I really liked that citation, Seth.
The point on academic language is well taken, too. It seems most
anthropoly text writers have more in common with BEV than Standard English
and I've seen some truly terrible texts on cinema, too.
On Thu, 9 Mar 2000, sjm wrote:
On Thu, Mar 09, 2000 at 02:55:52PM -0500, John Wilson
On Thu, Mar 09, 2000 at 10:55:38AM -0800, sjm
BEV follows strict rules of grammar and word use,
and has syntactic
roots in several major west African languages like Ewe, Iwo,
and Yoruba. It really is not gibberish at all, no matter how
"wrong" it sounds to a native Standard American English speaker
(me included). In some ways, it actually allows much finer grained
shades of meaning than SAE does.
I'd love to see an example of this!
Sure thing. I'll cheaply cop-out and quote directly from Steven
Pinker's excellent work for the layman "The Language Instinct" (Pinker,
1994, pp. 29-31) [Please note that there's some potentially offensive
language below. Any typos are mine alone]:
Here is an example, from an interview conducted by the
linguist William Labov on a stoop in Harlem. The interviewee
is Larry, the roughest member of a teenage gang called
the Jets. (Labov observed in his scholarly article that
"for most readers of this paper, first contact with Larry
would produce some fairly negative reactions on both sides.")
You know, like some people say if you're good an'
shit, your spirit goin' t'heaven ... 'n' if you
bad, your spirit goin' to hell. Well, bullshit!
Your spirit goin' to hell anyway, good or bad.
Why? I'll tell you why. 'Cause, you see, doesn'
nobody really know that it's a God, y'know, 'cause
I mean I have seen black gods, white gods, all color
gods, and don't knobody know it's really a God. An'
when they be sayin' if you good, you goin' t'heaven,
tha's bullshit, 'cause you ain't goin' to no heaven,
'cause it ain't no heaven for you to go to.
[...jus' suppose that there is a God, would he be
white or black?]
He'd be white, man.
Why? I'll tell you why. 'Cause the average whitey
out here got everything, you dig? And the nigger
ain't got shit, y'know? Y'understan'? So -- um --
for -- in order for *that* to happen, you know it
ain't no black God that's doin' that bullshit.
First contact with Larry's grammar may produce negative
reactions as well, but to a linguist it punctiliously
conforms to the rules of the dialect called Black English
Vernacular (BEV). The most linguistically interesting thing
about the dialect is how linguistically uninteresting it is:
if Labov did not have to call attention to it to debunk the
claim that ghetto children lack true linguistic competence,
it would have been filed away as just another language.
Where Standard American English (SAE) uses "there" as a
meaningless dummy subject for the copula, BEV uses "it" as
a meaningless dummy subject for the copula (compare SAE's
"There's really a God" with Larry's "It's really a
Larry's negative concord ("You ain't goin' to no heaven") is
seen in many languages, such as French ("ne ... pas"). Like
speakers of SAE, Larry inverts subjects and auxiliaries in
nondeclarative sentences, but the exact set of the sentence
types allowing inversion differs slightly. Larry and other
BEV speakers invert subjects and auxiliaries in negative main
clauses like "Don't nobody know"; SAE speakers invert them
only in questions like "Doesn't anybody know?" and a few
other sentence types. BEV allows its speakers the option
of deleting copulas ("If you bad"); this is not random
laziness but a systematic rule that is virtually identical
to the contraction rule in SAE that reduces "He is" to
"He's", "You are" to "You're", and "I
am" to "I'm". In both
dialects, "be" can erode only in certain kinds of sentences.
No SAE speaker would try the following contractions:
Yes he is! --> Yes he's!
I don't care what you are. --> I don't care what you're.
Who is it? --> Who's it?
For the same reasons, no BEV speaker would try the following
Yes he is! --> Yes he!
I don't care what you are. --> I don't care what you.
Who is it? --> Who it?
Note, too, that BEV speakers are not just more prone to
eroding words. BEV speakers use the full forms of certain
auxiliaries ("I have seen"), whereas SAE speakers usually
contract them ("I've seen"). And as we would expect from
comparisons between languages, there are areas in which BEV
is more precise than standard English. "He be working" means
that he generally works, perhaps that he has a regular job;
"He working" means only that he is working at the moment
that the sentence is uttered. In SAE, "He is working"
fails to make that distinction.
Another project of Labov's involved tabulating the
percentage of grammatical sentences in tape recordings of
speech in a variety of social classes and social settings.
"Grammatical," for these purposes, means "well-formed
according to consistent rules in the dialect of the
speakers." For example, if a speaker asked the question
"Where are you going?", the respondent would not be penalized
for answering "To the store", even though it is in some sense
not a complete sentence. Such ellipses are obviously part
of the grammer of conversational English; the alternative,
"I am going to the store", sounds stilted and is almost never
used. "Ungrammatical" sentences, by this definition, include
randomly broken-off sentence fragments, tongue-tied hemming
and hawing, slips of the tongue, and other forms of word
salad. The results of Labov's tabulation are enlightening.
The great majority of sentences were grammatical, especially
in casual speech, with higher percentages of grammatical
sentences in working-class speech than in middle-class
speech. The highest percentage of ungrammatical sentences
was found in the proceedings of learned academic conferences.
For those on the list who are at all interested in linguistics, this is
a fabulous book. It's still in print and fairly easy to find. Steven Pinker
is quite highly regarded among linguists for being able to explain linguistic
concepts in regular ol' speech.
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