Does Charles Ramsey speak poor English, or are we just a little bit racist?

An interesting story over at “The Broad Side” about Charles Ramsey, the man who saved those three Cleveland women, including Amanda Berry, who were kidnapped ten years ago, heard one of them yelling for help from the house next door, and ran over and helped bust the door down.

The story looks at the way Ramsey speaks English, with the “black vernacular, as the story puts it.  And discusses the response from a number of white people who either made fun of his English, or criticized it as “incorrect” English.

I’ve always been intrigued by this discussion, of language generally, but also of how language does (or doesn’t) impact our perceptions of other people, especially minorities.   Admittedly, as a white guy, it’s sometimes (well, often) with trepidation that I weigh into racial discussions.  It seems there’s an ever-shrinking list of topics about which one can safely opine (in my case, gay rights that specifically concern gay people, though not trans or bisexual people).  Then again, who better an expert on how white people see language than a white guy?  So here goes…

The central thesis of the story by Deb Werrlein is this:

The great irony is this — many white people laugh at black vernacular because they think it’s ignorant, when in fact, it’s actually white ignorance about black vernacular that lies at the heart of the joke.

Werrlein seems to offer two explanations for why some African-Americans speak a different “vernacular” than white Americans.  Tying it all back to slavery, Werrlein says that, first, it’s not like slaves got an education and learned to speak the Queen’s English.  They then passed that amalgam, of English and the African languages they knew as their mother tongue, down to their children.  Her second point, as to why the amalgam stuck, is that the language itself became a part of a rich black American culture that African-Americans understandably clung to as a source of pride.

Charles Ramsey (source: ABC interview on YouTube)

Charles Ramsey (source: ABC interview on YouTube). “Inevitably, slaves blended Standard English with the many African languages they either spoke themselves or were introduced to over the course of the slave trade. This kind of blending typically simplifies grammatical structures in language. We see this especially in verb conjugations such as that used by Charles Ramsey when he says “It’s” instead of “There were” in the phrase, “It’s some mo’ girls up in that house.””

I’ve always been interested in language and linguistics.  I speak five languages – three fluently (English, French and Spanish), the fourth with a passable fluency (Italian), and the fifth, Greek, let’s just say I won’t starve or have a problem getting a cab in Athens.  I even took four foreign language classes at the same time during my senior year of college (it’s surprisingly less confusing than you’d suppose).  I’ve always suspected that my love of language is my Greek-immigrant mother’s fault.  Mom loves dissecting English to point out the Greek roots of words (just like they did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding).  So I’ve always enjoyed word-plays, and communication generally.

So suffice it to say, I think I’ve got a pretty good ear for language, and yeah, Charles Ramsey’s English definitely struck me when I heard it.  And while I found it colorful, I didn’t like it.  It felt “wrong” to me, as in “incorrect English.”  It’s the same feeling I have watching TV and hearing so many people, especially with the number of unscripted reality shows there are now, speaking English incorrectly, starting with the “I” vs. “me” error, which is a common mistake on shows like Ghost Hunters.

I also think of the other day, walking my dog here in DC, and some young African-American boys walked by, looking like they were coming from a prep school (they were maybe 8 or 10 years old, and a bit too well-dressed for any kid going to public school).  When they got near me, I heard them using Werrlein calls “the black vernacular.”  It was a sentence that was simply grammatically wrong. And I didn’t like it.

But what was interesting was the contrast between the kids’ appearance (an appearance of education, and of parents who cared about their kids enough to make sure they dressed well for school) and their language (which suggested a lack of education).  And I think this is where Werrlein’s point about “culture” comes in.  The kids, I suspect, knew they were speaking the way they were – they probably knew “proper” English, but chose to speak in the “black vernacular” because that’s the way you talk to your friends when you’re a ten year old black kid in my neighborhood of DC.

But as a white person hearing that vernacular, Bill Cosby’s famous speech to the NAACP in 2004 comes to mind:

Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person’s problem. We’ve got to take the neighborhood back. We’ve got to go in there. Just forget telling your child to go to the Peace Corps. It’s right around the corner. It’s standing on the corner. It can’t speak English. It doesn’t want to speak English. I can’t even talk the way these people talk: “Why you ain’t where you is go ra?” I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father talk. This is all in the house. You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with, “Why you ain’t…” You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. There is no Bible that has that kind of language. Where did these people get the idea that they’re moving ahead on this. Well, they know they’re not; they’re just hanging out in the same place, five or six generations sitting in the projects when you’re just supposed to stay there long enough to get a job and move out.

I can’t speak to black vernacular as culture, but I can speak to how black vernacular (I don’t like the term, but since original writer used it, and for lack of a batter term, I will too) hits the “white ear,” and it’s not good for a lot of us. And while Werrlein might argue that that’s my prejudice against black culture coming through, I’d argue that one man’s pride is another man’s prejudice. Meaning, that if your sub-culture is starting to hurt you in the larger culture of the country at large, at what point is their problem your problem?

This discussion made me think of Gay Pride parades. For years, it seemed that practically the only people marching in Pride parades were PFLAG, and guys in butt-less leather chaps. Oh and drag queens too. And there was an argument made by many that the depiction of gays as sexual, or as men who simply wanted to be women, was setting us back in the culture at large, was setting back our acceptance, and setting us back politically.

Now, the counter-argument was that this was our culture, we should be proud of it, and it shouldn’t matter if the haters didn’t like it. And that was also a valid point. But it wasn’t completely invalid to worry that lesbians hanging out of hotel windows flashing their boobs (and they did, during the 1993 March on Washington – I have photos) weren’t presenting a less-than-helpful image of the community to a media that we desperately needed on our side.

And it’s all well and good to say “well that’s their problem,” if straight people don’t like to see naked gay people in Pride parades.  But when those straight people go and vote against us at the ballot box, and the people they elect vote against us in Congress, then their negative impression of us becomes our problem too.

I can’t speak for what the black vernacular means to African-Americans culturally, or as a source of pride, to black people.  I can however speak with authority on how one white person, and others I know, feel when they hear that pattern of speech.  And it sounds uneducated, foreign, and “other.”  It doesn’t make me feel like I’m hearing the accent or language of just another ethnicity or people in the greater American fabric.  My reaction is decidedly negative.

And this brings up, in conclusion, a larger theory I’ve always had about culture and prejudice.  I’ve always felt that part of prejudice in America, whether it’s against blacks, Latinos, gays or you-pick-your-minority, is based in culture, and the reaction, impression, of the majority culture to the minority culture.

And I’m loathe to suggest that we should change, and try to be like the majority, simply because aspects of our culture bother them.  However, the political side of me is forced to acknowledge that if I’m doing something that makes people like me less as a gay man, then I can be as proud as I want of that activity, that aspect of our culture, but I’d be naive not to acknowledge that my actions aren’t winning us any friends.

And in the end, I suppose, it all comes down to your theory of cultural change, and how you choose, if at all, to balance the conflict between your pride and someone else’s prejudice.

I’m not entirely convinced with the argument that my reaction to the black vernacular is simply evidence of my not getting the richness of black culture.  But putting that aside, there’s the obvious potential for cultural conflict between any subset of people living in a country (they’re having a similar battle in France over whether Muslim school kids should be able to wear headscarves to public schools).

The challenge, to those of us who care about civil rights, is to figure out how to respect culture (and even define it) while advancing rights.  And sometimes, perhaps even often, the two are inevitably going to come into conflict.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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  • claudio

    Good Job that not all “Black People” learned English (directly or indirectly) via Slavery then.
    More retarded US extrapolation about the world at large.
    Ironic given that most US citizens have never even left the country.

