Holding On To A Language of Our Own

An Interview with Linguist John Rickford

Stanford University since 1980, was born in Georgetown, Guyana and received his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania.

For the past 25 years, he has focused on the relation between language and culture, developing models that use sociology, anthropology, and linguistics to explain and resolve educational problems. He is currently co-authoring a book on Ebonics, African American Vernacular English, and co-editing three other books.

Rickford was interviewed by Clarence Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle. The interview originally appeared Feb. 26, 1997.

Most African Americans speak some variety of Ebonics to a greater or lesser extent.

There has been furious debate over whether Ebonics is really a language. Where do you stand on that? What criteria qualifies dialect as language?

The decision about whether two varieties are languages or different dialects is usually made more on a social and political grounds rather than on linguistic grounds. One example of that is the fact that different Chinese varieties that are mutually incomprehensible, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, are regarded as different dialects of the same language, whereas various Scandinavian varieties, such as Norwegian and Swedish, which actually share a lot of vocabulary are regarded as different languages.

But this is not an air-tight measure, and a lot of subjective factors fall into place. There used to be a method where you would look at how many words are shared between two languages. If it was 80 percent or more, you’d say they were dialects of the same language rather than different languages.

By those criteria, I would probably say that African American vernacular English or Ebonics is most accurately described as a dialect rather than a totally separate language. But having said that, I would have to say it is the most distinctive dialect in the U.S. and the one that has gotten the attention of linguistics more than any other for the last 30 years. It’s really quite different from other dialects in a number of respects.

In what ways?

Particularly in the grammar, in the verb phrase, in the ways of expressing time. The feature a lot of people talk about is the use of the invariant “be” for habitual aspects, as in “I be walking” or “I be dancing.”

I need to stress the restriction to the habitual aspect, because people make fun of the language by using “be” to refer to an incident that is only happening now — as if I were to say “Clarence Johnson be sitting in the chair across from me right now.” But as a matter of fact, speakers don’t use it like that. They would say something like “Every Sunday morning, Clarence Johnson always be sitting here,” referring to the habitual.

Then there is the stress “been,” which refers to a state or action that has been in place a long time ago. Somebody might ask: “Did you pay off that bill for that stereo?” and you reply “Oh, I been paid for that.”

I did a study on “been,” and most whites didn’t understand it. If you offer a sentence like: “Is she married?” and the other person says “Aw, she been married,” the question is: Is she married now or not? Most whites would (think), “No, she’s not married.” While most blacks would (think), “Yes, she’s married, in fact she is very married and has been for a long time.” So you see, this could cause some confusion.

Can you speak to the historical origins of Black dialect?

There is a strong debate about the origins of African-American vernacular. One position argues that when African Americans came to this country, they essentially acquired the dialect of whites who were here at the time. The other position is that when slaves first came over here, the acquisition of English was not as straightforward.

In fact, slaves were often separated from models of English usage, and in the course of acquiring English, developed first a pidgin and then a Creole language — a mixed, simplified variety of English strongly influenced by their own native languages.

Now, you can view the result as a language problem, or you can view it as language creativity, because it is a creative response to a language-learning situation.

What is significant, unique or different about the development of language in African Americans?

It has always struck me as interesting that while masters were busy trying to separate slaves from different linguistic backgrounds so they could not communicate with each other, throughout the New World slaves were busy creating (languages) that allowed them to communicate with each other. Slaves would develop ways of talking with each other. It is much like the use of spirituals by people who were running away. The song “Wade in the Water” meant that the master was sending bloodhounds or something after you so, to be safe, stay in the river.

I’d be surprised if it weren’t true that Africans used this language to talk among themselves. Whether they only developed it for that purpose is harder to say. But clearly once it was in place, they used it to pass messages among themselves.

Has there been a social or economic impact on African Americans for speaking something other than so-called standard English?

It’s hard to gauge. But if you talk about the world of work or in the world of school, a speaker who is more restricted to Ebonics is perhaps restricted in the range of jobs and range of success that he or she might achieve. But other people are fond of pointing out that there are those who speak more standard English, and they still don’t do so well. You don’t want to chalk up all the limitations that African Americans face to language. Still, if a person cannot really show mastery of the standard English, he or she is likely to be more limited in terms of employment and education.

But a lot of the fuss over Ebonics over the past month has really resulted from a misunderstanding of what the Oakland school board was trying to do. The function of (the Oakland) program is to help kids to master Standard English by taking into account the vernacular they come to school with.

Language is often seen as a way to gauge intelligence. How accurate is it as such?

It’s definitely not an accurate gauge of intelligence. It may well be a reflection of the amount of education one has. But you should be very careful about assuming that equals intelligence, because speakers can display all kinds of intelligence in all kinds of varieties of language. So you have to be careful not to confuse the two.

The problem with all this Ebonics stuff over the years is that people have preconceptions and misconceptions and have made mistakes. A teacher might assume that somebody who speaks Ebonics is dumb, but a person can be a lot sharper than they appear. In fact, we have a lot of clear evidence that attitudes shape expectations and a teacher’s expectations shape performance. It’s a very dangerous kind of mistake to make.

With that in mind, why is the Ebonics debate important? Does it have ramifications beyond Black children or the African-American community?

