By Janeece Woodson, Staff Writer
“They say it’s a broken language, but we say, broken to who?” Dye Scott-Rhodan, a businesswoman of South Carolina, said when she spoke to a team of videographers about the way her accent has shaped her life. As a Gullah, or a creole-speaking descendant of African slaves brought to the coastal American South, Scott-Rhodan feels comfortable with her voice and speech patterns in the presence of her family and friends, but she has noticed that others who speak a mainstream variation of English seem to feel differently about her language.
According to several experts in linguistics, this is not an uncommon experience.
On April 6, Dr. Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor at
North Carolina State University, and an expert in ethnic variations of the English language, previewed a new documentary about African American English (AAE), in which Scott-Rhodan appeared. The documentary, titled “Talking Black in America,” has been in the making for three years, and will soon be shown on television to the general public. As the first scholarly documentary dedicated to AAE, the film epitomizes linguists’ recent interest in what Dr. Benjamin Torbert, associate professor and graduate program director in the English department at UMSL, calls “linguistic social justices.”
“It’s very important for sociolinguists in particular to return linguistic favors to the community, that is, to pay people back by arguing for the value of all varieties,” said Torbert, who has both studied under and worked alongside Wolfram.
One of the documentary’s purposes is to weaken stereotypes about speakers of AAE variations, many of which, but not all, are ethnically black. As many of the linguistic experts in the film explain, dialect is one way in which people can make immediate, but not always accurate, estimations of each other.
“There’s nothing unnatural about the way that the language has developed over the centuries given these circumstances,” said Wolfram. “Now you have these white cities with segregated black neighborhoods. The distinctions between black and white speech become much more dramatic and much more ethnically associated, which is why the whole notion of the construct of ‘talking black’ and ‘talking white’ is a development of the last hundred years.”
“What you’re not saying is that everybody in my life doesn’t speak correctly,” said interviewee Sabrina Moore, when speaking about the pressure which educators and others put upon young people, which then perpetuates the belief that there is a clear right or wrong use of English. She elaborated on the experiencing of ‘code-switching,’ or the use of one form of English at home, and the use of a different form of English in the workplace or at school.
In several ways, the documentary is a response to what is referred to by linguistics as the Oakland Controversy of 1996, in which Oakland, California schools recognized AAE, or Ebonics, as a linguistic structure used by many students. Aggravated by the media, many members of the public were angered that ‘broken English’ would be accepted in schools. In fact, the school board’s proposition was not to make Ebonics mainstream, but rather to have educators recognize that AAE exists, and is deeply rooted in the culture of some of their students.
After a 50-year academic interest in North American and Caribbean English variations, Wolfram has grown more concerned with the social and political ramifications of language, especially in American urban centers. Wolfram and his team have produced eleven documentaries on various language-related subjects. “Talking Black in America” features more than a dozen linguists from various universities across the country.
“Defining AAE is quite difficult; even labeling the variety is difficult because, first of all, it gives everyone the sense that if you’re African American, you speak this variety, and that’s not the case,” said Dr. Patricia Cukor-Avila, director of the linguistics program at the University of North Texas.
“I choose to pronounce my words; I’m not talking black, I am black, so every word coming out is me just talking,” says one musician interviewed in the film. In the film, several linguistic experts explain that AAE is governed by specific and logical rules, in the same way that the English taught in American schools is rule-governed. Both teenage interviewees and seasoned linguists in the documentary are able to identify the implicit yet distinct rules of AAE, although outsiders may not view AAE as a distinct language at all, as was the case in the Oakland Controversy.
Cuts of various AAE speakers in the film mingle with clips of experts explaining the history of the dialect. Dr. Renée Blake, linguistics professor and director of Africana studies at New York University, explained that AAE is “a descendant of that contact” between African slaves and the English speakers who brought them to the American continents and the Caribbean.
“For hundreds of years, slaves were denied access to education, and as a result of that, […] many of the negative linguistic stereotypes that people embrace regarding African American English [do not] fully appreciate [that] the linguistic isolation that slave descendants experienced is unlike anything of any other immigrant group in this country,” said John Baugh, professor of linguistics at Washington University in St. Louis.
About black language, Keith Cross, director of literature and arts at Stanford, said, “It’s what we did with what we had and it’s not just sufficient, it’s more than enough.”