The Truth, Mainly - 01/27/1997

Prince Charles, Ebonics and the best dialect of them all
by Leon Satterfield

I've been harboring a commoner's grudge against Prince Charles for the last couple of years, ever since the AP caught him looking down his aristocratic Windsor nose at American English.

Real English, he sniffed, "to my way of thinking means English English," and Americans have had a "very corrupting" influence on it because we "tend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn't be."

He sounded downright French.

And you know what I said? I said "Well, la-de-damn-da." It's a phrase I learned in Meade County, Kansas, while I was acquiring the local version of corrupt English in my misspent youth.

I used to feel guilty about contributing to language corruption with that kind of talk. I knew Prince Charles would never say "La-de-damn-da" and many nights I sobbed myself to sleep on my wet pillow.

Then I read some descriptive linguistics and I wept no more.

Descriptive linguists are interested in describing how the language actually works—as opposed to prescriptive linguists who are interested in prescribing how it ought to work.

Descriptive linguistics relieved my stress about the way the English language—including mine—was going all to hell in a handbasket. Prince Charles might feel better if he'd read some too.

He'd find out, for example, that somebody has always been corrupting the English language. Before Americans and Australians, it was the Norse marauders and the Norman French (who conquered most of England in 1066 and thereafter considered English a minor French dialect).

He'd find out that without such corruptions, he'd still be saying the Lord's Prayer in the English of 1,000 years ago: "Faeder ure, thu the eart on heofonum, si thin nama gehalgod." And how would God like it if we talked that way about Him? He'd probably lay a plague of umlauts on us.

And it occurs to me that all those people having hissy fits about Ebonics—that African-American talk that's always inventing nouns and verbs and making words that shouldn't be—might also find some relief if they'd just take a deep breath, breathe out slowly through puffed cheeks, and settle down with a hot cup of cocoa and a book of descriptive linguistics.

They'd find that not only is English always in a state of flux, it's also made up at any given time of the dialects of a whole lot of speech communities based on geography, social class, age, profession, and so forth. That's why nobody but a lawyer can understand Lawyerese.

And here's the kicker: descriptive linguists would tell them that the dialects of those speech communities aren't better or worse, more moral or immoral, smarter or dumber. Just different.

They'd tell them that what we call Standard English didn't come down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets; it's just another dialect. But it had the good luck to be the dialect of the most influential and moneyed and prestigious speakers in 14th and 15th century London. And—surprise!— they decided it was standard and all the others—Cockney, Yorkshire, Brooklyn, Louisiana, Ebonics—were sub-standard.

And being easily cowed by our social betters, we commoners bought it.

So most of us think that speakers of all those non-standard dialects are trying to sound like Bonnie Prince Charlie and not making it. But descriptive linguists tell us that all languages and all dialects have their own internal rules, that Ebonics is as rule-bound as Standard English. They're just different rules.

Les Whipp has already explained how acknowledging Ebonics in the Oakland schools can be a way of leading students to Standard English (LJS, Jan. 23), and that would be good practical education. Standard English is still where the money and the power and the prestige are, and anyone who wants a share of that had better be fluent in the money-power-prestige dialect, not because it's inherently better than other dialects, but because you need it to get on.

But, some of you are saying, surely I don't mean that all dialects are linguistically equal.

Of course I don't. All dialects are equal but one, and it's more noble, pure, high-minded, sweetly sonorous, elegant and subtle than all the others. It's the one spoken in Meade County, Kansas. Well, maybe not now. A lot of newcomers have moved in. And probably not in the whole county. Just the dialect north of the tracks in my hometown between, say, 1934 and 1952.

That's where we knew enough to say "oyce" instead of "always," where double negatives signaled we were serious ("I don't want no more fried liver") and triple negatives signaled we were really serious ("I don't never want no more fried liver").

And it's where the proper response to royal assertions that one small speech community had cornered the good English market was "Well, la-de-damn-da."


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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