Does your word matter? : Discrimination on Language #2


Pok Man Tong

Blog 2

This quarter I am studying linguistics which provides me interesting language data in different language usages and grammars. For instance, my textbook quotes sentences of African American Vernacular English to show habitual aspects syntactically which “Standard English” lacks (but represented semantically). I should first state that all languages are equally complex and complicated. African American Vernacular English is an intrinsic cultural carrier and cultural artifacts of African American. However, there is still apparent discrimination over and from this language. The general public in the United States may misinterpret the language as lazy, and some may even denounce it as “bad English” (Lobeck 15). Unfortunately, many cases of racism and inequality were actually based on the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE or also known as Ebonics), and concrete evidence showed a strong correlation between the use of AAVE and social injustices in job opportunities, educations, and even a court case.  A language is one of the identities of an ethnic group. In the following paragraphs, I would like to present some facts of how white made black subordinate associated with the black language.

Ebonics Examples.

The first time I encountered and talked to a African American was 4 years ago in a game center with a group of church teenagers and my host family when I went to Florida. It is my first time that I randomly walked into a black teenager, shake his hand, and had a long conversation. I have to admit that I have no idea half of the conversation is about partly because I am not really a fluent English speaker. But it is also because the phonetics and some parts of speech are different from what I have learned as a English second language learner. Yet I am a patient, curious listener, so I responded and talked as best as I could. This happened four years ago, so I forgot the content of our conversation, and I do not want to make it up, but I still remembered that at the end of our conversation he thanked me for talking to him and playing with him that he said he seldom enjoyed such a conversation with a stranger. I found this thank you very awkward back in that time. After understanding the backgrounds and history of African American, I now have a glimpse that I had probably seen a ramification of the hidden dark side of the United States. Now I would hypothesize that the difference of dialects has contributed to the segregation even in a teenagers’ community.  

The origin of African American Vernacular English is still unclear, but a popular hypothesis suggests that it is created by many slave creoles in North America through transatlantic slave trade. We should notice that African or Caribbean African do not speak AAVE natively (Rickford). Those varieties of language share similarities with AAVE, but also have difference between them. African descendants in North America had developed a unique language system, known as AAVE. African American slaves often interacted with and learned from the indentured servants, who might speak the nonstandard dialects of English.Therefore, AAVE has inherently “nonstandard or ungrammatical” components in it.  For example, AAVE allows double negation, which is also acceptable in some dialectic English, but not in standard English. Therefore, we could hypothesized that the first generation of African slaves could have learned speaking English from less educated indentured servants and combined it with their native African languages, then the next generation of slaves learned this version of  English from their parents. The is a process of creation of creoles language, and AAVE is a creoles language.

A language must be significant as long as it exists. I want to focus on discrimination of AAVE in the post-civil right era, which directly connects to the present. The public attention to AAVE was drawn by Oakland Ebonics Controversy in 1996. The Oakland school board approved a landmark policy that recognizes Black English, as a primary language of its African American students. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the district passed resolution unanimously and declared that all teachers in the Oakland Unified School District should be trained to respect the Ebonics language of their students as distinct from standard American English — not a dialect that is “wrong” (Loszewski). This decision sparked controversy over the general public and even the academic experts. On the one hand, linguists Walt Wolfram and John Rickford praised the recognition of AAVE. On the other hand, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argued that the decision may subordinate AAVE. (Nunberg)  I am not going to debate on this controversy here. I just want to bring up the legitimacy and significance of AAVE. Yet I will present studies after this controversy to show that AAVE is actually subordinate socially and institutionally affecting different aspects of African American daily lives.  

Generally, blacks are more likely to receive a subprime loan for housing than the whites nowadays. This is a fact. Banks, such as Citigroup and Chase, have faced lawsuits due to charges of racial discrimination (Pittman). I recall that a student asked if she could pretend to be a white and get a quote from bank. This is an interesting question of how ethnicity weighs in receiving loans. However, research has already showed that language related to a particular ethnicity can result an unfair treatment. Back in 1999, Dr Massey and Lundy had conducted a research to argue that racial discrimination in housing markets does not require a personal contact. It was not surprised that White Americans can distinguish race from speech pattern alone. The study tested the hypothesis of discrimination of rental agents offering opportunity over the phone by comparing four groups of speakers: male and female White Middle-Class English, Black Accented English and AAVE. It turns out that the hypothesis is correct. There is a significant racial discrimination over class and race. Black women, in particular, experienced the greatest discrimination. (Lundy, Massey 1)

