Linguistics for Everyone

Wayne O'Neil, Department of Linguistics & Philosophy, MIT,

Applied linguistics has made many demands on me: from forensic linguistics to second- or foreign-language pedagogy, demands that, from my point of view, have called on little of what it means for me to be a linguist. However, two somewhat related educational activities of mine over the last thirty-five years have centered around the following, which have the flavor of Chomsky's Plato's and Orwell's problems, and which do make exacting demands on me as a linguist, I believe:

  1. arguing for a role for linguistic inquiry in science education, work designed to rescue linguistics from its undeserved curricular obscurity, and to place it back on the educational and intellectual schools agenda.
  2. fighting against language prejudice, the necessity of this clear from the recent controversy over African American English (Ebonics) in the United States (O'Neil 1997).

Here I discuss some ongoing work of mine and Maya Honda's at Wheelock College in Boston, a continuation of our earlier work aimed toward developing secondary-school students' curiosity about language into an understanding of it through scientific inquiry, and from which the college work is only trivially different in style but of much greater import (Honda 1994; Honda & O'Neil 1993; 1996; O'Neil & Honda 1996). In the case of the education of our current students, who are and will continue working, primarily as teachers, with young children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, it is important, indeed necessary to try to school their myths about language toward a scientific understanding of the structure of language, of language variation, and of first and second language development.

More specifically the goals and objectives for the study of linguistics in this setting are the following (cf. Honda and O'Neil 1993: 233-37):

  • To develop in our students, future teachers of young children, an understanding of the scientific achievements in linguistics (as well as their limits);
  • More importantly, to establish an intellectual climate in the classroom in which students can develop in themselves a scientific style of argumentation -- a Galilean style, or a deep appreciation of it at least, in linguistics as well as in science generally;
  • By meeting the first two goals, to help students build confidence in their ability to deal with unfamiliar problems in science, separating these from problems or mysteries that are not -- at least for the moment -- subject to rational inquiry, but which are no less important.

The novelty of our work is that it takes linguistics -- the best understood of the cognitive sciences -- as its domain of scientific inquiry. This novelty derives from our belief that a science education can most fruitfully build on the mind's science-forming faculty (SFF), taking that expression as a label for the idea that in making science humans are tightly constrained in their options and in what they can make science about. (For discussion of the notion 'science-forming faculty' -- roughly equivalent to Peirce's 'abduction', see Peirce 1957; Chomsky, 1968: 78-9; 1988: 156-159.) These constraints are also at work in the core areas of what we can refer to as 'natural' mathematics: "the simplest mathematical ideas [that] are implied in the customary lines of thought of everyday life and [which] all sciences make use of" (Newman 1956: 1747). Thus, in our course, we explore some language-related mathematics as well, logic and set theory.

As with other aspects of our biological endowment, such as the language faculty, sufficient experience of a specific sort is needed to trigger development of the SFF. Serious inquiry will do for the SFF, inquiry which "begins when we are willing to be surprised by simple phenomena of nature" (Chomsky 1993: 25). The choice of phenomena is crucial, for they must be conceptually accessible both to investigation and to depth of explanation.

Thus this view of the mind guides curriculum development toward phenomena that are conceptually accessible to students, i.e., those that not only challenge their already existing ideas, but for which possible explanations are also within their grasp. This view of the mind also guides our pedagogy toward the Socratic, and toward cooperative teaching and learning.

But what guides us toward linguistics?

First of all, linguistic inquiry meets these basic pedagogical principles: that the introductory material of science education be in some sense conceptually and readily accessible, and that the students (as well as the instructors) have a rich prior experience that will move inquiry more or less straight in an interesting fashion. From this perspective, linguistic inquiry is a fairer way to appeal to the SFF than what usually goes on in the science classroom, for in general, students are introduced to science in areas where their experience is impoverished and/or where their common-sense understanding is strikingly at odds with things in nature. Thus very little inquiry is possible in class or laboratory encounters in which many of the problems of science seem -- from a common-sense point of view -- quite unproblematic to the students.

