[stormingheaven] ebonics?

Wojtek Sokolowski sokol at jhu.edu
Tue Aug 24 13:18:58 PDT 1999

At 03:55 AM 8/23/99 -0700, you wrote:
>From: Peter Kosenko <kosenko at netwood.net>
>An impoverished linguistic consciousness is bad
>because language is power. You can't organize an
>effective resistance without it, you can't get
>what you need. Frederic Douglas knew this. The
>prohibition against blacks learning to read and
>write during slavery was an attempt to keep them
>from being able to organize effectively among each
>other, or to quite understand their situation
>(defined by others), except in a "physical" way
>(the whip). The simpler and more oral their
>culture remained, the less they had a chance
>against the legal-political-economic culture
>around them. If you don't understand most of the
>language in the culture around you, you are at an
>extreem disadvantage as a subculture. I'm sure
>that many in Latin American ruling classes have no
>special interest in seeing the Indios become
>really literate in Spanish. Rudimentary Spanish
>yes, if they can also deprive them of their native
>languages, but legal, political and economic
>matters? Absolutely not. (On the other hand,
>many white Americans don't do too well at it

This was precisely the function of Latin in medieval Europe. Latin was the language of the learned, used to discuss important theological, legal and political issues. That effectively barred the speakers of the vernacular form participating in that discourse. To communicate to them what they needed to know, the lerned used the pictorial language (religious paintings) pretty much the same way Tv works today. Hence, one of the main demands of the Reformation was using the vernacular for religious (=legal and political) discourse.

Related comment: I posted this discussion to another list where it stirred a lively debate. One of the argument was that ebonics is simply one of pedagogical devices that uses the vernacular to teach the speakers of that vernacular standard english. As such, it is of no political significance - but it was made into a political icon by the right (who distorted it as an attempt to teach a vernacular in public schools) and then by the left (who distorted it is a symbol of moral worth of the underclass). A good point. As I see it, this discussion pertains to the distorted interpretation of 'ebonics' rather than to its pedagogical usage.


