Sledd – Bi-Dialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy

Sledd, J. “Bi-Dialectalism: The Linguistics of White Supremacy.” The English Journal 58.9 (1969): 1307-29. Print.

As evidenced by the title of his article, James Sledd does not hold any punches. Straight out the gate he defined bi-dialectalism as a method of reinforcing linguistic white supremacy. He historicized the move toward bi-dialectalism as a move of white linguists, educators, and administrators to appease and get funding from government and business entities content to maintain the status quo. He argued bi-dialectalism, teaching “standard” English in schools as a second dialect to those who are non-native speakers (read: predominantly Black and Brown children), was/ is a scheme with a faulty foundation:

“The basic assumption of bi-dialectalism is that the prejudices of mid- dle-class whites cannot be changed but must be accepted and indeed enforced on lesser breeds. Upward mobility, it is assumed, is the end of education, but white power will deny upward mobility to speakers of black English, who must therefore be made to talk white English in their contacts with the white world.” (1309)

He used the words of well known linguists and scholars to support his argument that bi-dialectalism is racist and oppressive at its core, and that even with adequate funding and teacher training it is destined to fail. Sledd included names, such as: NCTE, William Stewart, McDavid, Rogey Shuy, and William Labov, who he implied profited off of their research and push toward bi-dialectalism. According to Sledd, this “smoke screen” (1310) found favor with the government because it did not name or resist white supremacy:

“The bi-dialectalists, of course, would not be so popularwith government and the foundationsif they spoke openly of the supremacy of white prejudice; but they make it perfectly clear that what they are dealingwith deserves no better name. No dialect, they keep repeating, is better than  any other–yet poor and ignorant children must change theirs unless they want to stay poor and ignorant.”   (1310)

Sledd asserted that the level of success students subjected to compulsory bi-dialectalism would be minimally higher than if they were not. This raises questions regarding the sincerity of the efforts made toward helping “disadvantaged” students succeed. Sledd also demonstrated how these efforts were also undermined in the classroom. Despite teachers being directed to consider all dialects equal, the practice of privileging “standard” English over other variations sends a much different message. Sledd quoted the report Language Programs for the Disadvantaged (NCTE, 1965): “[Teachers] must still use all the adult authority of the school to “teach standard informal English as a second dialect” (p. 137), because the youngster who cannot speak standard informal English “will not be able to get certain kinds of jobs” (p. 228).

For Sledd, it is not the language of “minorities: that needs to be addressed, but the conditions that lead to the social and racial stratification in the first place. Social justice is the larger issue: “Nothing the schools can do about black English or white English either will do much for racial peace and social justice as long as the black and white worlds are separate and hostile.”

Placing an emphasis on the larger issue of social justice would change the focus on language education and perhaps do more good that bi-dialectalism:

“Bi-dialectalism would never have been invented if our society were not divided into the dominant white majority and the exploited minori- ties. Children should be taught that. They should be taught the relations be- tween group differences and speech dif- ferences, and the good and bad uses of speech differences by groups and by individuals. The teaching would require a more serious study of grammar, lexicography, dialectology, and linguistic history than our educational system now provides-require it at least of prospective English teachers.”

For his opponents that might claim the classroom shouldn’t be politicized, Sledd argued it already was; teaching bi-dialectalism maintains white supremacy.

McDavid – Historical, Regional, and Social Variation

McDavid, R. I. “Historical, Regional, and Social Variation.” Journal of English Linguistics 1.1 (1967): 25. Print.

In this article, R. McDavid categorized the different scales of measurement for grammar usage. McDavid highlighted historical, regional, and social scales as the three factors that affect language use in which people could not choose, but instead had to try and negotiate: “No man can change the generation or place of his birth; his attempts to change the social variety of his speech will be determined by the kind of people he associates with, and opportunities to make a drastic change are not as common as we would like” (27).