All of cosmology, for example, deals in questions that simply do not arise in the world of common sense: whether the sun rises and sets, or whether our sense that it does is artifactual; whether the earth is spherical or not; whether it is revolving and orbiting through space at tremendous speeds or not; whether the universe is expanding or contracting; whether the visible objects of the universe account for merely one percent of its mass or not; whether black holes exist or not, and if they do, whether they are best understood as two-dimensional or as four-dimensional objects; etc. Or consider something more commonplace: "the so-called Taylor instability, whereby if you turn over a glass of water, the water will spill although the air pressure should be sufficient to hold it in the glass -- as, in fact, it does if, to prevent the instability, you place a sheet of paper over the glass" (Rossi 1990: 81). In our common-sense physics water does what it is supposed to do, and the fact that the water does not spill when the glass is covered with a sheet of paper is a bit of magic having -- in our mind -- nothing to do with the porosity of water or atmospheric pressure, which are themselves not notions available to common sense.

An examination of one's language, on the other hand, can immediately provide a set of problems and an area of inquiry that has certain advantages for students. For example, why is it not possible to contract want to to wanna in fast speech whenever -- so to speak -- you 'wanna'? Consider, then, the grammaticality contrast between the contracted forms in sentences a. and b. below, and the ambiguity of c. with respect to contraction, where '*' indicates grammatical deviance of some sort:

    a.  where do you wanna go?  <---    where do you want to go?
    b.  *who do you wanna go?   <---    who do you want to go?
    c.  who do you wanna visit? <-?-    who do you want to visit?

Apparent mysteries of this sort -- in which the null hypothesis, that you can always wanna- contract, fails -- are readily turned into problems, which can then yield solutions of general interest and some depth. We have learned from our work at both the pre-college and college levels that in linguistic inquiry, where there are few solid explanations to offer them, students can come up with quite good hypotheses caste within a very narrow range, and come up with them rather quickly.

Moreover, since scientific investigation is generally attempted in areas of experience where explanation is in conflict with students' common-sense notions or intuitive science, there is a distinct advantage of linguistics in this respect. For as far as we are able to understand it, there is no common-sense linguistics of any depth for linguistic theory to be in tension with, nothing like the common-sense mechanics, say, that precludes action-at-a-distance and thus undercuts a student's coming to terms with Newtonian mechanics.

On the other hand, although there does not appear to be a common-sense linguistics more complicated than the notion that a language is a list of words arranged like beads on a string, any attempt to look at language in a scientific way is in tension with school grammar and other such sorts of language mythologizing not subject to scientific explanation: prescriptive notions about language use; the conviction that the real object of the study of grammar is writing, thus equating knowledge of language with writing and reading skills; the view that certain varieties of a language or certain languages are esthetically, logically, or in some way superior to others; and so on.


Second, students should come to know that science is not exhausted by the topics covered in their standard high school science textbooks nor by the list of names of departments in a college's faculty of science. Science is a way of looking at the world, though it is not simply that; nor is science simply problem solving. For it is only insofar as a measure of intellectual satisfaction (in the way of depth of understanding as opposed to breadth of description) is made in accounting for some naturally bounded thing-in-nature that the rational pursuit of coherent solutions becomes science. Consider, for example, the remarks of MIT's Sylvain Bromberger:

We find ourselves, as individuals and as communities, willy-nilly cast in a world not of our own making, in which we want to survive, if possible to thrive, and whose features we want to understand. We start out with little prior information about that world, but we are endowed with the ability to come to know that there are things about it that we don't know, that is, with the ability to formulate and entertain questions whose answers we know we do not know. It is an enormously complex ability derived from many auxiliary abilities. And it induces the wish to know the answer to some of these questions. Scientific research represents our most reasonable and responsible way of trying to satisfy that wish. That is its most tenable defining goal, and not, as others have held, the construction of doctrines that can be recast as interpreted formal systems, or the achievement of intellectual economy, or the refutation of conjectures, or the solution of puzzles, of the provision of means for practical success, or the contrivance of communal consensus, of the domination of certain institutions, of the elaboration of every more encompassing systems, or the making of worlds. Those sorts of achievements represent at best accidental objectives. (Bromberger 1992: 1-2)


Third, linguistic inquiry ensures equal access to all students, for inquiry in this domain presents few barriers to people with physical handicaps; lends itself to cooperative inquiry by an entire classroom of students and/or by smaller subgroups; and is not on its surface gender-biased, a matter of particular importance at an overwhelmingly female institution like Wheelock College.

