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English Spoken Here, More or Less

Robert M. Price

Remember the teapot tempest a few years ago about the Oakland, California school system's plan to teach "Ebonics," or Black English? The news media whipped up hysteria, in the process totally distorting the original idea. The Oakland schools were not going to teach Ebonics instead of standard English. Of course not! The point rather was that teachers ought to become fluent in Black English so they could teach urban students standard English as a second language, just as you have to know Spanish if you want to teach Latino kids how to speak English. Just like in the movie Airplane, when no one can understand two black basketball players, and Barbara Billingsly intervenes and offers to translate, "I speak jive!"

This controversy got me to pick up a book by J.L. Dillard, called Black English. It confirmed in ample detail what I had suspected: so called Black English is not simply bad English, a failure to speak English properly, as if the speaker were just too darn stupid. If that were so, how could speakers of Black English even communicate with each other, much less with whites? No, as Dillard demonstrated, Black English grew up alongside standard English as a patois, a simplified version of their masters' language devised by the slaves to talk among themselves. It is a common phenomenon worldwide. The resulting variant version of English has its own grammar and rules and definitions. It is simply an alternative form of English, a dialect. And there is no "good" or "bad" version of any language. So why do we bother to teach standard English in schools? Not because it is nobler to speak it for some reason. No, just so students will be prepared for the job market in the larger society, where you have to talk to customers and write business letters to people who don't speak your lingo. It's the same reason national TV news anchors have neutral accents, so they can be understood by everybody alike.

So from this you'd expect that the "King's English" would be the kind served up in public school classrooms, right? I would. But instead, I hear a constant stream of astonishing and egregious errors being taught in my daughters' class rooms. English teachers say "John-ray" for genre, "scruptulous" for "scrupulous," "on tomorrow" when they should say just "tomorrow" which already means "on the morrow." The most hilarious and the most outrageous is when one English teacher told the class that the adjective "misshapen" (having a distorted shape) should be pronounced "mis-happen."

What gripes me in all this is not that the teachers are using local dialect in class. No, these mispronunciations are so perverse that I cannot imagine the teachers have ever heard anyone else vocalize them! No one talks this way! Where do they get this stuff? It reminds me of my old pal Bob Orr, who was on a bus in Japan when he was accosted by an enthusiastic Japanese man chattering some unintelligible gibberish. My friend was baffled: he himself spoke Japanese and he knew this wasn't Japanese! Finally he managed to catch the phrase Eeng-goo-reesh-oo and it hit him that this man thought he was speaking English. It turned out the man was an English teacher in the public school system! Pity his students. Pity the students in our own schools.

Nor is it just English. A history teacher told my daughter's class that Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation, repented on his death bed and said he wished he could return to Catholicism. No, he didn't. Her Bible teacher told her "A.D." means "after death," when in fact it means "Anno Domini" ("in the year of our Lord"). Her science teacher told her that Pluto, in reality a snowball at the rim of the solar system, is a gas giant like the planets Saturn and Jupiter. Why are these teachers so error-prone? No doubt because they endured the same sort of schooling themselves! You know what Jesus says: "No student is greater than his teacher, but when he is fully trained, he will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40). Such a shame.


Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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