Is it or Isn’t It?

Ain’t No Reason . . .

There is so much to unpack inside this week’s assigned readings that leads to, I would say, some challenging answers. Therefore, I decided to dive into stand-out points, beginning with Bad Ideas About Writing, Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, in the Chapter of African American Language is Not Good English by Jennifer M. Cunningham. Cummingham states, “Linguists define languages according to their grammatical origins, not their vocabulary. For example, English is considered a Germanic language because its grammar follows Germanic rules, even though its vocabulary is largely French and Latin” (p. 89). This statement brings to a study on The Adventure of English, Episode 1 Birth of a Language via a BBC Documentary. As the story goes, the adventure begins in South Bank, London. The North Sea, now called the Netherlands in Friesland, is believed to sound close to modern language worldwide. Around the 5th Century, Germanic tribes contained parts of the Jutes, Angles, and Saxon families that took their language and ours with them to live a better life. Conversely, Germanic invaders slaughtered the Friesland Celts, and the Celts later adopted the Germanic culture and language. In the 6th Century, Germanic tribes occupied half of the mainland of Britain and divided it into three kingdoms: Kent, Sussex, and Wessex, which spoke various dialects. The Anglo-Saxons emerged speaking Old English, the language we Americans speak today from names to numbers, averaging about 5,000 words in active recovery. Soon, a Monk, Pryor Augustine, led a mission from Rome to Kent. (Allen 2020).

Additionally, reading that “African American Language is more grammatically African than English, even though its vocabulary is English” (p. 89) is surely a new concept to me. As often, after being introduced to these interesting, assigned readings, it urges me to gather another take on each subject matter. Thus, this reading is no different in scope out outside perspectives that tie into the conversation, explaining the difference between grammar and vocabulary in the language. Understanding that African American English does not follow the grammatical rules of Standard American English helps us realize that these are, in fact, two grammatically separate languages and cannot be compared to one another. In her book Talkin’ and Testifyin’, Geneva Smitherman breaks down the parallel between the grammar and structure rules in West African languages and African American English. She points out the repetition of noun subjects with pronouns, such as, “My father, he works there.” and uses the same verb form for all subjects, “I know; he knows; we know; they know” (Smitherman, 6-7). This example shows how the structure of the language does not coincide with that of Germanic languages but of languages from West African tribes such as Ibo, Yoruba, and Hausa. African-American English came to be because enslaved people had to apply their knowledge of West African grammatical rules and English vocabulary to bridge the gap and communicate with their masters. They adopted the English vocabulary and applied it to a different language, thus creating a new language, what is known as African-American English, which still holds influence today. Smitherman also demonstrates how African-American English has evolved over centuries in the United States and how the structure of the language remained the same. For example, throughout the evolution of the language, there are still sentence patterns that don’t use any form of the verb to be, which is commonly found in West African languages. (Bayan 2019).

Therefore, it does “follow logically that African American Language ought to be considered linguistically (according to scholars like Ernie Smith) an African language, separate from English, based on its grammatical origins in the Niger-Congo or western and southern parts of Africa” (p. 89). But I am not certain I concur or not with all the talk about the Black American Language being an accepted language. I guess I am so accustomed to the American Language that I cannot see a specific written language for Black people.

In the piece, We Been Knowin: Toward an Antiracist Language & Literacy Education by April Baker-Bell, James Baldwin quotes, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What Is?” (p.  6). struck a chord. And need I say that is the question? Without overthinking it,  we understand African American English is a language entirely different from the Standard American English that is spoken in professional environments, in classrooms, and textbooks. This language was created for the survival of enslaved Africans in the Americas, and over centuries has evolved into a language that is an entire culture. Author of the novel Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude Brown, calls this language the “language of the soul” and is appropriately named. This language was somehow able to keep the essence of its origins while taking on an entirely new vocabulary to create something that has survived for centuries. When comparing Standard American English to Black American English, there is no comparison. They cannot be compared to each other because they are two different languages with two different origins that happen to share the same vocabulary. This would be like trying to compare the Oromo language from Ethiopia to Mandarin from China or French to Tagalog from the Philippines. It is impossible to compare one language to another if the standards are different and the structures are different. Also, how can anyone determine how “good” a language is? If the message is being delivered and is understood, who is saying that a language is good or bad? One is not inferior to the other, so in regard to the original question, is African-American English good English? The answer is yes, it is good English. (Bayan 2019).

