Join 3,553 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


the ability to write literate English has a market value about one-third as great as the ability to install Windows on a PC
February 28, 2007 10:42 PM   Subscribe

"A language is a dialect with an army and navy":
A linguistic summery of African American Vernacular English also known as Ebonics. (Mostly framed through the lense of a Nationwide debate on the subject sparked 10 years ago by the Oakland School Board.) previously...
posted by serazin (48 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ya just can't do a linguistics post with a misspelling in the title. It's wrong.

Otherwise, interesting.
posted by wilful at 10:55 PM on February 28, 2007


I thought a language was just a collection of dialects that are mutually intelligible. That is, aren't dialects a subset of languages?
posted by Citizen Premier at 10:57 PM on February 28, 2007


I thought a language was just a collection of dialects that are mutually intelligible.

No, dialects need not be mutually intelligible.
posted by delmoi at 12:04 AM on March 1, 2007


Toni Morrison, two years later, was impressed by its "five present tenses,"

Like the fabulous interview between Ali G and Andy Rooney (youtube alert):

Ali G - Does you think the media has changed since you first got in it?

Andy Rooney - Does you think the media has changed? DO you think the media has changed?

Ali G - Whatever.

Andy Rooney - No it's English. In the English language you would say "Do you think, not Does you think."

Ali G - So what sort of things does you think the media should cover.

Andy Rooney - Do you think.

Ali G - Do you think... I think it's an English American thing though innit?

Andy Rooney - No, no. That's English. The English language which is very clear. I have 50 books on the English language, which if you'd like to borrow one...
posted by three blind mice at 1:10 AM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Why did you translate it? Much more fun that you actually CAN understand the original Yiddish, and that in a way proves the point it self-referentially, at the meta-level:

"A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot"
-Max Weinreich
posted by Meatbomb at 2:15 AM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


The difference between a language and a dialect is not as simple as the first line of this post, by the way; see this Wikipedia article. Very few people have been unrealistic enough to call Basque a dialect of Spanish, or Sorbian a dialect of German, but there are decent arguments for Scots as a dialect of English and, however much it annoys the Catalans, Catalan as a dialect of Castilian.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 2:23 AM on March 1, 2007


Y'all is illin', when you need to be chillin'. Peace out.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:58 AM on March 1, 2007


Aidan, the point of the quote is that if you are in power, you can say what is the accepted form of the language and can use that to keep groups that don't speak the language that way out of power. For example, In the US, if you don't speak Standard American English, you are going to have a much harder time being treated seriously by people that do. I saw on a small scale when I working in construction here in Pittsburgh where the rich customers would rather talk to me because I could talk like them and not the guys with thick yinzer accents who actually knew much more about the trade than I did. Yes, I know that example is just for an accent and not a dialect but the dynamic is the same.
posted by octothorpe at 6:11 AM on March 1, 2007


I take it that "being in power" implies having money, position, and often education . Lan guage is a marker, a class marker.
Malcolm X used to take pride in his ability to talk to Harvard professors and then shifting lan guage gears talk to folks on the streets of Harlem.
posted by Postroad at 6:20 AM on March 1, 2007


I first read the 'Army and Navy' line in Steven Pinker's 'The Language Instinct', and if it's not academically correct, I like it and think it's a good rule of thumb.

A few years back I read a book, I think it was this one, that clued me in to the fact that Ebonics has a grammar and real rules...that it's not just sloppy English.

(of course, it's always fun to make fun of the way others be speakin)
posted by MtDewd at 6:33 AM on March 1, 2007


however much it annoys the Catalans, Catalan as a dialect of Castilian.

That's absolutely ridiculous. If Catalan is a dialect of Castilian, then all Romance languages are dialects of each other, as are all Germanic languages, all Slavic languages, etc. In fact, all Indo-European languages are dialects of each other, and the word "dialect" loses all meaning. No one who has taken more than a cursory look at Catalan could possibly think it's a dialect of Castilian, any more than is Portuguese.

