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The Ebonic Plague, January 19th, 1997 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: January 19th, 1997
"The Ebonic Plague" [permalink]
    keywords: ebonics, english, schools, education, linguistics, language
    soapbox #: 68
    written: January 19th, 1997
    words: 741

"The Ebonic Plague", an Essay

Don't get the wrong impression about the title. In the context of this essay, it does not hint at any racism or prejudice. Misinterpret it and it's you who has to pay for your ignorance.

Ebonics relates back to what I've been discussing about trying to belong and trying to prove oneself to others. It is also the perfect example of a good idea gone wrong, in my opinion.

Ebonics is the most used out of all the new buzzwords right now. What it is is the standardization and legitimization of Black English (BE) as a language and not a dialect, as it has been categorized as in the past. A school district in Oakland, California wants to make Ebonics the taught language, in place of Standard American English (SAE), as far as I understand.

Granted, I am no linguist and I don't know all the details about this situation. What I see are potentialities for this whole situation, occurring sooner than we'd like to think.

Some of the main arguments for Ebonics follow: the schools in Oakland are predominantly black, and BE is the dialect most commonly spoken by the students. By teaching Ebonics instead of SAE, students will be able to relate better to their teachers and they will do better in school because they're learning the "language" they speak. Ebonics will also give black people more identity in our current society.

So what? That provides no justification for its being "taught". BE is a dialect of SAE, and by my definition, that means it is mutually intelligible and has only slight variations in slang, semantics, and syntax, basically. Dialects rarely translate into writing. And that keeps things simple.

An attempt to legitimize BE, which is what the supporters are trying to do, only reveals the desperation to be given attention. Why isn't there Brooklonics? Cajonics? Besides, even the name is slightly separatist -- it is based on the word "ebony", or "black". What about the other races who learn BE? Children learn the dialect of their environments, you know. So an Asian child brought up in a black neighborhood is learning a language named Ebonics? Doesn't this defeat the whole purpose? You don't need your own language to be accepted. Legitimizing Ebonics might even increase the disparity between the races. Long term thinking here, folks.

As humans, we were given the abilities to write and speak like Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, yet why do we shun that? Why do people look upon flowery and formal writing as evil? Why is it discouraged to learn how to write formally? Schools teach us how to read and write so we can become more intelligent and can be more successful in the working world. Isn't an avoidance of learning the formal language just trying to simplify the world? Writing and reading using SAE allow all who know them to use a common language, void of any dialectical or cultural differences. It allows us to pick up a technical book and wonder what a regional phrase means. Leave the dialectical stuff to people like Twain.

What if Ebonics was legimitized and it was a valid language to publish in? That would require changes in dictionaries (both on our word processors and in the big textual thingies), in all sorts of governmental and legal documents, in educational textbooks, and in how people react to each other. All for a slight variation.

So I don't like the implementation of Ebonics. But I like the idea. I think if students are tested and do better in school because they use BE to interact and identify, then what's wrong? If students need teachers to speak BE so they can relate to them, then why not? But at an educational level, I believe students should be taught writing in SAE, regardless of race, sex, sexual preference, etc. The two, BE and SAE, can coexist, just like southern and SAE, Californian and SAE, etc. And everyone will benefit from such coexistance.

It's sad that this whole racism thing has spread even into the politics of language. Once again, an aspect of our lives has been nitpicked so much that it's no longer coherent.

Standard American English unites us in that we have a common language to write with. Don't lose sight of that.


 
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