Followed by the question, “What is the purpose of a language education if it cannot be used for various sorts of freedom or save students’ lives?” (p. 7). It seems that Vershawn Ashanti Young: Should Writer’s Use They Own English? writing profoundly answers the question of whether we should, for instance, teach how language functions within and from various cultural perspectives. And we should teach what it takes to understand, listen, and write in multiple dialects simultaneously. We should teach how to let dialects comingle, sho nuff blend together, like blending the dialect Fish speak and the black vernacular that, say, a lot—certainly not all—black people speak (p. 112). Furthermore, if people of color wish to see a change in the curriculum, then this is the way I assumed non-people of color should adhere to implementation.

What Even is Standard English

As I was reading this weeks selections I could not help but think of a close friend, Mary-rose, of mine who teaches middle school English. (I’ll send these articles to her. I dunno if she’ll read em but worth a try) She’s a stickler for the grammatical rules that Vershawn Ashanti Young talks about in his article. I’m afraid that she would be more likely to agree with Stanley Fish than with Young but I cant blame her for this , she was taught this way. To work and teach within these lines that are considered Standard English. (I am in no way saying she’s a bad teacher for this either, i wanna make that clear. Shes doing something I could neva. Teach. and doing it pretty well IMO)

The narrow, prescriptive lens be messin writers and readers all the way up, cuz we all been taught to respect the dominant way to write, even if we dont, cant, or wont ever write that one way ourselves. That be hegemony. Internalized oppression. Linguistic self-hate.

(Young 112)

I had a little trouble reading Youngs article, so instead of reading it in my head like I do with all academic writings, I decided to read it out loud and treat it more like a conversation. It felt as if I was talking informally with friends but with topics that are heavier and reserved for academic settings. Anyway, I essentially turned his article into a highlighter coloring book. If I were to place all the quotes in this post I’d essentially be quoting entire pages, so ill limit it to the ones that I found important. “Fish himself acquiesce to this linguistic prejudice when he come saying that people make theyselves targets for racism if and when they dont write and speak like he do”(Young 110). I love that this point was brought up, cause its Victim blaming 101. Oh you were denied _____ because your English is not academic, developed, standard, or refined enough. as Young says in the next lines Black English and its user don’t oppress themselves, but its the negative connotation that Black English has been given.
“A whole lot of folk could be writin and speakin real, real smart if Fish and others stop using one prescriptive, foot-long ruler to measure the language of peeps who use a yard stick when they communicate”(Young 112). I love love love love this quote. When I came across it I had to stop reading cause it felt as if a brick of realization hit my head. If we only change our perspective, our “standard” English lens then we can teach various cultural perspective, dialects etc. It sounds so simple to do, but as the phrase goes…easier said than done.

I want to point out that April Baker-Bell’s article We Been Knowin: Toward an Antiracist Language & Literacy Education did a wonderful job of giving its reader a taste of the bigger picture in just half a page.

We Been Knowin also signifies that communities of color, especially women of color, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, and people living in poverty BEEN knowin what has and has not worked. Our lived experiences have continually taught us how to think about freedom and collective liberation, and have laid the foundation for what must be done today. Though this article will reflect Black people’s epistemologies and language and literacy practices, I want to point out that systems of oppression that perpetuate anti-blackness are interconnected with and cannot be separated from how other communities of color experience racism, systemic injustices, and inequities. Indeed, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression do not serve our collective liberation. This complexity suggests that an antiracist language and literacy education has to be intersectional.

(Baker-Bell 2)

This was a fantastic point to preface her article with. As I read the article, I not only thought about the injustices, racism, and anti-blackness surrounding language but how these systems of linguistic oppression also effect other communities. As Baker-Bell mentions above women of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and people in poverty. (Also correct me if I’m wrong but I’m sure this is the only article so far to mention people with disabilities.) On her second page she has already made it clear the injustice surrounding language effect more than one community, and that this is not only a issue for user of Black-English, but for everyone who is oppressed.

If you, for some reason, didn’t think Baker-Bell started off on the right foot then her next section Antiracist Critical Media Literacies sure was the right one. (second right foot?) The way media outlets use language for certain event is a clear indication of the necessity for Critical Media Literacies but especially antiracist ones. Living in this era of almost weekly mass shootings its difficult NOT to see the racist depictions by the media. How Baker-Bell mentions that Trayvon Martin, a victim, is criminalized while his murderer is portrayed as a “upstanding positive” person”. How white perpetrator are depicted by the media as Lone wolves or as having problems with mental health. It’s why antiracist critical media literacies are so important to teach, and understand. Educators need to adopt a “language that explicitly names and richly captures the types of linguistic oppression that is uniquely experienced and endured by Black Language-speakers”(Baker-Bell 7).