You can get background information about the Weinreich quote in my post on it (for some strange reason, possibly having to do with too much Russian on the brain, I transliterated the fifth word as "diyalekt" rather than dialekt), and here's a scan of the original Yiddish publication.
posted by languagehat at 6:55 AM on March 1, 2007


> A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot

It's all just one language, isn't it. Only with thick accents. Reminds me of back when my eighteen month old spoke Indo-European.
posted by jfuller at 7:11 AM on March 1, 2007


languagehat, compare with Platt:
Low German is considered a dialect of the German language by some, but a separate language by others. Sometimes, Low German and Low Franconian are grouped together because both were unaffected by the High German consonant shift.
The historical usage of the word ‘dialect’ and its cognates definitely included Platt as a dialect of German (and Yiddish, too, but that’s changed). My feeling as someone who just spent a week swearing at Valencian maps and road signs with placenames in Catalan, Castilian and a chaotic mix of whatever, was that if everyone who speaks it also speaks and writes Castilian, and Castilian has an immense number more speakers, then the existence of a written standard does not make it more prestigious than Platt. Though coloured by my dislike of the whimsical approach to infrastructure after a couple of years in Germany, it’s not a terrible argument, IMO :-) .
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 7:13 AM on March 1, 2007


I don't understand what Low German has to do with Catalan. The situations are completely different. If you want, I can give a brief discussion of Catalan, but check out the Wikipedia page first and see if it helps. If not, get back to me, but I'm going to get my hair cut, so it will be a while. At any rate, surely you'll agree that looking at road maps and signs is not much of a basis for linguistic analysis.
posted by languagehat at 7:44 AM on March 1, 2007


The situations are completely different.

Hmm? As far as I can see, the main difference is Catalan’s literary tradition, and its recent political support. In intelligibility and phonology the distance is about the same.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 7:53 AM on March 1, 2007


I would honestly be shocked if it were even possible for people to speak any language in a "sloppy" or "lazy" way, rather then by some rules.
posted by delmoi at 8:45 AM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, one way to differentiate, I would think, is to see which dialects are actually used in writing.
But that wouldn't work all the time. With the rise of the internet, you see many more people writing the way they talk (myself included). And even if a way of speaking is rarely written down, that doesn't mean it's not a language--apparently, people in Switzerland speak Swiss German but only write in German.

Also,
A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot
Is that Cajun?
posted by Citizen Premier at 10:49 AM on March 1, 2007


Whatchu talkin' 'bout Serazin?

Why is it that people in this world can be -- and are -- sloppy and lazy about food (Mickey D's); book-learnin' (TV); voting (GWB); earning a living (most crime); parenting (divorce/welfare/worse), and myriad other forms of personal, social, and civic responsibility -- but they can't be so about language?

Just because I -- and millions of others like me -- eat a Filet-o-Fish, Jumbo Fries, and a Dr. Pepper for dinner every night doesn't mean we deserve our own Food Pyramid.

(But it also doesn't mean that someday we won't have our own Food Pyramid, ADM-willing. Just that it's not right.)

The class aspect of this whole thing is entirely different: My sainted Grandma spoke Yiddish and cooked a lot of greasy Eastern European peasant food that smelled bad and tasted worse. She worked her fingers to the bone so that I could speak English and shop at Whole Foods.
posted by turducken at 11:34 AM on March 1, 2007


Why is it that people in this world can be -- and are -- sloppy and lazy about food (Mickey D's); book-learnin' (TV); voting (GWB); earning a living (most crime); parenting (divorce/welfare/worse), and myriad other forms of personal, social, and civic responsibility -- but they can't be so about language?

What you've done is create a continuum: moving from taste, to forms of entertainment, to politics, to potential violence, to potential child abuse.... so suddenly pronouncing 'tomato' differently is a crime against children. That's not an argument, it's a slippery slope in action.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:26 PM on March 1, 2007


Try to complete this sentence without sounding like a crass idiot: "The way I speak is better than than the way inner-city African Americans speak because...."

Then we'll talk.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:28 PM on March 1, 2007


www.cofc.edu fails to resolve at the moment.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:32 PM on March 1, 2007


"The way I speak is better than than the way inner-city African Americans speak because...."

... it will be more easily understood in the international setting, both business and scientific, and has a greater depth of vocabulary which can be used to communicate and disambiguate a broader range of ideas?

Really, though, could you define better for us?
posted by porpoise at 3:10 PM on March 1, 2007


Really, though, could you define better for us?

Heh. If only... if only.... But I'll assume that you're not asking for a definition of the Good, or of arete, and address your attempt.

... it will be more easily understood in the international setting, both business and scientific, and has a greater depth of vocabulary which can be used to communicate and disambiguate a broader range of ideas?


You yourself seem to be using two definitions of 'better': either 'proper' English has a greater exchange value (speakers can be better understood, and thus, can exchange their capacity to speak for a higher wage) or 'proper' English has a better use value, insofar as it enables a clarity of thought missing from ebonics. The first definition derives superiority of the English language from the military and imperial force that propagated English throughout the world.

