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Out of the Mouths of Slaves

Out of the Mouths of Slaves
African American Language and Educational Malpractice
Foreword by William Labov

John Baugh, an authority on African American English, dissects and challenges many of the prevailing myths about African American language and its place in American society.

January 1999
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
208 pages | 6 x 9 | 21 figures, 3 tables |

When the Oakland, California, school board called African American English "Ebonics" and claimed that it "is not a black dialect or any dialect of English," they reignited a debate over language, race, and culture that reaches back to the era of slavery in the United States. In this book, John Baugh, an authority on African American English, sets new parameters for the debate by dissecting and challenging many of the prevailing myths about African American language and its place in American society.

Baugh's inquiry ranges from the origins of African American English among slaves and their descendants to its recent adoption by standard English speakers of various races. Some of the topics he considers include practices and malpractices for educating language minority students, linguistic discrimination in the administration of justice, cross-cultural communication between Blacks and whites, and specific linguistic aspects of African American English. This detailed overview of the main points of debate about African American language will be important reading for both scholars and the concerned public.


A Choice Outstanding Academic Book

  • Foreword by William Labov
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part 1. Orientation
    • 1. Some Common Misconceptions about African American Vernacular English
    • 2. Language and Race: Some Implications of Bias for Linguistic Science
  • Part 2. The Relevance of African American Vernacular English to Education and Social Policies
    • 3. Why What Works Has Not Worked for Nontraditional Students
    • 4. Reading, Writing, and Rap: Lyric Shuffle and Other Motivational Strategies to Introduce and Reinforce Literacy
    • 5. Educational Malpractice and the Ebonics Controversy
    • 6. Linguistic Discrimination and American justice
  • Part 3. Cross-cultural Communication in Social Context
    • 7. The Politics of Black Power Handshakes
    • 8. Changing Terms of Self-reference among American Slave Descendants
  • Part 4. Linguistic Dimensions of African American Vernacular English
    • 9. Steady: Progressive Aspect in African American Vernacular English
    • 10. Come Again: Discourse Functions in African American Vernacular English
    • 11. Hypocorrection: Mistakes in the Production of African American Vernacular English as a Second Dialect
    • 12. Linguistic Perceptions in Black and White: Racial Identification Based on Speech
  • Part 5. Conclusion
    • 13. Research Trends for African American Vernacular English: Anthropology, Education, and Linguistics
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index

John Baugh is Professor of Education and Linguistics at Stanford University.


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The world was briefly transfixed on the linguistic consequences of American slavery after the Oakland school board passed a resolution declaring Ebonics to be the official language of the twenty-eight thousand African American students enrolled in that district. The ensuing media frenzy exposed a myriad of linguistic myths and fallacies across the political spectrum. The Afro-centric scholarship that gave rise to Ebonics eventually collapsed under the combined weight of political pressure and the untenable linguistic hypothesis that a speech community can be defined in racial terms. Conservative pundits produced some highly predictable platitudes regarding language, intelligence, and the work ethic, and a broad range of moderates were simply confused by Oakland's Ebonics aspirations. What possible reason could Oakland educators offer in support of their extreme linguistic assertions?

The Linguistic Society of America (LSA) entered the fray in January 1997, adopting a resolution that affirmed the linguistic integrity and grammatical coher ence of African American vernacular English (AAVE), but these efforts were misunderstood by many in the general public who dismissed the scientific foundations of the LSA resolution as mere evidence of an academic exercise in political correctness. Several critics presented demeaning portraits of linguistic analyses pertaining to American slave descendants. Ironically, studies of AAVE are among the most advanced of any branch of sociolinguistic inquiry by virtue of the fact that several of Labov's (1972a,b) seminal linguistic contributions are derived from studies of linguistic change and variation among African Americans.

While many social scientists have either ignored or marginalized African American behaviors, the formal development of Labovian sociolinguistic theory utilized African American data as a primary source. Linguists and sociolinguists represent an extremely small portion of the population, and the combination of political and social events that have surrounded the Ebonics controversy and other racially charged public episodes demand that scholars provide clarification whenever possible.

This book strives to offer a modest contribution in that formidable quest, a quest that has captured the passion and imagination of younger to older scholars from various racial backgrounds who realize that the linguistic consequences of American slavery are unlike the linguistic heritage of those whose American ancestors were never enslaved or subjected to the inferior social circumstances of racial segregation and educational apartheid.

