Date: Tue, 27 Jan 1998 02:34:20 -0600

From: Mike Salovesh t20mxs1[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU

Subject: Re: Survey help--new participant (LONG!, detailed)

Beverly Flanigan wrote:

. . . I'm interested in Mike Salovesh's replies on the survey,

particularly those referring to "Chicago Ebonics." Sometimes we hear a lack of tense

marking, or the use of uninflected "be," and assume they apply in all contexts (as the "Mad

Monk" did some time back).

Does Mr. S. really hear "[He] in his office yesterday" or "I don't be eat ..." or "He done sell"

(instead of "sold") in Chicago African

Americans' speech?

Answer: Yes, yes, and yes.

My shorthand "Chicago Ebonics" refers to ordinary conversations among

African Americans in Chicago today, Black Chicagoans yesterday, and

Negro Chicagoans of my youth. (The variant labels are intended to

reflect self-identifiers commonly used at different time periods, within

what used to be called Chicago's Black Belt.) By yesterday, I mean prior

to 1965, the last time I lived in Chicago's Black Ghetto -- or in my

conversations with Black residents of Stateville, the Illinois maximum

security correctional facility, where I taught some courses for

university credit in the 1980s. Much of my interaction in these speech

communities took place, and continues to take place, in settings where

the usual lines between "blacks" and "whites" are somewhat blurred, in

part because I prefer to ignore them.

When I make such a claim, it's only fair that I identify myself. The

trouble is that in today's society I am an anomaly out of past time. As

I was growing up, people whose ancestors, like mine, came from southern

or eastern Europe were not really seen as of "white race". Social usage

admitted me to the "white race" sometime around 1960, give or take five

years or so. (For my previous status, witness, e.g., the way U.S.

immigration laws were written in the early 1920s -- people who shared my

ancestry were regarded as "racially inferior" and undesirable candidates

for admission to the U.S.)

Let me amplify that from personal experience. In 1959, I took a job at

the Chicago credit card office of Texaco, Inc., where I was the first

person of Russian ancestry they had ever hired. In those days, Texaco

hired through outside employment agencies. Their instructions to those

agencies didn't just say "whites only". They got highly specific: no

Catholics unless "Irish" or "German"; no "Jews", no "Italians", no

"Greeks", no "Poles"; and so on, ad nauseum. Texaco was not alone in

those days: discrimination of this sort was a major function handed over

to employment agencies almost universally.

I used quotes around the label words in the preceding paragraph because

Texaco used them in what today would be a special, bigoted sense. (Let

it be noted, however, that these were the common meanings of such terms

in normal Chicago speech and social usage.) The labels meant ancestry,

however distant, not place of birth or citizenship or current religious

affiliation. On the application forms, I reported my religion (Quaker)

accurately, and said nothing about the religion of other members of my

family. If my eventual boss at Texaco had known that some of my

ancestors were Jews, OR that some of my ancestors were Russian Orthodox,

OR that some of my ancestors were Catholics, I would not have been

interviewed, let alone hired. My "blood" would have been seen to be

tainted with those unacceptable, unAmerican religions or something else

equally ridiculous.

I was used to being part of several excluded minorities, which gave me a

(probably erroneous) great feeling of freedom to move at will in

minority communities. In the most segregated city in the U.S. I lived,

at various times, in what were regarded as all black neighborhoods, all

white neighborhoods, Jewish neighborhoods, Catholic neighborhoods,

Polish neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, and others. Wherever I

lived, I talked to my neighbors. (That includes my neighbors from the

year and a half my wife and I lived on the next block over from the

Chicago headquarters of the Lost/Found Nation of Islam in the Wilderness

of North America, the Honorable Elijah Muhammed's Temple Number Two. A

majority of our neighbors when we lived there were Black Muslims.)

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but past tense would not have zero

marking, nor would "be" be used without pres. prog. -ing, or "done"

with the infinitive instead of the past participle in most (if not

all?) varieties of AAE.

I mostly agree with your statements as normative in most varieties of

AAE. That's not the question I was responding to, however. I was

reporting on constructions I regularly hear in actual use.