Concerning “Negro” dialect, McDavid acknowledged the research done by Lorenzo Turner to expand the understanding of Black language in the U.S., but still contended that “for the most part, Negro usages that differ from middle-class white practices are largely the result of this kind of selective cultural differentiation,” such as migration patterns within the U.S>

Fanon – The Negro and Language

Fanon, F. “The Negro and Language.” Black skin, white masks (1967): 17-40. Print.

In this chapter, Frantz Fanon used the example of the “Negro” in Antilles as an example of challenges that colonized people face regarding language. Blacks in Antilles, specifically Martinique, were pressured to speak French as opposed to Creole. By speaking French, Fanon explained that Blacks could become more “white;” achieve higher social status and think of themselves as being equal to whites in society as can be seen in his personal example:

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Rather more than a year ago in Lyon, I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, ‘At bottom you are a white man.” The fact that I had been able to investigate so interesting a problem through the white man’s language gave me honorary citizenship.” (38)

Fanon explicitly extended his example  of the “Negro” in Antilles to represent larger issues of colonized people. He broadly defined colonized people as “every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality” (18). Fanon detailed the process in which the colonized is expected and pressured to conform to the colonizer’s standards, particularly as it relates to language, and the types of alienation that can occur as a result.

Fanon argued that the European had a fixed image of the Black man (same can be said for whites in the U.S. and throughout the world in accordance to his colonial analogy). Language is used to reinforce this image: “to make him talk pidgin is to fasten him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him, the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible” (35).

Fanon also pointed out the potential for upward mobility in race and social class through the acquisition of the colonial language  or language that bears more social capital, in this case, French. However, even when this mastery is accomplished, Fanon asserted that Blacks are still seen as suspect and outsiders:

“… what I am trying to say is that there is no reason why André Breton should say of [Aimé] Césaire ‘Here is a black man who handles the French language as no white man today can.'” (39)

Bailey – Toward a New Perspective in Negro English Dialectology

Bailey, B. L. “Toward a New Perspective in Negro English Dialectology.” American Speech 40.3 (1965): 171-7. Print.

In this article, Beryl Bailey offered a critique of the linguistic theories that portrayed Negro/ Black English as deficient and substandard in comparison to “standard” English.  She asserted that if linguists followed Krapp’s (1924) suggestions for researching the historical backgrounds of the various dialects, the “Negro” dialect would be described in terms of itself and not in comparison to a so-called norm (171). She claimed that only prejudice could explain the oversight: “I therefore maintain that only blind ethnocentrism has prevented them from looking further for the real facts underlying the grammatical structure of this dialect” (172).

Instead of using “standard” English as a measuring stick, Bailey drew on research on pidgin and creole languages for more comparable  grammatical structures to “Negro” English. Bailey argued that southern Negro “dialect” was different than other southern speech because the grammatical structure was different despite the shared English lexicon. Therefore, any apparent “confusions” or inconsistencies in the dialect could only be resolved by looking to the actual dialect. Bailey compared grammatical rules of Jamaican Creole and “Negro dialect” as taken from a literary text to analyze the distinct and consistent rule-based systems of the speech. Bailey admitted that she was not a native southern Negro dialect speaker and that part of the drawback to her study was the reliance on language in a literary text and her limited ability to understand the dialect in ways that native speakers might. Nevertheless, Bailey makes the compelling point that “Negro” English has a structural system of its own apart from the “standard” American English.

Hence, regardless of the surface resemblances to other dialects of English-and this must be expected, since the lexicon is English and the speakers are necessarily bi-dialectal-we must look into the system itself for an explanation of seeming confusion of persons and tenses. (172)

Marckwardt – American English

Marckwardt, Albert. American English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. Print.

In his book American English, Albert Marckwardt attempted to map out a middle-ground approach to understanding the English language in America. Marckwardt situated American English as rooted in British English, but existing as its own variety due to the socio-cultural influences that are distinctly American. In its formative stages, Marckwardt asserted, American English was shaped by the languages of the Indigenous people that were living on the land that later became  the United States as well as the French, Dutch, Spanish, and others. At the same time, the  “frontier spirit” led to more separation and independence from European influences. As a result, Marckwardt described features of American English that are distinctly connected to American culture and would not be understood by foreigners,  such as “compound” (88). Examples of compounds include “baseball,” and “soap operas.”