  • Sarah Neal

    Please read “Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

  • keirmeister

    So true. As someone for whom my gay friends call “suspiciously gay- adjacent,” I feel comfortable talking about gay issues, but I know I don’t truly understand the gay experience.

    But that’s OK. I guess we all have “Black Like Me” issues about one thing or another.

  • keirmeister

    I can’t say I agree. Grammar has forms and rules for how sentences are constructed. It can indeed change for dialects, artistic flourishes, and even time; but legitimacy should not be given to its improper use – particularly when done out of ignorance.

    Speaking slang with one’s buddies or to make a poem work is a different matter, but doing so doesn’t make it worthy of Strunk & White.

    And I know I’m a snob about this, but Ebonics is not a legitimate dialect: It is simply a misplaced effort to give a name to a certain way of speaking. I have always felt it to be an offensive concept, but I don’t let it bother me too much….just as long as it doesn’t become a mainstream thing. ;)

  • Sweetie

    Languages are changing, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t intense interest in adherence to standards. In the distant past there were periods wherein standardization was less important in English. Social changes have made it important. The standard dialect changes, but it’s still the standard.

  • Sweetie

    But society wouldn’t. It prefers the whited sepulcher.

  • Sweetie

    The main issue is classicism. If you have the pedigree, the money, can talk the talk, and look the part (in terms of clothing and such), then your race is far less important. More than anything, money matters. We have some ossified old money in America, but most of the money is new money.

  • Sweetie

    There is no bad grammar, as long as it is intelligible. Pure gibberish, which a sane person is unlikely to speak, is truly “bad”. But, Ebonics and other dialects are not “bad”. The issue is context. In some contexts they are not appropriate. In others they are MORE appropriate.

    A country music singer, for instance, is more likely to be expected to use a variation on the Appalachian dialect for their music than some other dialect — including standard oral English.

  • Sweetie

    Laura Schesslinger earned one in physiology, too. Having a “real” doctorate makes one very knowledgeable about one’s discipline, but there is little evidence that transference (movement of ability in one discipline to another) occurs to the degree that people generally think it does. In other words, a Ph.D in physiology doesn’t necessary know much about psychology, as Schesslinger shows.

  • Sweetie

    If one has a problem with seeing the human body. Personally, I don’t. I think our Puritanical association between nudity and disgust is unhealthy and regressive.

  • Sweetie

    Also, the context issue is not merely arbitrary. Language is about communication. The more mutual intelligibility there is between speakers, the more nuance can be communicated. This is why we have formal standards. Unfortunately, it is true that those standards can limit what forms of nuance are allowed to be communicated. There is a conflict between diversity and efficiency, and no easy way to resolve it.

  • Sweetie

    “White” people are required to conform to standard written and standard oral English. Being “white” doesn’t give anyone a free pass to use some alternative dialect or convention for formal situations.

    No dialect is “incorrect” except when it comes to context. Context does matter. If the context allows a special exemption for a dialect, such as Ebonics, then it is OK to use Ebonics. If the context does not, it is not necessarily racist.

    Appalachian English speakers, for instance, have light skin and are generally required to conform to standard written and oral English in formal situations.

    The only problem is that those from certain households (generally higher income white) tend to make it easier for certain children (theirs) to master the standard dialects, making it harder for others to compete.

    Dialects can be wrong if they are not appropriate for the context. Determining what is and isn’t appropriate is not always easy.

  • One more thing, there’s no such thing as “over” educated, Mr. Santorum :)

  • Yes, but I’ve been going to the parades for 20 years. They were hardly an anomaly. Now, they actually are. Before, there was far too much of it.

  • If you read my comments and the referenced article from them, you’ll note that an Ed.D does not equal or entitle someone to use the Doctor title, only a Ph.D. does that.

    And as I said in the comment to which you responded, Mr. Cosby attempted to use the title in the credits for The Cosby Show, but due to the uproar from academia, this only happened a few times, then was removed without comment and never seen again.

    The story I linked to the archived article from People Magazine reported that even the Ed.D. was controversial, in that he never actually had to defend his dissertation before the committee.

    I think the fact that Mr. Cosby himself apparently recognized he should not use the title is reason enough not to bestow it undeservedly.

  • GeorgeMokray

    “In 1972, Cosby received an MA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was also back in prime time with a variety series, The New Bill Cosby Show. However, this time he met with poor ratings, and the show lasted only a season. More successful was a Saturday morning show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, hosted by Cosby and based on his own childhood. That series ran from 1972 to 1979, and as The New Fat Albert Show in 1979 and The Adventures of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in 1984. Some schools used the program as a teaching tool, and Cosby himself wrote a dissertation on it, ‘An Integration of the Visual Media Via ‘Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids’ Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning’, as partial fulfillment of obtaining his 1976 doctorate in education, also from the University of Massachusetts. Subsequently, Temple University, where Cosby had begun but never finished his undergraduate studies, would grant him hisbachelor’s degree on the basis of ‘life experience.'”

    I read one report a few years ago which referenced that thesis and said that it was a fairly elementary piece of work but it does seem that Bill Cosby does have a doctorate in education from UMass Amherst.

  • jwalker_cht

    somewhere there’s a balance point where we find “American culture” and it isn’t about “white culture” or “black culture”, “gay culture” or “straight culture” but about the common ground we all share that makes us American and around which we can all gather with some bit of pride and some bit of fellow-feeling. that’s what we ought properly to focus on in the political realm rather than stressing so much over distinctions between “majority culture” and “minority culture”.

  • But it’s so sexy on Matthew McCaughnehey.

  • mpeasee


  • mpeasee

    …interesting…I was not aware of that. Thanks for adding your insight on Cosby and his degree.

  • Stev84

    Accents can be easy to acquire. I know people who spent a few months or a year in a foreign country and now speak that language with the local accent from where they stayed because that’s how they learned it.

  • No, according to everything I could find, all of Cosby’s PhDs are honorary (most of them in ‘Humane Letters’ which means just about nothing). He does have a doctorate in education from UMass as you indicated, but an Ed.D is not considered in the same league as a PhD and has not traditionally been considered good enough for a ‘doctor’ title.

    In the 80s during his show, Cosby ran into controversy by calling himself Doctor in the credits for the Cosby Show a few times, but after an uproar from the academic community, he dropped it and the title did not appear again.,,20092196,00.html

    I’ll be honest and admit my own bias, in that I know what my wife went through to earn her doctorate in physics. She didn’t get credit for TV appearances, or take a few seminar courses, and then crank out an unsourced dissertation on work she’d done previously in her career and have it rubber stamped by a friendly committee.

    To earn her degree, my wife had to add significantly to the body of knowledge in physics, a process that took her years to complete and a hell of a lot of work.

  • GeorgeMokray

    Linguist James R Sledd: language is speech. American black vernacular has enlivened and enriched all of American English whether we like it or not.

  • GeorgeMokray

    I once heard Dr Cosby (he sorta kinda earned a real PhD from UMass Amherst with a thesis on the Fat Albert show as a teaching tool if I recall correctly) explain to Larry King on TV that “niggardly” was a racist term. As a language authority, his credit ain’t no good.

  • We Americans make fun of lots of folks for having different kinds of speech. (You might remember a certain Republican president that left office a few years ago, as an example.)

    Most just don’t end up on national television.

  • :-)

  • Thank you.