Also, in our experience, students who speak English as a second language are able to participate fully, relying on their native English-speaking classmates simply for grammaticality judgments, but not for scientific insights into the nature of language. For on the basis of very restricted triggering experiences, the SFF kicks in to do much of the work -- often allowing quite interesting generalizations to be reached. Of course, linguistic inquiry need not be restricted to English nor to spoken language (as opposed to sign language), nor is it in our work; and in fact, the ideal situation is to take advantage of the linguistic diversity of a class of students to examine cross-linguistic, cross-dialectal, and cross-modular phenomena insofar as this is possible.

We attempt to accomplish all this by presenting our students with problem sets that tell a connected story about language. The solutions to some of the problem sets are reached in classroom discussion. Others are assigned to the students as homework with the solutions reached at home, then subjected to scrutiny and analysis in class. Wherever possible the material in the problem set is also discussed from the point of view of its acquisition, first or second or both, and -- when appropriate -- its social relevance. Take the phenomenon of wanna-contraction, for example, a thoroughly (some would say over-) examined characteristic of American English; and about whose acquisition something is known. It carries no social stigma, however.

In the United States, the usual approach to sociolinguistic issues of this sort is through African American English, an approach that can easily define -- and thereby stereotype and marginalize -- the issues as simply racial. To avoid this problem, we initiate our discussion of language variation and language/dialect prejudice by taking advantage of New England /r/ phenomenon -- a striking characteristic of New England speech which generates a lot of social heat and, moreover, prominent in the English spoken by many of our students Only after we come to a thorough understanding (structural and social) of this New England /r/, do we proceed to look at other varieties of English, some of which they are familiar with: Appalachian English, Downeast Maine English, Nicaraguan English -- for example, as well as African American English.

The following problem set focuses on the apparent mystery of when the /r/'s of /r/-full varieties of English are realized in the speech of New Englanders, and when they are not:

A language called R or Ah.           Extra!  Extra!  Read all about it!
                                    All the boys are socially retarded!
                              (A children's rhyme -- slightly modified)

In New England English and other varieties of English, the /r/ of words like car and yard can be dropped, so that the words then sound like /kah/ and /yahd/, more or less. However, not all /r/'s can be dropped. At some places in a word, /r/ is dropped and in other places it is retained. By comparing lists of words where /r/ is dropped with lists of words where /r/ is retained, we should be able to detect a pattern, and, to formulate a hypothesis that describes New England /r/-dropping.


A. List A gives words in which /r/ is dropped; List B gives words in which /r/ may not be dropped. That is speakers who drop /r/ in List A, retain /r/ in List B.

    List A          List B
    1.  car         1.  run
    2.  father      2.  bring
    3.  card        3.  principal
    4.  bigger      4.  string
    5.  cardboard   5.  okra
    6.  beer        6.  approach
    7.  court       7.  April

On the basis of the data available in Lists A and B, figure out when /r/ is dropped or retained in this variety of English. Hint: look for the most general characteristic of the sounds that come immediately before or after /r/ in both List A and List B.

Formulate a hypothesis that accounts for these data.


B. What does your hypothesis predict about the pronunciation of the words in List C?

    List C
    1. bear         5. program
    2. fearful      6. right
    3. computer     7. party
    4. fourteen     8. farther


C. Consider your hypothesis for /r/-dropping further: what would it require for something to be a counterexample to your hypothesis? What form(s) would the pronunciation of a word have to take such that it either retained or dropped its /r/ in violation of your hypothesis?


