The Dialect Dilemma: Whether One Is Speaking Ebonics or Appalachian English, Sociolinguists Say All Dialects Are Created Equal

Article excerpt

"Just forget telling your child to go to the Peace Corps. It's right around the corner (laughter). It's standing on the corner. It can't speak English. It doesn't want to speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk: "Why you ain't?" "Where you is?" ... I don't know who these people are.

"And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk (laughter). And then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner 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. …