Double Standards

Geoffrey Nunberg

Xerox PARC and Stanford University

To appear in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory

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."


That's a more than fair summary of the rather confused school board

resolution, and the article went on to explain that teachers would be

"trained to teach students to 'decode' or translate their home language,

Ebonics, into the standard English they need to succeed in school and

function in America's workplaces." And the coverage from other major news

sources like the New York Times , USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and

Reuters was roughly comparable. For the most part, reporters went to

considerable lengths to get the story right and to seek out the relevant

experts. Every time I turned on the radio during the first few months of

1997, it seemed, I heard the lilt of John Rickford's voice or the anti-lilt

of Bill Labov's. Indeed, a search of the Dialog newspapers database a

couple of months after the story broke turned up 85 articles containing the

word "ebonics" that cited one or more of Rickford, Labov, John McWhorter,

Geneva Smitherman, or John Baugh. The networks even sent cameras to cover

the LSA meetings in Chicago in early January -- certainly the only time

that's likely to happen -- and the Los Angeles Times gave a first-page

story to the passage of the Society's resolution describing the Oakland

program as "linguistically and pedagogically sound."


If you read only the news stories about the Oakland program, in short, you

might be at a loss to understand why linguists are always complaining about

the way the press deals with linguistic issues. In the end, though, all

that careful reporting went for nothing. From the first it was foreordained

that the Oakland program would be misinterpreted, attacked, and ridiculed

in an astonishing torrent of commentary. In the thirteen days following the

school board declaration, the New York Times ran seven news stories, one

editorial, two op-ed pieces, and three letters to the editor on the

subject; and front-page stories were still appearing in major newspapers

two months later. An Alta Vista search turned up almost 5000 Web sites

containing the word "ebonics," some helpful, but more with titles like "The

Ebonics translator (Patent Pending)," "Ebonics: Spue News Cuts Through 'Da'

Crap."1 And then there were the parodies that seemed to be circulating

everywhere: Hebonics, Dweebonics, Bubba-onics, Lake Woebegonics, and even

C++onics. The country couldn't get enough of it.



THERE'S NO DENYING THAT that the Oakland School Board brought much of this

down on their own heads. The language of the board's declaration seemed

calculated to play to all the worst stereotypes of education jargon and

afrocentric twaddle. It began by claiming that "numerous validated

scholarly studies" have demonstrated that African-American students

"possess and utilize a language described in various scholarly approaches

as 'Ebonics' or 'Pan African Communication Behaviors'' or 'African Language

Systems,'" which it said were "genetically based and not a dialect of

English." And it proceeded to declare that the Board of Education

"officially recognizes the existence...of West and Niger-Congo African

Language Systems," and instructed the Superintendent to "implement the best

possible academic program for imparting instruction to African American

students in their primary language for the combined purposes of maintaining

the legitimacy and richness of such language... and to facilitate their

acquisition and mastery of English language skills."


This was asking for trouble. It wasn't just that the resolution made it

sound as if the schools would be instructing inner-city students in how to

speak their own variety (which was not in fact what the program was aimed

at). There was also that claim that the variety was a distinct language,

and moreover one with the silly name "Ebonics," which sounded like the name

of a brand of sneaker or 50s Doo-Wop group. And matters were made worse by

that singularly ill-chosen description of the varieties as "genetically

based." I suspect the word "genetically" must have beeen lifted from some

linguist's assertion that African American Vernacular English is

"genetically related" to Niger-Congo languages (whatever might have been

meant by that). But the phrase "genetically based" suggests that the

writers were, as they say, Unclear on the Concept, and the impression of

confusion was not dispelled when the board issued a clarifying statement

that explained that "in the clause, 'African Language Systems are

genetically based and not a dialect of English,' the term 'genetically

based' is used according to the standard dictionary definition of 'has its

origins in.' It is not used to refer to human biology." Well, I have no way

of saying what was at the back of the writers' minds, but they certainly

ought to have anticipated the way the term would be construed by both

critics and supporters.


