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In Praise of Spoken Soul

Four years after the controversy over Ebonics, a professor of linguistics and his journalist son explain why Black English thrives -- and why it should be celebrated.

Linda Cicero

FRANK LINGUIST: Save the language or lose your soul, Rickford warns.

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By John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford

Spoken Soul was the name that Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land, coined for black talk. In a 1968 interview, he declared that the informal speech or vernacular of many African-Americans "possesses a pronounced lyrical quality which is frequently incompatible to any music other than that ceaselessly and relentlessly driving rhythm that flows from poignantly spent lives." A decade later, James Baldwin, legendary author of The Fire Next Time, described black English as "this passion, this skill . . . this incredible music."

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the Spoken Soul these writers exalted is battered by controversy, its very existence called into question. Though belittled and denied, however, it lives on authentically. In homes, schools and churches, on streets, stages and the airwaves, you can hear soul spoken every day. Most African-Americans -- including millions who, like Brown and Baldwin, are fluent speakers of Standard English -- still invoke Spoken Soul as we have for hundreds of years, to laugh or cry, to preach and praise, to shuck and jive, to sing, to rap, to shout, to style, to express our individual personas and our ethnic identities (" 'spress yo'self!" as James Brown put it), to confide in and commiserate with friends, to chastise, to cuss, to act, to act the fool, to get by and get over, to pass secrets, to make jokes, to mock and mimic, to tell stories, to reflect and philosophize, to create authentic characters and voices in novels, poems and plays, to survive in the streets, to relax at home and recreate in playgrounds, to render our deepest emotions and embody our vital core.

The fact is that most African-Americans do talk differently from whites and Americans of other ethnic groups, or at least most of us can when we want to. And the fact is that most Americans, black and white, know this to be true.

In coming to terms with Spoken Soul, what it is and why it matters, the first thing to know is how high it ranks in the esteem of its maestros. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison insisted in 1981 that the distinctive ingredient of her fiction was the language, only the language. . . . It is the thing that black people love so much -- the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It's a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher's: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language. There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language. It's terrible to think that a child with five different present tenses comes to school to be faced with books that are less than his own language. And then to be told things about his language, which is him, that are sometimes permanently damaging. He may never know the etymology of Africanisms in his language, not even know that "hip" is a real word or that "the dozens" meant something. This is a really cruel fallout of racism. I know the standard English. I want to use it to help restore the other language, the lingua franca.

The second thing to bear in mind is that between the 1960s and 1990s, a dramatic shift occurred. By the end of the 1990s, we could find scarcely a spokesman or spokeswoman for the race who had anything flattering to say about Spoken Soul. In response to the Oakland school board's December 18, 1996, resolution to recognize "Ebonics" as the primary language of African-American students in the California district, poet Maya Angelou told the Wichita Eagle that she was "incensed" and found the idea "very threatening." NAACP president Kweisi Mfume denounced the measure as "a cruel joke," and although he later adopted a friendlier stance, Jesse Jackson on national television initially called it "an unacceptable surrender, bordering on disgrace." Millions of other people across the United States and around the world rushed in to express their vociferous condemnation of Ebonics and the proposal to take it into account in schools.

Like virtually everyone else, we acknowledge that African-Americans must master whatever you want to call the variety of English needed for school, formal occasions and success in the business world. But we also believe that Ebonics, African-American Vernacular English, Black English, Spoken Soul, or whatever you want to call the informal variety spoken by many black people, plays an essential, valuable role in our lives and in the life of the larger society to which we all belong.

The reasons for the persistence and vitality of Spoken Soul are manifold: it marks black identity; it is the symbol of a culture and a lifestyle that have had and continue to have a profound impact on American popular life; it retains the associations of warmth and closeness for the many blacks who first learn it from their mothers and fathers and other family members; it expresses camaraderie and solidarity among friends; it establishes rapport among blacks; and it serves as a creative and expressive instrument in the present and as a vibrant link with this nation's past.

If we lost all that in the heady pursuit of Standard English and the world of opportunities it offers, we would indeed have lost our soul. We are not convinced that African-Americans want to abandon "down-home" speech in order to become one-dimensional speakers. Nor -- to judge from the ubiquity of the distinctive linguistic style of African-American music, literature and popular culture -- do whites and other people in this country and around the world want to see it abandoned either, quiet as that viewpoint is kept. Certainly it is not necessary to abandon Spoken Soul to master Standard English, any more necessary than it is to abandon English to learn French, or to deprecate jazz to appreciate classical music.

