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Issue #24 August 29, 2013 Aug 29, 2013 Aug 29
Issue #9 January 31, 2013 Jan 31, 2013 Jan 31
Issue #1 October 11, 2012 Oct 11, 2012 Oct 11
From Issue #12 March 14, 2013

Ain’t No Reason

A mother tongue spoken by millions of Americans still gets no respect.

By Lex Friedman Twitter icon 

The Oakland, California, school board officially recognized the legitimacy of Ebonics in 1996. Controversy erupted when it issued its decree, but its action was almost entirely misunderstood. No modern linguist embraces the term Ebonics. The more accurate — and less politically charged — label is African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Linguistics professor Rebecca Wheeler notes, “When the public uses the term Ebonics, it pulls with it all the societal negative connotations — the ridicule, the jokes, the sneering, all of that — so linguists don’t use the term. It’s not a technical term, and we seek to avoid negative associations.”

The educators in California had no plans to teach kids to speak and write AAVE; this wasn’t an attempt to get “ain’t” in their grammar books. Rather, the Oakland school board’s ruling was meant to stop unfairly punishing kids whose first instinct was to speak at school the way they spoke at home.

Oakland wanted to recognize the language’s existence. Others were opposed. The battle still simmers.

Ingredients in language soup

Folks who paid strict attention in Linguistics 101 — I majored in the subject — might remember pidgins and creoles. A pidgin is a simplified, ad-hoc language shared by speakers who lack a common tongue. It borrows rules and words from all languages involved, and has its own rules as well. But a pidgin isn’t a full language; it lacks the rich vocabulary and structure.

A creole, on the other hand, develops when children start learning and speaking the pidgin as their primary form of communication. Those who speak a pidgin have a native tongue and may speak several languages, and they are well aware that the pidgin is an amalgam. But a creole is the mother tongue of the speaker, who has likely heard and spoken it from infancy while being raised in a world in which pidgin may be the lingua franca.1

There’s debate over whether AAVE is a pidgin or a creole or something else entirely. Some suggest that AAVE is a creole that developed in West Africa, from the descendants of pidgins that developed between African slaves and the Europeans who traded them between the 16th and 19th centuries. The other theory (Rubba 1997) is that AAVE is simply a dialect of English that came about “through a history of social and geographic separation of its speakers from speakers of other varieties of English.”

Critics of AAVE attack strawmen — Jim ScareCrows, if you will. “You can’t teach this stuff!” they fret, though no one wants to teach it. And, just as wrongly, they claim that AAVE is a sloppy, messy, unstructured language. Let’s disprove that falsehood first.

Don’t not be negative, nohow

AAVE doesn’t follow traditional American English’s rules of grammar; it instead enforces its own. Some of AAVE’s grammatical structures closely mirror those of French. Here are a couple of examples.

A common AAVE construction follows this pattern:

I ain’t got none.

I ain’t singin’ nothing.

I ain’t never eat no sushi.

Teachers of English grammar might cringe at the offensive double negatives on display. They’re ungrammatical in traditional English, but they’re not without precedent. As you can see, AAVE wraps negators on either side of the verbs. Here are those same sentences in French:

Je n’en ai pas.

Je ne chanterai pas.

Je n’ai jamais mangé de sushis.

As you can see, French has precisely the same structure. What in traditional English would qualify as an ungrammatical double negative is in French — and AAVE — the correct and necessary phrasing. Though it obviously differs from English’s rules, the two-part negation in French isn’t wrong, any more than it’s wrong that the word for “annoying” in French is “pénible.” AAVE’s negations follow its own strict grammar.

An interesting element of AAVE’s rules for negatives is that, in negative statements, every possible negation should be used:

I ain’t tell nobody nothing about no sushi.

Imperfectly stated

Another way that AAVE’s grammar rules mirror those of French: Both employ an imperfect tense. The imperfect (l’imparfait in French) is a kind of past tense that’s used in French for a variety of purposes, most of which are beyond our scope.2 The French imperfect commonly describes habitual, repeated actions or states of existence. In English, the imperfect tense requires some circumlocation; in French, it’s a verb conjugation.