The second claim is even more troubling, since it suggests some false assumptions about dialectical vocabulary and syntax. It is false to assume that dialects are incapable of borrowing vocabulary from other contexts (this is how American Standard English functions), just as it is false to assume that dialects lack the grammatical tools to represent the world or our thoughts with sufficient sophistication. They simply do it differently. Your failure to appreciate that fact suggests that you think African Americans who do not speak like you are less intelligent.

In other words, your argument boils down to a materialistic claim and a prejudiced one. Thus, you sound like a crass idiot, and you have not succeeded in meeting the minimum standards of my request.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:02 PM on March 1, 2007


The way I speak is better than than the way inner-city African Americans speak because....

my dialect frightens policemen and makes them involuntarily say "Yes, sir."
posted by jfuller at 4:30 PM on March 1, 2007


The first definition derives superiority of the English language from the military and imperial force that propagated English throughout the world.

That sounds really pompous. Granted imperial conquest backed by military might created the conditions for the use of English as a trade language but economic, both monetary and intellectual, have urged the adoption of standard English as a medium of communication. I'd support Esperento, but not enough people use it.

Your failure to appreciate that fact suggests that you think African Americans who do not speak like you are less intelligent.

You infer wrongly that I'm disparaging intellect; I'm merely stating that the current construct of typical inner-city dialect does not contain a broad enough body of standardized vocabulary to unequivacably express certain concepts. Vis some words used in the West coast have entirely different meanings on the East coast of North America. Hell, there are words that mean different things on different sides of a bridge in California.

They simply do it differently.

That sounds suspiciously like "fair and balanced" and "we report, you decide."

An interesting aside; many Swedes speak English to one another in Sweden.

You yourself seem to be using two definitions of 'better': either

Not either. Both.

Heh. If only... if only....

Oh, right. By framing the the question and dictating the requirements is being intellectually dishonest. Can you state, or perhaps recall a real-world situation, where dialect (be it typical inner-city, English-as-a-second language Japanese speaker, native Quebecois in France) is irrelevant and all dialects are completely equal?

"The way I speak is better than than the way inner-city African Americans speak because...."

Come to think of it, that phrase bothers me; I've met and have had conversations with African Americans who's lineage originates from the slave trade, both those with limited education and those pursuing (and/or holding) advanced degrees. In both groups there is a wide range in the manner that they speak.
posted by porpoise at 5:37 PM on March 1, 2007


Upon a little introspection, I believe the our differences lie primarily in context; there was none to speak of.

Stereotypical inner-city pidgin is inadequate to hammer out the details of a complex international trade agreement, or presentation of scientific findings at a symposia. Likewise, the lingo used in formalized systematic logic has no use at a metal concert.

I agree that there is no intrinsic difference in value in any particular dialect, but no one particular dialect is necessarily adequate for all situations, hence my backing of a standardized and widely used protocol of communication.

Now, which is a better communication protocol, NetBIOS or TCP/IP?
posted by porpoise at 5:54 PM on March 1, 2007


grr

systematic logic
symbolic
posted by porpoise at 6:15 PM on March 1, 2007


I agree that there is no intrinsic difference in value in any particular dialect, but no one particular dialect is necessarily adequate for all situations, hence my backing of a standardized and widely used protocol of communication.

You should have started with this and stopped while you were ahead.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:27 PM on March 1, 2007


and has a greater depth of vocabulary which can be used to communicate and disambiguate a broader range of ideas

The thrust of a number of the above-linked articles is that this idea about AAVE, that it cannot express a range or ideas, and that it does not contain a broad vocabulary - this idea is just plain wrong.

Any linguist will tell you that this idea wrong.

You might try reading just the second link for a lay person's explanation of how wrong this idea is.

Every dialect uses different words and different sentence construction. Your mistake is assuming that your dialect contains more or better words or sentence constructions.

Without having fluency in a dialect, it's very difficult to make an accurate judgement of it.
posted by serazin at 8:29 PM on March 1, 2007


This is a constant theme of discussion over at sci.lang. From one of my postings there, something which to my knowledge equally applies to AAVE:
Ar an t-ochtú lá de mí Márta, scríobh Joachim Pense:

> [...] So seen in the large, the cases of losing and gaining
> expressiveness add up. And this results in the (dogmatic?) statement,
> that the expressiveness of a language is a constant, (and indeed that all
> "proper" languages are equally expressive). But I am not convinced that
> all those expressiveness changes really add up to zero.

The thing is, on the level António (not Seán!) is arguing about he is certainly right; for example, you’ve just defined „editieren“ in English, when English didn’t have a single verb for that, and with your definition, you’ve demonstrated that English is as expressive as German for this concept.

