Grammar

A Discussion About Ebonics

A reader recently dropped me an E-mail to ask about my profile. The two things that caught her eye was my mention that “I don’t do A/S/L,” and that “if you think ‘cuz’ or ‘kewl’ are words, we have little to talk about. I speak and WRITE in English.”

In the E-mail, she admitted that she doesn’t like the A/S/L thing, either, but then wrote:

“I was wondering what the deal is with the ‘Cuz.’ What is your belief on Ebonics? And why is it that the way others speak and their grammar isn’t considered english to you?”

I responded:

As a writer, I appreciate the English language as it exists. I realize that there are constantly changes to it and that the English we speak today is a far cry from that which was spoken centuries ago.

However, I have a problem with words like “cuz” and “kewl” because, quite simply, they aren’t words at all. I’m sure there are many people who feel that there is nothing wrong with such abbreviations, particularly during an online chat. I happen to feel, however, that if I’m going to take the time to chat with someone online, it might not be unreasonable to take the time to spell out words. “Cuz” is a little to “cutesy” for me. “Kewl” isn’t an abbreviation, since it contains the same number of letters as “cool,” which is a legitimate word. There is no reason for “kewl” to even exist.

My profile made no mention of Ebonics, but since you asked, I don’t consider it a language at all. I consider it to be a combination of regional dialects, stereotypical street language, poor grammar and laziness. Those who choose to speak in that manner are often putting themselves in a position where they will not be taken seriously in the “real world.” We have rules in grammar for a reason: so everyone can understand what everyone else is saying. Those who blatantly defy those rules run the risk of being misunderstood…and in some cases, even ignored. I think that it’s a shame that people who might have a great deal to contribute to our society would willingly put themselves behind such a wall; we have too many people who are “written off” in our society because of the color of their skin, their religion, their manner of dress and countless other reasons without having to add poor sentence construction to the list.

To this, she responded:

“I can understand where you are coming from. However, many people type the way they talk. I am a person who has dealt with many different people and I think that all languages have their slang but it is still a language. When studying the Spanish language Hispanics don’t all speak the same Spanish. Cuban and Mexican Spanish are different however they are both Spanish to the hear. I think that it is sad that people put themselves behind a wall however when deciding not to speak to certain people because it is not the standard English that we learn in school is also putting yourself behind a wall because you are cutting yourself off from learning another’s culture. Yes, sometimes people use these words as a shortcut but I think it is sad to not even consider speaking to people because of their differences. I think to often society’s rules are not inclusive of all cultures. If we all decide that we won’t speak to someone because they don’t fit into society’s standards we miss out on some really cool friendships and it doesn’t allow you to see into someone else’s world. If that is what you want then fine. But if you are a person who likes to learn about different cultures and people then these are the types of words that will have to be accepted.

 

“People like Nelly and Sean Combs are people who use these types of words in their everyday life and yet they are able to be noticed and be successful. I think that just by having this type of dialogue is great because I get to see a different point of view on it and while you make some very good points it sounds to me as if you are saying in order to function in society we have to follow the rules of society. Which is just not true? We all have a choice to either be a follower of what society wants us to be or change society. I am not saying that we all should be walking around using our Hip Hop language however I do think that it should be considered as a language because just as we have to learn Spanish to speak to Hispanics they have to learn English in order to speak to us. In turn we all should be willing to learn and accept the same of other ‘Americans’ who use Ebonics. If for some reason a person is misunderstood why wouldn’t the person who isn’t understanding at least try to understand through asking questions. I think that society thinks of Ebonics as a joke but it isn’t; it is a person’s real life and self expression. Besides, society wouldn’t exist without diversity so why not accept it?”

My response to this was:

“First, you suggest that Ebonics is to English what ‘Mexican Spanish’ is to ‘European Spanish.’ That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think it holds water. By that logic, the Southern dialect, which is strewn with phrases like ‘Y’all come back now, ya hear?’ is not a dialect but rather its own language. It isn’t. It is a regionalization of the English language. I don’t see people calling for the Southern dialect to be taught in classes as an acceptable way for people to speak. By the same token, ‘Yankee,’ in which people pronounce car as ‘cah’ and New York as New Yahwk, should also be taught. Some places call soft drinks pop while others refer to them as sodas. Some places call them “Coke” whether it’s Coke or Pepsi. This isn’t a language (of its own).

“Second, you suggest that while you don’t advocate that all people should walk around speaking in ‘Hip Hop,’ the rest of us who choose not to should be willing to learn to accept that as a language of its own. You then justify this by suggesting that since we have to learn Spanish to speak to Hispanics, and since Hispanics have to learn English to speak to us. But here is my problem with that argument: it presupposes that those who wish to speak in Ebonics don’t have to learn anything. They can speak however they want, fracturing English as they please, while those who wish to speak English in a way that it is properly taught in school must learn this alternative method of speaking it. In other words, those who speak in Ebonics can speak their way, but the rest of us should speak their way to communicate. Why can’t those who speak Ebonics raise their linguistic ledgerdomain to address those who don’t speak in Ebonics? Why do those who speak the way we were taught have to adjust out pattern of comprehension to embrace speech patterns that don’t follow any formal rules of English that we were taught, and that instead reflect a lack of formal education?