In high school, I used to read a lot.

Au lycée, je lisais beaucoup.

The “ais” suffix attached to the verb lire (to read) here indicates the imperfect tense, referring to a regular habit of reading during my high school years. AAVE offers a very similar tense, but instead of suffixes, it leverages the presence of the verb to be.

He crazy, but he don’t be crazy.

That statement indicates that the individual being described is currently in the act of exhibiting craziness, but isn’t habitually crazy: He [is] crazy, but he don’t be [in the habit of being] crazy, as it were. The rules in operation: Drop any “to be” verb when describing the present tense (“He crazy”), and use “be” regardless of the subject to identify an imperfect tense verb (“He be crazy”).

AAVE isn’t a perfect parallel to French. Many AAVE grammar rules emulate rules from other languages: Its use of unmarked past tense (for example, omitting the -ed suffix, as in He pass his driver’s test yesterday) is akin to similar structures in Asian and Native American languages; its unmarked plurality in noun phrases (I want three scoop [of] ice cream) hews closely to how Japanese works.

Speakers of it use the same unspoken rules whenever they use the language, and different speakers apply the same rules consistently. If such speakers were just poor at using standard English, you wouldn’t see most AAVE speakers making the same so-called mistakes identically again and again.

It’s easy to label critics of AAVE-as-a-language as racists, and that certainly covers some. But those who criticize without intentional bigotry are likely mis- or uninformed about what constitutes a language. Critics may claim that AAVE is just “made up,” forgetting that American English isn’t exactly codified in our DNA, either.3

So AAVE is a language — so what? What the heck was Oakland’s point in the mid-1990s?

AAVE, education, and code-switching

Ray Jackendoff, currently the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University (and formerly chair of the linguistics program at Brandeis University while I attended the school), studied linguistics under Chomsky at MIT. Jackendoff points me to a passage in his 2002 book, Foundations of Language, wherein he makes this point:

An important part of learning to read is appreciating how orthography reflects pronunciation. If one is teaching reading of Standard English to a child who does not speak it, it is difficult to establish this crucial link.

Speakers who arrive at school without constant experience with Standard English thus start at a disadvantage that is compounded by the rejection of their native mode of speech. And that’s where Oakland’s school board tried to help. Its ruling aimed to encourage teachers to recognize that students growing up with AAVE spoke it as its own distinct language; judging their first language as lousy English, instead of accepting it on its own merits, did those students a serious disservice.

AAVE isn’t the first language to spur such a debate. Some educators in Hawaii have long bemoaned Hawaiian Creole English (HCE), which is spoken by many — probably most — Hawaiians. (It’s often referred to as a pidgin, even though it’s been spoken for generations.) HCE combines English and Hawaiian words and grammar; since its rules are distinct from each, some teachers are inclined to tell students that they’re speaking or writing incorrectly whenever those kids use HCE.

With AAVE, however, it’s 17 years after the school board decision, and the state of the discussion has hardly advanced at all.

What the doctor prescribed

The debate over HCE and AAVE is really the same ages-old linguistic debate between prescriptivists and descriptivists played out another way. Prescriptivists want to freeze the language as they believe it either is or should be spoken — for instance, they object to the increasing use of “they” as a singular pronoun — while descriptivists aim to document how people actually speak.

Rebecca Wheeler, the professor at Christopher Newport University mentioned at the outset, is a descriptivist, like all linguists. She says that these kids are speaking AAVE because that’s what they know; it’s not wrong — it’s their language. She thus advocates teaching students who speak AAVE at home the concept of code-switching. The general idea is simply the notion of switching between two different languages as needed.

Rather than labeling their language use as incorrect when students speak or write in AAVE, Wheeler says, teachers should instead coach those students: “In formal writing, we say, ‘I’m not doing anything,’ not ‘I ain’t doing nothing.’”

Schools should recognize the legitimacy of AAVE as a language for their students, and teach those students to recognize when and how to switch between AAVE and American English as appropriate. But most schools don’t do that. They simply teach students that the way they speak is wrong. Don’t talk this way; talk our way.

