Linguistic Politics

and the Black Community

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Phylon: Journal of Race and Culture 36.2 (1975): 177-181.
© 1975 by Phylon: Journal of Race and Culture; © 2004 by Louie Crew

    The following letter appeared recently in the student newspaper at an all-black college, with the heading "Black English Being Censored."
 

    standing by watching our main publication reall been a hassle/student news -- what little there is printed -- is taken in an censored to fit what is call standard english/this should not be done, for what we ordinarily speak is not standard, white, middle-class english, but a completely different and more logical language system -- black english (sometimes called non-standard english)/since the Panther is ours it should reflect us and our many different dialects and speech habits/
 
    we as blacks should accept our language as a way of communicating among ourselves, and not necessarily as a way of speaking, but who says it is??  true, english is used to classify people/yet no one body has the authority to say we should abandon the use of this language that was transmitted to us by our parents -- our natural language -- just for the sake of fitting whitey's classification system/

    many of us have conformed to the use of whitey's english merely to operate easier within his system/but, we should not subject ourselves to fitting his system when we are actually in control of things/

    ending, not one editor and staff, not one proofreader or censorer, or advisor to a censorer, can truthfully say that it is easier to go through different articles correct them grammatically and make them fit whitey's standards/to the persons afore mentioned:  save yourselves a lot of sweat, gray hairs, head aches etc, cause even after we write whitey's english, we still ain't gon speak it/we been talkin and still gon talk more than write.1

One of the ironies of this letter is that aside from three or four lexical items, the letter itself is written not in the "Black English" linguist J. L. Dillard has described,2 but in what the student himself calls "standard, white, middle-class english."  His only real claims to being nonstandard are his suspension of conventional punctuation and his random efforts to misspell words.

    A similar confusion was evidenced by twenty-four of the student's classmates, English majors all, when asked in a modern grammar course to translate set passages of Standard English into Black English.  With a few exceptions, students resorted only to the old stand-bys, dis, dem, dese, does, and dere, with a smattering of ain't and gonna.  It appears that without instruction many black college students do not know Dillard's version of Black English and certainly cannot produce his simplistic samples with any degree of skill.  I suspect that similar ignorance prevails even more so in the general college community.  It is possible that linguists are at least partially responsible for the widespread ignorance.

    Trained in making precise statements about language, linguists have a fairly poor record of communicating that precision.  The public use and the linguists' use of the concept of dialect provides a continuing example.  Hosts of freshman readers in the past few years have hopefully prepared future Miss Fidditches to be aware that dialect is not a term of opprobrium, that indeed the speech of every individual has dialectal registers.  What the students above, Miss Fidditch, and the public in general have not heard forcefully enough from linguists, however, is that no one has a dialect as a private possession, that no one even speaks or writes a dialect, that dialect is an abstraction of features unique to one group of people within a larger language community.  Furthermore, students now trained with a healthy respect for dialect are going to be terribly disappointed to  discover that their dialects are not discrete categories independent of the language.  Anyone verbally advantaged enough to be studying dialect will hardly have avoided being influenced already by many dialects for different purposes.  It is well known by student linguists that educated people do not make convenient subjects for dialectology precisely because of the muddling of many dialectal influences on their usage.

    The uneducated do not fair so well.  Linguists, through the concept of bidialectalism, have brought to the ghetto a simplified program of inducing speakers of Black English to acquire Standard English as another discrete language.  That one can isolate some of the features of any dialect goes without question.  What is in question is the notion that this isolated material is "a completely different....system," as the student letter-writer asserts.  Many advocates of bidialectalism tend to support this misconception by their emphasis upon the differences between Black English and Standard English.  It seems particularly strange that Dillard's study never itemizes the similarities, perhaps because hs is busy urging consideration of his subject as virtually a separate language.  Y et his colleague William Labov has on at least one occasion acknowledged that "the differences between nonstandard Negro speech and standard English are slight compared to their similarities."3 A full description of Black English would certainly have to delineate these significant similarities, although such delineation would probably be impossible in any reasonably complete sense, so monumental would be the undertaking.  We can be sure that the most disadvantaged ghetto youngster and a lad entering Christ's Hospital in London today have already mastered many of the same patterns of English grammar, syntax, and vocabulary that an educated Turkish linguist approaching English for the first time would find extremely complex.

    The language diversity within the black community in the United States, as in the white community, suggests that linguists might better encourage ghetto youngsters to be sensitive to the plurality of choices available to them, rather than to stress just two alternatives.  Perhaps diglossia would be a better watchword than bidialectalism.  The black community has been dialectally pluralistic in America since the earliest division of slaves into household and field groups.4  Dillard reports that twenty percent of the blacks in the United States currently do not speak his version of Black English5 and many have questioned Dillard's small figure.  (One wonders whether twenty percent of any Americans use what freshman English teachers would call Standard English.)  Encouraging diglossia would not seem, as bidialectal education superficially is, just another white effort to get blacks to talk like whites, but would promote greater community among blacks.

    Considering the widespread dialectal pluralism in the black community, t he linguists' ostensibly neutral term Black English to describe the language of only one group of blacks seems, like dialect, another example of poor communication between linguists and the general public.  Although the student authoring the letter to the editor does not use what Dillard would call Black English, in a more important sense he does use a Black English.  He is black, and so is any English he uses.  Substantial changes in his letter would have to be made to make its black ideas credible as Caucasian correspondence!  It seems a mistake of quantitative science to isolate particular  lexical, grammatical or syntactical features and by the tyranny of numbers to foist them off as racial categories.  If we are going to speak of language in racial categories, certainly we need to introduce semantics into our concept of language, lest we deprive speakers of their birthrights.

