SLLT, Vol. 3, 2003

Richard G. Jones


Language has long been used as a tool for categorizing, degrading, and oppressing groups of people. The situation in the United States today is no different. Notions of "proper American English" are routinely used to identify the "bad" speakers, attaching to these speakers unfounded negative traits and stereotypes. Language is also routinely used to relegate certain ethnic minority groups to the lower social statuses. Speaking a non-standard dialect is a convenient criterion with which the governing majority keeps minorities out of positions of influence.


My own dialect, the dialect of the Southeast of the United States, is commonly spoken by most of the white inhabitants. I specify the white inhabitants, as the dialect of the black inhabitants can be something quite different and will be discussed further below. I have chosen to call the English variety that I speak a dialect based on Trudgill's (1995) and Wardhaugh's (2002) definitions. Trudgill (1995, p. 5) points out that dialect refers "to differences between kinds of language which are differences of vocabulary and grammar as well as pronunciation". All three of these components can be seen when comparing the Southern dialect with the standard dialect of American English. There are a large number of noticeable vocabulary differences including "dip" (snuff), red-eye gravy (a gravy you make for breakfast from the fat of cooked ham), SOS (a breakfast meal of white sausage or beef gravy on baked bread that is similar to a scone), "to tote" (instead of "to carry" or "to get or receive"), and many more. The grammar is distinctive as well, with Southerners frequently saying things like "I ain't got no money", "he visits of the evenin" (in the evenings), or "are ya'll comin' to the house?" (that is, to the speaker's house). And no one can deny that Southern pronunciation is unique. Everyone has heard, at least in films, what a long Southern drawl sounds like.

Wardhaugh (2002, p. 28) additionally points out that dialects are frequently considered "substandard" and "connote various degrees of inferiority, with that connotation of inferiority carried over to those who speak a dialect". This is particularly so of the Southern American dialect. Under certain circumstances, this dialect may conjure up a romantic picture of the distinguished planter, member of the moneyed class, a man of leisure. Unfortunately, it more often conjures up the idea that the speaker is ignorant and from a rural area. A particularly poignant area in which these stereotypes have been perpetuated in recent years is in film, one of the most famous of which is a film called "Deliverance" (Boorman, 1972). Other examples include "Doc Hollywood" (Solt, Johnson, & Caton-Jones, 1991), "My Cousin Vinny" (Launer & Lynn, 1992), and "Mississippi Burning" (Zollo, Colesberry, & Parker, 1988). All of these examples portray people who speak the Southern dialect as ignorant, unintelligent, uneducated, incestuous, racist, or any combination of the above. The fact that Southerners are frequently portrayed to the rest of the world in this fashion has a powerful effect on attitudes towards the dialect they speak. This powerful effect can be seen even in the Southern dialect speakers themselves. In my personal experience, I have heard many friends and family members profess that they "don't speak English too good".

The idea of "good English" and "bad English" is quite prevalent among Southerners. They are well aware that they speak a non-standard, non-prestigious variety. Despite this, Southerners continue to speak their dialect as a means of perpetuating their distinct social identity. The reasons for Southerners thinking of themselves as a distinct social group are of a historical nature. Southerners have historically had adverse business interests with respect to other regions, particularly the Northeast (Boorstin, 1965). People from the Northeast have traditionally been fisherman, merchants, and industrialists, while Southerners have traditionally been farmers and planters. The South has also had quite different social, political, and economic institutions due to a history of being a predominantly agrarian society distinguished by the use of slave labor (Boorstin, 1965). These two points, in short, were the primary reasons for the American Civil War, and the Southern belief in their separateness as a group still lives on. Therefore, the perpetuation of a dialect as one means of Southerners distinguishing themselves from other Americans is no surprise.


Another issue of more social consequence in the language of America is Black Vernacular English (BVE). It is also sometimes called African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. African-Americans have developed this distinct dialect due to a set of special historical circumstances. African-Americans were slaves until just 150 years ago and their ancestors were Africans who at first spoke many different languages. Also, they have been by and large segregated from all other sections of the population until as recently as 40 years ago, and they have endured frequent harsh treatment and blatantly racist government policies. All these combined have led their dialect to become separate from the whites and to become a sign of group identity.

In recent years the differences between the grammars of Standard American English and BVE have become a hotly debated issue. The debate first seriously surfaced after recognition of BVE as a separate and distinct dialect by Walt Wolfram (cited in Manzo, 2002). His research showed that BVE is not random but is, on the contrary, a system, rule-governed like any other language variety. Another notable step forward in the debate came with a court decision on a case in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1979 that proclaimed BVE to be a "bona fide dialect" and that "the school system had to adjust to the children and not the children to the school" (Wardhaugh, 2002, p. 345). These developments have had far reaching implications in the U.S. and have caused many school systems to institute language planning policies promoting African-American language development (Manzo, 2002).

