Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

A Verbal Analysis of Nonstandard English

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

A Verbal Analysis of Nonstandard English

Article excerpt


Linguistics has traditionally been a field dedicated to the study of the systematization of signs. This was the niche originally carved out by the French linguist de Saussure. Recent trends have questioned this narrow focus of the field. Arguments about the need to study language and thinking in context have existed since the days of Vico's extension of Descartes and were later highlighted in the Skinner and Chomsky debate. The argument for context-based analysis has resurfaced in current linguistic arguments, most notably in the subfield of sociolinguistics. With this increased focus on context, cross-fertilization between behavior analytic thinkers and those in linguistic fields previously denied to behavior analysts may now be open. Behavior analysis has much to offer the current field of sociolinguistics by providing a plausible micro-model of how political and economic factors select for various linguistic (i.e. autoclitic) forms such as dialect and accents. These autoclitic forms develop into overlearned patterns of responding and are not easy to extinguish. The early social conditions that select for the retention of such patterns are traceable from their form. This tracing tactic will be applied, using discourse analysis methodology, to identifying the functional and structural characteristics of Ebonics that qualify it as a distinct language and determine its value in the linguistic market.


Linguistics was always the wrong field for verbal behavior, since it is a tradition that has always been married to "langue," a systematization of symbols (Irvine, 1989; Lee, 1984). Skinner (1957) staunchly opposed this tradition when he stated "no form of verbal behavior is significant apart from its controlling variables"(p. 33 1). Recently, the separation of signs and the material world has received a number of challenges within the field of linguistics (Irvine). Irvine champions a model of economic and political selection as the determinant of linguistic behavior. Irvine has urged linguists to move past the study of culturally determined signs and systems. This renewed interest in the study of social interaction by linguists increases prospects, severely limited after Chomsky's review (Place, 1983), for successful cross- fertilizations between the experimental analysis of verbal behavior and other areas in the study of language. A cross fertilization between Skinner's (1957) micro-model of verbal behavior and the more mainstream macro-models of sociolinguisitcs is presented and then applied to the current Ebonics debate.


In the eighteenth century, Descarte questioned the nature of the universe by reducing it to the basics of what could be known from logic and introspection. This approach led to his famous dictum "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am). Through this rational line of reasoning and logic, Descarte argued, the world can be known. In 1704, Giambattista Vico extended Decarte's position by arguing that not only do objects not exit independently from thought, but that the nature of thought can only be elucidated by an examination of the evolution of language and social customs for the group (Vico, 1948).

Some two hundred years later, de Saussure distinguished between the rationalistic study of linguistic forms (i.e. the study of the historical cumulation of language) as synchrony and the study of language in context (i.e. the study of contemporary events) as diachrony (de Saussure, 1983). This view later evolved into its modern distinctions of langue (diachrony) and parole (synchrony). The rationalist line of Descartes continued to study "langue" or language. In this tradition, language is studied as passive, receptive, collective, and homogeneous. De Saussure carved this out as the niche area for the field of linguistics and modern linguistics continues in this tradition. The emphasis is primarily on what make language a unique system and separates it from other sign systems. …

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