Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Ebonics and the end of regional dialects

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Frederica Mathewes-Green is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is the author of”Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy”(HarperCollins), and a frequent contributor to Christianity Today magazine.)

UNDATED _ The concept of Ebonics landed as a post-Christmas gift on a grateful nation of would-be comics, both professional and amateur.

It’s rapidly reaching saturation: at a meeting the other day a reference to an investment in E-Bonds brought the swift rejoinder,”Is that where Ebonics come from?” I’ve gotten e-mail messages from a Southern friend on Southronics and from a Jewish friend on Hebonics, and here in Baltimore natives are jovially accusing each other of speaking in BaltiMoronics.

The Oakland school board task force, which sought recognition of Ebonics as a deviation from standard English spoken by many inner-city African-Americans, brought some of this on themselves, with initial assertions that have since been recast and modified. This muddle prompted the reflection that, for those who wrote the proposal, maybe English really is a second language.

In the midst of this entertainment I was given a small book with a blue cover embossed in gold with these words:”De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Luke Write.”A subtitle reads,”The Gospel according to Luke.” The book is published by the American Bible Society, and was prepared by the Sea Island Translation and Literacy Team. The Gospel has been rewritten in Gullah, which is spoken by some blacks living on the islands off the coast of South Carolina.

In nearby cities, like my hometown of Charleston, a version closer to standard English is spoken, an accent known locally as (hard”G”)”Geechee.” Reading the Bible Society volume took me home. A familiar passage reads:”Wen John beena bactize all de people, dat same time e bactize Jesus. An wiles Jedus da pray dey, de sky open op. An de Holy Ghost take shape like a dobe an come light on Jedus. Den a boice from heaben say, `You me Son wa A lobe. A sho please wid you.'” As I read this passage I hear the voice of my grandfather. My father retained plenty of Geechee, though his English was more standardized and his accent less visible. With me _ well, living away from my home town and in the midst of semi-Yankees _ my residual accent usually won’t emerge until I finish a beer.

The striking thing here is that this is not black or white speech; it’s regional speech. This is the way we talked in Charleston, and many natives still do, no matter what their color. This is what makes the theory of Ebonics so odd; it presumes that blacks all over the country speak the same way.

White Charlestonians speak largely like black Charlestonians, but don’t speak like people from Tennessee or Louisiana. Folks in Boston don’t speak like Vermonters, and Texans don’t always speak like each other. And I can’t be the first to notice that when black experts on linguistics are interviewed on the radio, no matter where they grew up, they don’t speak Ebonics.

A familiar feature of Charleston speech was the word”ain’t.”My father, with a college degree in English and French literature, still said”ain’t”_ perhaps intentionally. It was a word they tried to drum out of us at school, but we continued to use it informally and at home.

I’ll still sometimes add”enny?”to the end of a statement, which means”ain’ty?”or”isn’t that so?”It may seem silly, but when you’re far from home these little markers of familiarity are sweet and reassuring. Reading through the Gospel I found myself thinking, I’m home again, and these are my people.

The Ebonics debate, by insisting that language is color-coded, obscures the obvious truth that language is instead regional.

But with the homogenization of America, we are losing our local and regional accents and dialects. I miss them, and the way they season our national quilt with a variety of flavors, and I treasure them where they survive.

As a newcomer to BaltiMoronics, I’m still getting adjusted to”zink”for”sink”(I actually saw that written on a price tag in a store), and driving down to”Worshington.”It’s an accent I can only describe as the American version of Cockney _ straightforward, good-natured, and broad as a barn door.

Think of all the native language patterns being gradually eroded by standardized English. Surely the cookie-cutter speech patterns of radio and TV announcers is one of the culprits; there’s hardly an accent in a carload.

I’d like to get a roomful of these speech-neutered announcers in a room and spike the punch, then listen to the flowering cacophony of native speech.

That would be a hoot and a holler, enny?