Com 374 Week 8 – Language and ethnicity



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COM 374 Week 8 – Language and ethnicity


  1. Standard vs. Nonstandard

    1. Standard: dominant or ‘prestige’ dialect, typically used by political leaders and upper classes, in literature, taught in schools ( ≠ ‘correct’, ‘proper’, ‘better’), e.g.,

      1. Received Pronunciation (RP): characterized primarily by phonological features

      2. Standard American English (SAE): characterized primarily by grammatical (morphological & syntactic) features

    2. Nonstandard: any dialect not perceived as standard (≠ ‘substandard’, ‘incorrect’, ‘improper’)

  2. Types of prestige

    1. Overt prestige: Attached to some dialect by the community at large that defines how people should speak to gain status in that community

      1. Hypercorrection: When speakers overcorrect for ‘incorrect’ speech in wrong place, often to imitate prestige dialect

        1. Phonological: ‘r’-insertion, e.g., idear, Cuba(r)

        2. Lexical: malapropisms, e.g., You misunderestimate me.

        3. Grammatical: e.g., between you and I

    2. Covert prestige: Exists among nonstandard speakers and defines how people should speak to be considered members of that particular group

  3. African American English (AAE)

    1. A continuum of language varieties that are spoken primarily by and among African-Americans (But not all African-Americans speak AAE, and not only African-Americans speak AAE)

    2. Myths

      1. AAE is ‘black slang’

      2. It is a product of ‘lazy’ speech

      3. It is an inferior, simple form of English

      4. It is grammatically incorrect and has no rules

    3. Phonology

      1. Deletion of /r/, /l/: mo(re), gua(r)d, he(l)p, Pa(r)is, a(ll)

        1. Delete /r/, /l/ less often if it would be followed by vowel in next word (four o’clock, all or nothin’)

      2. Simplification of consonant clusters: han(d), las(t), chil(d)

        1. Delete final consonant less often if it carries meaning (past tense: passed, plural: cats)

    4. Syntax

      1. Multiple negatives (He don’ know nothin’.)

      2. Deletion of copula ‘to be’ (He sick. That my mother.)

      3. Use of habitual ‘be’ (‘The coffee be cold (every day).)

    5. Code-switching: Alternation between two languages or dialects; Many African-Americans are bidialectal in AAE and SAE, and ‘style-shift’ (a.k.a. ‘code switch’) between the two dialects depending upon context

      1. Linguistic profiling: Determining characteristics about someone (such as their ethnicity or socioeconomic status) based on the way they use language

  4. Ebonics controversy

    1. Statistics

      1. 1996: In Oakland, blacks made up 53% of students, but 80% of suspensions, 64% of students held back each year, and 71% of special needs students

    2. Precedent

      1. 1979: Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School v. Ann Arbor School Board

      2. Verdict: teachers failed “to take into account [the children's] home community dialect in teaching them how to read.”

      3. Court order: Board must

        1. help teachers identify “Black English”

        2. use knowledge of Black English in teaching students how to read Standard English

    3. Dec. 18, 1996: Oakland School Board unanimously passes resolution on Ebonics

    4. Reaction

      1. Media

      2. African Americans

      3. Linguistic Society of America

    5. Wording of main topics of resolution (popular vs. intended interpretation)

      1. The Genetic Issue: “African Language Systems are genetically based.”

        1. Popular: Blacks are biologically predisposed to speak Ebonics

        2. Linguistic: "Genetic" refers to linguistic origins (or ‘genesis’) in African languages, not biological predisposition

      2. The Separate Language Issue: “African Language Systems are … not a dialect of English.”

        1. Popular: Ebonics is not a dialect of English but is a separate language

        2. Linguistic: Responding to the popular (and inaccurate) conception of ‘dialect’ as inferior/substandard form of a language.

      3. The Teaching Issue: “…a program featuring African Language Systems principles in instructing African-American children both in their primary language and in English.” http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/standardamerican/

        1. Popular: Teachers will teach students how to speak Ebonics

        2. Linguistic: Ebonics will be used selectively as aid in teaching SAE

      4. The Bilingual Issue: “…the English language acquisition and improvement skills of African-American students are as fundamental as is application of bilingual or second language learner principles for others whose primary languages are other than English.”

        1. Popular: The Oakland School District should qualify for federal funds as bilingual education programs do

        2. Linguistic: Ebonics speakers should have access to special programs that help them to better learn SAE

    6. Empirical studies

      1. “Correcting” use of nonstandard dialects at school leads to more nonstandard use, not less

      2. Use of nonstandard dialect in teaching speeds and improves learning of standard in reading/writing

      3. African-Am. college students instructed on differences between AAVE and SAE improved SAE writing skills

  5. Bilingual education

    1. Use of native language of students learning English for purposes of instruction

    2. Opponents of Bilingual Education (Arguments for/against “English Only”)

      1. English is common bond of American nationalism, but…

        1. Language diversity has always been a part of American history

      2. Language diversity causes dissension, ethnic strife, but…

        1. Many linguistically diverse countries exhibit unity

        2. Having an ‘official’ language does not guarantee unity

      3. The survival of English is threatened by increase of minority languages spoken, but…

        1. % of non-English speakers in 1890 was 4.5x higher than in 1990

        2. Often by 2nd generation, immigrants will have learned English

      4. Learning English is essential for success in America, but…

        1. It is possible to be successful without learning English

        2. Being bilingual has its own advantages (in a multilingual world)

      5. Total immersion has worked for generations of immigrants, but…

        1. It is not universally successful

      6. Use of native language in classroom can discourage, prevent English-lang. success

        1. Children will only learn if they can understand their teachers

Study questions:


What are some ways in which AAE dispels the myths that it is just ‘black slang’, a product of ‘lazy’ speech, or is an inferior, simple form of English with no rules of grammar?
Why is the term African American English something of a misnomer?
Discuss some of the reasons why the media reaction to the Oakland Ebonics resolution was so negative. Contrast this with the reactions of high-profile African Americans (like Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou) who also reacted negatively to resolution?
Explain why one might argue that the debate over Ebonics and bilingual education is not a linguistic issue but a social or political one. Give examples to support your claim.


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