  • And that would be okay because we don’t have rules here about what race you have to be to have an opinion. Black people can tell me I’m wrong, and vice versa. So long as it’s civil, that’s why we’re here, to talk, discuss, and learn :) In all seriousness, too many of these topics are taboo if you’re not black, or not gay, or not trans, or not a woman, or not something. And I think we need to get beyond the instant outrage of not everyone agreeing with us all the time. If they do it civilly, then I think it’s to all of our benefit to discuss these things and – yes – even disagree sometimes :)

  • Well I wasn’t convinced everyone would like it, but I wanted to have the discussion because I think it’s important. :) And I liked the point of view the woman wrote in her piece, the way she presented it (which wasn’t combative, in my view). And while I tend to disagree with her, I’m open and intrigued enough to want to learn more, and think debates like this are healthy. So, there we have it :) Glad you weighed in.

  • I do love when we agree :)

  • “If you want to help people and help them succeed, then teach them proper English and teach them how to climb the ladder.”

    Sorry, but I”m not sure you actually read my post. If you had, you’d know that that’s probably a conclusion I’d agree with.

  • Well I wasn’t out in the 70s at the ripe old age of 13. And we clearly didn’t go to the same Pride parades. There were a lot of assless chaps in the 90s :)

  • I’m with you. That title is from a slew of honorary degrees. Bill Cosby is a comedian and actor who’s accomplished a great many things, including the promotion of fine arts, including jazz. Kudos to him, even though I do not agree with his opinions on everything.

    However, unlike Mr. Cosby, my wife earned her doctorate in theoretical physics.

  • Like++++++

  • like+++++

  • It worked for Joe the Plumber. You go Ramsay, the Street guy!

  • Ferdiad

    I’m waiting for all the middle class over educated white people to tell you why you are wrong.

  • Ferdiad

    You guys are way out in left field. Of course he does not speak good English. That is just a fact. There are rules to speaking good English and he doesn’t know them or follow them. Does that mean he is a terrible person? No, it doesn’t. It has absolutely no reflection on his character. But that wasn’t the question. Only out of touch lefties would attempt to justify speaking in a manner that will get you no where in life. If you want to help people and help them succeed, then teach them proper English and teach them how to climb the ladder. If you want to keep people down so that you can pretend to speak for people so that you can lead them and justify your own existence, then make excuses and rationalize keeping people in the caste system.

  • “the people who go on Jerry Springer are worthy of derision.” Couldn’t agree more!

  • ‘Dr.’ Cosby says it all. What pretentious BS.

  • emjayay

    I have worked with and for many African-American people in jobs where a college degree is required and public contact and writing were parts of the job. Many of them could not speak with generally accepted grammar and could not write grammatically. Besides not knowing standard grammar and pronunciation, they often (sorry, I know this sounds like gross discriminatory generalizations) did not know the difference between certain words like “pass” and “past”. I think it’s a problem. And quite frankly there sometimes seemed to be a certain lack of critical thinking or desire to learn going along with this.

    It doesn’t matter if the accepted pronunciation of “ask” was “aks” in the Middle Ages or that lack of subject and verb agreement reflects African speech or the complete lack of education under slavery. The ability to use generally accepted grammar and pronunciation is what matters, particularly if it is part of one’s job, and it usually is. G W Bush didn’t look too bright to me when he said noo-que-ler either.

  • The chap-wearing half-naked men and drag queens were the ones the media deliberately sought out and promoted precisely because it made gay people seem like weirdos. Anti-gay animus was pervasive and just about universal.

  • emjayay

    For years, it seemed that practically the only people marching in Pride parades were PFLAG, and guys in butt-less leather chaps. Oh and drag queens too.
    Not how I remember it. San Francisco, 1977.

  • mpeasee

    Black man here too, I had to deal with the same thing growing up in the Mid-west and had a hard time finding people to date because my “speak” was not black enough…I to respect Dr. Cosby, but I don’t agree with everything he says, I don’t see him being open or sensitive to black poor peoples experience with systemic institutionalized oppression. That said, when I travel to other countries know one guesses that I am from U.S., and I proudly say that I am, and representing U.S. black culture. I think it is important the people see nuances of Black culture, that it is not monolithic, the same with gay culture. I am still on the fence about this article, I am pretty sure that I don’t like it… but I appreciate the discussion that it has garnered.

  • Maybe. But my point is that this isn’t just a reaction to the race of the speaker, which is I think a fair point. And I’m sorry, but the people who go on Jerry Springer are worthy of derision. That’s not a cultural difference, those are some messed up people on that show. Go ahead, defend Jerry Springer’s guests, I dare you :)

  • And deservedly so.

  • mpeasee

    Right on!!

  • mpeasee

    …gees, if folks don’t get it after all of these years they will never get it…yes; the U.S. is still racist, even with Obama as President. It is unfortunately part of the U.S. culture, and it is not going to “change” until the people the perpetuate it admit that it is racist (i.e. corporations, media, church’s, political figures etc, etc…) and change; but this “change” is not going to happen, not anytime soon because there is too much intrenched money and political capital that would be lost if we all come together with equity and equality.

    Now saying that; one should be careful of using Dr. Cosby as a zenith of what black people should be. Dr. Cosby is very lucky, fortunate, and talented, and is seen as bashing poor, less formally educated black people. Some of the things that Dr. Cosby say have there trues, but they have there bias and Dr. Cosby is not one to challenge systemic institutionalized oppression in education or politics, he gave a talk at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 2000 where he said basically, “Shut up, until after you’ve made your career move:” , if black people where to heed what Dr. Cosby said, Jim/Jane Crow terror would have enjoyed a much longer life.

    When it comes to black vernacular the Blogger from Pink-scare, knocks this out of the park…here is the post:
    Posted: Friday, March 4, 2011
    On the politics of Black Vernacular

    I am white, and I grew up in a half middle-class, half working-class white milieu in which Black vernacular was snickered at, made fun of, and looked down upon. I’ve since encountered this attitude in too many (white) contexts to count.

    The gist of this typical racist attitude is as follows. Black vernacular is an “imprecise” way of speaking and expressing oneself. It is a less clear, less “correct” way of talking that flaunts (or evinces ignorance of) the timeless laws of grammar and syntax observed by “civilized” whites. Moreover, black vernacular signifies the “low”, the uneducated, a lack of tact and “civility” and so forth. Finally, insofar as black vernacular is meaningfully black at all, it is taken to be bereft of genuine value and accordingly deserving of no respect (because, of course, things only have value at all insofar as they borrow from or give a nod to that which is marked out as “white”). “If they were more only more educated, they would just learn to speak like us”.

    Now, this is hardly a peculiarly American phenomenon. Accents, dialects, and other modes of expression have long served as markers for various sorts of social and political distinctions. The tight connection between accent and class in Britain, for instance, has long been noted. But the particulars of the case of Black vernacular in the United States are, like any such asymmetry of power that is partially expressed in cultural spheres, a product of the precise history and politics of race in America.

    Before tearing the above racist attitude to shreds, I’d like to note a paradox at the heart of this white scorn. First off, it is plainly obvious that black culture, and black vernacular in particular, has for some time been a fresh source of material for mainstream white culture to appropriate and gentrify. Words that are by now commonplace in many different white contexts (e.g. “cool”) are examples of how this process functions. The paradox I’m trying to bring to light here is this. That which is taken to be white is constantly appropriating, colonizing and redeploying various gestures, styles, and modes of expression found in black culture. But at the same time there is this inbuilt disdain for blackness, a patronizing attitude that follows the contours sketched above. But this paradox shouldn’t be taken to be a strange side-effect or problem of interpretation here. A properly dialectical analysis brings contradictions to light rather than explaining them away. One such contradiction is the fact that whiteness itself comes into being and defines itself against that which is non-white, paradigmatically (but not entirely) that which is black.

