Black American children are not verbally deprived despite their low test scores and the bad grammar many seem to have.
Whites have long believed that blacks speak bad English. Their reasoning for this has changed over time:
- In the 1800s whites thought it was biological: because the brains of black people were too small and their lips too big to speak English properly.
- In the 1900s whites thought it was sociological: bad parenting in black ghettos. Black parents do not talk to their children much or something.
Either way it is all wrong:
- Lip shape and size does not affect how people speak.
- The human brain does in fact have built-in language skills, but as far as we know they are the same in all races. There are not different kinds of languages according to race. Anyone of any race can learn any language.
- Children mainly learn language from their playmates, not from parents or schoolteachers. In any case, anyone who has been in a black ghetto household knows full well there is plenty of talking going on.
If whites were right about any of this then black children who grow up in white, middle-class neighbourhoods would not “sound white”.
Black children do score lower on reading tests and so on. That part is true. But even that fact is not as solid as it looks.
Those tests are written in Standard American English, the native dialect of middle-class White Americans in the North. After all, it is not just black children who score lower on those tests – so do white children in the South and white working-class children everywhere. Imagine if those same tests were written in Ebonics!
Standard English is an extremely important dialect. It is what all the schoolbooks are written in and nearly every book at the library. It is necessary for high school, university and the higher professions. It is Job Interview English. But it should surprise no one that the children of those who set the standard and write the tests do better.
Many blacks do not grow up speaking Standard English. Most speak some form of African American Vernacular English – Ebonics. It does not come from England. It comes from the pidgin English of West Africa of the 1600s.
Ebonics is different but not worse than Standard English. For example, it allows double negatives – but so does Spanish, French and Shakespearean English. It allows sentences without verbs, like “She nice” – but so does Russian. It has more tenses – but so does Ancient Greek. It can express any thought that Standard English can. It is native to rap. Standard English has borrowed heavily from it: okay, jazz, two-faced, sweet talk, put-down, redneck, etc. It is hardly verbally deprived.
The idea that Ebonics is bad English comes from “white is right” thinking where white people are the measure of all things. Whites have the cultural might to do that, but that does not make them right.
Source: This post is my take on the chapter of the same name by Walt Wolfram in “Language Myths” (1998) edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Wolfram is an expert on American dialects and sociolinguistics. He is a professor at North Carolina State University.