Still, the reporters' descriptions of the actual programs did dispel many

of the misapprehensions that the declaration might have given rise to, and

in any case it was a pretty slight pretext for the ensuing national

brouhaha -- as a friend of mine remarked in frustration as the furor

mounted, "For God's sake, we're talking about a school board." In the end

it was the press that puffed on the spark until it caught fire. It scarcely

mattered that their own reporters were covering the Oakland program more or

less accurately; the very fact that papers gave the story the play they did

ensured that it would be received according to the script that has become

familiar over the past ten years or so as "PC outrage of the week." On its

own merits, after all, a story about a local school board's decision to

adopt a new approach to teaching standard English would scarcely warrant

bumping Bosnia or the ballpark bond issue from the top right slot on page

one -- not even in the slow news season around Christmas. The story could

only have deserved such coverage if there was some monkey business going



The headline writers stood ready to provide the missing link. That largely

accurate Chronicle story reporting the board's resolution, for example, was

headed "Oakland Schools OK Black English," which suggested that the schools

were bailing out on their responsibility to teach the standard language.

The headlines in other papers were similar: "Oakland Schools Sanction

'Ebonics'" (Chicago Tribune); "Black English Recognized for Schools "

(Philadelphia Inquirer); "Oakland Schools to Teach Black English" (Miami

Herald). If you read the accompanying stories carefully, it's true, you

would have learned that those verbs "okay," "sanction," and "recognize"

applied only to the acknowledgment of AAVE as a systematic variety that

could be a point of departure for instruction in the standard language. But

it takes an uncommonly critical point of view to discount the newspaper's

own headline in interpreting a story.


The pattern persisted over the following weeks, as headline writers

repeatedly spun reporters' stories to fit the PC-outrage template. My own

nominee for the Friendly Fire Award was the headline over an article by

Pamela Burdman that ran in the Chronicle shortly after the story broke. It

was as good a piece of language reporting as you are likely to encounter in

the general press. Burdman quoted Susan Ervin-Tripp, Wayne O'Neil, John

McWhorter, and Berkeley historian Martin Jay; described the standard cases

of the mutually incomprehensible Chinese "dialects" and the mutually

comprehensible Scandinavian "languages"; and duly repeated the famous quip

that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. But with one swoop

the headline writer turned all those scholarly scruples into mere

disquietude: "Ebonics Tests Linguistic Definition; Politics Tempers Rules,

Scholars Say." The implication was clear: Ebonics lies beyond the pale of

linguistic classification, and political agendas were being allowed to

compromise scholarly standards.2


The spate of editorials, columns, and op-ed pieces that followed assumed

almost uniformly that interpretation of the story. The editorials in the

liberal establishment papers generally allowed that the Oakland program

might have been well-intentioned, but went on to say that it was sadly,

even tragically misconceived. The editorial in the New York Times, for

example, began: "The school board in Oakland, Calif., blundered badly last

week when it declared that black slang is a distinct language that warrants

a place of respect in the classroom. The new policy... will actually

stigmatize African-American children -- while validating habits of speech

that bar them from the cultural mainstream and decent jobs." Editorials in

other papers took the same line, under headings like "Teach English, Not

'Ebonics'" (Allentown Morning Call); "Street Slang Abandons Good Sense and

Kids' Futures" (Cleveland Plain Dealer); and "Wrong Priorities in Ebonics

Program" (St. Louis Post Dispatch).


Conservatives, by contrast, treated the Oakland program as just one more

multiculturalist scam. The most egregious example of this lot was Jacob

Heilbrunn's extended pontification in the New Republic. Unlike columnists

who simply took the headlines at face value, Heilbrun did go to the trouble

of interviewing linguists like Rickford, but then proceeded to misrepresent

their views in tendentious and often unintentionally comic ways. As

Heilbrunn told the story, the characterization of Black English as a

legitimate language was the work of the "professional crackpotism" of a

collection of academic "Ebonologists" -- among whose number Heilbrun listed

not just Labov, Rickford, Ralph Fasold, and Walt Wolfram, but also those

well-known sociolinguists Peter Sells and Tom Wasow (whose sole involvement

in the subject, in reality, was as co-authors with Rickford of a paper on

AAVE syntax in NLLT 14,3). Acting out of a political agenda, Heilbrun

explained, these linguists set about overturning the theories of linguists

like George Philip Krapp (whose 1925 work on American English was described

as "still standard" ) to the effect that Black English had an exclusively

English origin. Instead, they postulated that it stemmed from "the

language... known among linguists as Creole," whose origins they traced to

African languages such as Yoruba, Ewe, and Fula. These claims in turn

became the basis for the new instructional programs, which are vaunted as

providing a sounder introduction to the standard language, but which in

fact are "little more than a means to allow black youngsters to pass

through the school system without ever mastering the basics of grammar,

spelling, and punctuation." Heilbrunn's justification for this last

assertion consisted of a statement by a teacher in one such program who

explained that she responds to writing assignments handed in the "home

language" by saying "This is good. How would it look otherwise?," rather

than by saying "This is incorrect."