Moreover, suggesting, as some do, that we abandon Spoken Soul and cleave only to Standard English is like proposing that we play only the white keys of a piano. The fact is that for many of our most beautiful melodies, we need both the white keys and the black, in the same way that, in the Chinese dualistic philosophy, the yin is as essential to the whole as the yang. Bear in mind that language is an inescapable element in almost everyone's daily life, and an integral element of human identity. If for that and no other reason, we would all do well to heed the still-evolving truth of the black language experience. That truth promises to help us confront one of the most critical questions of our day: can one succeed in the wider world of economic and social power without surrendering one's distinctive identity? We hope to transform the conventional wisdom.

For most people, languages and dialects are distinguished primarily by their words and expressions. French speakers say "bonjour," English speakers "hello." The British say "lorry" where Americans say "truck." Bostonians use "tonic" for what other Northeasterners refer to as "soda" and Midwesterners call "pop." Similarly, for most casual commentators, what sets black talk apart is its distinctive word usage, particularly the informal and usually short-lived "slang" expressions known primarily to adolescents and young adults.

But Spoken Soul, like any other language variety, is much more than slang, and much more than the sum of its words. For linguists, two other aspects of any language variety are as important as vocabulary, if not more so: its rules for pronouncing words, or pronunciation patterns, and its grammar -- including its rules for modifying or combining words to express different meanings and to form larger phrases or sentences. African-American vernacular has, for instance, a rule of grammar that allows speakers to move negative helping verbs such as ain't and can't to the front of a sentence to make the sentence more emphatic, so that "Nobody ain't going" can become "Ain't nobody going!"

From this example, it should be clear that by "rules" we don't mean regulations that are prescribed in grammar books or consciously memorized. Nobody sits a kid down at the age of 6 and says, "Okay, time to learn the negative fronting, or inversion, rule." But through exposure and experimentation, children in every speech community around the world learn the conventional and systematic ways of pronouncing, modifying and combining words that are characteristic of their community's language variety (or varieties). It is these conventional and systematic ways of using language that we refer to as rules.

Every human language and dialect studied to date -- whether loved or hated, prestigious or not -- has regularities or rules of this type. A moment's reflection would show why this is so. Without regularities, a language variety could not be successfully acquired or used in everyday life, and this applies to Spoken Soul, or Ebonics, as much as to the "received pronunciation" or "BBC English" of the British upper crust. Characterizations of the former as careless or lazy, and of the latter as careful or refined, are subjective social and political evaluations that reflect prejudices and preconceptions about the people who usually speak each variety. In contrast, linguists try, as objectively as possible, to understand and reveal the systematic regularities that every language inevitably possesses.

While the issue of whether Spoken Soul is a dialect of English or a separate language fascinates the public, other questions have kept scholars arguing for the past 30 years: how did Spoken Soul come to be the way it is, and where is it headed now?

Some scholars contend that the African-American vernacular bears the vivid imprint of the African languages spoken by slaves who came to this country in waves from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Others maintain that the devastating experience of slavery wiped out most if not all African linguistic and cultural traditions, and that the apparently distinctive features of Spoken Soul come from English dialects spoken by white (British) peasants and indentured servants whom Africans encountered in America. For many scholars, the central question is not the "Africanness" of the black vernacular, but its "creoleness" -- whether it was ever as different from Standard English as the "creole" varieties spoken today in such places as Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana and Barbados, or whether it was ever influenced by them. The newest question, posed only over the past 15 years, is whether African-American English is currently diverging or veering farther from white vernacular and Standard English.

The vocabulary of Spoken Soul is overwhelmingly English in origin, and about that there has never been any dispute. Even the most ardent Africanists and Afrocentrists concede this, contending that African influence is strong in grammar, not vocabulary.

At the same time, research over the past half-century has helped dispel the contentions of earlier scholars that "the African brought over or retained only a few words of his jungle-tongue." That indelicately phrased assessment was made in 1922 by Ambrose Gonzales. By contrast, Lorenzo Dow Turner, after nearly two decades of research, revealed in 1949 that Gullah (widely regarded as the most African and creole-like variety of Spoken Soul) had approximately 4,000 words with plausible African sources. Most of them were personal names, but more than 250 were words used in conversation (e.g. goober, or guba, from ngguba, a Kimbundu word meaning peanut).

Other scholars have extended Turner's work in regard to African-American English and American English more generally, arguing that even common expressions such as jazz, tote, okay and do one's thing have plausible African sources. Africanisms in vocabulary include not only direct retentions or borrowings from African languages, but also loan translations into English of African compounds or concepts (cut-eye, bad-mouth). Because loan translations pass as English words, they tend to survive longer than direct loans.