>This does not mean that blacks who speak ebonics
>are "impoverished" in other ways. Of course they
>have feelings and can understand social and moral
>issues immediately around them in their
>relationships with other human beings (just as my
>own love for my brothers and sisters does not
>necessarily depend on having sophisticated
>political discussions with them). Those things do
>not depend entirely on sophisticated language.
>But they are unlikely to understand larger
>political issues well in the larger culture that
>determines their own if all they have is ebonics
>with which to do it. And they are going to have
>much difficulty getting ahead economically
>(although I don't attribute that only to them, but
>to the willingness of a capitalist culture to
>exploit them and anyone else it can--an aside: it
>isn't just capitalist culture; the recent news
>about the persistence of feudal serfdom and
>slavery in southern Pakistan was pretty shocking).
>About blues and gospel:
>The problem with blues lyrics is that they tend to
>be very simple (as many musical lyrics are) and
>don't carry one much beyond the expression of
>suffering and the will to overcome it. As a
>musical form the blues are different; they involve
>sophisticated improvisation. The blues are a
>powerful emotional expressive form, but they are
>not terribly "intellectual." We all have our need
>for such forms, but we need more.
>Gospel might be considered a case against
>ebonics. This is speculative. The Bible was one
>of the few written literate resources that many
>blacks were allowed for a long while. Hence they
>probably seized on it with gusto as a medium in
>which to articulate and discuss their ideas, and
>that is no doubt one of the reasons that the
>speeches of a Martin Luther King had so much
>resonance. The black church was a site of
>literacy and community discussion.
>Since I am not religious, it sounds strange to me
>to be making the above argument, but . . .
>No doubt the reason for teaching in ebonics, as
>you mention below, was to try to "bridge" students
>into wider English. But then we get the misplaced
>"self-esteem" argument that doing so might make
>them "feel stupid" (and I would certainly agree
>that calling kids stupid isn't a good way to teach
>them, but you don't have to teach that way), so we
>should teach them "ebonics" as their "cultural
>heritage" first. Problem is that that works
>better with people who arrive here with a
>full-fledged language and are able even to print
>up newspapers in it. It doesn't make as much
>sense to me with a conceptually limited oral
>dialect--i.e., to try to pretend that it is more
>sophisticated than it is.
>But maybe I'm pedagically wrong.
>As for ebonic slang? It's already incorporated
>into our everyday language, and will probably
>continue to be there, is my guess. I have no
>problem with "bad" and "jive" ("honkey" I could do
>without). But you'll notice that it is mostly
>"colorful" everyday language, not the kind of
>language that black children (or adults) need to
>make a real go of it in school and the larger
>Peter Kosenko
>Eric V. Kirk wrote:
>> From: "Eric V. Kirk" <kirk at humboldt.net>
>> -----Original Message-----
>> That is an excellent argument. It is impossible to discuss language while
>> abstracting form social, economic conditions that produced it. Language is
>> merely a reflection of material reality that produced it, albeit it has an
>> "institutional history' that outlives the material reality that gave birth
>> to a certain form of expression. Impoverished reality of an underclass
>> produces impoverished consciousness and impoverished means of
>> communications. That is a very powerful anti-poverty arguement: we should
>> abolish it, because it prevents people from achieving their full human
>> potential.
>> What do you mean by "impoverished consciousness" and why is it bad?
>> The p-c crowd, however, adhers to an idealistic viewpoint where symbols are
>> more important than material reality. Thus symbolic expressions produced
>> by underclass arre just as "valuable" as symbolic expressions of everyone
>> else. Material poverty is "compensated" by symbolic richness. It is not
>> difficult to see the reactionary nature of such idealistic pc attitudes in
>> the preservation of social inequalities: it is, in fact, tantamount to
>> saying: they can thrive on symbols, so we do not need to redistribute
>> material wealth. Or worse yet, "we should not redistribute material
>> wealth, because that may kill their 'culture'".
>> Gee, should they also abandon the blues, and "impoverished" forms of art?
>> Perhaps Gospel music as well?
>> Language patterns develop differently in different contexts, but they all
>> manage to communicate. I have yet to hear any linguist argue that poor
>> black people can't talk to each other.
>> The idea behind Ebonics was to recognise and learn the patterns of your own
>> background, differentiate from "proper english" and in so doing, actually
>> learn proper English. It was always meant as a strategy for learning
>> English, and might have been extended to dialects all around the country.
>> Proper English itself was rooted in "impoverish language." All of our four
>> letter words were rendered vulgar by occupying French. How did we ever get
>> where we are without learning French?
>> Yours,
>> Eric
>> wojtek
>> >
>> >Of course, under different circumstances, Ebonics
>> >could have become a full language, just as there
>> >are physicists at Italian universities who speak
>> >ordinary everyday Italian and also an Italian that
>> >has been wrapped around the subject of physics
>> >over many hundreds of years.
>> >
>> >In other words, speaking and understanding ONLY
>> >Ebonics isn't going to get you into medical
>> >school.
>> >
>> >On the other hand, speaking and understanding only
>> >limited, everyday English isn't going to get you
>> >there either.
>> >
>> >Before I leave off, let me say that just because
>> >people aren't "sophisticated" doesn't make them
>> >worse people.
>> >And just because they've got big bad educations
>> >doesn't necessarily make them better people.
>> >That's another other issue.
>> >
>> >Peter Kosenko
>> >
>> >In response to the below:
>> >
>> >> Of course, Ebonyx IS proper grammar, it is just a different
>> >> dialect. When British people come to our schools, do we consider them to
>> be
>> >> using improper grammar, or do we just say that they are speaking a
>> >> different dialect, the so-called "British English" (or whatever term you
>> >> prefer)? My experience is that they are excused for their unforunate
>> >> heritage and their pronunciation of "colour" is tolerated.
>> >
>> >> Ebonyx (pronounced YO-bahn-iks) is a dialect that receives a
>> >> special treatment. While British accents, Texan, Texan Crude, Bostonian,
>> >> and New England accents tend to revive associations made in the brain
>> long ago, Ebonyx is specially treated > as being a mark of 'stupidity'.
>> That this dialect is treated this way and that it is isolated from other >
>> dialects for special classification as "poor grammar" is only reflective of
>> the racial stereotype of
>> >> Africans.
>> >
>> >
>> >=============================================================
>> >Peter Kosenko
>> >Email: mailto:kosenko at netwood.net
>> >URL: http://www.netwood.net/~kosenko
>> >Netwood Design Center URL: http://ndc.netwood.net/
>> >=============================================================
>> >"Man is a rational animal. He can think up a
>> >reason for anything he wants to
>> >believe."--Benjamin Franklin
>> >
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>Peter Kosenko
>Email: mailto:kosenko at netwood.net
>URL: http://www.netwood.net/~kosenko
>Netwood Design Center URL: http://ndc.netwood.net/
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