In Law and Order: Civil Right Laws and White Privilege, the fight on fair hiring has started since 1960s. Different Executive Orders and laws were enforced to combat discrimination on job opportunities; some white employers responded with confidential oral interviews as prerequisites of admission (Lipsitz 41). A study conducted in 2001 examined the language-focused discrimination in hiring. Hiring managers of different races and backgrounds are invited to evaluate tapes of speakers in English for personal characteristics and suitability for jobs. African American are assigned to perform four guises: Standard English similar to the Whites’, Black accented English without AAVE grammar, AAVE without specific lexical items, and AAVE. Results showed that hiring managers preferred people speaking like a White American who spoke “Standard English”. People sounded like black were considered as less intelligent and less favorable in job level. (Henderson 1)

A student illustrated a situation that Ebonics can affect your job opportunity and your future. A person can get turned down because of the way he speak.


At the extreme end, African American received no social justices in the court because of the usage of AAVE. Linguist John Rickford contended justice was not served in Trayvon Martin Shooting partly because testimony in AAVE was not credited (Rigoglioso). According to Rickford, the transcribers, attorneys and jury members in the trial are not fluent in AAVE, and thus missed or misunderstood crucial elements in Jeantel’s testimony. It was just a typical example. People speaking AAVE is often misunderstood, disbelieved, or unfairly evaluated in courts and schools, etc. (Rigoglioso) It is apparent that racism casts language discrimination, or language discrimination becomes part of racism. Misunderstanding in testimony due to usage of a language leads to injustices. I do not think language itself carries any credibility or personality of a person. However, obviously, the society has denounced AAVE as a discreditable language.

Demonstration in support of Trayvon Martin court case and victims of violence at Los Angeles City Hall in April 2012.

Those does not really surprise me anymore after attending lectures about nowadays racism. Though it is disappointing and depressing that the situation did not improve significantly in the past decade. It is unbelievable that a language has become a tool for racism, such as, in the US, AAVE has become a tool for racism. Language is an inherent heritage of an ethnic group. You cannot eliminate a language; otherwise you eliminate a heritage of an ethnic group. So what should we do?

AAVE has a systematic system and a black accented English represented nothing about intelligence and integrity. The examples above suggested that AAVE is an identity of African American. Although some people connected the language and race in a racist way, AAVE has an undeniable uniqueness and represents African American heritage. The only thing that has to be changed is the attitude of some people. As a linguistics student, I call for respects to every unique language. As a human, I call for respects and equality on all races.


Works Cited

Henderson, Anita Louise. “Is Your Money Where Your Mouth is? Hiring Managers’ Attitudes Toward African-American Vernacular English.” Order No. 3003635 University of Pennsylvania, 2001. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Lipsitz, George. Possessive Investment in Whiteness : How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Ch 2. Philadelphia, PA, USA: Temple University Press, 2006.

Lobeck, Anne. Discovering Grammar: An Introduction to English Sentence Structure. Oxford, NY, USA. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Loszewski, Lori. “Oakland Schools OK Black English.” San Francisco Chronicle: A, 1:5. Dec 19 1996. ProQuest. Web. 5 Dec. 2015 .

Massey, Douglas S., and Garvey Lundy. “Use of Black English and Racial Discrimination in Urban Housing Markets. New Methods and Findings.” Urban Affairs Review 36.4 (2001): 452-69. ProQuest. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Nunberg, Geoffrey. “Double Standards.”  Xerox PARC and Stanford University. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Pittman, LaShawnDa. “The Housing and Education.” University of Washington, Seattle. 17 Nov. 2015. Lecture.

Rickford, John R. “What is Ebonics (African American English).” Linguistic Society of America. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Rigoglioso, Marguerite. “Stanford linguist says prejudice toward African American dialect can result in unfair rulings.” Stanford Report. Dec 2 2014. Stanford News. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.



Rigoglioso, Marguerite. “Stanford linguist says prejudice toward African American dialect can result in unfair rulings.” Stanford Report. Dec 2 2014. Stanford News. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Matthew. “2014 Student Project.” 23 May 2014. Web. 9 Dec 2015.

Yeh, Aiden. “Ebonics”. Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan. 7 May 2007. SlideShare. Web. 9 Deb 2015.

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