Marckwardt acknowledged regional variations, and cited Kurath, but he did not consider all variations equal. He described the “language of the uncultivated” ass distinguished by inflectional characteristics (146). He too, like Krapp (1924) viewed “substandard” American English as a mere holdover of outdated forms of standard English (147). While Marckwardt is clear that this “standard” American English is more socially desirable, he also admitted that it was illusive even for the “well-educated”:

“Unquestionably the easy transition from one social class to another in the United States has resulted in a very hazy line of demarcation between what is acceptable and what is considered illiterate. According to the most rigorous schoolbook standard, some of the language employed in American legislative councils and in business life would not pass muster. The awareness of this, combined with an unrealistic treatment of language in our schools, has resulted at times in a defiance of these questionable standards.” (150)

Many of these questions and the accompanying defiance still persist today.

Marckwardt concluded that despite the different variations of the English language spoken within the U.S. and abroad, it is still highly unified and a single language (170). At the same time, Marckwardt argued that American English had outgrown the use for restrictive grammar standards and taboos which reflect an overall “negative approach to language” (184). For Marckwardt, the positive future and development of the English language were dependent upon adopting a “faith in intuition” regarding language and “giving attention to the broader aspects of structure and evolving tendencies of the language” (184).

Lin – An English Program for students Handicapped by a Local Dialect

Lin, San‐su C. “An English Program for Students Handicapped by a Local Dialect,”.” College Language Association Journal (1963) Print.

In this article, San-su Lin, described her experience as a professor at Claflin University, a historically Black university, teaching college English to students with “local dialects.”  From the beginning, Lin described the Black students’ dialect  as a “handicap” and impediment to them having group membership in the larger society and achieving upward social mobility. Even though Lin is clear that the lowered status of Black dialects are socially constructed in the United States because of the lowered social status of Blacks in the U.S., she nonetheless advocated for Blacks to adopt the language of wider communication in order to be successful, similarly to the way Green (1963) does. The difference between Lin and Green’s (1963) stance on local dialects is that while Lin described that the dialect is a social barrier, she recognized that the dialect itself is not deficient, but another form of usage:

“In a democratic society like ours… linguistic scientists who have done distinguished work in linguistic history and geography should have convinced us that the only sensible viewpoint we could adopt is a liberal viewpoint, allowing for a variability and flexibility in the matter of English usage. According to this viewpoint, the many so-called incorrect usages condemned by the purists are colloquially acceptable, and the usages that are definitely substandard are actually fewer than we once thought” (145).

Despite this acknowledgement, societal and institutional goals prevail. Lin described a program instituted by Claflin University with support from Teachers’ College faculty and the U.S. Department of Education called the “Pattern Practice in the Teaching of Standard English to Students with a Nonstandard Dialect” (142).  The program started in 1961 and sought to identify the extent to which pattern practice could help “nonstandard” English speakers learn “standard” English as well as develop materials to implement pattern practice with students.

The program included mandatory classes and language labs, but Lin found that American speakers of local dialect had a more difficult time picking up “standard” English because they did not have the same motivations to assimilate as foreign students. To this end, Lin said one of the programs most important goals was to show the students in the Claflin program the extend to their “language problem” which was mainly social (144). Secondly, the program  sought to teach the students the best ways to overcome their “handicap” (146). In addition to in class lessons, students were provided mastertape recordings for more practice.