    But let us return to the set of attitudes expressed above. Is there no truth to what is said there? I want to say that the entire way of thinking about black speech expressed in this set of attitudes is misleading and ideological (in the pejorative sense). First off, it is just false that black vernacular is a somehow less clear, less expressive or less precise than other more conventionally “white” modes of expression. In fact, sometimes expressions in black vernacular can be more efficient and effortless ways of expressing certain thoughts.

    Now, there may be some truth to the claim that it is “less clear”, but that could only mean “less clear to those unfamiliar with it as a mode of expression”. And that is true of any mode of expression whatsoever. I am often baffled by various Australian turns of phrase or colloquialisms, but it’s not as though I take that to be a problem with such modes of expression themselves. So it can’t be a problem for black vernacular as such that those unfamiliar with it are less able to grasp it easily and quickly.

    Second, to say that black vernacular flaunts the “timeless laws of grammar” is bullshit. There are no timeless laws of grammar. Grammar, syntax and other features of our modes of expression have always changed over time and have always been sensitive to various dimensions of the present situation (whatever that is). Modes of expression are a moving target, and though they shape our sense of what the social world is like, they are also shaped by the way the social world is. It is not an exaggeration to say that the vast material reconfigurations that followed the emergence of industrial capitalism inaugurated an entirely new set of concepts and expressions (e.g. “revolution”, “industry”, “capital”, “consumer”, “wage labor”, “globalization”, etc. etc.) needed to make sense of that radically new conjuncture. Today, texting, social media and so on are inflecting and changing our modes of expression as well.

    So grammar is always in flux and our “sense” of what is grammatical and what is not is constantly changing as a result of new uses and other linguistic innovations. To say that black vernacular doesn’t respect a timeless, embalmed view of how wealthy whites were supposed to express themselves in the 1950s, say, is not a knock against black vernacular. Who is it that cares about preserving certain contingent linguistic tropes from ruling class white ideology anyway?

    So all that’s left of the complaint against black vernacular is the claim that it’s “deviant” or “low” insofar as it doesn’t express how an upstanding white (ruling class) conformist should think and express herself. But that’s no complaint at all. That just is a certain form of racism, viz. the systematic and irrational devaluation of all things deemed black (because they are black). That this kind of racist devaluation is bullshit is even something that white racists seem forced to concede, since they themselves make frequent use of “black” expressions, cultural norms and practices, etc. Southern culture itself, however much the racist ideology of Jim Crow tried to deny it, is partly constituted by non-white cultural norms and practices. Elvis, Johnny Cash and the Rare Earth are nothing if not gentrified expositors of a tradition that was born in the black community. The whole structure of conventional “whiteness” falls apart if you ignore the contributions of black culture and practices that constitute it. A more consistent version of this devaluing, anti-black attitude would force many whites to abandon cherished practices and cultural allegiances that constitute who they are. Their own practice of systematically devaluing that which is marked out as “black” is, in fact, inconsistent with their basic mode of being.

  • Misspellings are often amusing, although I have a peeve about them, too. “Could of” for “could’ve”. Its vs It’s (I screw up this one myself). You’re vs your. Etc.

    One I find especially funny in the online games I play is how often I see rogue spelled as “rouge.”

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    My mother’s generation have always accused my generation of speaking Spanglish. I was brought up in North Carolina, so I spoke more lish than Spang. The strange thing is that my son and a few of my cousins’ children have become fluent in both languages. Of course, my son says my accent sort of murders both languages.

  • “this guy butchered a whole sentence…” Indeed, one man’s pork butt is another’s filet.

  • I still remember the day when, as a very young child, I finally realized what ‘dahntahn’ actually meant and how it was supposed to be spelled. For the longest time, I thought it had something to do with Pittsburgh’s cobblestone city streets.

  • “the same reaction to white people they see on the Jerry Springer show” Oh yes, talk about equal opportunity racism, with a twist of self serving morality at the end by the master of sleaze himself.

  • Zorba

    LOL! We (all my relatives and koumbari) called it Greeklish.

  • Lord knows we mocked him for that one.

  • Or Greenglish we call :)

  • Oh yeah. Met some from New Jersey, I believe. Oh and met one on vacation in Greece too a while back. Blew me away.

  • orogeny

    Maybe that’s true…I guess, working where I do, I see a different demographic. But, at the same time, my wife and I have a fair number of black friends (actual friends, not just acquaintances) that range from bartenders to doctors, and they all speak standard English. Not that they can’t still speak in dialect when they want to, but they know when it’s appropriate. They’re no different than I am…I was a construction worker until I was almost 30 and had a totally different speaking style that that which I use most of the time now…but it’s easy to revert when I want to.

  • I type at the same speeds :) Or can.

  • Fascinating comment, thank you.

  • I don’t think hearing english mangled, as people do on the Jerry Springer show, for example, is the same thing as feeling gay people are icky. That’s an entirely other debate as to whether speaking a language poorly is actually “poorly.” And yes, I think grammar matters, and I think when someone doesn’t know how to speak English correctly, it’s too bad. As mentioned in my piece, you can debate whether this isn’t incorrect speech, but rather is another dialect steeped in history, and I’m open to that. But I don’t think I’d agree that ANYbody who mangles English isn’t mangling English.

    As for this:

    “Regarding Blacks’ rejection of the standard English: If seen as a means of subjugation andoppression, is it surprising that some descendants of slaves bristle at adopting
    it, of identifying with it? Of course, there are some that argue that to dismantle the master’s house you must use his tools.”

    If people feel that learning to speak proper English, and expecting someone to at least be able to manage a sentence in proper English, in 2013 is “a means of subjugation”, in 2013, then I think that’s a problem. And it’s the very problem Bill Cosby talked about.

  • I think the suggestion is that the “rural rednecks” are an exception to the rule of how people tend to speak, and that “black vernacular” or whatever we’re calling it is less of an exception – maybe that’s wrong, the writer of the other piece didn’t see it that way. And I think a lot of people have the same reaction to white people they see on the Jerry Springer show, to be honest.

    As for faculty members and students at a college, one could argue that that’s self-selection at work – to quote Bill Cosby, the kids who don’t talk like that are the kids who get into college and who get good jobs.

  • Hue-Man

    I just happened on another current expression that really bothers me, in addition to “try and help”. From the UK marriage equality bill’s progress in the House of Lords: “With at least 86 peers having requested to speak on Monday, the vote could of happened as late as 3am.”

    Other pet peeve is its/it’s although I’ve become more forgiving with their/there/they’re as I’ve found myself making the same typos. I know theirs no reason for it but sometimes the gremlins take over the keyboard. GRIN.

  • orogeny

    What are we talking about here? Ramsey is a poor inner-city resident and speaks like the people he grew up with. It’s no different than when the media interviews some guy from a trailer park in Alabama and he sounds like Gomer Pyle on a bad day. Why don’t we have people like Phil Donohue going out to rural Alabama lecturing people about talking like rednecks? I work at a small liberal arts college in Alabama, and our black faculty members and students don’t sound like they’re just outta Compton.

  • Albert Monroe

    There’s nothing wrong with how Charles Ramsey speaks, or with Black English Vernacular in general. The only problem is that speakers of Black English need to also be able to speak standard English in order to communicate effectively outside of Black neighborhoods and to be upwardly mobile. It’s the same problem faced by disadvantaged minorities everywhere – although in the case of Blacks it’s more of a problem because we don’t own anything and therefore have to go outside of our neighborhoods and race to gain meaningful employment.

