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Why Would You Study That Bad English?

August 5, 2010

"Our Kind of People" author Lawrence Otis Graham (right), along with Al Roker, Deborah Roberts and Pamela Thomas-Graham

Written by guest blogger, Nicole Holliday.

“Why Would You Study That Bad English?”

This is a question that those of us interested in African American English (AAE) and other minority dialects hear with astonishing frequency.

Many educated, socially progressive members of the African-American community view AAE as a corruption of the English language. To some, the dialect is what keeps blacks from advancing socially and economically. One need look no further than an essay by one of the most famous and popular black comedians of our time.

Bill Cosby has always been a vocal opponent of the existence and use of AAE, as is evidenced by this quote from his 2005 essay, “We Can’t Blame White People”:

“They’re standing on the corner and they can’t speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: ‘Why you ain’t,’ ‘Where you is’…And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk…Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads…You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!”

Mr. Cosby is not alone in these sentiments. Ask any sociolinguist to count the number of statements like this one s/he has personally heard, and you’ll likely get an earful. Why are prominent and successful African Americans so quick to denigrate and dismiss AAE? A quick Google search would explain the structures and lexicon of AAE yet the idea that AAE is merely “bad English” persists, even among prominent blacks who claim to advocate for diversity and equality.

In his book, Our Kind of People, Lawrence Otis Graham describes America’s black upper-class in painstaking detail, but he also makes it clear that since in America blackness is often correlated with poverty, upwardly mobile blacks take great pains to differentiate themselves from poor blacks. Perhaps for Bill Cosby and other economically successful black people, recognizing AAE as a dialect of American English and an important part of American history would place them socially too close to poor blacks, the type who stand on the corner and say “Why you ain’t”.

Finally, while it’s true that Standard American English (SAE) is the dialect most widely regarded as prestigious in the U.S., there are countless doctors, lawyers, politicians, and even comedians whose first dialect is AAE. Even President Obama’s speech has features of AAE. AAE is the dialect of a people. It’s not bad English, and not a marker of low socioeconomic status: it’s a reflection of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Nicole Holliday (holliday.nicole@gmail.com) recently received her B.A. in linguistics from The Ohio State University. She is an avid activist for social and linguistic justice. Nicole currently lives in Columbus, Ohio where she works in the labor movement.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2010 6:13 pm

    As AAE is a dialect that has rules and a history, it should most definitely be recognized. However, folks like Mr. Cosby, who express legitimate concerns about the prospects of a people who speak AAE, do have a point. Whether we like it or not, the folks who control the strings of power in America overwhelmingly speak SAE. When young people speak AAE exclusively, they effectively limit their higher education and employment options, because there is a real stigma attached to AAE. I saw this play out everyday as I grew up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn amongst peers who spoke only AAE, which was one of the main factors that limited their prospects. I make a point of specifying ‘exclusively’ because there are many successful people who code switch (using AAE in social situations amongst familiars and SAE in professional situations or mixed company). For example, you mentioned President Obama, arguably the preeminent code switcher in American history. While his speech is peppered with AAE, he is also skilled at adapting to his audience and determining when SAE is more appropriate. This skill was most prominently displayed on the 2008 campaign trail, when he would often give almost identical speeches on the same day, in both dialects, to adapt to different audiences.

    I’d like to see less debate about Good/Bad or Yes/No on AAE and more emphasis on the practical matter of teaching young people who speak AAE that they should also master SAE to help them make their way in the world. The legitimacy of AAE as a dialect isn’t diminished by acknowledging the very real need for kids (especially kids from poor backgrounds) to become adept at SAE as well.

    • Nicole Holliday permalink
      August 6, 2010 10:47 am

      Khalid-

      Cosby may have a point, but it’s important to understand that his views are rooted in deep-seeded racism and classism. The rich white men of the 1950’s still control how everyone is “supposed to speak” in order to achieve social success, and people who make non-constructive and bigoted comments like his only reinforce the hegemony. I want to speakers to understand that they’ve been programed to view AAE as “bad” by a racist, classist system. The reason that Cosby and others classify AAE as “bad English” or “not English” is that pre-Civil Rights Movement ideas about society have influenced them to do so for decades.

      I have to concede however that practically, you make a excellent point. I am not one of those linguists who believes in forcing speakers to maintain a language or dialect that is economically disadvantageous to them for the sake of preservation. I agree that widespread bidialectism is probably the most practical solution to the predicament we face here.

      As for teaching AAE-speaking kids to code switch with SAE, I’m sure you remember the Oakland Ebonics Controversy. (http://www.stanford.edu/~rickford/papers/EbonicsInMyBackyard.html)

      Linguists like John Rickford argued that there needed to be a curriculum designed for this for the benefit of all children, but unfortunately racism and classism blinded the general public to the idea. In order to develop and implement a system for teaching AAE-speaking kids SAE, we need to first overcome the Good/Bad and Yes/No questions so that the public can support and understand such a system. Sadly, because prejudice, fear and hate are deeply entrenched, I’m not sure that it’s an issue we’ll ever be able to overcome.