So I have to admit that I messed up on this weeks reading for Bad Ideas About Writing. We were assigned “African American Language is Not Good English” by Jennifer M. Cunningham BUT I mistakenly read the previous chapter “There is One Correct Way of Writing and Speaking” by Anjali Pattanayak. Once I realized this, I went back and read the assigned chapter. However, I believe these two chapter work wonderfully together and I urge everyone to read it.
“In the writing classroom, teachers can help students navigate Standard American English expectations while not suggesting a linguistic hierarchy. By speaking about language choices in terms of difference rather than deficiency and in relation to academic and nonacademic conventions, we can value both (or any) languages”(Cunningham 91). Cunningham illustrated her ideas extremely well in this quote. Once we rid ourselves and classrooms of this linguistic hierarchies we will take the steps to creating a proper multicultural, multilinguistic pedagogies.


English is a peculiar language because there are so many contrasting ways to use words. “I couldn’t care less” used to confuse me when I was younger because the statement sounded like the person did care a little bit. “I could care less” sounded like the care could in fact stop caring at any point. Obviously the former means that they don’t care at all and the latter means the opposite, but the way the words are set up it confused me.

English is not the only language that people speak in this country. Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Dakota, Cherokee, and other languages are spoken by other people. And yet English is treated like the ultimate end goal for everyone that lives in the United States. And it’s always the standard, “professional” English that is always expected of us. The white man’s “perfect” English is the only dialect that is acceptable in the system’s eyes. African American Vernacular English, AAVE, is seen as rude and ghetto, at least until it’s time for white people and non-black people of color to take words from AAVE for clicks and views.

There is no one way to speak English. Vershawn Ashanti Young’s ‘Should Writer’s Use They Own English?‘ hits the nail right on the head. With the way standard English is held as the ultimate goal of English language classes, there’s no room for tolerance of linguistic or racial differences. It is not incorrect for a black person speaking African American Vernacular English to form sentences with said language. English-based Creole languages such as Jamaican Patois and Gullah are valid languages too. They aren’t spoken the same way as “standard” English is, but that’s the thing about differences. Not every language and dialect is the same. Communities develop with their own sense of language. Just because two people share the same mother tongue doesn’t mean that their dialects will be the same.

It’s not right to claim support of people’s differences while touting standard American English as the only language that is valid for everyday speech. Black students will not trust their teachers nor will they readily participate their classes if their own language and dialect is invalidated by the system and those who work for it. Black people are already dehumanized daily, as we’re constantly made out to be thugs, brash, wild, predatory, and criminals. Black Americans’ languages are commonly used against them by racist white people, as memes and jokes about them mock their accents. Black women are the frequent targets of misogynoir, as even black men will dress up in wigs and feminine clothing solely to make jokes about brazen black women acting ghetto and messy.

Modern day minstrelsy is popular. Online Content Creators such as Shane Dawson, Jeffrey Star, Tana Mongeau, and many others have built their large platforms off of anti-black stereotypes and racist behaviors. Slurs, Blackface, screaming, racist skits, they’ve done it all. And it doesn’t help that many others online also adopt AAVE when they want to be trendy and funny, as seen on Twitter and TikTok. The amount of times I have seen someone use AAVE when they clearly do not speak it at all is astounding. Black Vernacular is not a trend to be adopted when someone wants to sound cool or be funny. It’s a real diverse linguistic family of languages and dialects.

The Shifting Landscape of Language Education

This week, we read three pieces of writing focused on how “African American English” (Cunningham) or “Black English” (Baker-Bell and Young) should be positioned in the classroom. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use “Black English” and “Standard English” going forward.) All three writers want teachers to teach students that Black English has value and is not wrong and encourage teachers to use students’ knowledge of Black English to their advantage in English classes. While this same idea runs through all three articles, the writers have areas of both agreement and disagreement.