  • Given his situation, I can hardly blame him.

  • Zorba

    Interesting. I don’t know any Greek-Americans born here who speak English with any kind of Greek accent. That includes me, as well as my older cousins. We all grew up speaking Greek as our first language, although we learned English quickly enough when we entered school.
    I do know lots of Greek-Americans, however (born here or there) who mix in a lot of “Greeklish” words when they are speaking Greek. It can get confusing in Greece if you forget and use “Greeklish.” ;-)

  • Re: Doctor Who — I found it amusing how it took them until Doctor #7 (McCoy) before they let the Doctor have an accent other than RP, although McCoy’s Scottish accent was very subdued. Then with Eccleston (#9), he not only used his full-on native Mancunian accent, they often drew attention to him speaking as if he was “from the North.” (His retort, “Lots of planets have a North.”)

    No idea why Tennant gave up his lovely Scottish brogue in favor of the mild Estuary accent. And since Smith (#11) has gone back to mostly-RP, all I can figure is it must just be an arbitrary casting-time decision.

  • I’m still stuck with: “Down ta tha crick.”

  • you’ve just answered John’s question: its not poor English, and protestations are futile, essentially.

  • Ditto.

  • laughing :-)

  • Consonant transposition is another common feature in linguistic drift, and invariably moves towards whatever sounds are easier to pronounce next to each other. A kind of ‘lowest energy state’ phenomenon.

    Ever wonder why Wednesday is pronounced “wends-day”? ;-) And eventually, that remnant ‘d’ will go away.

  • Like+++++

  • I think ‘axs’ is close to the old English for ‘asks.’

  • Kevin

    It is not unusual for two linguistic cultures to exist side
    by side. In the past, the ruling classes spoke (and wrote) one language, while
    the people spoke (and didn’t write) another. It was one way of distinguishing
    the two (like sumptuary laws, which dictated what the under classes could eat
    and wear.)* Those people fluent in both
    had to negotiate the bilingual divide, using the mamaloshen at home or in the street and using the received language at work or
    school. And, since these last two are
    the means by which wealth and power (and, hence, respect) are achieved, those
    who failed to conform were disenfranchised and disdained. John seems to take umbrage at the idea that
    Charles Ramsey addressed the camera (and, thereby, him) in the vernacular of the street. The news crew (and audience)
    were interlopers. (It is not Ramsey who is “foreign” or “other” here, but
    John.) Does Avarosis expect natives to speak English to him when he’s in another

    As a teacher, I expect my students to adopt a certain style
    when writing about literature. (Academic English, is itself, different from
    what one hears in bars or boardrooms) But
    in speaking about literature, an
    over-nice attention to formal expression can hinder one’s ability to
    communicate the complexity of a response. And in writing poetry or fiction,
    street lingo can show itself to be imaginative,
    elastic, and expressive, indeed.

    John claims to have a gut reaction to hearing debased
    English. This is not far from the “ick factor” reaction of straights to seeing
    gay intimacy. Both claim it as a natural response, but I imagine it is
    conditioned. Both are expressions against perceived attack on the reining
    cultural norm (of which they see themselves as defenders).

    This strikes me as the probable response that many in the
    past may have had to vernacular literature. Tuscan Italian was seen as a “gutter”
    language, an inferior vessel for the expression of the highest thought. Yet
    Dante and Petrarch and Boccaccio made it the medium of their most humane work
    (and their best). Within a hundred
    years, literature in vulgar languages was seen as a legitimate vehicle for
    personal—and national— poetry across Europe.
    I am not forecasting such a widespread influence for black English, but
    I have no doubt that some of the most enduring (and popular) poetry being
    produced today is found in rap lyrics.

    As it happens, in the Middle Ages, a number of texts—in Latin
    and vernacular tongues—equated irregular sexuality with non-standard use of
    language. (See “The Complaint of Nature” and “Le Roman de la Rose.”) Strenuous
    efforts were in place to police and punish nonconformity. This because the regulating
    bodies – Church, school, court—conceived of a “natural” languages, ones that
    obeyed God-given laws, just as sex was understood to have norms dictated by
    nature. Neither is true.

    Standardized language is a system of control as well as a
    tool for easing communication. Just as slaves were kept from learning to read and
    write, in the past knowledge of Latin conferred (and confirmed) status. And
    privileges—a reading knowledge of Latin could exonerate one from a capital
    sentence in England. (The so-called “benefit of clergy,” whose positioning of
    the priesthood beyond the law persists in the mindset of Catholic church.)
    Still, today, I imagine, the educated defendant gets better treatment in the

    Regarding Blacks’ rejection of the standard English: If seen as a means of subjugation and
    oppression, is it surprising that some descendants of slaves bristle at adopting
    it, of identifying with it? Of course,
    there are some that argue that to dismantle the master’s house you must use his
    tools. This is why the Irish of the last century became the preeminent practitioners—
    masters—of English, in poetry, playwriting, and the novel. (Yeats, Wilde, Joyce.)

    *Clothing is still a means whereby we distinguish classes
    and, until recently, sexes and sexuality.
    Interesting work could be done on the innovations in costume which
    originate in black communities which are adopted and adapted by gay culture and
    then disseminated throughout the larger culture, until we find frat boys
    wearing what was only recently a maker of the ghetto—by which time it’s already
    passé and déclassé among taste-makers.

  • Wonderful WW! Hill talk is interesting. I suspect it contains cultural preservation of old country ‘concepts’ as well as it does in the music or storytelling that gives it animation. It is important to note that the Irish spoke Gaelic until English banned the native tongue. There had to be a way to speak in English that brought forth continuity, because as you know Irish are story tellers. Just the use of a word like ‘poc’ references the culture behind the corrupting facade of a politically imposed language like English.

  • keirmeister

    I’m a black man who has dealt with this since I was quite young. I grew up in a family that emphasized “proper” behavior and speech, and there were two main reasons for this:

    1) Pride as a Black American
    2) Better integration into society.

    As I hit adolescence this became a liability with kids in my neighborhood (“why you be talkin’ all proper?”) and I was picked on for being “square” or accused of being an “Uncle Tom”. This was based mainly on how I spoke and the fact that I did well in school. It created a divide between myself and others of my own race – so much so that I was far more comfortable around the white kids.

    And I’m still like that to this day.

    Hearing Ramsey speak takes me back to my days living in “the hood.” And while hearing him talk makes me cringe, I don’t really blame him: he’s a product of his environment and upbringing. But it’s still jarring because he represents my race in the eyes of America, I would argue, far more than the Obama’s. But then again, I think almost every race or group has this, so c’est la vie.

    However I will say it’s far more irritating hearing people speak that way when they know better, but choose to do it in order to sound “cool” or “street.” And honestly, bad English and grammar is so pervasive in our country, I don’t really consider it a black thing anymore as much as a socioeconomic thing.

    I remember when Bill Cosby got flack for his criticisms. I agreed with him at the time and still do. There has to be a point were we as black people stop blaming racism, slavery, or “The Man” for how we carry OURSELVES. Of course I agree that American history is such that people of color have a harder time making it. I’ve experienced this first-hand, and the old saying that we have to be twice as good and work twice as hard still holds true. But to use this as an excuse to lower how we present ourselves to the world is just plain wrong – and it gives others an excuse to keep us back.

    For what it’s worth, my own prejudices on this matter have eased a bit. Ramsey is an endearing person, despite how he talks or his past troubles. In the end, isn’t that all that really matters?

  • You’re adorable. :-)

  • My own typos are most often omitted words. I see them in my head, but for some reason they don’t make it to my fingers.