  2. Stan permalink
    August 6, 2010 12:10 pm

    “AAE is the dialect of a people. It’s not bad English, and not a marker of low socioeconomic status: it’s a reflection of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.”

    To support the use of AAE is tantamount to saying you’ve gone nowhere, you’re behind, and you’re going backwards. As far as I’m concerned, all dialects that aren’t SAE are backwards.

    • African American English permalink*
      August 7, 2010 5:20 pm

      Thanks for the dialogue. In September we will ask “What is SAE anyway?” to get at some of the larger questions alluded to.

  3. Nicole Holliday permalink
    August 6, 2010 4:38 pm

    Stan-

    AAE, just like SAE, reflects a history, a culture, and a future. Language is alive, so speaking AAE can’t be moving backwards. AAE is not a “backwards” dialect. I’ll point you to the “About” section of this blog for a bit more explanation. http://africanamericanenglish.com/about/

    If race relations in this country had been reversed and blacks had been in power and discriminated against whites for hundreds of years, then AAE would be the prestige dialect. AAE is only marginalized because of the history of racism in the US. To say that the use of AAE is backwards is tantamount to saying that any aspect of culture of a marginalized group is backwards. For example, shall we start asking black women to stop wearing hats to church as well because white women don’t? (http://www.ehow.com/about_5374431_history-women-wearing-hats-church.html). Is that a “backwards aspect” of black culture too?

    I support the use of AAE because I support the freedom of choice of use. Being able to use AAE is about linguistic, cultural, and racial freedom. We live in a country that values these freedoms in the first amendment to our Constitution, so it only makes sense that the people should demand linguistic freedom, free of discrimination, as well.

    • Chris permalink
      November 1, 2010 8:29 pm

      What a great article and website. This is fascinating. I feel that the authors of it though should think about “re-posting” their own articles in AAE once in awhile to give it some real life usage examples.

      I feel that the Stan (that posted on August 6, 2010 at 12:10 pm) may not realize that he doesn’t speak in SAE. A tiny fraction of people (if any at all) do. Most everyone feels the same about the best dialect being the one that they speak. So Stan feels the one he speaks is the best (or the one he thinks he speaks); I feel that the one I speak is best; and so on. By best we usually mean that we feel comfortable with hearing and using it. The exception to this is if we think of another speech community as being superior to our own. Remember back to childhood when you or your classmates first tried out a British English dialect, maybe a Southern States dialect, or maybe a Cockney dialect. There is nothing wrong with AAE other than some of us can’t quite understand it as well as our own. Prejudices and discrimination will happen regardless of what people speak whether it is AAE or if they sound like they are from the Southern States or if they sound liek they are from Quebec.

  4. August 9, 2010 3:49 pm

    Very interesting post. I think that not only are there no superior dialects, but the very idea – though prevalent – is deeply misguided. Certainly there are prestige dialects, but they attained their privileged position through historical circumstance, not inherent linguistic superiority.

    I’ve been having this argument on and off at my blog both generally and specifically in relation to standard (UK) English versus non-standard forms. As an Irishman I sometimes encounter condemnation of standard Hiberno-English constructions as ungrammatical, low, bad, etc. So I can relate to the significance and usefulness of bidialectism, and the importance of tolerance and common sense in these matters.

    (Note: I’m a different Stan to the one who commented above.)

  5. October 27, 2010 12:11 am

    I agree with Lawrence Otis Graham that “in America blackness is often correlated with poverty, upwardly mobile blacks take great pains to differentiate themselves from poor blacks” though there are of course more social and logistical factors that play a role in why members of the African American community do not or try not to speak African American English.

    In fact, AAE was brought up recently with two African American friends of mine. One friend, of Jamaican descent, was baffled by the fact that AAE was actually considered a dialect of English with its unique speech systems and grammar rules. Her attitudes reflect the common misconception of our culture that AAE is simply bad english. (I must confess I shared those same erroneous views until I took this linguistics course.) She grew up in Harlem but does not speak AAE and mentions she is constantly questioned by both AAE speakers and non-speakers as to why she “talks like a white person” or “does not talk black.” Circumstance may be the major factor in her case as AAE was not present in the environment she was most frequently in; a private school in Westchester.

    My other friend from Georgia relayed to me today about how he has been trying very hard to hide his Southernness. It was implied he was talking about his speech. I do not think he was adjusting his speech for prestige or differentiate himself from other blacks. Rather, he was designing his speech out of a desire to fit into his surroundings (i.e. convergence). In fact, he stated he was trying to talk more “New Yorker” which, like AAE, also has negative connotations and stereotypes associated with it and would not necessarily be more or less prestigious in our culture.

