Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bill Cosby and Ebonics Controversy

"And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk (laughter). And then 1 heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the comer and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't land a plane with "Why you ain't." You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth"
--Bill Cosby
May 19, 2004
Constitution Hall, Washington, D. C.

Believe it or not, it's been nearly a year since America's most highly educated entertainer, Dr. Bill Cosby, embarked on his crusade to "save" Black youth by issuing a wake-up call about their language and behavior.
But while the dust from Cosby's critique has yet to settle, he seems to have become something of a cottage industry for some among the commentariat. Black Issues decided that it might lower the heat on the topic -- and actually shed some light -- to talk to some prominent sociolinguists about the controversy.
Apparently, it's a novel approach; very few of the people who've weighed in on the matter -- including Cosby -- have been capable of giving the Linguistics 101 version.
"I wouldn't beat up on him for it," says Dr. Orlando Taylor, the much-published linguist and speech-language specialist who wears the dual hats of dean of the graduate school at Howard University and vice provost for research. "You wouldn't expect a person whose specialty is not in a particular area" to demonstrate knowledge of that area.
The problem is that, in this particular area, everyone's a self-appointed expert.
"It's like talking about religion, sex and politics -- since we all speak and know a language there's a presumed right to have an opinion," says Dr. Walt Wolfram. A self-described "dialect nomad" who has published prolifically on African-American, Appalachian, Ozark, Amerindian, Puerto Rican and even Vietnamese English, Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at North Carolina State University, as well as a past president of both the Linguistics Society of America and the American Dialect Society.
Recalling the "Ebonics" controversy of the late 1990s -- in which the Oakland, Calif., school district drew fire for passing a resolution that recognized Ebonics as the dialect of many of its Black students -- Wolfram adds, "I would go on the air and I would find myself debating economists about language. Now what does an economist know about language? That's like me debating with a physicist about some principle of physics," he says.
But if there's one thing that sociolinguists know better than most, it's that dialect prejudice is as American as apple pie. Indeed, it may well be one of the last remaining bastions of open bigotry threaded through our culture.
"People watch their tongues, for the most part, these days on issues related to social identity and race, but they don't have the same feeling around dialect. It's acceptable, for the most part, to say the most awful things about other people's dialects," notes Dr. Carolyn Adger, director of the Language in Society Division for the Center for Applied Linguistics.
One has only to consider the use of the word "dialect." The conventional wisdom among the general population is pretty close to Cosby's: Dialects are bad; Standard English is good.
But the discipline of sociolinguistics sees things differently. "When sociolinguists use the word 'dialect,' it simply means a variety of a language -- like Appalachian English or Boston English or any other variety of English," Adger says.
Moreover, to the sociolinguist, Standard English is not a standard in the sense of a "minimum acceptable standard," but in the sense of an "arbitrary standard" -- because when it comes to language, it's variation that is the norm. Indeed, to the sociolinguist, all dialects are created equal.
The discipline's "most elementary principle is that all language is patterned and rule-governed, and you can apply that principle to African-American English, to Appalachian English, to every other dialect we look at," Wolfram says. "Journalists will say, 'Oh, but you academics are all liberal,' but this is not a political matter -- this is not about liberals and conservatives. No, this is like the first law of physics: It's basic Linguistics 101."
The public doesn't get it, and that's in part because the public hasn't been taught. Think about it. Everyone has a language, but only colleges have linguistics. And that suggests to Taylor that the nerve struck by Cosby is bigger than language -- it's, in fact, a cultural nerve.
"Language is a reflection of a people," Taylor says. "For example, French culture is perceived as high quality, its cuisine is considered to be great, its fashions are considered to be avant-garde, so if a person speaks with a French accent, it's perceived to be very positive because the people are perceived positively.
"But if a group is considered to be ignorant, primitive, backward, ill-informed, then their language is given similar attributes. The problem is that African-American people and Black people around the world are perceived by dominant societies to be inferior, and so their language is perceived in a similar way."
African Americans readily fall into the trap. They're as quick to stigmatize Black speech as they are to use it. Cosby, again, is an excellent example of the contradiction. Fat Albert and his friends weren't exactly speaking the King's English in the popular '70s-era cartoon nor in the recent motion picture.
So, in fact, what's happening is not a national conversation about the value of Black language -- it's a national conversation about the value of Black culture. And the fact that we're still gnawing on the bone nearly a year later seems to indicate how conflicted we are-both as a nation and as African Americans.
