Joel Shaver

Jul 15 2014

To begin, however, we must overcome the smug sense of superiority that sneaks over us when we read the one-word title of this tome. As Turner concedes: “for most of the twentieth century, philology was put down, kicked around, abused, and snickered at, as the archetype of crabbed, dry-as-dust, barren, and by and large pointless academic knowledge. Did I mention mind-numbingly boring?”

We need to get back before that sneer. Philology was once the most capacious of terms. As it encompassed all study of languages and texts, it was at the heart of education and scholarship, reigning as “king of the sciences.” Turner’s study is dazzling in its scope and erudition, and one manifestation of this is that he starts his story at the dawn of civilization: “The earliest schools, in Mesopotamia, taught not augury, astrology, or the art of war but how to handle written language.” In the beginning was the word.

Jul 14 2014
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Jul 11 2014

"Speaking Proper English"


The word that bothers me is “allow.” Students talk. They bring their home language to school. That is their right. If you are concerned about children using Ebonics in the classroom, you will spend the whole day saying, “Translate, translate, translate.” So you have to pick times when you are particularly attuned to and calling for English translation.
— Carrie Secret—Rethinking Schools Online

The conflation of those two models of the “standard language,” Baldwin’s and Bush’s, was evident everywhere. You could see it, for example, in the wording of a bill introduced into the Virginia General Assembly that would change the currently designated official language of the state from “English” to “standard English,” a variety defined as follows:

Standard English includes the written and spoken language which is accepted by generally recognized authorities as grammatically correct in the United States and shall not include any dialect, patois, or jargon based on the English language.

You might wonder how the authors of the bill can be so confident that their own spoken English would pass grammatical muster with those “generally recognized authorities,” whoever they might be (William Safire, call your office).

The indignation at the idea that Black English might have any legitimacy as a form of speech was so widespread and intense that it was hard to avoid the impression that there was some unconscious mechanism at work, particularly when you listened to the violent revulsion with which writers described the variety itself. It was “this appalling English dialect”; “a mutant language”; “gutter slang”; “the patois of America’s meanest streets”; “the dialect of the pimp, the idiom of the gang-banger and the street thug, the jargon of the public-school dropout, a form of pidgin English indicative of African-American failures.”
One of the curious things about the great Ebonics flap was that the story was actually reported very well. By way of example, here is the first paragraph of the article from The San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the story in the page one lead position on December 19, 1996: The Oakland school board approved a landmark policy last night that recognizes Ebonics, or Black English, as a primary language of its African American students….The district’s resolution, passed unanimously, declares that all teachers in the Oakland Unified School District should be trained to respect the Ebonics language of their students as distinct from standard American English — not a dialect that is “wrong.”
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