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I saw this interesting headline on Google News recently: “DEA seeks Ebonics experts to help with cases“. And since an old friend and recent commenter had put African-American Vernacular English/Ebonics (I’ll just call it AAVE) in my mind, the story came at just the right time to convince me to click on it. (I was also motivated by that slight twinge of a fleeting thought that perhaps I could pass as an expert, since I am familiar with variation in American English, before I remembered that I don’t know anything about AAVE.)

The story was pretty interesting; in short, the Drug Enforcement Agency sees a potential need for translators from AAVE to Standard American English (SAE) for its investigations. Now, you might say that AAVE is merely a dialect of English, and that therefore any native speaker of English will do, but it’s not so easy. Michael Sanders, an agent at the DEA, said it nicely:

“Finding the right translators could be the difference between a successful investigation or a failed one, said Sanders. While he said many listeners can get the gist of what Ebonics speakers are saying, it could take an expert to define it in court.

‘You can maybe get a general idea of what they’re saying, but you have to understand that this has to hold up in court,’ he said. ‘You need someone to say, “I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.'”‘”*

More importantly, the syntax of AAVE and SAE are different in meaningful ways. For instance, AAVE has a complicated tense system (I’m getting this info from Ficket 1972). Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent:

(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.

The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future. I’m not aware of any such structure to the tenses in SAE, and prior to reading the Ficket article, I was completely unaware of them in AAVE as well. This is why it’s important to have AAVE experts looking over the data, as AAVE neophytes will not be able to pick out this additional information. In fact, the differences between SAE and AAVE are pretty substantial.

But I’m not pointing this story out solely because it’s interesting or because I think the tense system of AAVE is kind of beautiful. I’m pointing it out because there is idiocy afoot, as always seems to happen when AAVE is discussed.

Back in 1996, the Oakland (Calif.) school board passed a resolution recognizing Ebonics/AAVE as a language. It was to be treated similarly to other non-English languages for the purposes of instruction — i.e., students raised speaking AAVE instead of SAE could receive some of the same programs that other English as a Second Language students. Speaking as a linguist, this is a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings, ignorance of the specifics, and imprecise wording on the resolution, the pretty good idea seemed like a horrible one to most people. Many people thought that children were going to be taught AAVE in place of SAE, which would have been a bad idea. Some thought the resolution stated that African-Americans are genetically predisposed to use AAVE over SAE.** And a lot were just appalled that AAVE could possibly be thought of something with any distinctive structure, since everyone knew it’s just defective English.*** But the key lesson here is that a good idea lost out because of widespread misinterpretation and a misguided protectionism for Standard English.

Returning to the DEA-looking-for-translators story, we see history repeating itself thanks to the lobbying group English First:

“Critics worry that the DEA’s actions could set a precedent.

‘Hiring translators for languages that are of questionable merit to begin with is just going in the wrong direction,’ said Aloysius Hogan, the government relations director of English First, a national lobbying group that promotes the use of English.

‘I’m not aware of Ebonics training schools or tests. I don’t know how they’d establish that someone speaks Ebonics,’ he said. ‘I support the concept of pursuing drug dealers if they’re using code words, but this is definitely going in the wrong direction.'”

None of what Hogan says here makes any sense if you actually are familiar with the DEA’s goals. His quotes are talking about something else entirely. How is it going in the wrong direction to find someone who can convert essentially coded communication into a form that can be entered as evidence? Does English First support drug dealers? Judging from Hogan’s response, yes. He wants drug dealers pursued if they’re using code words, but apparently not if they’re speaking another language or dialect. Excuse me for shouting, but as a lobbyist, THIS GUY GETS TO TALK TO YOUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES MORE EASILY THAN YOU DO.

I don’t know what sort of fantasy world Hogan lives in (probably one where he and not Hulk is the most famous Hogan in the world), but saying that a language is of questionable merit doesn’t make it go away. If it did, the USSR would have eliminated a lot of Central Asian languages as less important than Russian. Believing that a language isn’t really a language doesn’t make it magically comprehensible to you, nor incomprehensible to its users. We could argue whether AAVE is a language or a dialect, whether it should be treated as a second language for instructional purposes, or how exactly one proves proficiency in AAVE. But it is an indisputable fact that AAVE exists, and that it must be converted to SAE for judges, juries, and investigators to understand it. Hogan’s pigheadedness would only hamstring the DEA. I don’t see how he doesn’t see that.

*: Yes, that’s six apostrophes there. The quote was four-levels nested, sot here are two single quotes and two double quotes. I do believe this is the most apostrophes I have ever used at once and I am kind of excited.

**: The culprit there was the phrase “genetically based”, which was interpreted as referring to people’s knowledge of a language when really it was referring to the relationship between languages.

***: I am embarrassed to say I fell into this camp, although that was because I had had no linguistic training yet and also was 13 and thus an idiot.

Here are two sentences from pages 394-5 of Paul Lovinger’s The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style, sentences that come just after Lovinger quoted five examples of a newspaper columnist’s use of a certain word — a word so appalling that he censors it himself:

“Although most writers do not display such voracity for bad language, that clumsy barbarism, ‘s—,’ is polluting the English tongue.  A radical weekly uses it regularly along with a grotesque plural version”

Now, let’s stop for a second. Lovinger is not referring to the standard scatological s-word, so perhaps you’d like to take a guess at what this barbaric word is before you continue reading.  To encourage you to do so, I’ve placed the answer below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

A few days ago, John McGrath, Wordnik’s Director of Product Development, sent me a link to the preview version of Wordnik’s new thesaurus feature.  Wordnik, if you’re not familiar with it, is an online dictionary that integrates information from traditional dictionaries and online usage to give a more complete picture of a word’s meaning.  Merging these supervised and unsupervised data sources is of course a brilliant idea, and I think within a few years it will become a necessary part of any online dictionary.

