BOOKS & THE CULTURE Race, Class, and Talking Proper The Ebonics War Continues BY JAMES SLEDD BEYOND EBONICS: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. By John Baugh. Oxford University Press. 192 pages. $29.95. TALKIN THAT TALK: Language, Culture, and Education in African America. By Geneva Smitherman. Routledge. 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 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, 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 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 when the school board in Oakland, California, passed its much damnified Ebonics resolution \(which Baugh twice calls “infaclear 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 AfricanAmerican 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 confamily. 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 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 biograand 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 Beyond Ebonics has a “Forward” by Dell 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 discus 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 21, 2000
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