D. Here is a passage of continuous prose from which some seemingly vulnerable /r/'s may not be dropped and from which others must be dropped in this variety of English. Those that may not be dropped are indicated by r:

They live in the Fields Corner neighborhood of Dorchester. Fields Corner is part of Dorchester, and Dorchester is part of Boston. They live in Fields Corner, but one of them works at MIT in Kendall Square. They don't own a car, so he rides the subway between Kendall Square and Fields Corner.

Does the hypothesis you formulated account for the /r/-dropping or retention pattern observed in this passage? If it does, explain how the hypothesis works.

If not, reformulate your hypothesis in order to account for the /r/-dropping or retention in the passage as well as for that in Lists A, B, and C. Then show how your reformulated hypothesis works for all of the data considered thus far.

What form would a counterexample to your hypothesis have to take?


E. Next consider the following passages, in which R indicates an inserted, or intruded, /r/:

  1. Emma works in another part of Boston: at Wheelock College on the Riverway, near the Fenway. EmmaR also rides the subway to and from her job.
  2. On the telephone today, the weather-person said, "It's going to be bright and sunny all day, so leave your umbrellaR at home." He was wrong; I needed my umbrella.
  3. Eliott Richardson worked long and hard on drawRing up a new lawR of the sea, but we're still stuck with the same old law.
  4. JFK (as were other U.S. presidents, but in a different pronunciation) seemed threatened by CubaR and by "Red" ChinaR in particular, but not by the other China -- Taiwan, or by Miami's Cuba.

Can intrusive /r/ be explained by the hypothesis of /r/-dropping or retention that you formulated above? If not, how is intrusive /r/ to be accounted for? Before formulating a hypothesis for intrusive /r/, consider the following data, sentences 5-9 in which R cannot be inserted, and 10 in which it can.

Hint: pronounce sentences 5 through 9 -- without the R of course, noting the transition between the words Hindi, sundae, etc. and the following is. Contrast these pronunciations with those of tuna on and law is in sentence 10.

    5.  *HindiR is a language spoken in India.
    6.  A *sundaeR is made with ice cream and other good things.
    7.  *piR is greater than 3 but less than 4.
    8.  There is a *kangarooR in the yard.
    9.  The *siloR is empty.
   10.  TunaR on rye is standard back East, but the new lawR of the sea
         will change all that.


F. Just for fun, Signs of New England: There is a shop in Provincetown MA named "crossyafingŠs", and Honda and Acura dealers in Cambridge MA called "Hondar House" and "Hondar Acurar Kings". Do these signs represent well-formed pronunciations in the variety of English analyzed in this problem set?

This problem set develops and expand students' knowledge of linguistic features initiated in other problem sets. And, in addition to the categorical distinction between vowels and consonants required to explain the data; the distinction between diphthongs and simple vowels; and the identification of a feature [±low] in order to explain the intrusive /r/ data given in ¤E, the notion 'syllable' must be introduced. Furthermore, this phenomenon, in which /r/'s are variously deleted, retained, or inserted, can be related to more language-general phenomena, such as French liaison.

Moreover, as noted above, the material of this problem set strikes close to home, for many of our students speak this variety of English, but not proudly. This fact naturally leads to a discussion of language/dialect prejudice. For example, many students mistakenly refer to this way of speaking as slang, and display great unease when asked to read the data aloud with the dialect-appropriate pronunciation. Moreover, our students often displace their own knowledge of this variety of English to other family members, saying such things as, "That's the way my mother talks with her friends -- rough," and "That's the way my dad talks -- I can't stand it!" However, an occasional student enjoys coming to understand why, for example, she and her brother can be not only "GinaR and Pet/ah/" but also "Peter and Gina", but never *"Gina and PeteR" nor *"Pet/ah/ and GinaR". Establishing the systematicity of New England /r/, as opposed to the mystery about it that is popularly expressed, goes a long way to validating this way of speaking and then to trying to understand why it is held in such low repute. Does class have anything to do with it, for example?

