an essay


Ted Nellen

The Oakland announcement about Ebonics has opened the proverbial can of worms. However, I don't think it is about Ebonics as much as it is about the language we teach in our Language Arts classes. Currently SAE is failing our educational needs. Why?

Oakland has made a bold move and brought to center stage a great inconsistency in the language we speak in America: American. I do not wish to get into linguistic history, Ashton did it too well, [Ashton NCTE-TALK:11364] but language is power and those who wield the rules of language have the power. Latin, French, English, to just name three, languages have had a long and bloody history of power and abuse. Ebonics has a history in this country, a country with many dialects/variations. I am now rereading "The Story of English" to learn more about the language we speak: American.

William Ashton said it exactly in his recent post that started: "What a powder keg! We're stepping into a race issues here and we shouldn't." [Ashton, NCTE-TALK:11364] It is not about race, it is about language. Patricia Williams on 12-29-96 in her NYT op- ed begins: "The Melting pot is boiling over again, ... " and mentions "... a prickly Oxford-educated acquaintance of mine wonders, when could any part of the American vernacular be called English?" I concur with her Oxford-educated acquaintance. American is not English, so stop calling it English call it American. Bonnie Bracey raises the class issue in her piece on Ebonics in her K12ADMIN submission. It is not about Ebonics, it is about language. English is becoming a second language in America. Language is presented to our populace via many media. The result of this wide band distribution process we are assualted with many variations on the theme of the language of America. Editors of print communications vie to be style sheets. Publishing houses issue their grammar books and dictionaries, which present differing opinions. We do not speak President's American. We have too many radio and television shows to monitor the language spoken to the listeners. American is ever- evolving.

Standard American English, SAE, is a contradictory statement in and of itself. Standards don't really exist in the American language. Consider how we find a certain usage correct today, when ten years ago that same usage was unacceptable. Grammar books contradict themselves. American grammar does not have a standard grammar book nor a standard dictionary, and yet we hear cries for standardization. Is it American or is it English. English has so many variations/dialects. American has so many variations/dialects. Consider how American incorporates immigrant and foreign influences. English has remained unchanged for many years. It is either Queen's English or King's English depending upon the monarch. American doesn't have such a standard. If English is "as if we are at a great feast of language and stolen some of the scraps," what is Amercican? Is American "the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven"? Standards are hard to administer and maintain. American is whimsical, it changes and reflects usage, therefore it is standardless.

In this last paragraph I used "nor" instead of "or". I have had editors change nor to or. In grammar books I use, I read the rule as nor. This is one of our problems: Who sets the Standards? Editors, teachers, users???

It is not about Ebonics, it's about language.

I would like to address three simple points about language in America and demonstrate why it is language we should concern ourselves and not Ebonics.

First is the verb "to be". Second is subject-verb agreement. Third is spelling.

The verb "to be" is perhaps the most important verb in our language. Besides being the most used verb it is the most irregular. Philosophically speaking it is crucial: to be or not to be, I think therefore I am, human being... just to name a few. The irregularity of "to be" and others leads to too many hours spent on a useless and frustrating aspect of the teaching of American which is correcting verbs. This correction process is humiliating and a show of power and doesn't really do that much to improve or lessen the quality of the piece written or spoken. My idea is this: eliminate all irregulars, make them regular. The verb has four principal parts: the infinitive, present participle, past, and past participle. We use the principal parts to form the verb tenses. The infinitive is used to form the present and future tenses; past for the past tense; and past participle for the perfect tenses.

So a verb like work we have:
to work, working, worked, have worked.
It is conjugated in the present tense:
I work we work
you work you work
s/he it works they work

It is simple, neat and concise. The infinitive uses "to", the present participle uses -ing form, the past adds -ed, and the past participle uses the past with have.

So live is to live, lived, have lived. I have suspended the present participle for this discussion. Now it is the irregulars which have caused such aggravation. More useless time is spent in any writing class on this stupidity. I say make all verbs regular!!
Start with "BE". to be, being, was, have been
conjugated in present tense:
I am we are
you are you are
s/he it is they are

If we use the infinitive to form the present tense, how did "to be" get so complicated. Where do am, are and is come from??
Not so simple!!! Make regular all irregular verbs.

Now I must discuss subject-verb agreement. Essentially subject- verb agreement problems occur in the present tense. Subjuect- verb agreement asks that we make the subject and the verb agree in number. So a singular subject takes a singular verb and a plural subject takes a plural verb. Easy, right? Nope. A singular subject does not have an "s" while a third person singular verb does have an "s". A plural subject has an "s" while the plural verb does not. This is stupid. That is not agreement. Agreement means they agree either both do not have the "s" or both do have the "s". If this form remains at least name it appropriately: subject verb opposite, when subject has no "s" then put an "s" on the verb; if the subject has an "s" then no "s" for the verb.