I’m sure it does, but I want to comment on the ramifications within the Black community because they are so huge. The fact of the matter is, whether we look at Oakland or any inner city, African-American kids are really doing disastrously in education. That is the problem people should have been focusing on. This certainly is where Oakland started.

They started with the fact that African-American kids in the district were doing worse than everybody else. And if you look around the country, you will find very dramatic evidence that every year inner-city African-American kids stay in school, the worse they do relative to mainstream populations. This was point ed out years ago, and you can see it particularly in reading and language arts. In testimony before a Congressional subcommittee, data showed that at 9 years old, African-American kids are 27 points behind in reading. By the time you get to 17 years old, they are 37 points behind. So the more schooling they get, the worse they do.

The reason is because, by and large, the education African Americans are getting is below par. And that’s been the case for African-American kids for at least the past three decades. And if you look at the kids who are doing worse in the system, they are very fluent speakers of Ebonics.

I’d be the first to agree with those who say this problem is not just about Ebonics. It’s about inadequate facilities and lack of supplies. It’s about pay for teachers, particularly for those who work in districts with larger numbers of Black speakers, who are not paid as much as teachers in other districts. These are vital problems that need to be fixed.

But there’s also a language component to the problem. And if you were to control all those other factors and you didn’t take the language factors into account, you would not have much success. And that is a big issue that until now, nobody has faced up to.

So the Oakland School Board was not wrong to make such an issue of what many people see merely as school-children’s poor grammar?

The Oakland task force on Ebonics didn’t set out to give linguists a field day. It was important for them to look at this issue. Teaching approaches that take into account the vernacular dialect of kids work more effectively than those that don’t.

It’s almost paradoxical. One might think that if you ignored the vernacular and concentrated on standard English, you’d have more success. But in fact, it’s the other way around. There are a lot of studies that show this — and they are not new. Four of them were actually done in Sweden in the late 1950s.

As an African American, I have many friends who are highly educated professionals who speak standard English on their daily jobs. But when we come together off the job, we ease into a Black dialogue that we otherwise would never speak. Why do we do that?

It’s like having a hammer for one kind of function and a saw for another. You might say, “Well I’ll just use a tool.” But some tools work better for some purposes than others. No person just operates in the world of work and school. You have to go back home to your people, to your mom or brother and sister.

And people who grow away from their vernacular often find their lives uncomfortable. For example, a person goes away to England and comes back speaking the King’s English, people will give him a hard time. Behind his back, people will say “Who does he think he is?”

So if Ebonics was not functional — marking out a Black identity, creating bonds of solidarity and friendship, allowing people to relax and let themselves go — it wouldn’t survive. It would not be around today if it did not fulfill those and some other functions. The different (language) varieties we have exist because they are not equally good for all the different functions.

So who speaks Ebonics?

What’s beautiful about the example you just gave is the fact that there is nobody who speaks its features 100 percent of the time. If you look at the most different variety of Ebonics, it’s probably spoken more by the working and lower classes. But the thing is, almost all African Americans speak some variety of it to a greater or lesser extent. Even Rev. Jesse Jackson when making some of his speeches will have a number of rhetorical features of African-American English-speaking styles. He’ll use some of the vocabulary or intonations. That’s why when you turn on the radio, if you didn’t know that it was Jesse Jackson, you nonetheless would know that it was a black speaker.

Senator Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., recently called Ebonics “absurd … political correctness run out of control.” Why is much of America having such a tough time accepting the notion that Black Americans have a language unto themselves?

Some of it has to do with nonstandard dialects in general. All over the world, they tend to be disparaged. Sometimes people even associate it with personal values like laziness, or even moral degeneracy. As though if speakers just made a greater effort, they could switch from their dialects to standard languages.

In the case of Ebonics, a couple of things come into play. It originated in the days of slavery. So there is an association with the past of African Americans that is very troubling to some people. In addition, there’s this constant tension between the urge to be assimilated and yet to be different. W.E.B. DuBois talked about it years ago in terms of a push-pull, love-hate relationship to white America.

A white colleague has a book coming out that includes a chapter called “The Real Trouble With Black English.” And the real trouble, as she puts it, is that the existence of Black English itself gives testimony to the fact that African Americans have not completely assimilated. They haven’t melted into the melting pot, partly because of social and economic factors and partly because of a will to maintain a distinctive identity. So to the extent ongoing segregation shows up in different patterns of language, it’s an embarrassment. And people don’t like to have these differences pointed out.

It seems everybody is united — even the Oakland School Board — in ridding Black students of Black language patterns. What’s wrong with African Americans having a language or dialect of their own?

Novelist Toni Morrison, in writing for TheNewRepublic, once said that one of the worst possible things for (Blacks) to do would be to lose that language. It’s a terrible thing when a child comes to school with five present tenses, only to meet a language that is less than him. And then he is told terrible things about his language — which is him. She was trying to show that there is this whole rich way of expressing certain things in terms of time, and tense and aspect, which most people are not aware of.

We educators have learned that it’s not possible to legislate the use of language, certainly not in the community or at home. It has a life of its own. People say, “Well, you are going to try to wipe out this vernacular.” But that doesn’t make any sense, because we can’t. We know from experience.

So you ask, why does the vernacular persist? It is because it feeds into a whole alternative set of identities and purposes that speakers find rewarding and valuable. ■

©1997 San Francisco Chronicle
Reprinted with permission