I decided to test the Wordnik thesaurus with two types of words that often aren’t adequately represented in traditional thesauruses: colloquial phrasal verbs and insults.  The particular colloquial verb I tested was flesh out, which tends to pop into my head when I’m writing academically, as I want to first give an overview of the point I’m arguing, and then flesh it out.  Sadly, I’ve never found a synonym for flesh out that befits the tone of academic writing. Many thesauruses, even online ones, don’t list flesh out, and those that do haven’t given me enough alternatives to find a good one.  So I tried looking up flesh out on Wordnik, and I have to say it performed better than I expected.  It offered a few words that were pretty good equivalents (detail, fill in, round out, exposit), and, as would be expected from a semisupervised method, a few that were somewhat off (instance, set forth).  Still nothing that really fits my needs, but I’m not sure the word I’d be looking for even exists. (If you have any suggestions for a flesh out equivalent, let me know.)

The second test word was a common insult I employ in writing: imbecile.  The problem is that it’s so general; I often have situations where I want to make a quite specific insult, not merely to point out that someone is an imbecile, but also to specify the type of their imbecility (conscious ignorance, malicious misinformation, insufficient expertise, etc.).  Ever since I realized that “The Big Book of Being Rude” that I purchased on clearance at Half Price Books was woefully lacking in specific insults, I’ve been looking for a new source. I was hoping the thesaurus would suggest some more specific insults that I could record for later use in particular situations.

It seemed like this was a task that a thesaurus that monitored online usage would be preternaturally good at; after all, what does one do on the internet other than call people idiots?  Alas, this search didn’t go as well as flesh out, although the thesaurus still made a good effort.  Strangely, most of the responses were for imbecile as an adjective (which strikes me as comparatively rare) rather than a noun.  My main source of sadness was that it didn’t generate anywhere near the range of possibilities I’d expect in insults, offering mostly run-of-the-mill words like buffoon, dullard, or fool.  But it did offer two interesting ones with which I was unfamiliar. One was nidget, a now-forgotten word that lacked a single usage example.  The other was anile, which led me to uncover what I like to call the Great Anile Conspiracy — a strange and almost exciting phenomenon that I hope to detail in an upcoming post.  While the Wordnik thesaurus didn’t really give me a more specific insult, at least it tipped me off to two interesting words, so that’s something.

I realized, though, that expecting more specific insults from imbecile may have been an unfair query. I decided to try again with a more specific insult: blowhard.  The results were hit-and-miss.  The synonyms were spot-on: big mouth, blusterer, boaster, braggart, line-shooter, loudmouth, and — my personal favorite — vaunter.  The “words used in the same context” results weren’t, offering such words as Parker, valetudinarian, and book-review. How those occur in similar contexts to blowhard is opaque to me. However, I found rather hilarious and surprisingly accurate its choice of ex-governor as a contextual neighbor of blowhard — are there better examples of blowhards than Sarah Palin and Rod Blagojevich?

So all in all, the Wordnik thesaurus was worth checking out. It takes advantage of the capabilities of the Internet to offer both solid synonyms and noisy possibly related words. Its algorithms aren’t perfect, of course, but the mistakes are mostly pretty reasonable and/or enjoyable. It hasn’t replaced as my primary online thesaurus*, but it’s already interesting, and I’m looking forward to future developments that could make it supplant Roget’s in my heart.

*: I certainly hope that Wordnik hurries up and replaces as my thesaurus of choice, now that I’ve read the Wall Street Journal’s blog post noting that it (well, its parent site, has the highest number of trackers on its site of any of the top 50 most popular domains.

Fitzedward Hall is an amazing fellow. “Was”, that is; he’s dead now, of course, as amazing fellows too often are. I recently became acquainted with an old book of his, Recent Exemplifications of False Philology, thanks to Google Books. The book is this blog, only more complete, better written, and a century older. It gives examples of mistaken grammatical beliefs held by various grammaticasters, famous and not, and why they are mistaken. And his writing style! Check this out:

“The criticaster, having looked for a given expression, or sense of an expression, in his dictionary, but without finding it there, or even without this preliminary toil, conceives it to be novel, unauthorized, contrary to analogy, vulgar, superfluous, or what not. Flushed with his precious discovery, he explodes it before the public. Universal shallowness wonders and applauds; and Aristarchus the Little, fired to dare fresh achievements, is certain of new weeds to wreathe with his deciduous bays. […]

Defect of substantial reasons must be compensated somehow; and no compensation for it is more obvious, or is oftener called into play, than an air of impatient contempt towards those who disrelish ipsedixitism.”

I don’t know who Aristarchus the Little is, but I think the righteous condemnation comes through pretty clearly through the years. I don’t really have anything else specific to say about the book, since most of the myths it debunks are long settled by now, but its style and writing certainly make it worth a skim-through, if nothing more than to remind you how far we haven’t come since Hall’s day.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

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