Heilbrunn's article was exceptional for the sheer breadth of its

confusions and misrepresentations, but its basic sentiments were echoed

pretty much across the board: the unforgivable offense of the Oakland

program was that it did not propose to tell its students that Black English

was wrong. 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."


There was undoubtedly a current of displaced racism in many of these

characterizations: it was striking how many of the words that writers were

applying to the dialect in the press were the same as the ones that many

whites apply in private to the people who speak it. But prominent African

Americans, too, were quick to condemn the school board -- not just

conservatives like Shelby Steele, but a range of figures that ran from to

Maya Angelou and Kweisi Mfume to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Chuck D. Jesse

Jackson described the Oakland policy as "an unacceptable surrender

borderlining on disgrace," and writing in The Nation, novelist A. J.

Verdelle equated the school board declaration with "the language of the

Dred Scott decision: that the Negro should be 'reduced for his own



In part, it's true, these reactions were based on a misconception of what

the program was about, and Jackson for one retracted his comments when its

actual goals were explained to him. But it was clear that apart from a few

linguists and educators, most African Americans were unwilling to

acknowledge that the inner-city variety might be a separate language, or

even a legitimate form of speech. William Raspberry of the Washington Post

described the inner-city variety "a language that has no right or wrong

expressions, no consistent spellings or pronunciations and no discernible

rules." And the Oakland parents and students sought out by enterprising

reporters were eager to deliver themselves of similar opinions. (From the

New York Times: "'What's black English?' asked Mr. Andrews, a 16-year-old

sophomore who said he found the decision somewhat insulting. 'You mean

slang?'") Other African-American writers had a high time with the kind of

Amos n' Andy burlesques that white commentators other than radio talk-show

hosts were presumably diffident about airing in public. Detroit Free Press

columnist Walter Williams began his column: "Y'awl might be axin me why Ah

be writin dis way. Y'awl might tink ma fambly didn't gib me a gud

upbringin." (John Rickford pointed out to me that Williams Williams got the

dialect wrong, as did most of the other African-American writers who tried

their hand at this: that be in the first sentence is ungrammatical. It's a

telling demonstration of Labov's observation that most of the middle-class

African Americans who maintain they speak "Black English" really have an

imperfect grasp of the grammar of the inner-city variety.)


YOU COULD ARGUE OF COURSE THAT the attitudes of African-Americans are

simply the internalizations of the dominant linguistic ideology. But

whatever their source, when you take them in concert with white reactions

they have a kind of performative force that confirms the status of AAVE as

a dialect of English. In the end, after all, that isn't a question that can

be resolved by comparative grammatical analysis or by weaving stories of an

independent African genesis, a claim that everyone in the affair seemed to

understand only in the traditional Sprachbaum sense of the term. The scope

of the English language is fixed in the conscious action of the collective

will that Heinz Kloss described as Ausbau (this in his neglected 1950

classic Die Entwicklung Neuer Germanischer Kultursprachen, still the best

work I know of on what it means to say we speak "the same language"). And

in this regard it is clear that whites and inner-city African Americans do

speak the same language, which is to say that we share the same linguistic

values and models.


But the same attitudes that set AAVE within the sphere of English also

function to relegate it to the margins, through mechanisms that were

evident in tropes that kept recurring in the press discussions. One of the m

ost revealing of these was the maneuver made by a number of critics who

tried to absolve themselves from any charge of racial bias by citing the

many African-American writers who have mastered the standard language. A

San Francisco Chronicle editorial taxed the Oakland district with having

"failed in its charge to teach youngsters their own language -- epitomized

by Shakespeare, the King James Bible and the writings of James Baldwin and

Maya Angelou." A columnist in the Los Angeles News opined, "What would have

happened to the standard of excellence, if writers like Maya Angelou, James

Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison had been told that all they needed to learn was

black English?" Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman reminded the school

board that "Black English is not the language of Maya Angelou or Jesse

Jackson." It seemed as if you couldn't open a newspaper without running

into someone saying, "Why can't they learn to talk like that nice Ms

Angelou does?"


