Friday, October 7, 2011

We Should Celebrate Our Bilingual President

Barack Obama's ability to speak Ebonics is nothing to be ashamed of, says our resident linguist.

During President Obama's address to the Congressional Black Caucus recently, besides riling some columnists with his message, he was, as one might phrase it, dropping some Ebonics. Or especially some g's, spiritedly advising the assembled to "stop complainin' " and "grumblin'."

The audience seemed to like it, but news sources varied on how they recorded the speech. Many outlets decided that the president needed some "correcting" in print, and had him referring to "complaining" and "grumbling." But the Associated Press transcribed it complete with the missing g's. Did the AP dis the president?

To some, the president's ability to use Black English -- or, as academic specialists often term it, African American Vernacular English -- demonstrates an ability to tailor his message effectively to a different audience. However, just as many -- and likely more -- think that in this case, the medium of the message is inherently deficient. Under this analysis, "correcting" Obama's language would seem germane. Wouldn't not doing so imply that he, and black people in general, have a grammar deficit?

Easy as it is to think so, no. African slaves heard a mixture of colloquial dialects of Great Britain that few Americans hear today and created a new hybrid language. Adults rarely learn new languages perfectly, so Black English involves possibly a dash of African melody, plus some scattered elisions and reinterpretations.

For the record, a quick aside for linguist geekery: the "-in' " for "-ing" is not a drop but a switch. The "-ng" is a single sound, not an "n" and a "g." Notice that with another consonant pair, like the "ld" in fold, if you say "fold it," you keep the "d" and say "fol-dit." But now say "sing it" -- you don't say "sin-git." The "ng" is two letters -- but a single little sound for which there is no letter. It's the one in Debra Winger as opposed to fin-ger. One does not "drop a g" -- one substitutes a single "n" sound for a single Debra Winger "ng" sound.

And in any case, before we clutch at our pearls on hearing "-in' " for "-ing" in public speech, if you still hear "-in' " as "short," we hardly consider ourselves slumming to mention, in business clothes to a superior, "Looks like rain," instead of "It looks like rain." Or: On public language standards, despite what grammar books say about "I" as subject and "me" as object, would you chirp, "It is I!" -- even if at the door of the White House, whoever was occupying it?

Thus the question is not whether the president is committing an insult to linguistic sanity by saying "complainin'," but whether it is appropriate to indicate him doing so in print. And if we understand that Black English is an alternative rather than a degradation, we might ask why, if it pops its head up in public language, it must be carefully expunged from the official record.

In earlier times, except in dialect literature and court transcripts, one was to use only standard language in print, and translate casual statements into formalese. But the same era assumed that men wore hats and women wore dresses, and the two of them slept in twin beds on television.

That era is gone. In our informal society, translating vernacular language "upward" in print is arbitrary and antique. Some may feel that black speech is a special matter, and that we must alter Obama's funkier language in print to avoid playing to a stereotype of black inarticulateness. However, of all the slurs lobbed at Obama -- socialist, elitist, etc. -- isn't "inarticulate" the one least likely to stick?

Vice President Joe Biden deemed him "articulate" out of the starting gate, after all, and Obama is considered one of the most gifted orators in American history -- in standard English. Surely he can say "complainin' " before a black audience without being suddenly perceived as congenitally thick of tongue.

The fiction that black speech is a mere collection of errors is something that all of America, black and other, must get beyond. If Black English is broken English, then, for one, about every second person in the United Kingdom -- the source of most Black English patterns -- is learning broken English at their mummies' knees. More to the point, since Modern English is quite different from Old English and overall less complex, the authors of Beowulf would have deemed what is today thought of as the best English as an egregious faux pas.

Sen. Harry Reid got it right two years ago, despite the media storm it predictably evinced, in praising Obama for being able to speak both standard and Black English. In controlling two ways of speaking English, Barack Obama speaks a larger English than, say, Mitt Romney's. There is no reason to coyly disguise this in print, any more than there is a reason not to overall celebrate the fact that language in America comes in more flavors than vanilla.

John McWhorter, a contributing editor to The Root, is a linguist.

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