traces of African languages and is not “simply a dialect of English which enslaved Africans learned from white speakers of various British dialects.” Neither is white English altogether white. When Smitherman lists “patterns of grammar and pronunciation in Ebonics,” I recognize many of them in my own familiar speech. Still can’t nobody say for sure who learned what from who. So there’s room for

rational disagreement, but no call for hissification, when Smitherman urges both “official recognition of U.S. Ebonics” and “its use as a co-equal language of instruction in schools with large numbers of Ebonics-speaking students.”

The real cause for distress (though not, in this country, for astonishment) is that to say such things still provokes journalistic riots. “Ain we done been here befo?” Smitherman asked herself when the Ebonics flap began; for most of the issues raised in the late Nineties had been widely discussed in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. Why should that be so? I’ll risk the unwelcome suggestion that maybe linguists bear some responsibility for the generally hostile public response to proposals like Smitherman’s for the use and teaching of African-American vernacular in schools.

My argument for the responsibility of linguists can begin with another resolution endorsed by the Linguistic Society of America – this one in 1972. As Baugh presents the resolution in another new book (Out of the Mouths of Slaves, U.T. Press, 1999), it asserts that “no one language or dialect, standard or nonstandard, is known to be significantly more complex than another in its basic grammatical apparatus” (emphasis added). The resolution goes on to say that linguists “have not yet discovered any speech community with a native language that can be described as conceptually or logically primitive, inadequate or deficient” (again my emphasis).

That careful statement of the universal human capacity for language is a far cry from rash echoes by popularizing linguists, who move from high abstraction to practical judgment as they maintain that all human languages are themselves equal in complexity and in value. Scorning “the wholly false assumption that one language or dialect is somehow ‘better’ than another,” Baugh makes it a “fundamental principle of linguistic science” that “all languages and dialects are equal from a theoretical point of view” (Out of the Mouths of Slaves). He repeatedly makes similar statements of “linguistic equality among the world’s languages and dialects” in Beyond Ebonics: “linguistic science does not recognize any language or dialect as inherently superior or inferior to any other.”

I concur, of course, in the Linguistic Society’s prudently stated resolution – but deplore the rash popularizations. Certainly not all languages or dialects are equal in lexicon (vocabulary), and linguists have been quite willing to call pidgin and creole languages “simplified” and to call some normal linguistic changes “simplifications.” It would be quite a task to define a precise measure of total complexity and to apply it to all known languages, living or dead. Besides, fully competent speakers of a language may judge it quite unfit to use for some important purposes. The whole debate about teaching or not teaching Ebonics is just pointless if Ebonics is neither better nor worse than the language of wider communication.

Public outrage would be avoided, or at least mitigated, if linguists would openly acknowledge that no language or dialect would survive unless it served some purposes for some people better than any other serves them. For some purposes and some people, then, Ebonics is just better than the language of wider communication, while in other ways standard English is better than Ebonics. “The resultant problem,” as I’ve written elsewhere, “is a problem of choice, of the intelligent adaptation of available means to rational ends.”

On that long-ago Dick Cavett show, I said further that if English is to remain a world language, its ideal should be the greatest possible diversity compatible with intelligibility, because people who use a language of wider communication would be able to feel that in some sense, it’s their own. That requirement of felt proprietorship should also hold within so diverse a citizenry as ours. The blunt demand that everybody talk white and right makes prigs of the proper and turns the improper off.

Few linguists have listened to my heresy in the past, but some students of black talk might listen now if I offered the sauce-for-the-gander judgment that fashionable Afro-centrism is not much different and certainly no more reprehensible than flying the Stars and Bars over the South Carolina statehouse. Both are devices to enhance insider self-esteem and disjoint outsider noses. But I won’t get into the question whether slave-owning Confederacy or slave-trading Mother Africa was the baddest mother. To me, as a devotee of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, the whole notion of self-esteem is as absurd as ancestor worship, the most absurd custom of “good Southern families.” The best part of a potato is in the ground; and for the living, there’s plenty of sin and guilt for us all to claim some. We ought to put juvenilities aside and try together to do something about present injustice.

James Sledd is professor emeritus at U.T.—Austin, and a national authority on Old High Honkian.