On the one hand, notes Taylor, Cosby's economic argument -- the notion that a people can't get ahead unless they've mastered the dominant speech -- has its merits.
"We can agree that there is no single way to speak a language," Taylor says, "but we cannot escape the fact that, even within all those variations, some forms have more prestige than others. For example, the educated form -- without mastery of the educated form of a language, it's very hard to be successful in schools or in the professional marketplace."
There are, of course, exceptions.
"Think, for example, of Chris Rock on the Academy Awards show," offers Adger. "Chris Rock is a very funny guy, but the source of his humor is his use of African-American English. He's really what we call bidialectal -- it's his facility in moving from African-American English to standard English that makes us all laugh. He's masterful at it."
And that's an important distinction, says Taylor. "The critical statement about Chris Rock is that he can go back and forth. The problem with African-American youth is that large numbers are unable to do that. They are kind of stuck in a singular way of communicating and that's to their disadvantage. Folk in this country tend to believe that somehow there's a single standard and to switch is not good. I would say rather that it's an asset for students to be able to speak more than one language, one dialect--for one to be about to shift in accordance with the situational demands."
Even Cosby has touched on that point. In the speech that caused so much fuss last year, he said, "You used to talk a certain way on the corner and (then) you got into the house and switched to English."
For these and other reasons, Dr. John Baugh -- one of the foremost national experts on "linguistic profiling," or the kinds of cues that allow a listener to identify the race of a speaker on the telephone -- thinks Cosby hasn't quite gotten a fair shake in the media. Now an endowed professor and director of the African and Afro-American studies program at Washington University, Baugh was a senior professor of educational linguistics at Stanford when he heard Cosby deliver the very speech that was to get him in trouble in Washington, D.C., just days later.
The difference was the context. Cosby had come to the campus to give a live performance that raised $1 million for fellowships that would send teachers into the inner city. Not only did the entertainer meet with about 300 Bay area educators in a special ceremony before the event, he also specified that a large number of seats at the main event be reserved for low-income kids. And he did not leave the question-and-answer session afterwards until each and every child who wished to speak had had a chance to ask a question.
"When I looked at his performance in totality, I thought he was making a larger American statement about parenting, regardless of race," Baugh says. "He said some very powerful things about education that caused a hush to fall over the audience. But then he started to get funny, and some of the racial attributions he made -- I'm not sure they were fair.
"But this is Cosby's Achilles heel," Baugh says, explaining that Cosby published a harsh satire titled "Igno-Ebonics" in the Wall Street Journal during that earlier controversy. "He's very uninformed about the linguistic consequences of the African slave trade, combined with the legacy of slavery -- the anti-literacy laws, and so on."
If he knew more about sociolinguistics, he might be able to use his power and his bully pulpit to advocate for what the discipline sees as the solution to the literacy crisis -- teaching youth how to shift easily between dialects.
For some reason, this solution remains controversial for schoolchildren, even though "with a person who comes from another country, we know how to reduce their original accent and teach them another accent," Taylor says, adding, "We can train Southerners not to sound Southern when they speak on network television. We know how to do these things -- and we know that you don't have to denigrate Southern speech in order to do that.
"That's the challenge for our schools and educational institutions -- to teach kids to speak the language of education without denigrating the speaker," Taylor says.
Linguists across the nation are forming partnerships to move this effort forward. Baugh, for example, was a key partner in founding Eastside High School, a private school in the tough, low-income enclave of East Palo Alto, Calif., that in nine years has sent 100 percent of its graduates to college.
Wolfram, meanwhile, has been taking the message to every eighth-grader on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Bank. "And in those 13 years, we've seen a tremendous change in the attitude of the whole community" toward their language and the prejudice they've faced, he says.
"There's this sense in which Bill Cosby is not necessarily calling for the wrong thing. He just has the wrong reason," Wolfram notes. Children should not be told they have to learn Standard English because they're "linguistically deficient," he says. All that does is set those children up to feel inferior and create a dynamic of resistance to the school experience.
"We know that people who feel good about themselves, including their language, make better learners, because you learn better from strength than you do from weakness. And so we're working on ways to get across the message to teachers that they can simply say, 'Look, there's this rule-governed way that African-American English works, and now we're going to learn Standard English because that's what the man expects.
"It's not about being a better or a worse person," Wolfram says. "It's just how you present yourself to the world."

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