Having dealt with the local issues -- insofar as we are able, we are then ready to move on to other instantiations of language prejudice, the attacks on African American English (AAE) seemingly always ready to hand. In fact, the recent controversy over the Oakland CA schoolboard's resolution on Ebonics (= AAE) does sharply underline the need to deal with language prejudice in the United States, and in general. It has been over a year and half since the School Board of the Oakland Unified District passed a resolution recognizing Ebonics ("black sounds": a portmanteau of ebony and phonics) as a language, and until the next outbreak of such anger, Ebonics has receded into the background for the media (mentioned only in the context of Jerry Brown's campaign to become mayor of Oakland -- a city, according to the New York Times, known for its twin foolishnesses: Black Panthers and Ebonics (16 May 1998): for the media have gone on to other better, more sensational matters -- scandals of the moment. But in the slow-news period of Christmas 1996 and for a long time thereafter -- until this particular dragon had been thoroughly slain, Ebonics was at the center of both the media's and the politicians' attention. The educational and political issues have not gone away; thus it is good to examine how the Oakland resolution was handled by the media, for there is much to be learnt thereby.

Some background: On 18 December 1996, the Oakland School Board passed its resolution recognizing the language it called Ebonics, characterized by "Pan African Communication Behaviors or African Language Systems" -- according to the statement. Among linguists, Ebonics is commonly known as Black English or African American English (AAE), names not used in the resolution for ideological reasons, I suspect -- in order to establish more starkly that AAE is a language distinct from English.

A month later, on 15 January 1997, the Board passed, by a unanimous vote with no abstentions, a slightly amended, basically unchanged form of the resolution. Then, according to barely visible or audible media reports, Oakland's Task Force for the Education of African American Students dropped the E-word from its final report, leaving its basic recommendations intact, however (see, e.g., the Boston Globe, 7 May 1997).

The intent of the School Board is clearly revealed in the policy statement appended to the resolution, directing "the superintendent of schools to devise a program to improve the English language acquisition and application skills of African-American students" by building on AAE. In other words, AAE is recognized for what it is -- the home language of the majority of Oakland students (over 70% of them presently in special education classes) -- in order to promote its analysis and understanding on which to better build a sound education including standard ("cash") language skills.

The immediate media response to the Oakland resolution was, overwhelmingly, one of mockery, ridicule, and outrage, a common charge being that the Oakland resolution is an attempt to elevate "street slang" to the level of Shakespeare, say. This is, of course, a clever but willful category error: Every group has its slang (defined as "the nonstandard vocabulary of a given culture") -- even the media, not to mention the Elizabethans, as a cursory reading of the footnotes to Shakespeare's plays and poems quickly reveals.

As late as June 1997 -- just a year ago, the issue was still alive enough in the mind of the press -- the African American press, at least, for the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ, Region 1) meeting in Boston to form a panel around the question "Ebonics: Did we do the story justice?" I was asked to be a member of the panel, though participating in the discussion and answering its question required nothing of me as a professional scientist -- a linguist, merely the ability to read and analyze the newspapers carefully.

To repeat the question put to the panel: "Ebonics, did we [the media] do the story justice?" My short answer: Hardly any.

Some details follow, though here I deal only with the print media and much less thoroughly with the internet. Others will have to assess radio and TV, for I have had no time to follow them. However, my impression from talking to those who did and from transcripts sent to me is that there the story was treated with much the same disdain and incompetence. For example, on Fox News Sunday (22 December 1997), Tucker Carlson -- asked for his reaction to (a gross misrepresentation of) the Oakland resolution -- responded with great ignorance and little style:

Well, I think it sounds like something the Klan thought up. I mean, this is -- you know, it's like saying "OK, don't speak intelligible En-English. You'll never get a job." I mean, this is -- this is a language where nobody knows how to conjugate the verbs. I mean, it's ridiculous….