What was telling about all these invocations of black writers (apart from

their "credit-to-their-race" condescension, I mean) was the way they elided

the ambiguous status of that notion of "standard English" -- the second,

uninterrogated term in all of these discussions. Just what variety was it

that people were calling on the Oakland schools to teach their inner-city

students? It would certainly be wonderful if they could graduate from high

school capable of describing their experience in "the language... of James

Baldwin and Maya Angelou," but the odds of that are as slim as of white

students graduating from high schools in Scarsdale and Beverly Hills with

fluent competence in the language of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.

Besides, it would be hard to argue that there are material or social

advantages for either group in mastering the literary variety. In today's

America, after all, the ability to write literate English has a market

value about one-third as great as the ability to install Windows on a PC.

The "standard language" that inner-city students really need to master is

that brutal semigrammatical clatter that permeates corporate conference

rooms, government agencies, and school board meetings. It's not important

that inner-city kids learn to talk like James Baldwin, but it is clearly to

their advantage to be able to give a passable imitation of George Bush.


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



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). But the point of this conflation of the two notions of the

"standard language" is precisely to make such questions impossible to pose,

and in the course of things to validate the speech of the white middle

class, not simply as a common medium of communication -- which would be

reason enough to want everyone to master it -- but also as morally and

aesthetically superior in virtue of its identification with literary



This is all factitious, of course. The syntactic and morphological

features that the literary language shares with middle-class speech have no

bearing on its claims to special merit, nor do they entail that that

variety "belongs" to whites to any greater degree than to blacks -- indeed,

the language of Maya Angelou owes quite as much to the underlying patterns

of black speech as to the grammatical structures of middle-class speech

that she usually, but not invariably, draws on. But these were the

unexamined assumptions that licensed all the moralistic fulminations of the

critics, black and white. (It recalls the way the English like to think of

Shakespeare as having spoken "their" language" -- a judgment that Americans

readily to accede to -- as if the closeness of linguistic varieties were

measured in kilometers.) Even the authors of the school board resolution

presumed this point of view. However well-intentioned it may be, the urge

to declare that AAVE is a separate language has its roots in a perception

that the linguistic culture of English is a white birthright that

inner-city African Americans can never legitimately claim as their own. But

"culture is ordinary," as Raymond Williams put it; and we should resist the

attempts of any one sector to appropriate it as their own.


This is the point that we linguists kept trying to make throughout the

dispute, in our own quiet way -- obliquely demurring from endorsing the

claim that AAVE is a separate language while at the same time defending its

legitimacy as a form of speech and voicing support for the Oakland program

and others like it. On the whole, I think, we came off pretty well in the

business, even if no one was particularly disposed to listen. The only

reservation you might have was over linguists' refusal to address the

language-dialect business head on. I think of that Chronicle piece on the

difference between a language and a dialect, and how unsatisfying the

linguists' equivocal answers must have sounded to a public that was looking

to the experts to sort things out for them. That's the trouble with that

"dialect with an army" joke: what it comes down to is simply saying that

the question is not our pigeon. Well, maybe strictly speaking it isn't, at

least in our capacity as grammarians. But if linguists don't speak to that

question, who will? The Ebonics flap made the answer to that question

depressingly clear. The next time this language-dialect question comes up

we really ought to try be ready with something more than a shrug.




Xerox Palo Alto Research Center

3333 Coyote Hill Road

Palo Alto, CA 94304

1 Among the most useful resources on the Web are the text of the LSA

resolution (; John

Rickford's Ebonics page

(, a compilation of the

Linguist List discussions of the topic

(; and collection of articles,

including an excellent discussion by Charles Fillmore that I have drawn on

here, which was assembled by the Center for Applied Linguistics

( Another excellent article that is

unfortunately not available on-line at is Geoff Pullum's "Language that

dare not speak its name," which appeared in Nature 386, 27 March 1997,


2 A close runner-up for the Friendly Fire award was the Washington Times

headline that ran over an interview with Joseph Greenberg. Greenberg said

that there was no genetic relationship between AAVE and the Niger-Congo

family, but he also noted that the variety was structurally different from

the standard language in important ways, and that it should be respected as

"not inherently better or worse than the standard language." The headline

over the piece ran, "Scholar disputes Ebonics link to African dialects

[sic]; No genetic tie, he says, just slang."



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