However, that level is not the only one worth taking into consideration. For example, I could take up nuclear physics, write a textbook in Irish, and give an extensive glossary explaining all the terms that I’ve calqued from Russian or English, as appropriate. Now, after my publishing this textbook, there would exist the possibility of studying and working in Nuclear Physics in Irish; but that doesn’t mean that the Irish of today is as suited to this field as is Russian or English.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 8:02 AM on March 2, 2007


Aidan,

Just as English is pretty crappy at expresing anything meaningful about a potato compared to Ketchua (sp?) the language of certain indigenous Peruvians. Or to use the more overused example, English is pretty weak at describing snow compared to certain Inuit languages. Any language emphasizes the values and interests that are historically of imporantance in that culture.
posted by serazin at 8:19 AM on March 2, 2007


Although, re-reading your comment, the extent to which expressing concepts about nuclear physics might be 'easier' in Russian and English is probably only in that we tend to borrow words for new concepts. So in France, people call their email 'email' instead of having a new word for it. (actually, come to think of it I believe there is some nationalist campaign to use a new word, but you get the idea). In any case, the French are perfectly capable of expressing information about email or computers or programming.

And English only speakers seem pretty good at describing and cooking and eating French food, even if we use the words sauté and baguette.
posted by serazin at 8:29 AM on March 2, 2007


Or to use the more overused example, English is pretty weak at describing snow compared to certain Inuit languages.

This is a myth.
posted by languagehat at 9:35 AM on March 2, 2007


Languagehat - it's a myth that certain Inuit languages have more terms to describe snow and it's various qualities than English does?

Even if it is a myth, my point is that each language emphasizes the things that are important to the culture of that language. Like, the herding people who live in the Southern Sudan have more than 400 words to describe cows (or so I've read). This wouldn't be necessary in a culture where herding is less important. Does that make sense or ring true to you?
posted by serazin at 10:49 AM on March 2, 2007


it's a myth that certain Inuit languages have more terms to describe snow and its various qualities than English does?

Yes
. (See here for further explanation, and here for an amusing parody.)

Even if it is a myth, my point is that each language emphasizes the things that are important to the culture of that language. Like, the herding people who live in the Southern Sudan have more than 400 words to describe cows (or so I've read). This wouldn't be necessary in a culture where herding is less important. Does that make sense or ring true to you?

It's complicated, but basically, no, it doesn't. The whole "X people have a zillion words for Y" is an urban legend for any values of X and Y; what happens is that someone decides to look for words for Y because they have decided in advance there must be a zillion of them (because Eskimos live with a lot of snow, cattle are important to Sudanese, or whatever) and go trawling through lexicons scraping up every word that looks like it might possibly be related to the subject. Say they come up with thirteen. (In the case of "Eskimo words for snow," the original number was four!) Then someone else cites their offhand reference to this but makes it "over a dozen" or "nearly twenty," and someone reads this and says "Hey, Fred, did you know that the X have dozens of words for Y?" and a new legend is born.

Of course it's true that each language has specialized vocabulary that other languages lack. I just discovered, for instance, that Russian has a word (погодок, pogodok) meaning 'brother or sister a year older or younger': Мы с ней погодкй 'She and I were born a year apart.' Cool, huh? But does it mean Russian culture is obsessed with age, or that being a year older or younger is especially important to Russians? No, they just happen to have a word for it. And it's quite possible for people to have no word at all for something vitally important to their culture; anthropologists have to invent words in such situations. (No, I can't think of an example right now; it's been many years since my anthro classes.)
posted by languagehat at 11:17 AM on March 2, 2007


Argh: "погодкй" should be погодки.
posted by languagehat at 11:30 AM on March 2, 2007


I'm perfectly willing to believe that the 'words for snow' thing is a myth, but I thought the idea that language reflects the values and interests of the culture was pretty well accepted. Or the Worf-somethingorother hypothosis that the culture reflects the language.

In your example about Russia: various ways of valuing family connections require certain language to describe those family connections. English doesn't differenciate between a maternal aunt and a paternal aunt, and in our culture, there is no practical or overriding difference between the two. In other cultures these two kinds of aunts have different social roles - and require different terms to describe each type of aunt. Right?
posted by serazin at 1:50 PM on March 2, 2007


I mean, is it really controversial to state that in some languages there are terms that do not exist in other languages? And that some languages have more terms for certain concepts than other languages do?
posted by serazin at 1:52 PM on March 2, 2007


OK, better example: I think I can safely generalize that in China, the first son has a particular significance that differs from a second or third son. This is not so in contemporary American culture - at least not to the same degree. Various Chinese dialects/languages have words for 'the first son'. I would assume that there is some connection between having a word for this concept and the importance of the concept.