One of these policies made quite a stir around the country in 1996 when the Oakland, California school board put forward a resolution that the African-American language was "genetically based" and that these students were to be instructed in their "primary language" (Manzo, 2002, para. 46). The board, after considerable pressure, finally moved to strike the above two comments from the resolution, but it was still proof of the direction in which this polemic was moving. The Linguistic Society of America (1997, para. d) even published a response to this debate entitled "Resolution of the Linguistic Society of America on the Oakland 'Ebonics' Issue" which proclaimed that "the decision to recognize the vernacular of African American students in teaching them Standard English is linguistically and pedagogically sound".

An important point that the Linguistic Society of America (1997, para. d) left unsaid was that not only would recognizing BVE be "linguistically and pedagogically sound", but that it would also be socially, economically, and politically sound-for African-Americans, that is.

Although the recognition and acceptance of BVE has gained ground in the last few years among academics and educators, acceptance by the American public in general has been slow, as evidenced by the outcry and ridicule instigated by the Oakland resolution. Even African-Americans themselves are frequently opposed to such measures citing concerns of perpetuating disadvantage by use of a language variety almost universally considered by Americans to be substandard (Manzo, 2002; Wardhaugh 2002).

Moreover, since the Oakland issue, opinions against BVE have culminated in state and federal legislation removing funding for any "programs legitimizing language varieties other than SAE [Standard American English]", therefore conveniently and effectively silencing debate on the matter (Novak, 2000, para. 16).

"In the end, little was clarified or changed by the Ebonics Resolution or the national debates surrounding it, but the fact that African Americans continue to underachieve in the U.S. educational system virtually guarantees another airing of the matter" (Novak, 2000, para. 34).

Nothing changed because the government (the powerful, influential white majority) wanted to maintain the status quo. And to ensure the status quo, they used their political power to remove the economic means of anyone who did not agree with them. It is just another example in a long line of decisions that has endeavored to keep the current power structures in place.

BVE should be recognized, encouraged, and appreciated as a legitimized dialect of English. Unfortunately, this is not the case in America. It is a demonstrated linguistic fact that dialects have no "inherent value" in and of themselves (Edwards, 1999, para. 4). However, most people still hear BVE and make judgments based on their "social perceptions of the speakers" and not on the linguistic facts (Edwards, 1999, para. 4). It is understood that to be ignorant of Standard English is to be deprived of a tremendous social tool. It is possible, nevertheless, to teach students the differences between their dialects and Standard English, and under what circumstances each is acceptable to use. Learning Standard English does not mean that a dialect is inferior, nor does it mean that we must learn Standard English in place of the dialect.


The ideal situation would be where all American dialects were recognized as equals and where due respect was given to the speakers of each of those dialects. For white Southerners, a national change in attitude about their dialect would be a step in the right direction and would help curb some of the negative stereotypes that persist. This would be a daunting task, but not an impossible one.

Regrettably, a positive change in outlook is something difficult to imagine even in the distant future for African-Americans and BVE. First, almost every modern language has prestigious and non-prestigious varieties, where the speakers of the prestigious variety hold the largest part of the political and economic power. It is these powers that have in fact caused the dialect of these groups to be deemed the prestigious variety. Secondly, African-Americans are in altogether different social, political, and economic circumstances from white Southerners. The United States has been built on a system that has systematically excluded African-Americans from full participation in American society from the very beginning: even after Emancipation, even after post-Civil War anti-discrimination laws, even after a Constitutional amendment, and even after another string of Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s and 70s. Despite all this, nothing fundamental has changed about the system. It is still a country run primarily by and for White European descendants. It is still a country where 1% of the population controls 35% of the country's wealth (Zinn, 1995). The number of African-Americans one might find in that 1% would certainly be meager. Furthermore, Hornberger (1996, p. 461) points out that "education is the site where...larger social and political forces are reflected in the kinds of educational opportunities offered to speakers of different language varieties". The social perceptions of BVE speakers are built into the education system that disadvantages them. Therefore, it seems the education system will not be the saving grace for African-Americans either unless vital transformations are made elsewhere in society as well. Under the above circumstances, one finds it difficult to be overly optimistic about any fundamental changes in the near future in the amount of prestige BVE is accorded.


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