None of the writers is in favor of teaching only Standard English. Cunningham wants teachers to  show the value of both languages by “speaking about language choices in terms of difference rather than deficiency” (Cunningham 91). Baker-Bell, points out that Standard English has been “language…used to oppress Black students,” which therefore cannot “empower them” (Baker-Bell ??). All three writers believe that Black English should play some role in the English classroom, but Cunningham and Young strongly disagree about how it should be used. Cunningham advocates treating Black English and Standard English as two distinct and separate languages and never blending them, believing that “[c]onflating the two into one linguistic variety is confusing at best and damaging at worst” (Cunningham 91). Instead, she suggests “code-switching” as a way of “teaching academic English without devaluing a writer’s identity” (Cunningham 85). Where Cunninham wants a separation, Young wants a blending, which he calls “code meshing” (Young 114), believing that it will “benefit everybody” because it can “add flavor and style” (Cunningham 114) and “help [students] be more rhetorically effective” (Young 116). Cunningham also takes issue with Cunningham’s definition of “code-switching,” because his own definition involves blending rather than switching (Young 113). Baker-Bell only mentions “code-switching” one time, putting more emphasis on her recommendations for how “Black Language” should be included in a classroom (Baker-Bell 9).

I found all three of the articles to be informative, and they all helped me to look at Black Language in a classroom setting differently. Even so, I can’t agree with Baker-Bell’s assertion that English teachers should “become conversant with the features of Black Language” (1) or Young’s recommendation that English teachers should “know everybody’s dialect, at least as many as we can” (111) as they are highly impractical. While it would be fantastic for a kid to walk into a classroom and find that the teacher is familiar with their language, regardless of what it might be, the suggestion that teachers should learn one or more other languages before teaching is just impossible to implement. I think that a more practical, and useful recommendation is for English teachers to learn how to use a student’s knowledge of one language to strengthen the other (just as learning Spanish in high school strengthened my knowledge of English grammar). While I don’t think a student should be chastised for blending languages, I think that there is no point in teaching Standard English if you continuously back off on enforcing the rules that govern it. If language exists to foster communication, the further away we get from everyone following one set of rules, the more confusing things become. 

A change is definitely necessary when teachers are sending students a message that some part of who they are is wrong or invalid, but a solid solution still escapes me. When we discussed multicultural classrooms, it became clear that it’s not feasible to include a representation of every culture in the curriculum, no matter how nice that would be. And as much as we want to support ESL students, no teacher can be expected to learn every language in preparation for every type of student that might join their class. I do not know what an appropriate change would look like, and none of the writers has given me a practical and specific vision of it, either. But I am interested and open to seeing what develops as a result of Cunningham, Baker-Bell, and Young’s influence on pedagogy.

Max Beaton 2023-11-20 02:25:02

The past few weeks we have been discussing voice heavily in class, and this week’s readings were a perfect culmination of those discussions. When it came down to it, all of those articles and conversations seemed to boil down to a single point: everyone has a unique voice when they write that should be encouraged rather than suppressed. Of course, we as writers should always be seeking to improve our skills and carefully craft our writing to appeal to our audience, but there are more ways than one to do that. Even though the English language has its rules, those rules can–and should–be broken when necessary. The English language is also not simply one language as each of this week’s articles point out, but a collection of various similar languages. Both written and spoken English differ slightly from Britain to the United States, for instance. Even within the U.S. itself, the English language is noticeably different in downtown Philadelphia than in a small town in Texas. Don’t even get me started on the Midwest. When I was in the Army, I met a woman from Minnesota who knew no other word to describe a water fountain than “the bubbler” and she wasn’t joking. Long story short, people have different regional dialects and should be encouraged to embrace them.

Interestingly, Jennifer Cunningham, the author of the chapter African American Language is not Good English went a step beyond merely describing African American Language as a regional dialect and argued that it is indeed its own unique language. According to Cunningham, the African American Language shares more in common with Niger-Congo languages grammatically than Standard English. While I am unsure if Cunningham’s classification is “a step to far”, I do find her argument to be compelling and her logic sound. However, the official classification of Ebonics aside, one fact is clear: it has its own unique rules and has a rich cultural history.

Now that I have established my position regarding Ebonics and other derivatives of the English (or not English?) language, I feel it necessary to offer a more critical point of view on the matter. In higher education there is a growing movement to support each student’s unique voice, but in K-12 public education I can see how that is somewhat of a pipe dream. I can say, as a middle school teacher, that teaching one language is difficult enough and that students require some sort of “default” language to aid in their communication with the general population. In creative writing projects (and certainly dialogue between characters), students should be encouraged to write however they feel comfortable, but on more formal assignment I understand why Standard American English is a requirement. As students grow their knowledge in reading and writing they should be exposed to more unique styles and vernaculars. In time, and with any luck, they will settle wherever they feel most comfortable in regard to their writing style.