Why Would You Study That Bad English?
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.