Return now to the claim that the print media did little justice to the Ebonics story: First of all, it is important to point out that it is often the early coverage that counts. Once the story is gotten wrong, there is little that can be done; for after the wrong story, quickly follow the talk-show and op-ed-page artists, whose role appears to be to drive spikes into graves. Informed, balanced stories then generally come too far after the fact, and letters of clarification to the editor -- always balanced by contrary letters -- are not given the credibility lavished on real, live newspersons. Such was the course more or less followed by the print media on the Oakland resolution.

First there was some simple and brief reportage, in the Boston Globe of 20 December 1996, for example: "A California city's schools stand behind black English," quickly followed by culturally corrected views, editorial denunciation, and columnal outrage. Thus on 23 December 1996 (also in the Boston Globe) -- in a column partly written in pseudo AAE "Ebonics ain't proper answer," the syndicated columnist Patricia Smith opposed the resolution with a version of the argument now widely used against bilingual education: "We learned because we have the capacity to learn, so how can we say that our children don't possess that same capacity? … As black kids, we were introduced to a world we had to enter in order to survive, and then we were offered the tools to get there. What they're saying in Oakland is that those kids are too dumb to learn the way we did, and that's insulting." She struggled and won, so why make life any easier for the students of today? But not everyone won; in fact, relatively few did. Moreover, it's no longer Smith's imperfectly remembered mythic Golden Age -- if there ever was one. For as Benjamin Franklin observed two and a half centuries ago, "The Golden Age never was the present Age", Poor Richard['s Almanack] Improved 1750. And in Oakland it surely is not the Golden Age: for the fact is that 71% of the students in special education are African Americans, who also make up 64% of the students held back each year -- in a 96% people-of-color school system (African American, Asian American, and Latino). Quite obviously, since it is statistically impossible for so many of these students to be academic failures, it must be that they are not being offered the tools. Thus there should be Smith's "panic in the air.… The answer? Ebonics!" Perhaps -- if by Ebonics is meant the educational measures that the Oakland School Board has in mind. For clearly, Oakland needs to do whatever in its wisdom it deems necessary, even if it offends the sensibilities of an outraged African American columnist and denies her romanticization of the past.

So it went with the syndicated columns, whose titles often give some of the flavor of the attack: William Raspberry's uninformed characterization of AAE: "no right or wrong expressions, no consistent spellings or pronunciations and no discernible rules" (Washington Post, 26 December 1996); Ellen Goodman's "A 'Language' for A Second-Class Life" (Boston Globe, 27 December 1996); and Mary McGrory's accusing the Oakland Board of "legitimizing gibberish" (Washington Post, 29 December 1996).

On the New York Times editorial page, an enraged Brent Staples made an early Afrocentrism charge -- one of many that would follow ("The Trap of Ethnic Identity: How Africa Came to Oakland," Editorial Notebook, 4 January 1997), raising in a later editorial the fear that the resolution will "drive out the middle-class families that keep schools and other city institutions afloat [with "their mainstream values and ideas"] (Editorial Notebook, 24 January 1997), obviously the saviors of us all. Frank Rich, also in the New York Times ("The Ebonic Plague," 8 January 1997) observed, "There isn't a public personage of stature in the land, white or black, left or right, Democrat or Republican, who doesn't say that the Oakland, Calif., school board was wrong…." So don't bother listening to the not-so-public, stature-less support of Oakland, nor be bold enough to draw your own conclusions in the face of all this political posturing.

The late, pseudo-populist Mike Royko (Chicago Tribune, 8 January 1997) carried on as expected: "Some momma, she writes me and ax why I don't write no column in Ebonics. I tell the hoe that be wack because I don't know how to talk Ebonics," as did Shelby Steele ("Indoctrination Isn't Teaching," New York Times, 10 January 1997) and Jeff Jacoby ("Ebonics: The self-esteem movement goes off the deep end," Boston Globe, 23 January 1997), with his willful confusions between the status of immigrant English and AAE and his unhelpful, invidious comparisons between American Jews and African Americans.