In any case, I believe we are on the same side of the argument because my original point was that I don't think any language is 'better' at describing anything than any other language. Only trying to acknowledge that languages do include certain specialized vocabulary that are specific to that language's surrounding culture.
posted by serazin at 1:59 PM on March 2, 2007


Language isn't just about words, in isolation, it's about conveying meaning. Counting words is retarded.

English doesn't differentiate between a maternal aunt and a paternal aunt.

Yes it does. "maternal aunt" and "paternal aunt" convey that meaning fine.

the herding people who live in the Southern Sudan have more than 400 words to describe cows

So does English:

cows
brown cows
sickly cows
cows with spots on them
thirsty cows
etc. etc.

English is pretty crappy at expresing anything meaningful about a potato compared to Ketchua (sp?) the language of certain indigenous Peruvians

Bullshit:

new potatoes
starchy potatoes
succulent little red-skinned potatoes
etc. etc.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:36 PM on March 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Meatbomb is right: there's no magic to the "word." Is hot dog somehow less important because it's two words, whereas hamburger is one?
posted by languagehat at 4:48 AM on March 3, 2007


languages are effective for expressing ideas and no language is 'better' than any other language. That was in fact the point of my post.

IANAL but from what I've read as a layperson, there doesn't seem to be linguistic consensus on this subject yet. As I understand it various languages emphasize concepts differently, and the language, including it's vocabulary, seems to reflect the values of the culture where the language arose.

Anyhow, interesting conversation except for the whole "bullshit, you know nothing" tone.
posted by serazin at 12:37 PM on March 3, 2007


Oops - cut off my very first line which was supposed to be:

"Well MB and LH, I maintain languages are effective for expressing "

Cheers.
posted by serazin at 12:38 PM on March 3, 2007


languages are effective for expressing ideas and no language is 'better' than any other language. That was in fact the point of my post.

And there we are in agreement. I hope you were not referring to me with the "bullshit, you know nothing" remark, because I've tried to be polite and helpful. It's quite understandable that you would believe the "words for snow" myth, because it's very plausible and attractive: surely vocabulary reflects culture! Well, language may reflect and/or influence culture, but not in such a simple and obvious way. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is one of the most contentious issues in linguistics and linguistic psychology, and it's unlikely to be resolved anytime soon; the "strong" version (that the way we think is determined by the language we speak) is untenable, but various weaker versions have varying degrees of support. More study (as they say) is needed.

In any event, you need to separate the larger issue of S-W from the narrow issue of "many words for X"; the latter is a myth, and you should let go of it with as little regret as possible.
posted by languagehat at 6:05 AM on March 4, 2007


Thanks for following up LH. It was meatbomb that called my idea 'bullshit' so I wouldn't lump you in with that. And I do appreciate your acknowledgement that this is a contentious issue, rather than one which there is consensus about in the linguistic community.

I'm taking away from this that having one word or numerous words to express something doesn't signify something about a language or culture. And also that the 'one word vs. many words' is a poor way to compare languages because of the differences in word and sentence constructions.

Without reading a lot more about it, I really have difficulty letting go of the idea that certain languages express ideas that do not exist or are not important in other languages and they do this using specific vocabulary. The example that pops immediately to mind (after 'snow'!) is habibi. I believe this has a somewhat direct translation - 'my beloved' - but the way it is used just doesn't 'translate' to English. My understanding of the word (and this comes from brief conversations with a Lebanese classmate) is that you use it similarly to how someone would use 'dog' in the sentence 'What up, dog?' to mean something like 'friend'. You use it for lovers, children, and strangers - if you want to show the stranger that you mean well. Calling a stranger 'beloved' would be quite unusual in our culture, and I can't think of an equivalent way to express this sentiment in English using any number of words or gestures.

Still, I recognize that in English one can express friendliness to a stranger or love to a family member.

Anyway, ya. We've beaten this into the ground now.
posted by serazin at 8:42 AM on March 4, 2007


serazin: apologies, I was not trying to be dismissive, the "bullshit" remark actually meant "as per the above examples"...
posted by Meatbomb at 1:05 AM on March 5, 2007


And I also enjoyed your articles and this thread, so thank you.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:06 AM on March 5, 2007


Thanks meatbomb. Part of why this place seems so hostile is probably because I assume the worst. So ya, thanks.
posted by serazin at 6:57 AM on March 5, 2007


« Older The New Yorker appends a correction (scroll to bot...  |  Giant Crab, Enemy Crab... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments