Joined: Aug. 2005
I'm not a linguist, but I get drunk and act like one in bars... (honestly, I took some anthro. and linguistics in college, so I have some idea what I'm talking about.)
Language is just fascinating stuff, and there are a lot of misconceptions about it floating around out there. One good source for a popular-level discussion of such issues is the book Language Myths, by Laurie Bauer.
Arden does a good job here of listing some common and pernicious misconceptions. What I find interesting is not so much debunking such myths as investigating them, teasing out what they reveal about culture and language and people's relationship to them.
I live in Oakland, so I have more than passing familiarity with Black English. Some of you may remember the "ebonics" debate about 10 years ago, where the Oakland schools floated a proposal to actually teach some classes using primarily black english. A hue and cry went up, and Op-Ed pages nationwide featured a lot of hand-wringing about "the state of our language," and other such twaddle. I'm afraid I can't cite a source, but I remember reading one such magazine piece, in which a seemingly intelligent commentator made the claim that "it would be impossible to teach physics, for instance, in Black English."
I've waited lo, these many years for a soapbox upon which to decry this idea. The problem is that you can't really teach physics using standard English either, without importing into it the specialized vocabulary of physics. It is exceptionalism to imagine that that vocabulary "properly belongs" to the standard dialect of the language. And this, I feel, is at the heart of misconceptions about Black English, and other "non-standard" dialects. People don't realize that a) nobody really speaks "standard" which is a useful abstraction, nothing more, or b) what a dialect really is.
To a linguist, in a nutshell, what you, I, and everybody else speaks is an "ideolect." That's your language, and nobody else's. Whatever quirks of idiom and vocabulary and pronunciation you've picked up from your upbringing and other influences, form your ideolect. A "dialect" is a grouping of similar ideolects, and "A Language" is just a grouping of all the dialects (made up of ideolects) "of" that language. To a linguist, the "borders" can be fuzzy, and it can be difficult sometimes, in certain cases, to say that a given dialect is definitely part of one language or another. Or, as one wag once put it, "A 'language' is a dialect with a navy."
This seems all backwards to a lot of people, who seem to assume that "the language" is some fixed, immutable entity, of which a non-standard dialect can only be a distortion. But the upshot of this conception in the present context is that specialized or technical vocabularies can be "imported" into anyone's ideolect; they don't "belong" to one, supposedly "standard" dialect.
As regards your irritation with spoken Black English, steve, that brings me to another, underappreciated point about the intersection of language and culture. We forget that the only purpose of language is not just communicating the exact literal content of our utterances. Language is a cultural signifier, and, at times, speakers use their language to define an in-group and to marginalize perceived members of an out-group. Loud, obnoxious teenagers (of whatever race or linguistic identification) are often using language in this way to be intentionally abrasive and unintelligible to others.
The is the beauty of being me- anything that any man does I can understand.