As such the intended audience for this book is simultaneously eclectic and narrowly focused—" eclectic" in the sense that a broad range of topics and analyses are surveyed herein; and "narrowly focused" in the sense that studies of AAVE in social, educational, and linguistic terms are represented. To a very large extent this work has been inspired by Labov's Language in the Inner-City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular (1972a). Like that text, the majority of chapters in this book have been updated and revised from earlier publications that were not originally intended to appear in book form, but which have renewed relevance in the wake of the profound linguistic misunderstanding that was displayed throughout the Ebonics controversy (Baugh 1997)

The text is divided into five parts wending from general introductory remarks through more technical linguistic analyses. Part I, Orientation, includes Chapter 1, "Some Common Misconceptions about African American Vernacular English," and Chapter 2, "Language and Race: Some Implications of Bias for Linguistic Science." Part II, The Relevance of African American Vernacular English to Education and Social Policies, begins with Chapter 3, "Why What Works Has Not Worked for Nontraditional Students," followed by Chapter 4, "Reading, Writing, and Rap: Lyric Shuffle and Other Motivational Strategies to Introduce and Reinforce Literacy." Chapters 5 and 6 move into matters of policy, covering "Educational Malpractice and the Ebonics Controversy," and "Linguistic Discrimination and American Justice." Taken together, these chapters will be of considerable interest to educators and policy makers who seek alternative solutions to the intractable patterns of educational underachievement that still plague far too many low-income and minority students.

Part III, Cross-cultural Communication in Social Context, includes Chapter 7, "The Politics of Black Power Handshakes" and Chapter 8, "Changing Terms of Self-reference among American Slave Descendants." Part IV, "Linguistic Dimensions of African American Vernacular English," reintroduces four detailed linguistic studies: Chapter 9, "Steady: Progressive Aspect in African American Vernacular English," provides an account of steady and its functional grammatical role, and Chapter 10, "Come Again: Discourse Functions in African American Vernacular English," expands on Spears's (1982) formulation of "camouflaged forms" that have been concealed from many traditional linguistic studies of standard English. The remaining linguistic chapters are socially relevant: Chapter 11, "Hypocorrection: Mistakes in the Production of African American Vernacular English as a Second Dialect," will probably hold most appeal for linguists, and sociolinguists in particular, because that chapter describes a highly specialized process whereby some African Americans exceed vernacular norms in their quest to produce nonstandard English as a secondary dialect. Chapter 12, "Linguistic Perceptions in Black and White: Racial Identification Based on Speech," is an experimental study; a host of African American and non-African American speakers were recorded and then given racial classifications by judges who made their decisions based exclusively on the sound of the speaker's voice. The experiment included some bidialectal informants who, much like highly trained actors, can produce standard English or RAVE at will with considerable proficiency. That evidence, in turn, is presently being used in support of new research on housing discrimination based on speech.

The book ends with a single concluding chapter in Part V that explores "Research Trends for African American Vernacular English: Anthropology, Education, and Linguistics." It seeks to alert readers to the robust scholarly traditions associated with some outstanding research on this topic. That review is not comprehensive, however, and does not fully address the tremendous contribution by scholars who study communication and human speech disorders (see Kamhi, Pollock, and Harris 1996; Seymour and Seymour 1981). Nevertheless, Chapter 13 will direct readers toward significant studies of African American vernacular English that are described more fully within this volume.

One of the greatest joys derived from research of this kind grows from the sense of a shared mission with others who seek to provide new solutions to old, and racially sensitive, social problems. At a time when the nation seeks greater relief from racial strife and public controversies over affirmative action, this work provides linguistic diagnostics that do not rely on racial designation, but which can nevertheless be used to replace overstated and controversial racial classifications as a means to identify and assist those truly less fortunate citizens who are most in need of help.

Language is complex, and mastery of it is too often taken for granted. Linguists and psychologists have demonstrated that the miracle of child language acquisition is uniquely human. All normal children in every society learn to speak without the aid of formal instruction. In America we find three groups of language learners: those who learn standard English as their first language, those who learn a nonstandard dialect of English natively, and those who do not learn English as their mother tongue.

Immigrants to the United States arrive typically with little money and no knowledge of English, often preferring to speak only with others who share fluency in their mother tongue—not because they are lazy but because learning a second language can be difficult, especially if you do not have access to English language instruction. Having experienced linguistic prejudice firsthand, most of these first-generation immigrants insist that their children become "real" Americans by learning English. Such children speak to their parents in the language of their parents' native country but use English in school and with their peers. By the third generation, most immigrant families have made a complete transition to English.

It is rare to find Americans who, after three generations, have preserved their ancestral language, particularly to the exclusion of English. A European scholar told me a joke recently. He said, "What do you call a person who speaks three languages?" I said, "A trilingual." Then he said, "And what do you call a person who speaks two languages?" I said, "A bilingual." "Then what do you call a person who speaks only one language?" Not knowing the punch line, I shook my head as if to say, "No." He said, "An American."

I pointed out that the United States is not Europe, that our nation is relatively young by world standards, and that the evolution of English in the United States differs considerably from the evolution of European languages, which have survived there in support of independent nations. Although linguistic diversity existed among Indians in precolonial America, wars, disease, and other perils destroyed a large percentage of these populations and their languages.

