Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Ebonics, Nu?

Lately I’ve been contemplating the language…dialect…whatever…that has been the bane of many “well-spoken”, “articulate”, and well-educated African-Americans for years. I’m talking about Ebonics.

I, like many of my African-American classmates when I was a kid, grew up in a house where we were not allowed to talk like that, and where “proper” grammar and pronunciation were insisted upon; because we didn’t want to sound like “those people.” In fact, I knew blessed few other African-Americans personally who spoke like that. Everyone I knew…in my extended family and elsewhere…pretty much spoke something very close to the Queen’s English.

So to us, what what has been called either Ebonics or African American Vernacular English (AVE), was simply poor grammar and poor pronunciation. Both signs that you were “one of them.” As a result, I looked upon Ebonics/AVE with contempt; and so when, a number of years ago, someone suggested actually teaching in this dialect, in order to reach more kids for whom that was their “first language”, I thought this was the most incredibly stupid thing I’d ever heard.

And then my daughter, the linguist, pointed out something that I hadn’t considered. She said that while it might sound like bad English, what we call AVE actually has its own internally consistent grammar and syntax. The problem is that what makes perfect sense grammatically in AVE sounds a whole lot like bad grammar in standard English.

Take for example the verb form “to be.” When you hear someone say “He be staying at his grandma’s house”, you’re probably thinking that they meant to say “He is staying at his grandma’s house”, but chose the wrong verb form. However, “He be staying” means something totally different from “He is staying.” The “be” implies a state of constant happening…as in “He is always staying at his grandma’s house” or “He is staying at his grandma’s house for the foreseeable future.”

And this got me thinking…suppose there was another language whose proper grammar and syntax sounded like a corrupted version of a closely related one? I didn’t have to go very far to come up with an example…I knew two of them personally: German and Yiddish.

Depending on who you talk to, Yiddish is either a dialect of German or a language in its own right. Yiddish has slightly different grammar and syntax than German, and uses some of the same words differently. As a result, it’s entirely possible that many speakers of standard German look upon Yiddish with the same disdain that many of us hold Ebonics in.

And yet, I love Yiddish. And while I love Yiddish, Ebonics don’t get no respect from me. As they might’ve said on the Lower East Side 100 years ago, “Farvosh ist das?” or “Why is that?”

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The first is that for centuries Yiddish was spoken all over the Jewish world, and not just in Germany. As a result, there was a thriving Yiddish literary tradition. And the fact that there was a thriving Yiddish literary tradition, with books and newspapers being written in it, means that this was the language of the educated as well as the uneducated. A second important reason is that Yiddish has its own alphabet. Well not quite…it uses Hebrew characters, but still…the fact that it’s written with a different character set makes it a totally different language that’s similar, and not simply a case of bad grammar in the mainstream one. Perhaps if Ebonics had a similar literary tradition and used a different alphabet, it would get a little more respect?

So where does this leave me? It leaves me having to cut Ebonics a little slack. After all, if I can appreciate Yiddish for what it is, I should be able to appreciate Ebonics for what it is…grudgingly.

And this brings me to my other daughter…my daughter the smart-ass. She understands from her older sister that Ebonics has its own internally consistent grammar, and even understands how that grammar works. One day, at school, she heard one of her African-American friends speak a poorly-formed sentence, and said to him, “That’s not how you say it! You can’t even speak wrong right!”

The girl has chutzpah, that’s for sure!

No comments:

Post a Comment