    It also doesn’t help that I can and sometimes do type at over 100 wpm.

  • I have problems with Crosby’s classicist elitism, although I agree with much of his basic advice. Something about a multimillionaire scolding down is offensive. Condi Rice is another one. It’s easy to take the high road and criticize when you’ve climbed the ladder, often at the expense of others, and pulled the ladder up with you.

  • Yep. In my case it’s taken decades to achieve devolution and use punctuation as decorative embellishments with intricate lei motifs that, hopefully, will stimulate subversive tendencies weakening the power grid of establishment language control. The best way to do this of course is to speak in poetry. Poetry is the most subversive language on earth

  • I hate it when anyone substitutes “aks” for “ask”

  • Ooh thanks!

  • No, not really. Unless I really think the word “by” is spelled “boy” in English, and I don’t, then I’d argue that typos are a slightly different thing that not knowing how to conjugate verbs :)

  • “lead with that one thing that transcends all language — a smile.” That’s what the Japanese call ‘kokuro’—heart. It works in every culture.

  • Ha!

  • For some reason, my typos come out as words I commonly use, a lot – in this case, Id just written boy, so boy comes out. It’s funny. I’d be curious about the psychology behind typos that aren’t physical typos, but mental ones.

  • Interesting point. When I studied Japanese, it was highly formal and very polite. It wasn’t until I was living in a monastery that I realized I sounded like a court woman in a football hurdle and learned what local foreigners called ‘kun’ language….’kun’ being the masculine reference to he/him, ‘san’ being the basic polite. The point being: being exposed to real language in the vernacular can be an exciting and mind opening experience. I agree with Becca on that.

  • Sure, but his kids may not hired by my kids because they can’t speak proper English, thus my problem becomes his problem. Your point isn’t necessarily wrong, but I was trying to get the discussion going on EVEN IF we’re the ones with the problem, if the language holds black kids back when trying to get a job, for example, it’s all well and good to opine about how superior those kids are to us, but they’re still not getting jobs. And that’s a problem.

  • Indigo

    It’s an interesting variant in the collection of vernaculars that compose American English. I find the sound of Jamaican English more pleasing to my ear, though. And when I look at TV and movies from other English-speaking countries (the United Kingdom comes to mind) I’m always intrigued by black Brits who speak BBC-glish just like Dr. Who and all the rest of the BBC population.

    BBC aside, any speaker of Americano needs to consider first is the extent of the assimilation into the mainstream culture they want to communicate. No native speaker makes mistakes in their speech patterns but every native speak communicates an entire portfolio of personal information including educational level, social standing, economic and personal values, and even, dare I say, a certain touch of political values as they speak.

    Ain’t that right, Cletus?

  • I’ll indulge in a colloquial ‘Fairnuff’. ;-)

  • That has tripped me up more than once. At first I thought it was Alzheimer’s.

  • ‘Hunkidori’, which we still hear occasionally is a borrowed word transposed in meaning from Hon ki Dori ( a street in Yokohama that catered to sailors) to ‘everything’s just fine.’

  • Luigi DaMan

    How George Ramsey speaks is not his problem, it’s your problem. You came to his neighborhood to ask him something, he didn’t seek you out. How he speaks, whatever charming way you wish to categorize it, puts him in good stead with his neighborhood. He’s not on a job interview, he’s not asking for your vote, he’s just being who he is.

    As I’ve been in many places in my life where average white people would feel uncomfortable, let me offer you a tip: When you enter another culture with a different way of speaking (even if it’s corrupted English) treat people the way you would want to be treated and lead with that one thing that transcends all language — a smile.

    Be warm, be gracious, be complementary, offer your hand. Do not be afraid to bond with them. You can learn from them. And as they already view you (well, at least me) as the great white father, they can learn from you. That is, if you are willing to show that you care about them. There’s lots of ways to show that while you don’t quite understand, you are willing to try. Hear them out. 90% of all communication is non-verbal.

    Hell, I should know. I teach it.

  • Welcome to SF! :-)

  • Then there’s the late Hugh Hoswer and Paula Dean who speak flawless cracker.

  • In any country there is an educated sounding vernacular and a non-educated one and usually many variations on each. In the US the most esteemed vernacular is that of the white upper middle class, usually mid-western or western (possibly northeast too with the exclusion of NYC/NJ/LI, Boston and mid-Atlantic accents). So are we racist? Yes, but we also typically find southerners and New Yorkers, or anyone with a thick, distinct accent to be less intelligent, or so studies say. This guy’s accent is just way more colorful than those and he does come off as a bit energetic, even without the accent, so are we racist? Yes.

  • Drew2u

    I think we may start going around in circles so to head that off, I’ll just say – I do not disagree with your point at all.

  • Sure — but part of my point is that loan-words are often incorporated entirely, until people completely forget that — as Hue-Man points out below — that English had no word for pajamas until it was grabbed from another language.

  • Western Pennsylvania here. Our local dialects seemed to be comprised of equal parts eastern European influences (Polish, German, Italian, Slavic) and Appalachian-style Scots-Irish.

    Everybody seems to want someone else to make fun of, and for us it was West Virginians — a fact which struck me funny because later on in my adult life, I’ve had people ask me if I was from WV, due to my particular accent and informal speech patterns.

  • Lesson: It’s not the poor who aren’t paying their fair share and getting a ‘free ride.’ It’s the rich.

  • goulo

    As a side note, the reaction you describe having to black vernacular is the same first gut reaction I often have to the high number of spelling and grammar typos at this blog. But I don’t really think your bad typing means you are uneducated or stupid. Perhaps a useful lesson there. :)


    Have you visited Scotland? I found a lot of people there to be difficult to understand, with its own very different pronunciation and lexicon and structure. Yet I wouldn’t claim they’re stupid or speaking “bad” English, and I suppose you wouldn’t either.

    In Germany there are many regional dialects of German, some so varied that some Germans have told me that they can’t understand people from certain other regions. Similarly for Italian.

    Black vernacular is analogous. It has its own internal structure. If it wasn’t a “real” / legitimate language in its own right, how would its speakers all be able to understand each other and speak consistently with each other? To call it “bad” or “uneducated” or “stupid” English and yet not to say the same about (e.g.) Scottish English (or e.g. Sicilian Italian) does indeed seem racist. Or how else would you justify it?

    The idea that there is some single standard correct “English” or “German” etc
    is a bit of a myth. It’s an idealized language which probably no one actually uses. (E.g. consider how many well-educated people nonetheless say stuff like “between you and I” and “he invited my wife and I” instead of “between you and me” and “he invited my wife and me”.)

    There are just lots of different dialects or community/local languages used by different communities and regions, some of which happen to be similar enough that we abstract them and call them all “English” or “German” or whatever. They are a convenient notion for national governments and national media.

    A separate question is whether it’s useful for a person to ALSO be able to use the propagated national “standard” dialect well. Undoubtedly. The more languages one speaks, the more opportunities one has…

  • Drew2u

    “Nuukyewluhr”, thanks, President Bush! :D

  • Drew2u

    But you’re talking about loan-words, correct? Discussing loan words (Japanese: sandwich = ‘sandoitchi’ or close to that), I would presume, is a completely different subject than discussing – say – double negatives, possessive- and/or plural-nouns.

    (eg: “I ain’t got no time for that!”, “I seen that before”, “We was on the bus”) (posting this here for my own reference, more than anything)

  • nicho

    Slightly off topic, but relevant in the face of the current immigrant bashing.

    WASHINGTON — Immigrants contributed about $115 billion more from their paychecks to the Medicare Trust Fund than they took out over a seven-year period in the past decade, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School.

