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Dialects

Charles J. Fillmore's Speech at the American Cultures Center, UC Berkeley, Feb. 1997

I'm a linguist with no particular expertise in American dialects and with no trustworthy advice to offer on matters of educational policy. I am a Trustee of an organization called the Center for Applied Linguistics, located in Washington, D.C., and have had various occasional connections with the Center over the past thirty years. This organization was the main sponsor of research in the black English vernacular and experiments in education through the home dialect in the early seventies, and it's generally believed by the people I know there that if the public had been more receptive to it at the time, it would have worked. So from the start I have been inclined to think that, from what I understood of the Oakland decision, it would be worth a try.

I got into the fray during a period of increasing exasperation in the last two weeks of December, having become convinced that none of the people engaged in the ebonics debate raging in the media were talking to each other, and there didn't seem to be anybody - certainly not journalists, bureaucrats or cultural leaders - who made any effort to find out what was actually going on. The people who found the dispute as a major source of entertainment enjoyed the privilege of ridiculing dialect speech under the cover of ridiculing an educational establishment rather than the people whose speech they were mocking, so any sort of nonsense, from totally incorrect characterizations of the African American vernacular to badly remembered lines from Amos 'n' Andy, got published in editorials, op ed pieces, and cartoons.

So I wrote something during the last week of December that got finished on New Year's Day and got sent out by email to friends and colleagues, apparently kept being distributed, in a kind of pyramid-letter fashion, and somehow ended up in the emailboxes of the sponsors of this conference.

One of the things that struck me about this whole discussion was that it seemed impossible for people to change their minds no matter what evidence they were given, and that reminded me of an experiment I learned about in one of the cognitive science lectures here several years ago. In 1964 the Harvard psychologist JeromeBruner and a colleague Mary Potter did an experiment in which they presented slides of blurred, out-of-focus photographs to their subjects. On the first presentation, there was no conceivable way of knowing what the thing was. Then the focus was improved in small increments until after, say, the 12th presentation, what they saw was the photograph in perfect focus.

There were two groups of subjects in this experiment . Those in the first group were asked after the third or four presentation to guess what it was they were looking at. They'd squint at the screen and decide that what they saw was a turkey, the back of a piano, a baby's foot, or whatever. Then they were told to indicate when they knew for sure what it was they were looking at. Those in the second group were not asked to guess but were merely told to let the experimenter know when they were sure about what they were looking at. It turned out that those who had not been asked to make early guesses could decide much faster what they were looking at than the others. The lesson is that if you're too quick to form an opinion of what's going on around you, you practically have to be hit on the head with the truth before you know it's there.

What's really odd in the ebonics case is that people's opinions got formed by what they read in the newspapers. People seem to trust journalists.

Immediately after the first news reports came out, representatives of the board said that their resolution shouldn't have been interpreted as suggesting that black English was biologically innate. This correction or clarification was repeated daily from then on. Yet more than a month afterwards we still saw newspaper columns by black speakers of the King's English saying that they themselves couldn't speak or understand black English so it surely wasn't genetic.

Within a day or two after the passing of the resolution theBoard said that they had no intention of teaching courses in blackEnglish; Jesse Jackson had said you don't need to go to school to learn to talk garbage and that Oakland school kids should study Spanish instead. Jackson changed his position after talking to members of the school board, but more than a month later we still find articles describing the resolution as " plan to teach ebonics as a second language."

I see two reasons for the misapprehensions. First, there are folk beliefs about language that differ rather markedly from what professional linguists believe, and have been trying to teach for sixty or seventy years.But secondly there are serious problems in the language of theOakland School Board's resolution, these made more serious by the nature of the board's resistance to criticism.

A powerful but quite understandable folk belief about language is the idea that the way my group talks is natural and the way other people talk is weird. The speech of the people who think they are better than I am is affected, and the speech of people I think I am better than is sloppy. I think that many Americans are convinced that if you found a newsreader from the British Broadcasting Corporation and woke him up out of a deep sleep and made him start talking immediately, he'd talk American, at least until he was awake enough to mobilize the affectations needed for speaking British English. I remember going back to Minnesota after living for many years elsewhere and calling a piece of furniture a sofa. My cousins said"Aren't we hoity toity. You're too good to call it a davenport like everybody else?"

In the other direction, one of the commonest themes in letters to the editor about black English was something like "those kids are just too lazy to articulate the words correctly; we can't let them get away with it." Some of these letters were written by teachers. The idea is that dialect speakers could speak better if they tried, if they were more careful, if they would only pay more attention to what they're saying. The best way to correct this, of course, is to scold them.

The word "linguist" was used in confusing ways in the news reports, but that's something professional linguists get used to. After all, one of the basic principles of descriptive linguistics is that nobody owns the words people use. So when we read that the wordEBONICS was coined by a linguist, or when we read in the newspaper that "some linguists regard black English as merely a slang" we know we can't do anything about that and merely hope that those readers who know what the profession of linguistics is won't think they've learned something about us.