  6. November 1, 2010 1:18 pm

    Kahlid and Nicole both bring up some very good points about the racism integrated into common vernacular and how that determines who can say what or whether it is “good” or “bad.” I feel that people, especially African Americans, are judged more inaccurately by their speech than by who they are. Cosby emphasizes his frustration with the way the African American youth talk, claiming that they are not putting any effort forward into changing the way that they speak so that they might better themselves for life and career opportunities, and that part of the blame is also due to the parents’ poor speech patterns and inability to teach their children proper English. His judgement is double-edged: not only is Cosby looking down on AAE because he has found success and has learned to use it as something to separate himself from, but he is also unaware of his own use of AAE. He may not talk exactly like the kids who stand on the street saying “Why you ain’t, where you is,” but he still uses a few of the markers – like “I mean this is the future and all of these people who lined up and done whatever…don’t want to learn English” in his May 2004 speech on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. He still code switches. He, like many others, neglects to take into account variables other than motivation that might deem an African American or any other person who speaks “poor English” in a lower social setting. AAE should be looked upon and studied as a language that not only helps African Americans communicate with each other, but also helps to link AAE to SAE without race being a negative interfering factor.

    • Chris permalink
      November 2, 2010 1:36 am

      Good call. The fact that AAE is truly apart of so many of our vocabularies regardless of our status in society is amazing. The African American culture is truly pervasive in the average American’s lives. I love that as Cosby disregards the use of AAE, he uses it. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and remember loving to regularly hear the (as James Baldwin put it) “incredible music” of this kind of speech. Living in one of the whitest parts of the country (Reno, Nevada) I miss it badly. I noticed this years ago and find myself drawn to black people hoping to hear some form of it. The southern AAE is slightly different (maybe a dialect within a dialect?), but it still excites me. I continue to live in the land of White Trash Heroes that have no “fun” accents. :-(

  7. Jon M. permalink
    November 2, 2010 12:27 am

    It seems the root of the problem is embedded racism in our society. One must ask oneself why SAE forms gained prestige over AAE forms. History provides evidence that during the 1700s and 1800s African-Americans were given almost no social power. Therefore, it seems logical that forms of speech/prestige would arrise that reflects this relationship of social power. Since this power relationship existed for well over 300 years, these prestige relationships became ingrained deeply into US English-speakers. Thus, today’s society still has not changed back these prestige forms, and we still regard AAE as a dialect of poverty.

  8. Shaya permalink
    April 15, 2011 8:05 am

    I think that this intra-ethnic debate about African American English is so powerful. My concern is always how do black people see one another. The way we speak is one way to differentiate groups within black America. When black “leaders” or “upwardly mobile” folk are so critical and eager to distance themselves from AAE, it immediately makes me wonder: who are you afraid to hear us speak this way? Are you afraid that white folk will know how we speak when they aren’t around? Not only is it a class issue but it is also generational. Perhaps for people who grew up in an era where assimilation was the goal, retaining a noticeable marker like a distinct language variation, would seem regressive. I agree that people who have certain aspirations must be fluent in Standard American English, but I also think that we should hold on to AAE heritage. Each is appropriate in particular realms. I want to be able to move in certain worlds where SAE is the lingua franca but I would NEVER want to have to “be on” all the time or reject the language of my father and my grandmother, my first language, AAE.

  9. Jesse Stayton permalink
    May 5, 2011 9:35 pm

    I think it’s unfortunate, (but almost inevitable), to see this degree of intra-ethnic discrimination against speakers African American English, especially since it’s already so widespread and articulated by so many non-African Americans. We see instances of this in other marginalized groups as well. The homosexual community, for example, has experienced this for years, with more masculine acting gay men blaming feminine-acting gay men for the negative stereotypes that exist against them. I’m not entirely sure where this stems from, although I would assume that in a way, it comes from a “good place.” I think that maybe, people like Bill Cosby and Barack Obama see and remember their own communities being vilified (and have witnessed this for many years), and are trying to prevent any further instances of stereotyping to occur. This is not to say, of course, that these attitudes are valid or even permissible, and these people need to be educated about linguistic/dialectal diversity in the same way that the general public does. Mainly, we need more people (i.e. linguists) to come out and speak to the legitimacy of AAE, especially in schools where young people are most susceptible.

  10. October 8, 2011 7:44 pm

    Hello,
    Thanks for posting this! I’m from Argentina and I’m attending a teacher training course of study. One of the subjects I’m studying is Sociolinguistics and Psycholinguistics and I’m learning new concepts now, since the subject started this year. One of our teacher gave us this as homework and we have to relate the concepts we’ve learned with what you’ve written. This is a good example of an open-minded person, and I’m glad that still remain this kind of good people there.
    Congratulations! Hope people can understand what you mean and try to change their minds, in order to change our World and free it from all the threatening human behaviours it faces everyday. At least, it’s good to start by accepting other people’s language and avoid discrimination. I think that as long as a language is alive and useful for communication, it’s as good as any other language in the world.
    Cheers,
    Florencia.

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