    As the Senate debates a new immigration bill and House Republicans work toward a bill that restricts access to government services for unauthorized immigrants who become legal citizens, the researchers concluded in a study released Wednesday that restricting immigration could deplete the fund.

  • Whispered

    Having grown up in the Adams Morgan community of D.C. during the 80’s – 90’s, I have to agree that Ramsey’s speech was somewhat consistent with ebonics (no point settling for a PC term as “black vernacular”). Though Ramsey’s choice of wording seems to be a bit different than the way I remember people in my area speaking back then.

    Also as an aside, I am of asian descent and interestingly enough I too spoke in the “black vernacular” as it were as it was the common choice of the english dialect. It seemed most racial cultures in the area too spoke with their own take on the english language. The Latino community steered towards a mix of spanish/english (“Spanglish”) dialect, while asians too found a middle ground between that of proper english and slang.

    In most cases, speaking proper english or another dialect of english comes down to a choice. I know plenty of folks (and I’m certain everyone else does as well) that alternate between proper and slang depending on the situation.

  • Drew2u

    I think you’d find this article interesting about ESL students born in the U.S.

    (And take this next part with a grain of salt): Penn Gillette, as part of his experience in one of his books, writes about an Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jew who grew up learning Yiddish (or Hebrew?) as a primary language despite having been born and raised in New York City for his entire life.

  • Thanks. :-)

  • Nearly every language we humans use has been the result of evolution, with terms swapped between them, slang becoming accepted, linguistic drift accommodated.

    Who hasn’t heard the expression, “I’m going to try and help”? Or, “Try and get some sleep”? Ignoring that contraction — also an incorrect use of the language according to older formal rules — that word “and” has no place in those sentences. It’s supposed to be “to.” Few, except for language aficionados like myself, even notice that it’s a grammatical mistake.

    You’re right, it is strange and amusing how so many insist that there is a ‘proper’ form of English, without realizing the language we speak today is totally bastardized. If we humans are around two or three hundred years from now, our descendants will likely view our version of English as archaic and outdated.

    (BTW, a really terrific example of a book that has its own internal fictional language that, as you read it, becomes more and more comprehensible, is Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange.” )

  • Jonas Grumby

    Oh a little bit racist to be sure. I am white and grew up in a VERY integrated neighborhood . . .pretty much equal amount Latino, Black, White and Asian. Each “group” had it’s own cultural speech patterns.

  • dula

    i would rather hear a straight forward, though perhaps uneducated communication from an honest person than overly polished, academic rhetoric from the untrustworthy.

  • CNN is reporting he has signed with an agent based in Las Vegas, and is trying to get control of his name & image back

  • Hue-Man

    How strange that a foreign language would pick up English words!

    pajamas (n.) 1800, pai jamahs “loose trousers tied at the waist,” worn by Muslims in India and adopted by Europeans there, especially for nightwear, from Hindi pajama, probably from Persian paejamah, literally “leg clothing,” from pae “leg” (from PIE *ped- “foot,” see foot (n.)) + jamah “clothing.” Modern spelling (U.S.) is from 1845. British spelling tends toward pyjamas.

  • milli2

    Very well said Becca (no pun intended).

  • Drew2u

    I had the pleasure of visiting Eastern Tennessee and hearing not only different accents, but witnessing Southerners – in my mind – making fun of how other/different Southerners speak.

    A couple of people were from the Gulf Coast and I couldn’t figure out whether their way of speaking was because of bad education or of regional parlance (I have never visited the Gulf Coast so I can’t speak directly on how the people of that region speak, extrapolated from my only two examples). Part of how they talked was pluralizing words that weren’t plural in context as well as a lot “we was”.

    My mother was an English teacher of high school students when I was growing up and she constantly corrected and chastised my incorrect usage. There is no way that, devoid of any other influence from a speaker, has not influenced my ear when it comes to the way people talk. Even as I grew up, moving around a fair amount, I’ve noticed regional slang as well as certain pronunciations.
    Now all of my experiences have been in the Scandinaviaville and Germanyville region of the U.S (Midwest, represent!). I would not think any of my personal experiences (which in no way represents a notable portion of the population by any means) make me racist because I notice incorrect English (except the damn Swedes). Were I to tie in race to my experiences, I can’t say I’ve noticed any decline of proper English.
    The only thing that I would say would be my own personal racism was visiting a chinese restaurant in Italy and hearing, in my own opinion since I don’t speak Italian, perfect Italian from a young Asian woman.
    As for Charles Ramsey, I’ve never heard him speak as I never followed that story.

  • Hue-Man

    This sensitivity to language – whether pronunciation or “level” of English – leads to one of my pet rants about American culture – the American agent in movies and TV shows who goes into a foreign country and instantly speaks the local language whether it be Arabic, Mandarin, or French. To highlight the absurdity of this conceit, can you imagine a French agent going into Mr. Ramsey’s neighborhood and flawlessly conversing in what the article refers to as “black vernacular”? Here’s one attempt to map the complexity of North American English (I’m from the Don=Dawn, cot=caught, father rhymes with bother strain)

    Back when the U.S. had a vibrant public education system, the school room smoothed class differences, linguistic backgrounds, and provided a way into the job market by standardizing English (yes, I know, segregation). I haven’t been following Mr. Ramsey closely enough to know whether he learned “standard English” in school and is choosing to speak “non-standard English” or whether his schooling was only delivered in “black vernacular”. More importantly, are there native English speakers who are unable to understand what he’s saying? If not, why worry about it?

  • You are aware, I hope, that what you just typed was a run-on sentence with two misspellings and three unconnected independent clauses? Yet your point was clear anyway.

    None of us is perfect in our use of the English language, as defined by the currently accepted rules of grammar and word usage.

  • There are times when, seeing a particular typo, I’ve wondered if John isn’t using speech recognition software…

  • I love language in all its forms — written, spoken, gestural, cultural. One thing I find amusing is this notion many people have that there is one accepted version of a language and all others are somehow inferior or wrong.

    Languages change over time. They adapt and merge and diverge. And much of the driving force behind that change is how the masses of people use it, how they adapt to new words and terms. Then there’s linguistic drift, the way certain words will change over time because people will say them differently from generation to generation, as well as grammatical drift.

    (Funny aside: Want to know what the words are for ‘plastic bottle’ in Telugu, the Indian language common to the state of Andhra Pradesh? It’s ప్లాస్టిక్ సీసా. It’s pronounced Plāsṭik sīsā — already halfway to English. However most of the locals I ran into in the village of Penukonda changed the second word and said it as ‘bottle-oo’. Decidedly improper Telugu, but that’s how languages change. In fact, one of the biggest complaints in India — and in many other nations, especially France — has been how their own languages are being ‘corrupted’ by the adoption of English language terms and phrasing.)

    For example, if you took a modern day person and dropped them into the late 18th century, the educated classes would view the modern visitor’s language as corrupted and just not right. Take them a few more centuries back and it would be difficult to communicate at all. A few more and even though the language is still called ‘English’, it’s all but unrecognizable. (Try reading Beowulf in the original Old English.)

    I’ll come at this from another angle: Although I grew up in a blue-collar middle class family, I come from far more humble origins. My ancestors were mainly Irish on one side, with some Scotts. And on the other side, Polish with a fair amount of German and a smidge of Romani. Decidedly all lower-class immigrants. My forebears lived in poor neighborhoods. If I were to go back to those neighborhoods today and just listen to people talk, what I’d here wouldn’t be ‘black vernacular’ but simply how poor people adapt language as they like, because there is no particular social pressure to stick to hard-and-fast linguistic rules.