The word "language" is a bear of a problem. Shortly after the ebonics story hit the newspapers I was talking to a professor of education (from another university) who asked me what I thought the Oakland school board had in mind. I started to answer the question by saying that the board believes that the language many of their African American students bring to school from home . . . and this colleague said "Stop right there. You just used the word'language'. You're presupposing that they have a language. I can't let you get away with that, that's the whole issue." From then on I tried to figure out what views of language characterized the opinions I read about in the papers. Some who rejected the Oakland appeal to "recognize" the way African American kids speak "as a language" seemed to believe that these kids simply don't have a language at all; the resolution itself more or less clearly stated the belief that it was a language quite distinct from English, with merely some of the trappings of English. These are very different uses of the word "language".

A key phrase in the resolution was "primary language". It seemed clear from the context that this phrase referred to the home language, the language that one learns at mother's knee, so to speak.(In the January 18th revision, that interpretation gets spelled out.)That is, of course, a perfectly respectable use of the term, but it was immediately misunderstood, and there was talk about whether we should allow black English to be a primary language. [California] State SchoolSuperintendent Delaine Eastin and a passel of newspaper columnists declared that black English cannot appropriately be used as a primary language. One commentator was appalled to learn that anOakland school teacher "admitted" that black English was her primary language; she was "setting a bad example".

The word "dialect" is another source of trouble. The folk belief seems to be that there are real languages, and then there are defective ways of talking that simply don't attain the level of being a proper language. Many defenders of the ebonics statement say that it is insulting to say that black English is a dialect; the January 18th revision of the resolution claims that the language they're talking about is not merely a dialect of English, suggesting that it is a dialect of English but that it has other features that make it special, presuming that this specialness is what justifies setting up new educational remedies.

I continue to think that the whole issue of whether ebonics so-called is or isn't a dialect of English is simply irrelevant to the problem the Oakland school district faces.

I said that the second source of difficulty was the language of the school board's resolution itself. It seems to me that there are numerous problems with the text of the resolution, and I'm completely baffled by the bunker mentality that characterizes the school board's persevering loyalty to the text. In the first place, it seems clear that the board had not even had a chance to consider the full text before they voted on it. If I can trust what I read in the papers, the resolution was brought to the board at eleven o'clock the night of the big decision, and according to Board President JeanQuan, the version presented to them that night contained the first use of the bit about "genetic basis" and those who voted on it were not aware of the addition. The author of the resolution, SteveRoyston, is quoted in the Oakland Tribune as saying that the"genetically based" phrasing was written by Ernie Smith and that he,Royston, did not know what it meant. The Trib quotes Royston as saying "I'm not clear if it's that Ebonics has its roots in Africa or if there is some gene: I just included it in there." In that same articleRoyston is reported as saying that he stands by the original wording of the resolution.

At the board meeting of the18th of January, members of the task force responsible for the wording of the resolution scolded their disloyal colleagues for insulting them and their work by questioning the language of the resolution. The task force had spent six months working on the resolution, and in their deliberations they considered not just every sentence but every word, and they want it to stay just the way it is, without change.

I find this resistance incomprehensible. If you write up a contract and it has been demonstrated over and over again that the language of the contract is ambiguous, it would be unreasonable to say "I don't care if it's ambiguous, I meant every word of it."

Problems with the language of the resolution are too well known to be worth going over in detail; let me just say that things would have been clearer if the phrase "primary language" had been replaced by "home language"; if the bit about the historical origins of black English had been left out altogether; if the writers had been aware of the ambiguity of a phrase about " giving instruction in a language" which can refer either to teaching the language or to teaching something using the language; and if they had been sensitive to the ambiguity of "maintain" in "maintaining the legitimacy and richness of the language": this verb can mean something like claim, affirm, etc., or it can mean to preserve.

Board President Jean Quan has been quoted as saying that it may have been a mistake not to let the phrasing of the resolution go through regular committee review. If it had, surely someone would have pointed out that there is no reason for putting into such public focus a dubious and ultimately irrelevant claim about language classification.Somebody would have asked if the people who read it would really understand what is meant by "primary language". Somebody would have said, "If we're claiming that what we've got here is a separate language, should we really include in the list of its names, " Pan-African Communication Systems", because that won't sound to most people like the name of a language.

Somebody might even have questioned the wisdom of using the word "ebonics", a word that has been subject to relentless and distracting ridicule.

My own view, as somebody who, I repeat, is not a specialist in dialect or in language education, is that it might in general be a good idea to offer serious units in dialect in middle school and high school classes throughout the country as a general part of language education. Children can compare what they call things, or how they pronounce things, or how they phrase things, and children and teachers can compare such things between the home language and the language of the classroom. One of the main motivations in the Oakland resolution is the feeling that such activities should be done with respect and not ridicule. Walt Wolfram in some work that he did with the Center forApplied Linguistics has a number of suggestions on how children can use such occasions for discovering generalizations and systematicities in their own speech and in the speech of others; it might, he suggests, even be fun. (And some of these children will choose to study linguistics when they get to the university!)

Somebody would need to prepare teachers to conduct such classes, because apparently a whole lot of resistance needs to be overcome before teachers and parents would even understand why such an activity could be important. How you achieve that, I certainly don't know. My colleague John McWhorter believes that the kinds of educational problems we see in Oakland are vast and complex and whatever benefits this approach could bring would hardly be noticed, and he might be right. But I would still like to see it tried.

Charles J. Fillmore is professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.