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Black English is NOT substandard

Posted By: Michael Metz on January 22, 2016
I was shocked to read this rant perpetuating myths about Black English that have been debunked in research on linguistics, sociolinguistcs, and linguistic anthropology for over half a century. The assertion that Black English is “substandard,” “tortured English” a dismissal of “linguistic standards,” and “antithetical to … maturity, courage, and political sophistication” is the kind of ignorant bigotry that many researchers who contribute to TCR work against on a daily basis. As is common in many language rants (see Dunn and Linblom, 2011) the author conflates multiple linguistic concepts in his characterization of Black English. In general a dialect (such as Standard English, or Black English) consists of a constellation of systematic, rule bound, language features. Dialects are not formal or informal. The “black giants” the author references all used Black English features in their speech and writing in formal and informal contexts (See Rickford & Rickford, 2000 for examples). The author erroneously conflates Black English with vulgarity, profanity, and particular youth slang.

I ask the author to dig a little bit more deeply into the assumptions revealed by his loaded language. The venom poured on a historically stigmatized variety of English says much more about the listener than it does about the speaker. To be plain, there is nothing inherently wrong with Black English. I use the term Black English to refer to a dialect, as it might be spoken by one of my now-elderly mentor teachers, by the minister at my church, or by the President of the United States, NOT to refer to the use of vulgarity by teenagers on Facebook.

While I understand the author’s frustration at young people’s opposition to “talking proper,” I also understand young people’s resistance to assimilation into middle class white culture through being railroaded into a particular way of speaking. A prescriptive approach that tells students (erroneously) that Standard English is correct and Black English is wrong hasn’t worked and won’t work with most students. A better approach is to build students’ language knowledge with actual linguistic truths and provide students a repertoire of language tools that includes both Standard English and Black English. This approach diminishes the stigma attached to either language variety and encourages students to use their repertoire of language resources in ways that help them achieve their goals, whether those goals be related to professional success, social communication, the assertion of racial identity, or a combination of all three.

The author’s postlapsarian lament is better directed at the use of “profane language” and “vulgarity” in popular culture. I encourage anyone reading this article to also read anything in the field of linguistics, sociolinguistcs, or linguistic anthropology written in the last 50 years. To address the misconceptions in this piece I recommend work by Smitherman, Lippi-Green, Rickford, or Charity-Hudley, as starting points.

The urgency of educating our youth is too great to let hegemonic language ideologies continue to turn kids away from expanding their language knowledge.
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 Black English is NOT substandard by Michael Metz on January 22, 2016
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