    Professors Wayne O'Neil and James Sledd have written tellingly about some of the political implications of bidialectalism, even charging that some linguists are trying to use big government money to make ghetto youth bidialectal under the false promise that if one will talk like white he will be treated like whitey.6  The political maneuvering of the bidialectalists that disturbs me is their identification of dialects as racial categories.  I live and work in a black academic community.  Most of my black colleagues speak and write a variety of English that to my ear sounds as Standard as that of any English professors I have encountered at Auburn University, The University of Alabama, or Baylor, and most of them learned that Standard English from black leaders in a segregated black world long before they may have attended graduate classes in a predominately white graduate school.  Very few black colleges have advocated doing away with Standard English as a basis for instruction, however affirming the faculties may or may not have been towards blacks of whites who do not speak it.  Similarly, almost all back professionals have followed suit.  It must then be considered a political fact, like it or not, that linguists go to children in the ghetto to get their descriptions of Black English, not to the informal gatherings of black linguists, black psychologists, black doctors, black journalists, and so on.  It must also be considered a political act to suppress or to ignore the current leadership of the black community which continues to urge black youth to become conversant with the English of black educators, writers, lawyers, etc.  It is surely vicious and racist to assume that upward mobility must mean moving up only in the white world.  In all of the debates about what standard means, linguists have consistently maintained that the community must determine its own standard.  Are linguists now prepared to ignore those blacks who do not speak Black English -- ironically more than twice the talented tenth to whom W. E. DuBois addressed himself in his debates with Booker T. Washington about the direction of black education three quarters of a century ago?

    Linguists can ill afford to ignore the racial power plays in the academy, activities which their objective data may be made to serve for ill or good.  It is clear to most people that the formerly all-white educational institutions have tried to buy up the most published members of predominantly black institutions (fortunately not always with success) and to compete fiercely for the better qualified black students.  Perhaps less apparent has been the effort of white institutions to keep within the predominantly white colleges the standard-makers of all education.  Accreditation, for example, may lead to a few black on committees, but to my knowledge no predominantly white institution has risked having its standards evaluated by an all-black panel, as have most black institutions endured all-white panels.  Likewise, more and more black students formerly taught by black professors at black colleges are now taught by whites at predominantly white colleges, yet few of these white professors attend the College Language Association  (CLA) to participate under black leadership in the dialogue about the directions of black and American education.  How many white educators even know what CLA is, why it is, and what it publishes?  Most often the pressures of integration have been to bring blacks in line with whites, not the other way round.  How many individual scholars have written government officials urging greater government funds for predominantly black public institutions so that they can compete on a par for the better students and faculty?

    Of course, it should also be noted that black who do not speak Dillard's Black English are not necessarily mere middle-class spokespersons.  From William Wells Brown to Amiri Baraka, from Nat Turner to Eldridge Cleaver, from David Walker to Malcolm X . . articulate blacks have proved that one can speak the langauge of the middle class without espousing its values or style.  Standard English, like any language or dialect, is not the private property of any class or race, but belongs to those who use it.

    Some linguists will resist encouraging dialectal pluralism on the grounds that learning to talk several ways would be a psychological threat to one's security, one's language being a very personal, intimate part of her or his self-concept.  Certainly not enough evidence is in to demonstrate that actors, who are linguistically pluralistic by profession, are as a class more socially disoriented than other groups.  It is quite possible that only one who is secure feels free to risk imitating someone else.  It is the autistic child who no longer imitates.  Most black teenagers can imitate honkey talk for hours, or the talk of their own middle-class leaders (which they perceive as different); they hardly seem alienated so doing.  There is clearly a big difference between saying "I am going to burrow into my own environment, broadly considered (i.e., linguistic pluralism) and use all that I can discover,  become a part of all I meet" and "I'm gonna down all not unique to my environment:  my Blackness be everything and only what whitey don go."  The psychological challenge for each speaker is to maintain linguistic integrity, wholeness, moving not from imitation to imitation (which would be madness), but integrating the plurality of influences as they occur, thereby forming the manner of speaking that is one's own.

    A young black choosing her or his dialects today is making somewhat the same bet on history that Chaucer made in writing The Canterbury Tales in English instead of established courtly French.  The young black may well speculate whether his treasures will be preserved more likely by a black nation speaking Black English, or by a new nation of blacks and whites with a pluralistic dialectal system, or by a nation with one standard dialect drawing on all.   It is a fact that the Black Experiences does not  unequivocally require Black English.  It could become a fact that articulate blacks will prefer it.  So far, they have made very little effort to employ it consistently or in a great degree.  Meanwhile, these same blacks today need to be learning in their language courses all about rhetorical strategy, verbal incisiveness, clarity, wit, ambiguity, and other language arts so that in whatever dialect they choose to speak or write they will have a better chance of being heeded.
 
 
 


Notes

  1. Felton Eaddy, The Panther (Claflin College, Orangeburg, S.C.:  March 1972), p. 6.  Mr. Eaddy later earned a degree from the Johns Hopkins graduate program in creative writing, is a published poet, and currently (2004) chairs the Atlanta-based Black Arts Roundtable.
  2. J. L. Dilland, Black English (New York, 1972).
  3. William Labov, "Some Sources of Reading Problems" in Teaching Black Children to Read, eds. Joan C. Baratz and Robert W. Shuy (Washington, 1969), p. 37.
  4. Dillard, p. 109
  5. Dillard., p. 229
  6. Wayne O'Neil,  "The Politics of Bidialectalism"  (433-38) and James Sledd, "Doublespeak:  Dialectology in the Service of Big Brother" (439-456), College English 23.4 (January 1972).  See also my exchange with Professor Sledd, "Comment and Rebuttal," College English 34.4 (January 1974), 480-84.

 
 

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