So the conjugation of work is:
I work we work
you work you work
s/he it works they work

Perhaps it should be:
I work we works
you work you works
s/he it work they works

Now that is agreement!!

Now do this with "to be":
I be we bes
you be you bes
s/he it be they bes

Of course this sounds strange, but then remember we have been hearing it spoken incorrectly for so many years that any correct use of American is going to sound strange.

One point I would like to make to all of you who teach, consider how your new non-American speaking students speak American: logically. They are following the rules. American does not follow rules. Look in any Grammar book and you will see a rule followed by umpteen exceptions, no wonder it is confusing and Standards are impossible to achieve. It is not a language of rules, it is rote memorization.

A SIDEBAR: In the future tense the Fowler brothers discuss six considerations of when to use shall/will. It has become acceptable to say "..everyone should have their coats..."

Lastly, consider American spelling. The first rule goes something like this:

Write "i before e" when the sound is "long e",
except after "c".
Write "e before i" when the sound is not "long e",
especially when the sound is "long a".

What a rule. It comes with exceptions and if we look closer we find exceptions to the exceptions and even some "ie" "ei" combos spelled not following any rule but its own. I say choose "ie" or "ei" and be consistent.

Consider the three spellings of "ceed" "cede" and "sede". Since one is spelled "sede" and three are spelled "ceed" while the rest are spelled "cede" why not make them all "cede".

Plurals of nouns take an "s". However too many nouns are not pluralized this way. Ridiculous, make all plural words end in "s" nouns and verbs. dog=dogs, fly=flies, box=boxs, knife=knifes, hero=heros, mouse=mouses, index=indexs.
Heck, on index we dropped indices for indexes, so take it one more step to indexs.

That is just a sampler of the problems inherent in the language we teach, speak, hear, write, read, learn, use.

American is a goulash that has been created through usage, which means it is a "jazz" language. If English is "as if we are at a great feast of language and stolen some of the scraps," what is Amercican? Is it "the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven"? Standards are hard to administer and maintain on such a protean language. However, eliminating some of these usage obstructions in the teaching of language in an American class, we can make for a less anxious class of students and allow for more time on reading and writing. Heck math has simple rules that allow teachers of math to get on with mathematical things while we in the American classes are bogged down in the never-ending lessons of mechanics and too little on the real stuff of an American class: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

SAE as it exists right now is not user friendly. Ebonics is just a sympton of the greater ill.

"Ebonics" could be the Boston Tea Party of the next language revolution. I teach American, foster the American language which has been noted is "a great example of a bastard tongue because it bubbled up from below and not from the ivory tower." [Aston NCTE- TALK:11350] American can be spoken beautifully, too. We do not speak English in this country, let alone Standard English. To add American to this combo to get Standard American English, now we really have nothing to plant our teeth into. Let's go after Standard American and incorporate the indigenous Americanisms to it.

I teach SAE and show its stupidity and inconsistency. Because it is the language of power, I do feel obliged to discuss it, but I do not like it. "But in this country the general agreement is that SAE is used by the populace. It is up to us to teach that 'language' as best we can. ["Mittlestaedt NCTE-TALK:11323] I see Oakland as an important step in freeing us from the shackles of SAE.

Now to ask our "leaders" [Tierney NCTE-TALK:11351] to lead is just not going to work since our leaders still call themselves English teachers not American teachers. NCTE means National Council of Teachers of English, not NCTA National Council of Teachers of American. We don't even have our own identity. In France they speak French, in Germany they speak German, in Japan they speak Japanese, in England they speak English, and in America they speak... Shouldn't America have its own language? And please make it more user-friendly.

I am a teacher of American.

Now if this doesn't work for you, then perhaps, as so many have said: "when I was young I sat and learned the irregulars, and the verb tenses, and the spelling rules. I memorized them ....", we should do lots more drills so our kids can learn all of the hideous tricks of our language as we did when we were young. Pity the newbie to America who has to learn a whole bunch of studid language memonics and language inconsistencies, just to not be ridiculed in school. Or is our language really by and for xenophobics?

Perhaps with such a peculiar language we shouldn't get so upset about minor mechanical mistakes as long as the message gets through. That we have spent so much time on mechanics in our language arts classes and not on creation is the fault of the language not of the teacher or of the student.

Fix the language. Now what did HL Mencken in "The American Language" have to say?