Wheeler says we’re still not doing right by children who grow up with AAVE. “The consequences are that students are being terribly misassessed in our schools. Teachers think that black kids are making mistakes, when really they’re re-creating what they hear and learn at home,” Wheeler says. “They’re counting as mistakes things that are patterns and rule-based, so [the students are] being placed in lower reading groups.”

Many of us unfairly judge others based on how they speak. Kenneth the page, on the late, great 30 Rock, spoke with a southern accent meant to exemplify his yokel-ness. Maybe you think that British accents sound dignified, or that the Minnesota accent on display in Fargo betrays its speakers’ intellectual inferiority.

“People don’t always realize that dialect prejudice still exists,” Wheeler says. “Reminding them, and explaining notions like the grammatical rules that govern AAVE — that’s a true ‘aha!’ experience. That alone is important, and people can grasp it — and grasping it, that’s actually a big thing.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who famously rarely speaks in public proceedings, grew up speaking Gullah, a creole spoken around the southern Atlantic coast. Justice Thomas told high school students in 2000 about Gullah, “People praise it now, but they used to make fun of us back then.”

Wheeler says that most teachers and school systems are ill-equipped to sort this out. She says, “The testing system remains entrenched in proper grammar, bad grammar, right and wrong. There’s no room for anything else. It’s appalling.”

The future soon

You might assume — I did — that AAVE is a blip in the move toward the homogenization of language over time due to television, movies, the Internet, and our increasing connectedness. But we’d both be wrong. Wheeler notes that recent work by William Labov at the University of Pennsylvania shows that dialects are diverging in the United States.

“We change and become similar in language only when we’re in true contact, in authentic linguistic contact, with our interlocutor,” Wheeler says. This requires proximity and true two-way conversations by speakers of different dialects. But media isn’t “linguistic engagement,” she notes, and thus doesn’t influence people’s modes of speaking as much as one would intuit.

Couple the failure of the Internet and mass media to assimilate AAVE with the reality that African American populations are increasingly separated from white populations by socioeconomics, and the only reasonable expectation is, Wheeler says, “the divergence of the language.”

This sounds a bit grim and emphasizes the continued disparity between how schools view language and how language actually works for these AAVE speakers and other populations. And if our language is going to diverge despite the Internet, perhaps our educational philosophies can improve because of it.

Illustration by Shannon Wheeler4.

Correction: This article originally stated that “I ain’t got none” was equivalent to the French phrase “Je n’ais pas tout.” Several Francophones alerted us that “n’ais” was not a proper conjugation of the verb and that, even as “je n’ai pas tout” the phrase would have meant, more or less, “I don’t have everything.”

It turns out that there are many ways to say “I have none” in French, which are based on context. The consensus among native speakers is that “Je n’en ai pas” reflects a more idiomatic way to say “I have none” in the context of things like money. We’ve updated the article to reflect that.

Lex says he’s sorry that his years of French failed him, and your editor will consult native speakers before approving phrases in languages he does not speak. Our illustrator has graciously updated his graphic that contained the phrase.—gf

  1. Many regions of the world have had lingua francas, or languages used for communication among peoples. (The term lingua franca comes from the name of a former lingua franca.) These are sometimes pidgins or creoles, such as the Chinook Jargon of the Pacific Northwest, and sometimes fully realized natively spoken languages, like Swahili or French, that become the de facto tool for commerce or diplomacy in larger areas. 

  2. You can merci me later for not getting into them. 

  3. That said, if you feel like really blowing your own mind, dive into Noam Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar to learn how many linguists do believe that the roots of language — and specifically grammar — are hard-wired into the human brain, and that certain grammar rules are endemic to all human language. 

  4. Shannon Wheeler is the Eisner Award-winning creator of the comic and opera Too Much Coffee Man. Wheeler contributes to a variety of publications including The New Yorker and The Onion. Wheeler currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with his cats, chickens, bees, girlfriend, and children. He has produced multiple books that are pretty easy to find. His weekly comic strip is published in various alternative weeklies and online. 

Lex is an author, senior contributor to Macworld, and podcaster. He heads up podcast ad sales for The Mid Roll. Lex has three kids and one wife. His hobbies include writing third-person bios for Internet publications.

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