Black English/Ebonics

Subject: Black English/Ebonics
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Sun, 22 Dec 1996 12:28:00 EST

I find it hard to believe that so many people can take something so
seriously that sounds like a new Sony product. Or maybe a new biology
discipline. But there you are. It's actually a new name for a
still-controversial term "black English."

I've been following the black English argument with interest for several
years now. It turns out that the Ebonics "scandal" in Oakland has a better
foundation that it appeared. In a longer National Public Radio report, a
spokesperson frankly said that they're treating Ebonic (Yeesh, that sounds
awful) children as they would Spanish-speakers, since both have problems
keeping up with mainstream English conventions and hence have problems
learning in the first or second grades. In effect, the school system is
recognizing that the Ebonic children need special help to mainstream.

I've followed the Ebonics thread with interest, too, remembering other times
when this topic came up. Black English/Ebonics, of course, has syntax and
grammar, but linguists are split over whether it's a language or a dialect.
That has profound implications for school children, but I'd think less so
for us. Yes, we need to keep current and be sensitive to changing
conventions. But we always play percentages when we produce doc, and we'll
continue to do so by excluding most black English conventions from our text,
because we know that most readers will read Standard American English
(defined by linguists as the conventions accepted within a geographical or
geopolitical range...often the midwest).

When I was in school we learned the rule of thumb that you talked as you
pleased, but wrote conventionally, meaning "adhering to commonly accepted
conventions." Written text persists long after air vibrations have ceased
and spoken syntax has moved on to newer rules. In most languages the spoken
form changes far faster than spelling and written rules, because of the
permanence of text. We are under the same constraints. I'll continue to
explore and accept the changes that seem to be accepted by most readers,
while ignoring those that seem to be fads. I'll even consult several
dictionaries on occasion to get a better feel for the mainstream.

But that's us. The Oakland dilemma was different, and I find myself
applauding them for taking the trouble to recognize the problems that many
children face when they have to mainstream. Some commentators have suggested
that it demeans black children, making them appear dumb. I disagree,
although I'm not an Oakland resident and things may be different out there.

Tim Altom
Vice President, Simply Written, Inc.
317.899.5882 (voice) 317.899.5987 (fax)
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