At the time that the article was written, Claflin was in their third academic year of the program and the final assessment had note been conducted. However, Lin suspected that the success of the program would be seen on a more personal level for the students with increases in confidence and  improvements in attitudes toward English language use. Lin concluded that although she presumed this program to be successful, that “special” English classes for “minority” students with local dialects should not mean remedial English classes. Instead, Lin argued that English programs and teacher training should be re-evaluated and answers to the following questions should be pursued:

“How can we adequately prepare our English majors to teach English as a language as well as literature? How can we alert prospective English teachers not only to the dynamic nature of language but also to the psychological needs of the students? How can we encourage our English majors, even if they do not intend to teach, to cultivate a humanistic interest in our language as an integral part of the humanities, and not merely as a set of mechanical rules and abstract definitions? How can we infuse in our students a sense of urgency in learning, or teaching English which has a great impact not only on a child’s sense of security but on national security as well?” (147)

Ives – Grammatical Assumptions

Ives, S. “Grammatical Assumptions.” College Composition and Communication 5.4 (1954): 149-55. Print. 

In this article, Sumner Ives attempted to clear up the assumptions concerning grammar in English education. Ives began by making the distinction between the what he outlined as two major types of meaning in language 1) grammatical meaning and 2) lexical meaning. Grammatical meaning, according to Ives, refers to structural meanings expressed through words like “the” and “did,” and by tone, pause, pitch, and stress. This, Ives said, falls into the realm of the linguist. As the study and description of devices that convey structural meaning, Ives argued that there are different grammar rules for different languages (152).

Ives also worked to clarify the distinctions between grammar and rhetoric. While he stated grammar  is based on “public observance of certain conventions,” rhetoric on the other hand, is based on “private activity within the limits set by these conventions” (152). Ives asserted that the two influence each other reciprocally and are both necessary for English pedagogy for native English speakers.

One area that is of particular interest to me is Ives explication of this then new understanding of linguistic grammar as opposed to “traditional” grammar. He referred to traditional grammar as being the “retention of earlier methods of authority and reason” and as “rationalistic” (152). Linguistics, however, he described as “the application of modern methods of science and logic” (152). Traditional grammar, Ives pointed out, erroneously relied on one standard of grammar based in Latin. This type of assumption impeded “our” progress in understanding language (153). This seemed very promising in terms of a pedagogy that allowed for multiple understandings of language and communication, especially when Ives explained his view of usage.

Usage refers to the fact that not all people use the same structural or grammatical forms in making equivalent statements. Ives acknowledged that there can be differences of dialects within the same language and asserted it was pointless to discount different usages within English as not being English (154). However, he recognized that different dialects were associated with different social status, such as education level. Ives challenged the oversimplification of usage by education or class level in light of the notion of “universe of discourses” where (154). For example, speech and writing are different universes of discourse. Different usage can be considered correct, accepted, appropriate and characteristic only in terms of the universe of discourse (154).

Ives concluded that in terms of pedagogy “the student should be taught the usages proper to universes of discourse which he is not likely to learn about outside the school” (154). This sounds similar to helping students respond to particular rhetorical situations. Another rhetorical factor Ives alluded to is ethos: “If a new doctor or minister says “you was,” [instead of “you were”] confidence in him is lowered. Educated people should talk like educated people, no matter who is listening or what the occasion may be” (154). Inherent in these statements is a particular understanding of what it means to be educated, as well as a particular understanding of what “proper” grammar is, which by Ives’ own definition of grammar and usage is problematic. For example, if my response to this logic was “who the fuck says?” in stead of “we need to interrogate who gets to determine these rules?” would that be an indication that I was less intelligent? Or, is this just another example of the biases that our society has against dialects that do not come from white people of privileged social status, and the people that use them?

In the end, Ives advocated for a link between linguistics and literature stating that grammar is the foundation for rhetoric. Although he speaks about mastering “native language” it is clear that here he is referring to a standard form of English. Even so, his theories could also be applied to language policies, such as Students’ Rights to Their Own Language.

“Reading enables people to extend their experience, to see the world through other eyes and know it in terms of other concepts and attitudes, for these are implicit in language. In fact, one can argue convincingly that a man has not fully mastered his native language until he has read widely in it, particularly those writings which we call imaginative or creative. It follows, too, that increase in experience, in breadth and depth of experience, results in knowledge of more words and greater facility in the use of language. I regret, as you see, the tendency to regard linguistics and literature as separate fields with little to say to each other and in the position of rivals as teachers of composition” (154).