What distinguishes linguistic evolution of English in the United States is the concentration of various dialects on the East Coast, and a so-called general American dialect in the West and Midwest. One of the primary reasons that so many different dialects of English can be found in the eastern United States is that they were settled prior to the industrial revolution by people who brought different English accents with them to this land. The industrial revolution, particularly the development of transportation, made possible the settlement of larger geographic regions where people eventually developed American dialects that covered wider territories.

Also contributing to the evolution of American English was the migration of blacks from the South after the Civil War to urban areas of the north. They took their Southern speech patterns with them, including all of the unique linguistic forms that had been incorporated into the grammatical structure of speech among slaves. Unlike most white immigrants to urban centers, who eventually adopted local dialects, blacks generally remained isolated in impoverished ghettos and as a result, retained their dialect. This physical isolation contributed to linguistic isolation and the maintenance of African American vernacular English (AAVE). The retention of unique linguistic forms, racism, and educational apartheid have since led to numerous misconceptions of this dialect, all of which amount to the opinon that all speakers of this dialect lack intelligence.

Many native speakers of standard English assume that nonstandard speakers are ignorant, lazy, and less capable intellectually. The common ereotype is that nonstandard speakers, including many blacks, could speak "properly" if only they put forth sufficient effort. This view, while perhaps understandable, is woefully uninformed and simplistic. It fails to recognize the unique status of AAVE or the linguistic consequences of slavery. While most other immigrants were able to continue to speak their ancestral language in ethnic ghettos, slaves were torn from their native communities and immediately isolated from others who shared their language. The slave traders engaged in this practice to minimize the occurrence of revolt, but the linguistic dimensions of this action continue to have consequences for many black speakers today. Historically it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, effectively denying them access to literate standard English; this unfortunate fact has also deepened the linguistic abyss between AAVE and standard English.

Many speakers of black English view this dialect from an entirely different perspective: they value it. Their personal and cultural identities are closely linked to the language of their friends, family, and forebears. And AAVE symbolizes racial solidarity. As long as the adoption of standard English is perceived to be an abandonment ofblack culture, an African American vernacular will continue to survive, and it will do so despite perceptions that black speech is ignorant.

An African American woman I interviewed many years ago stated her case as follows:

You just can never forget that slavery was a bitch from the get-go. Slaves didn't get no schoolin and they ain't never really given us [African Americans] equal opportunities, so how we supposed to talk like white folks, and why would we want to? It ain't no white people really care about us, cause if they did they wouldn't try to make you turn into a white person, they'd take you like you is. But they don't do that. All my teachers in school kept tellin me, "if you don't speak proper, you won't get a job." That's bullshit! I know some Brothers that went to college—y'know, they did the "white thing," with good grades and good English, and they still have problems on the job. They done tol me about this Brother who did all the work for a white boy at his job, and then they [the Whites] lied on his ass when the boss found out and he was fired, and nobody tried to help him. How can you trust motherfuckers that do shit like that, and then they say we stupid cause we don't talk proper. Talkin proper don't feel natural to me, but that don't make me stupid—I see what's goin on, and I see what's comin down, and it ain't got nothin to do with how we talk. It's all about money, power, and politics—plain and simple!

Several linguists also view black dialects from a different perspective; they see a coherent language system. For example, in AAVE we observe sentences like the following, with be:

They be standin on the corner.

He be talkin when the teacher be talkin.

From a linguistic point of view, this use of be performs grammatical work. In African American vernacular these sentences convey habitual activities. By contrast, the standard form is will be used instead of be to convey momentary actions. The difference between "He be happy" and "He is happy" is that the latter conveys a momentary state while the former refers to a perpetual state of happiness.

Imagine the confusion confronting a black child in school who is trying to use standard English to convey a habitual state or event. Under such circumstances it would be difficult for the child not to use his or her native grammar. Be provides a grammatical tool that is unavailable to speakers of standard English. In addition to all that AAVE shares with other dialects of English, it has unique grammatical forms that serve important communicative functions; it is far from being an impoverished dialect. Despite all that linguistics has been able to teach us, however, black English continues to stigmatize speakers as "uneducated" members of society.

The persistence of AAVE and the misconceptions about it pose a challenge to our society. Should some citizens be discriminated against because of our collective linguistic ignorance? Educators or employers who assume that blacks are inferior intellectually on the basis of their speech may restrict their access to educational and economic opportunities. And although we may believe that our misconceptions about AAVE are linguistic, they are fundamentally racial and lead even scientists and scholars to grossly erroneous conclusions about the intelligence of black people.


“If this book is anywhere near as successful as Baugh's Black Street Speech (which is probably the most widely used text on African American Vernacular English), it will not only be a contribution to the field of sociolinguistics, but a popular success as well.”
Guy Bailey, coeditor of The Emergence of Black English: Text and Commentary