August 24, 2010

U.S. Justice Department to Hire 'Black English' Jive Speakers

By David Paulin

The U.S. Justice Department is seeking to hire “jive” speakers – people fluent in "Black English" or "Ebonics" – to help with undercover investigations of drug dealers. According to the The Smoking Gun website, Ebonics is even described by the Justice Department as a commonly spoken American language!

As The Smoking Gun reports:

In contract documents... Ebonics is listed among 114 languages for which prospective contractors must be able to provide linguists. The 114 languages are divided between “common languages” and “exotic languages.” Ebonics is listed as a “common language” spoken solely in the United States.

Ebonics has widely been described as a nonstandard variant of English spoken largely by African Americans. John R. Rickford, a Stanford University professor of linguistics, has described it as “Black English” and noted that “Ebonics pronunciation includes features like the omission of the final consonant in words like ‘past’ (pas’ ) and ‘hand’ (han’), the pronunciation of the th in ‘bath’ as t (bat) or f (baf), and the pronunciation of the vowel in words like ‘my’ and ‘ride’ as a long ah (mah, rahd).”

Detractors reject the notion that Ebonics is a dialect, instead considering it a bastardization of the English language.

So how could Eric Holder's Justice Department classify Ebonics as a commonly spoken language? No doubt, one reason is a profound devotion to multiculturalism -- the post-modern ideology that views all cultures as equal --along with the languages that help define them. Another reason may be a desire not to offend various racial constituencies and friends: certain black churches in Chicago; various professors of black studies; and perhaps even a former community organizer known for his impeccably creased pants.

Incidentally, anybody unfamiliar with "Black English" or "Ebonics," can find out what they've been missing in this hilarious clip from the movie "Airplane!,” the 1980's spoof in which Barbara Billingsley (the all-American suburban mom in the 1950s/60 TV sitcom "Leave It to Beaver") famously showed off her fluency in jive.

Interestingly, Billingsley's jive is similar to the lower-class English I regularly heard while working two years in Kingston, Jamaica, a former British Colony. Jamaica's version of Ebonics, popular among its lower classes, is called “Patois.” And as with Ebonics in the U.S., the use of Patois among lower-class Jamaicans has provoked an ongoing controversy -- pitting left-leaning elites (primarily in academia) against Jamaica's black middle-class and its conservative intellectuals. The debate is interesting because it throws a spotlight on the absurd arguments put forth by left-leaning elites in America and Jamaica over the use of non-standard English.

Like their soul mates in America, for instance, Jamaica's left-leaning elites defend Patois as an “authentic” language that's an important part of Jamaica's "post-colonial" national identify. Indeed, they advocate that school children even get formal instruction in Patois along with standard English. Middle-class Jamaicans and conservative pundits, on the other hand, point out that Jamaican kids already speak Patois – and are in fact in dire need of learning proper English. This is vital to success in school and landing good jobs as adults.

Like American critics of Ebonics, Jamaica's conservative pundits contend that Patois is really just “slave talk” – a product of Jamaica's undisciplined culture. Indeed, a prominent Jamaican lawyer and author named Morris Cargill offered some fascinating observations along these lines in a Jamaican newspaper column a few years ago. Specifically, Cargill drew a relationship between culture and success concerning the use of Patois over standard English in Jamaica and the Caribbean. He wrote:

I prefer to describe what we call our Patois as either slave talk or yahoolish, for that is what it really is.

When I was going around the other West Indian islands during the Federation I was greatly impressed by two important things. When Grantley Adams made his speeches in the Federal House he often spoke with a thick Barbadian accent. But beneath that accent his speeches were well structured, and were in excellent English. I soon found that to be true of all the Barbadians I met. Never mind the accent. Whatever they said was firmly based upon well structured English.

The Trinidadians had a different but softer accent, yet they too spoke excellent English. When one phoned a private home both the maid and the mistress spoke the same excellent English with the same charming lilting accent.

The situation in Barbados and Trinidad differs greatly from the situation in Jamaica for our patois is nothing more than hopelessly broken English, unstructured and incapable of dealing with abstract concepts, without tense or number.

Although a few Jackasses, some of whom are at the University, keep on claiming that Patois is some kind of language, it is nothing more than an undisciplined and unstructured kind of chattering. An undisciplined and disorderly way of speaking makes for an undisciplined and disorderly mind. Of course the converse is also true. A disorderly and undisciplined mind also brings about a disorderly and undisciplined way of talking.

One doesn't know which comes first but I don't think it matters. Every writer complains about the lack of discipline in Jamaica but it doesn't seem to occur to many that that indiscipline is expressed by, and probably results from, the undisciplined way so many talk. We should watch our language and stop calling slave talk some sort of cultural heritage. It is nothing of the sort. It is simply mental sloppiness. Barbados and Trinidad both have a useful lesson to teach us. It may well be the reason why both those countries are so very much more successful than we are.

Regarding Ebonics, the same might be said for most of its American speakers -- their poor language skills condemns them to poverty. Of course, this excludes those earning good livings as drug dealers; professors of Black Studies; or as “Ebonics translators” at the Justice Department.

Dat ain't no jive.

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