Africanists, those who argue for extensive African influences, and Anglicists, those who argue for extensive English -- especially British nonstandard -- influences, both yield little or no quarter when it comes to the pronunciation of Spoken Soul. For the Africanists, the reason many African-Americans pronounce English th as t, f, d or v (as in tin for thin, Rufe for Ruth, dem for them and bave for bathe) is simple: the West African languages spoken by the ancestors of today's African-Americans did not include the th sound, and when acquiring English in the 17th through the 19th centuries, Africans substituted the consonants most similar to th in their own language.

Anglicists are just as adamant that this and other pronunciation features of Spoken Soul are carryovers from the nonstandard language spoken by settlers from Britain. Most of these settlers, they remind us, were peasant and lower-class social types (indentured servants) who were likely to have been speaking vernacular rather than Standard English. As linguist John McWhorter has observed:

Rural nonstandard dialects in Great Britain are chock full of the very structures that define Black English. In fact, if Black English were spoken there, the African Language System notion wouldn't have even made it out of the starting gate because the actual models for most of its constructions would have been closer to hand. The substitution of f for final th (mouf), the substitution of d for th at the beginning of words (dem, dese and dose), and the simplification of consonant clusters at the ends of words are all common in nonstandard British dialects.

At various times during the Ebonics controversy, a line was drawn by some between linguists in the Afrocentric camp and those who were either skeptical or neutral on this matter. This is an intellectual issue on which research and debate should continue, with, one hopes, more substance and less acrimony than we have seen in the past. But the Ebonics controversy confirmed that the linguists -- whether or not they describe themselves as Afrocentric -- are generally united in their respect for the legitimacy and complexity of the language spoken by many African-American children. This perspective clashed with the more widely held public opinion that Ebonics was simply slang and gutter talk, or the product of laziness and carelessness.

The Oakland school board never intended to replace the teaching of Standard English with the teaching of Ebonics. But it did intend to take the vernacular into account in helping students achieve mastery of Standard English (reading and writing in particular). And while the board perhaps erred in not citing studies to support its position, such evidence does exist.

Most linguists supported the educational philosophy behind Oakland and Los Angeles school district attempts to teach children mainstream English by contrasting it with their home language. The roughly 6,000-member Linguistic Society of America in January 1997 issued an endorsement of Oakland's strategy as "linguistically and pedagogically sound." Other language organizations, among them the American Association for Applied Linguistics and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, subsequently adopted similar resolutions. And although differences and tensions remained between advocates of Afrocentric and cultural approaches and advocates of English-oriented and linguistic approaches, enough of a consensus was struck on the overarching educational dilemma of teaching English to black inner-city students that the two intellectual camps could cooperate to seek a cure. And they began to do so -- away from the public eye.

The ultimate value of the approach Oakland announced in December 1996 remains to be seen. We are hopeful. Far too many black children in that California school district, and in comparable urban districts nationwide, are not making the grade when it comes to reading, writing and the language arts -- areas that are critical for success in school and the workplace.

The most recent study of attitudes toward black vernacular and Standard English is an ongoing one being conducted by Jacqueline Rahman, a linguistics graduate student at Stanford. In the spring of 1999, she asked black undergraduates and graduate students there what they thought of the two varieties of English, and found that even among those upwardly bound black academics and preprofessionals, the value of both varieties was endorsed. On the one hand, Standard English was defended as the variety needed "in a white-dominated world . . . to gain respect and get good jobs," "in formal settings (work, school reports)" and "when I am around the white majority . . . because that is what my audience understands and it's socially more appropriate." On the other hand, Black English was praised for its "spirit, creativity, resilience and soul," for its "character and history," for "being more expressive and vibrant" and because "it keeps me close to my family and friends, as well as serving as a living reminder of my history as a member of a distinctive ethnic group in this country." Virtually all the students said they were bidialectal, some becoming so after initial school experiences in which they were derided by black classmates for talking white. They draw on one variety or the other as audience and situation demand.

True, the vernacular has been abused. (How could we ever forget the prattle of the blackface minstrels?) But we must reclaim it. We must stop importing this shame that is manufactured beyond our communities for something as cellular and spiritual as our language. We must refuse to allow Spoken Soul to remain a stepchild in the family of tongues. We must begin to do for language what we have done historically (in some cases only very recently) for our hair, our clothes, our art, our education and our religion: that is, to determine for ourselves what's good and what's bad, and even what's baaad. The crucial thing is that we hold the yardstick and finally become sovereign guardians and arbitrators and purveyors of our culture.


John Rickford is a Stanford linguistics professor and Russell Rickford is a freelance journalist. Spoken Soul won a 2000 American Book Award.

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