    In fact, when my family would go visit my father’s brother’s family, who did live closer to these poor neighborhoods, sometimes I could barely understand what my cousins and their friends were saying. Unfamiliar slang. Weird pronunciations. Seemingly disordered turns of phrase. Yet they never had any trouble understanding each other.

    The driver of linguistic change isn’t race, but class. Those with access to higher education and economic opportunities are more likely to take a ‘conservative’ attitude towards their use of language. I mean, just consider the way British children in expensive schools are all taught not just to use language a certain way but to adopt an accent and dialect — ‘received pronunciation’ it’s called, as if this particular London-originating upper class dialect is in some way superior to regional dialects and accents.

    “Proper” language can be enforced only when (1) as children, people receive an indoctrinated education that teaches them all those rules and attempts to enforce them, and (2) when there is social and class pressure to adhere to those rules in everyday speech.

    As for Mr. Ramsey… first, let’s remember that not everybody can keep their thoughts straight when doing an interview. Who among us hasn’t totally mangled something we wanted to say? Or notice when we overuse certain terms or filler-words.

    The real point would be to listen to Ramsey talk to the people he encounters and deals with the most each day, and then to consider whether we’re simply dealing with someone who has an incomplete education with English…or a guy who just talks the same way as all the people around him.

  • Whitewitch

    This one is pretty good – especially the middle bit where they explain it is Scot/Irish Blend of English. My favorite sentence was I love my wife and so don’t she! Meaning she loved him as well, although I thought he meant she didn’t love him, but it was okay. My neighbors there were FAB and would truly give you anything and expect nothing in return. They are a hard working people and live hard, play hard and love wholeheartly.

    Or a poke – A pig in a poke is concealed in a sack from the buyer. The noun pokemeaning a bag or sackdates from the 14th century in English. In many parts of Scotland poke means a little paper bag for carrying purchases or a cone-shaped piece of paper for an ice-cream cone. The Oxford English Dictionary gives similar forms in other languages: Icelandic poki, Gaelic poc or poca, and French poche.

  • nicho

    “I also think of the other day, walking my dog here in DC, and some young African-American boys walked boy,”

    John, please tell me you didn’t type that.

  • I don’t know. That’s the Bill Cosby concern, and I share it. Hell, I lectured my nephew about speaking incorrect English, and using a “dumb guy” chicago accent while doing it. He sounded stupid when he talked. And I told him it was going to affect him in job interviews. And he’s a smart educated kid, just likes to talk dumb-guy around the house and with his friends. I’d be curious to see how well he’s able to turn it off.

  • When my brother says “ain’t” I cringe. And when he gets his tenses wrong, it’s not ethnic pride. That doesn’t mean black vernacular is in the same category. But I have a hard time accepting that all grammatical errors add to our cultural richness :)

  • Wonder ˆf there’s any good youtubes on it? Would seem the prefect venue for studies on accents and dialects.

  • No way?

  • If English isn’t their mother tongue, no. I do find it weird when Greek-Americans, who were born and raised here, with no time spent in Greece, have Greek-accented English – though accents are arguably harder to control than saying “ain’t” :)

  • MonkeyBoy

    I found Ramsey’s interviews enjoyable and entertaining. Obviously he has little education and I wouldn’t want a college professor or elected representative who couldn’t speak educated standard English.

    The children of recent immigrants to the US often are at pains to speak a hyper-correct English – as if to show that they are real Americans not some foreign others.

    John, do you object to people who speak grammatically proper English with ethnic accents (Italian, Greek, Jewish, etc.)? I know that many people try to lose them as do those with thick regional accents (NY region, deep South, etc.)

  • guest1

    Im afriad people who learn to talk like that won’t be able to write, can he spell properly, who knows?

  • Proper grammar or not, he’s charging $10,000 to hear him now

  • I should add that back in my loser 20s era, I always watched Rescue 911(shown on Friday nights, no less just to show how big a loser I was in my 20s), and at doctor’s offices I always turn to Reader’s Digest’s “Everyday Heroes” feature. We rightfully celebrate heroes because they step up in the way we all hope we are capable of if ‘our number is called’ by the circumstance of some unforeseen event. While modesty is seen as a virtue, Ramsay wasn’t very modest and I think we all shared in Ramsay’s rightfully buzzing over what he just accomplished.

  • Whitewitch

    It should be noted that just a state over from you John, in West Virginia there is a distinct and culturally rich cultural vernacular, which is often also interpreted by outsiders as an indication of ignorance, or that the speaker is just a Hillbilly, when in actuality it is a proud carry forward of what was “olde” english (note I am not a linguistic teacher, nor scholor). I did however have the pleasure of learning about the unique phrases and terms while living there and also enjoy a lecture by an English teacher at WVU that pointed out the blending of olde english with modern american. Quite cool and unique. It is sad that we judge others by their language rather than learning to enjoy it and celebrate it.

  • Monoceros Forth

    I was thinking much the same thing. Nobody, absolutely nobody, is perfectly correct in their English usage. Every regional dialect departs in some way from what’s taken to be the standard (a standard that isn’t even well-defined itself.) There’s no reason that one dialect should be considered inferior to another so long as it’s equally able to convey the same thoughts.

  • Someone noted that on Facebook as well. My response was that you’re talking about immigrants, not their children. My grandma immigrated, her English sucked. My mom immigranted, her English didn’t suck. I was born here, my English is great. the people who mangle English in interviewed are people for whom English isn’t their native tongue.

  • Kes

    What frustrates me is that, even knowing that this is an American English dialect some people grow up speaking, its use is seen as a marker of “ignorance” whereas European immigrants who mangle English in news interviews are given a complete pass and my husband was never considered unfit for a job if he used Southern white vernacular in an interview in New York. Now THAT is evidence of institutionalized racism. Some “errors” are more acceptable than others, and the acceptability often runs down racial lines.

  • It wasn’t Ramsay’s bad grammar that got him noticed, but his verbal charisma combined with his heroism. Post-game interviews of athletes of any race would make a grammarian cry and make anyone not a sports’ fan cry too out of boredom. What Ramsay did was throw in some bravado, McDonalds, street sense (I’m not dumb enough to give them my address!) and some racial humor at the end.

  • My gut instinct is to agree, but the writer of the other piece is pointing out that apparently his sentence is actually consistent with “black vernacular,” it’s an intentional “butchering,” as it were. Again, I’m not wholly convinced that I 100% agree with her, but it’s an interesting argument.

  • Monoceros Forth

    This is a subject of some interest to me. Studying Latin and Greek for three years and taking a bit of linguistics on the side has made me interested in language in general.

    I myself try to be excessively correct in my usage according to a standard of correctness derived largely from the Harbrace College Handbook that I read when I was young. Of course perfectionism does not imply perfection but I like to think that I’m more correct than average. Taking classical languages reinforced this because it forced me really to think about grammar in general and about such concepts as case, tense, and mood.

    However, I also soaked up a bit of the “descriptivism” of my linguistics teacher, although I quarreled with her about it sometimes. The important question is: is a dialect of English, however “incorrect” according to the textbooks of standard usage, equally expressive as “correct” usage? If so then you can’t really say that there’s anything inferior about the dialect. By the way, where I parted company with my instructor was my contention that not all evolution of a language can be considered as neutral, as she did with her strict descriptivism. I believe that certain changes lead objectively to a decline in the expressiveness of a language and must therefore be fought, while she held the opinion that all changes are neutral and not to be judged.

  • guest1

    Bad english, slang words are ok but this guy butchered a whole sentence…

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