Rebecca Wheeler, a professor at Christopher Newport University and a language researcher for the last three decades, is telling me why her job is so fraught.
“Linguists have this saying: ‘As we see a people, so we see their language; as we see a language, so we see its people,’” she says. “Our attitudes about language and culture and people flow through each other without us realizing the equivalency.”
This explains why Boomers get so grumpy about “text-speak,” why your racist uncle freaks out when AT&T customer service asks him to press one for English, why half of Twitter consists of fights over Oxford commas: Hearing your language used differently, seeing it change around you, doesn't feel like progress. It feels like a threat.
The idea that Standard English must be constantly defended against marauders is an example of what linguists call “dominant language ideology,” and even well-intentioned, otherwise open-minded people display it without noticing. For instance, every semester, Wheeler gives her students, who are training to become teachers themselves, a sample essay from a 3rd grader. It’s written in African-American Vernacular English—better known as “Ebonics”—and includes phrases like “mama Jeep run out of gas” and “she walk yesterday.”
The first response from her students is always the same: The writer doesn’t understand possession, he’s failing to show subject-verb agreement, he’s struggling with basic concepts. “Truly 100 percent of my students who have not studied linguistics think this is a child who lacks the capacity for complex thought and writing,” Wheeler says.
It's only after she explains the patterns of vernacular speech—AAVE, Appalachian English, Hawaiian English, Chicano English—that her students finally understand that “she walk yesterday” isn’t a mistake. Just as a child who uses “y’all” hasn’t failed to speak in the second person, a child who says “mama Jeep run out of gas” hasn't failed to indicate possession. He's simply using a different set of rules to do it.
Over the last few decades, it’s become clear just how insidious dominant language ideology can be. “This way of thinking,” Wheeler says, “permeates our school system, our textbooks, our tests and our teacher education.”
Consider the Bridge series. In the 1970s, linguists created a curriculum that was specifically designed to boost the reading skills of black students. It started in vernacular, then introduced elements of Standard English one by one. The early pilots worked: Students who used Bridge gained six months of reading skills in four months, while kids on the traditional curriculum gained only 1.5 months. But as soon as the results got published, parents protested that the series would bring “Black English” into the classroom, that students would learn “she walk yesterday” as perfectly acceptable language to use in essays and job interviews. That they were wrong didn’t matter. The publisher pulled the series.
Or consider the Ebonics controversy, the starkest example of how “defending” Standard English ends up denigrating everything that isn’t. In 1996, the Oakland School Board passed a resolution declaring that AAVE was a distinct language and that it should be welcomed in classrooms
The freakout was immediate and intense. Cable news hosts warned that “we be happy” was going to be taught alongside Shakespeare. Frank Rich called the school board “deranged” and the resolution an “incendiary separatist manifesto.” An education NGO put a full-page ad in the New York Times with the title “I Has a Dream.” The Boston Globe said Oakland had voted to “teach black schoolchildren in ghetto-ese.”
Almost no one stood up to defend what Oakland was doing. And afterwards, as Ebonics disappeared from the national conversation, Americans could tell themselves that the entire episode was a close call, just another example of a time when patriotic members of the majority held the line against an attack on Standard English.
But what the last 20 years have demonstrated, and what the video above explains, is the sheer scale of the missed opportunity. America’s out-of-hand dismissal of AAVE has widened the racial achievement gap, entrenched discrimination and made us all a little more scared of each other. Which raises the simple question: What’s keeping us from making another push for AAVE now?
Check out Episode 1 of I Misremember the 90s, on the Clarence Thomas hearings.