A sad record, all in all. There were some exceptions, of course. For example, very early on the Boston Globe ran a fairly balanced editorial ("English lessons in Oakland," 21 December 1996), which -- however -- was undone by its subsequent barrage of op-ed commentary. And the New York Times ran an excellent op-ed piece by Patricia J. Williams ("The Hidden Meanings of 'Black English'," 29 December 1996) and Margo Jefferson -- in her [cultural] Critic's Notebook "The 2 Faces of Ebonics: Disguise and Giveaway" (New York Times, 7 January 1997) -- wrote, "It is easy to dismiss the subject [Ebonics] with glib gibes or to enshrine it in sentimental bombast. It's hard work to start making sense of all the contradictions", and then proceeded to take on the hard work of sorting through the contradictions.

Other exceptions to the hard-hitting syndicated columns and editorials came in the form of an occasional story written by someone who bothered to talk to persons (linguists and educators) who might be presumed to know something about the issues; that is by a reporter who approached the Oakland Resolution the way one might approach a question about the economy or medicine. For there is something about AAE that our science can clarify. E.g., Pamela Burdman's "Ebonics Tests Linguistic Definition; Politics, tempers rules, scholars say" (San Francisco Chronicle, 26 December 1996) and Jeremy Pawloski's "Mass. legislator files bill barring Ebonics" (Bay State Banner, 9 January 1997).

As for the left/liberal press -- weeklies generally: it has the habit of collapsing in the face of tough cultural issues involving, as this one does, race and class. For example, The Nation gave its editorial space on the issue over to A. J. Verdelle ("Classroom Rap," 27 January 1997), the author of The Good Negress -- a novel that celebrates the advantages of learning "the King's English." Verdelle's view of the resolution is very little different from Patricia Smith's:

"The pedagogical strategy advanced by Ebonics adds unnecessary steps to our children's already complicated path toward learning, a path obstructed in most cases by the widespread belief and unrelenting message that African-Americans lack intelligence -- a position that Ebonics seems, unwittingly, to support…. To name African-American misstatement as a kind of pseudo-phonics is to legitimize it, to bronze it. Couldn't we just as accurately call it classroom rap? … Quite frankly, the Oakland strategy seems to be pedagogy run amok. (Ebonics: gone nuts, looking foolish.)"

And Louis Menand in the New Yorker's weekly "Comment" ("Johnny be good: Ebonics and the language of cultural separatism," 13 January 1997), concludes that "subcultures flourish when they are just part of life, not part of the curriculum. When they acquire official patronage, they're on the way to the museum." Menand seems not to understand that there is nothing 'sub' about AAE in Oakland. (For further analysis of the media on Ebonics, see my article in the educational journal Rethinking Schools (O'Neil 1997; to appear).)

Why the outrage over the Oakland resolution from the media and from the politicians? In my own view it has to do with the fact that in the United States -- as in many parts of the industrialized world, language prejudice remains a "legitimate" prejudice; that is, one can generally say the most appalling things about people's speech without fear of correction or contradiction. The exercise of this prejudice in the United States is often, but not only, a shield for racism (and classism), thus allowing the holders of racist views a freedom no longer readily acceptable in civil society. Let public figures deal with people of color in an overtly racist manner, and they must immediately apologize -- at least, and leave their positions -- at best. This is not the case for anyone reviling African Americans or other people for their language. This and its thinly veiled racism continues to be somehow legitimate as, for example, an examination of many of the thousands of Ebonics websites on the internet quickly reveals (see Ronkin & Karn 1998).

Couple this freedom to express language prejudice with the fact that the Oakland resolution was promulgated by and in a community of color, and the outrage is predictable. For the resolution provides a convenient excuse for politicians and the media to lower themselves once again to an occasion.

It is this language prejudice and its expression rather than the Oakland resolution that ought to be the object of our outrage and our attention. And in part it is toward the eradication of this prejudice that the Oakland resolution is directed. For this and for the other sound educational reasons raised in the resolution, the Oakland School Board is to be strongly supported. One way to support it is to direct the study of language in the schools and in the education of teachers away from myth and prejudice and toward a reasoned understanding of language.


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3rd July