Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Discussion of AAVE "Savage Minds"

On May 20th, 2008, Kerim wrote about AAVE on the anthro group blog "Savage Minds."

African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is something I teach frequently in anthropology classes, both Intro to Cultural Anthro and Anthropology of Communication. It’s a useful ethnographic example as I’ve been teaching in urban colleges and universities, particularly in an arts and media school and a predominantly Black university. Looking at the history and the sociolinguistics of AAVE is a great way to talk about issues of the broader system in which agency takes place.
An initial post-er disputed the idea that “because AAVE exists, it means that there are people who don’t want to [conform] to white culture.” In fact, my observations are that in fact there are people who don’t want to conform to White culture and their use of AAVE can be a very conscious statement of that. That’s not a rejection of economic advancement, it’s a rejection of the terms of economic advancement, which have historically been closed to much of this population. What we, as anthropologists, can do is look at what AAVE does in a range of social relationships.
One point of debate was whether people can choose their dialects. I hold that most cannot. They learn their natal dialect; that is the process of language socialization, and this becomes a child’s first language. For many (by no means all!) urban, working-class African-American children, AAVE is their natal language. They choose this as much as any person chooses their culture. However, people might choose to code switch when that’s socially possible. We need to look at who code switches or not, why, when (in what setting, with whom).
For instance, many of my Black students and friends are very emphatically opposed to AAVE, which they term Ebonics or, more often, ‘slang.’ And yet in their most vigorous defenses of Standard English, you can hear them segue into the phonetics of AAVE, for instance, /aks/ for /ask/. They don’t intend to do this, they don’t want to do this. Upwardly-mobile people might hyper-correct (over-pronounce the /sk/, for instance).
To understand this, I think we need to look at the separate parts of language, some of which are very conscious and some of which are so deeply embedded into our cognition and language that it’s nearly unconscious. Phonetics tends to be deeply embedded; studies of language socialization show that infants can recognize the sounds of their parents’ native language (the one spoken to the infant) within a days of their birth. The human mouth is capable of making 100s of sounds, but most languages use only a small number of those possible sounds (see, for instance, the chapter on language in Nanda & Warms, Cultural Anthropology).
Grammar is also deeply embedded in our cognition, part of the taken-for-granted. An example I give for this is Pijin languages. In the Solomon Islands, I learned Kwaio (an Austronesian language) by first learning Pijin and then gradually slotting in Kwaio words in my Pijin talk (until I morphed into speaking Kwaio exclusively). Pijin was a trade language. The vocabulary was at least nominally English (specifically, British English of the early 20th century), but pronunciation (phonetics) and grammar (syntax) more closely followed the rules of the Austronesian languages spoken in the Solomon Islands, particularly on the island of Malaita. They fit the new vocabulary into their existing language structures, and I made use of that syntactical structure of Pijin to learn Kwaio (a reverse engineering, I suppose).
Vocabulary is much more transient. We all pick up new words all the time, when there is occasion for it (for instance, in a 101 class in university, a big part of what students are doing is learning new vocabulary). Yet, for some reason, both African –Americans and ethnically White people associate AAVE with ‘slang,’ or vocabulary.
These are some of the ‘laws of language’ that create and maintain AAVE.
The political issue is why Black folks still speak AAVE. AAVE is also maintained by the existence of ethnic enclaves. Clearly this is due in large part to historical and present-day segregation. On the level of interpersonal relations, there are social costs to a Black person who chooses to speak Standard English. They are labeled “mama’s girl” or “acting White” and seen as rejecting their social peers. A great example of this can be seen in the film “American Tongues” (produced and directed by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, 1988). This is sociolinguistics. Speaking AAVE conveys information about social relationships among people, it makes someone a member of a group. When you know that you are in a world that rejects you, the security of being an accepted member of your group is significant.
Of course “we don’t make choices outside of history and outside of ideology,” as one post-er put it, but we are active agents within our own system. African-Americans who speak AAVE are no more automatons in the face of structure and system than we are on this list and there is evidence of their intentions. I have attended Trinity Universal Church of Christ; many of my students are members of the congregation and employees of Trinity; and I have in-laws who are African Nationalists. They absolutely reject the hegemony of White culture. That does not mean that they reject economic advancement. They seek, rather, to build the economic base of their own community. I think this is inherently impossible as the economic wealth of their community must ultimately be built on inflows from the mainstream culture, but that is their ideology. And there are unintended consequences to these choices due to institutionalized racism in American culture, for instance, the assumption that someone speaking AAVE is uneducated, lazy, unemployed, working class, criminal, dangerous, “not one of us.”
There is evidence of people choosing to speak Standard English as a political (or class) stance; note the forceful acceptance of the correctness of Standard English by the upper classes of African-Americans (the “talented tenth,” W.E.B. DuBois). Reject of AAVE is a class strategy for upward-mobility.
When I teach, I also place this discussion in the context of the English Only movement in the United States, and here we return to Kerim’s initial post. Think of the huge outcry against “Ebonics” in the 1980s. Why did people care so much and why is it still talked about today? The Ebonics Resolution arose out of work linguists had done on how the teach the reading and writing of Standard English to students who had grown up using AAVE almost exclusively. It was called the Bridge Program and it was very successful. The goal was to educate teachers on the specific phonetic and syntactical features of AAVE so that (1) they would recognize these as linguistic differences and not as evidence of learning disabilities; and (2) to give teachers specific exercises and tools to clearly explicate the differences between AAVE and SE that children needed to learn so as to read and write Standard English. As John Rickford, a linguist specializing in dialects, pointed out, we’ve been using ‘immersion’ for years and it is not working. Huge numbers of young African-American, predominantly male students (young, urban, African-American males are the predominant speakers of ‘pure’ AAVE) are failing. Immersion isn’t working, so why not try something else? This program was also supported by William Labov (a linguist specializing in American dialects). We need to understand this controversy in terms of the ways in which speaking SE is a marker of membership of the community of American citizens, so that speaking a different dialect of English is seen as a rejection of the rights of citizenship.
Most discussion of “Black English” is in the negative – let’s explain how they’re different. But a good anthropologist needs to understand the context of positive cultural values of AAVE. Aside from expressing affection and belonging in social relationships, it is a language that gives free form to certain kinds of metaphor and story-telling. In teaching, I use studies of “The Signifying Monkey” and “Shine on the Titanic” to illustrate traditions of story-telling that extended up through Dolomite (a comedian who is sometimes referred to as “the godfather of rap”) and on to hip-hop. I usually also discuss “signifying” or “playing the dozens,” linguistic forms of competitive insult that are highly positively marked in segments of the African-American community (particularly men, particularly working class men, but by no means confined to this segment).
BTW, Labov and Rickford argue that in fact there’s a national AAVE that show remarkable coherence over time and region; and that the numbers of AAVE speakers have increased with the end of segregation as more urban poor are left behind in the cities.
I’ve lots of references, but here’s a few:
Rickford and Rickford, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, 2000
Labov, William, “Can Reading Failure be Reversed: A Linguistic Approach to the Question,” in Literacy Among African-American Youth, 1995
See also William Labov’s 1997 Testimony to Congress on Ebonics and the Bridge Program
One of the points brought up by a European post-er was this assumption that my statement of diversity and difference was an inherent statement of hierarchy. He didn’t say it in so many words, but that’s what he kept on assuming. Why?
I know that American have a hard time with difference. We say everyone has a right to be different and my students most emphatically believe that they are each unique. In fact, it’s important to reinforce, repeatedly, that recognizing real cultural patterns of difference is not the same as stereotyping. (Why it’s not is a different blog.)

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