“You make an excellent point about those who speak ‘hip hop’ having something to contribute to society. I’m not saying that the use of Ebonics is a practical indication that one who uses it has nothing to contribute. But you must consider this: I come from the South, where many people with thick southern accents are considered hicks just because of their speech. I would refer you to the excellent movie, “My Fair Lady,” which illustrates that even in England, one’s speech patterns can prevent them from advancing socially. When I am with friends who are also southern, my speech may reflect a stronger Southern accent than when I am with strangers. This is because if I know I am with friends who will understand what I’m saying, I am less likely to be overly-precise when it comes to grammar. When I am in the presence of strangers who might not be willing to accept me if I am speaking in a non-standard manner, I make it a point to speak in a standard manner, so that they will make a judgement about who I am that is based upon my character, not my method of speech. To me, it would show a lack of respect to those to whom I speak if I did otherwise.

“As a writer, who actually derives income from writing, I am at a loss to understand why people would encourage others to speak in a way that makes themselves not be understood by large segments of the population. We live in a world with countless problems. Do you really believe that the acceptance of Ebonics is a paramount concern? When you state that we can choose to be a “follower of what society wants us to be or change society,” do you really believe that Ebonics somehow essentially improves society or solves a real social problem? Does it improve education, or does it excuse failures to educate? Does it encourage people to accept each other, or does it demonstrate at once one’s differences?

“I am a writer. I write and speak to be understood. If I decided to start twisting words and sentence constructions to morph English into a method that I liked better, I would be running the risk of alienating my audience and making myself harder to understand. I do not see how my interests would be served by doing so.

“If we’re really trying to be tolerant of others…if that’s our primary goal…I should think that those who want to speak any way they want should be tolerant of those who choose to speak English the way it is supposed to be spoken, according to the same rules of grammar we all have been brought up with. If I decided to start speaking German to everyone I come in contact with, unless they also spoke German, they wouldn’t understand what I was saying. I could campaign to have everyone around me learn German so that I could be understood, or I could learn to speak English and make sure that the masses understand me. If Ebonics is a language of its own, and not a lazy dialect form of traditional English, there should be no difference between Ebonics and German.

“That’s why I think Ebonics is not a helpful ‘alternative’ to English in our society.”

A few more thoughts on the subject:

First, if I, as a writer, were to use Ebonics in a script to be read by a person of color, I would invariably receive angry phone calls from people who were complaining about my disrespectful stereotyping. Ebonics is not a “language” that everyone can use equally. Those who fit certain criteria seem to be able to use the language and expect others to “deal with it.” Those who do not fit certain criteria find themselves accused of trying to “poke fun” or belittle others it they use it. Consider the commercial that was recently re-edited after apparent complaints about a child’s use of a non-standard phrase and pronounciation, “Oh, no he dih-ehnt.”

Second, the reader says, “it sounds to me as if you are saying in order to function in society we have to follow the rules of society.” Well, of course that’s what I am saying. We all follow certain rules of society. Some of us simply choose to follow more of them than others.

Let’s take another example: let’s suppose that you invite friends to a wedding. One of society’s rules is that one should dress nicely for a wedding. How would you feel if friends showed up at your wedding in ratty jeans and t-shirts with offensive messages on them rather than dressing more appropriately for the occasion? I would imagine that it would bother you; it would certainly bother some of your guests, unless every single one of them dressed in the same manner. But this is a perfect example of “rules of society” that we live by.

The point is, I didn’t make up the rules of society. They were made for me, long before I was ever born. When it comes to communicating with others, I choose to follow as many of those rules as I can. That is my choice. I have every right to make it. The person who wants to use Ebonics has every right to follow “rules” of a non-language if they wish. But I have every right not to interact with such a person if I cannot understand what they are saying and if they are not willing to communicate with me in a manner that would make it easier for me to understand them.

Among my friends are people of different genders, ages, races, religions, and orientations. What we all share is an ability to communicate with each other and enough respect for each other that we are willing to make the attempt to communicate effectively.

Am I missing out somehow because I might not sit down and try to converse with someone who isn’t willing to speak in a manner other than Ebonics? Perhaps. But if I am, then there are plenty of people who are willing to speak only Ebonics who are preventing themselves from from experiencing relationships with others, too.

What happens when these people go out into the workforce and attempt to find a job? How are they to be taken seriously? Would you hire someone who speaks Ebonics to represent your company? Unless all of your clientele speaks in Ebonics as well, it would seem likely that you wouldn’t. Is that fair? Before you answer, how happy are you when you call a toll-free number for customer service only to reach an operator whose Indian accent is so thick that you can’t understand what they’re saying?

Would you like to turn on the evening news and have all of the newscasters speak in Ebonics, or some other language to which you must adapt so that you can understand what is being said?

How would you like to open the newspaper and turn to an article written in Latin? Would it bother you if you recognized fragments here and there, but missed the point? Would it bother you if, upon complaining to the newspaper editor, you were told that you should stop complaining and embrace diversity?

I’d love to know your feelings about Ebonics. If you think it’s a language…if you really believe that Ebonics is its own language, I’d love to know how you define a language versus regionalizations and dialects.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.