Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Robert Lane Greene's "You Are What You Speak"

Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on Slate, and in other publications. He also wrote a biweekly column for The New Republic from 2002 to 2004. Greene is a frequent television and radio commentator on international affairs, an adjunct assistant professor in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He speaks nine languages and was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, where he earned a M.Phil. in European politics and society.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, and reported the following:
On page 99 of You Are What You Speak I work pretty blue – it contains more swear words than almost any other in the book. (Its predecessor, 98, is the winner.) That page is also pretty personal, since I discuss my favorite all-time YouTube video, and how my Danish wife swears.

But 99 is representative in that it introduces a one of the intellectual pillars of the book. Both a black reporter and my wife demonstrate the same feature: on a nasty surprise, they switch to their home language or dialect. The reporter drops Standard English and lets loose a foul-mouthed tirade in what some would call Ebonics when a bug flies into his mouth; my wife, whose English is flawless, always curses in Danish when she smashes a toe on the bed.

But this puts Black English, scorned as “slang” at best and “ghetto” at worst, on par with a great European language, Danish. The point is to introduce to the reader a fundamental principle of linguistics: there are no broken or ungrammatical languages, and that all natural languages share an underlying psychological reality. The following discussion of Black English and the 1997 Ebonics controversy explains that what linguists call African American Vernacular English is a highly regular dialect, no different from Scots or Southern English that way. As different as languages are on the surface, I’m sympathetic to those like Steven Pinker who emphasize the similarities that bind all human speech into a single human faculty called “language”.

But people really don’t want to believe this about Black English. On 99 I quote some of the YouTube commenters under the video of the reporter. I saw a man who was fluently (and in this case hilariously) bidialectal. But the commenters wrote things like “i love how his voice is so pro in the beginning then the real side of him shows!”, and “it is funny how he goes like HICCUM when he gets bug in his mouth fucking nigger! haha lolz.” At the opposite end of the decency spectrum come people like Bill Cosby and Malcolm X who have encouraged blacks to abandon “slang” and learn Standard English to better themselves.

But a man like the reporter in the video shows that one doesn’t have to come at the expense of the other. For many black Americans, the vernacular is part of their soul, signifying friends, family, warmth and home. Learning standard English is a tool that doesn’t need to replace that; it can complement it instead. As someone who grew up with a very Southern-inflected and often very non-standard in English in the home, this argument is dear to me.
Read an excerpt from You Are What You Speak, and learn more about the book and author at Robert Lane Greene's website.

--Marshal Zeringue