The sentence "The principal in his office yesterday" may indeed have

zero grammatical marking for past tense; the word yesterday marks the

time another way. Zero grammatical tense marking when a sentence

includes time words is an admittedly unusual pattern, but I have

encountered it often enough that I don't notice it consciously any


"Be" plus pres. prog. "-ing" is the form I normally expect, but "I don't

be eating that stuff" actually hits my ear as almost as unusual as the

same sentence without "-ing".

The sentence "he done sell all that" strikes me as possible, but

special. It would carry more emphasis than "he done sold all that". I'd

expect to hear it accompanied by a tone pattern marking emphasis. (The

sentence would sound most natural to me if both tone and stress mark the

word "sell".) That, at least, is what the combination of "done" with

the infinitive stem conveys to me.

When I first started taking conscious notice of constructions using zero

grammatical tense marker plus some separate word indicating time, I

immediately tucked it away in the same memory hole where I carry some

odd facts about Japanese. (Some of those odd facts may actually be

true, since I knew enough Japanese -- some 45 years ago -- that I was

able to make phone calls in Japan without worrying too much about

whether the phone would be answered by a monolingual Japanese speaker.

Very little of the actual language remains in my head today, however.) I

have the impression Japanese sentences normally don't mark number

grammatically in either the noun or the verb, but the speaker can choose

to say the equivalent of "one man go" or "five man go" if necessary.

Non-native English may, of course, not inflect for plurals and may

not be able to handle sounds like 'th' in 'thick' . . .

That raises a question I didn't face in my original note. I think that

there are native speakers of English whose normal speech reflects the

fact that their parents or grandparents spoke some other language. I

feel uncomfortable saying that such people are speaking "non-native

English" when English is the only language they have ever spoken. Let

me amplify from my own speech patterns.

I'm the Chicago-born son of a man who was also born in Chicago, 20 years

after HIS father came to the U.S. My grandfather, who died a decade

before I was born, spoke Russian and English and some Yiddish. So did

my grandmother, whose English was accented, but competent. My father's

only native language was English. You'd expect that my English ought to

be that of a native speaker.

I discovered that isn't so when I read some British linguist's

description of English articulation. (The author may have been Jones; I

don't remember for sure.) I was struck by his description of how native

English speakers were supposed to pronounce /d/ and /t/. Where the

linguist described the articulation as "tongue tip", I noticed that in

my own speech what touched the alveolar ridge sometimes was the tongue

blade, certainly well past anything that I felt as the tip of the

tongue. The two varieties seemed to be in free variation. I didn't

know what to make of that observation for years -- until I started to

learn about Russian phonology. The phonetic range of my /d/ and /t/

phonemes include what would be both "palatalized" and "non-palatalized"

stops if I were speaking Russian. This phonetic feature carried over

even at a full generation's separation from Russian speaking.

More generally, take a look someday at a native speaker of English whose

parents or grandparents spoke a Slavic language. Watch the articulation

of /b/ and /p/; you'll usually see that what moves is the lower lip.

The upper lip is tense, but it doesn't move at all. I used to know a

very good (and remarkably observant) linguist who lived for some years

in Pittsburgh, where there are many people of Eastern European descent.

He once remarked that Pittsburgh is full of people whose upper lip seems

to disappear entirely by the time they're 45 years old -- a reasonable

consequence of habitually using the lips as I described. They are,

nonetheless, monolingual native English speakers.

That's why I said something about the plausibility of some of Sonja

Lanehart's survey sentences in non-standard, foreign-language-influenced

varieties of English I have heard in the U.S. Maybe, just maybe, we'd

lose some interesting data if we left such possibilities out because

they "really" aren't *pure* English.

A query too: I've never heard the term "Platform English." What is

the history of this term? I assume it's the equivalent of "Media

English" or an assumed "General (Midwest) American"? Or does it refer only to "coached

English," for example, for elocution or debate?

The term goes back to pre-TV days, perhaps even before network radio,

when a generally accepted "Media English" was not established in the

U.S. "Platform English", the kind you expected to hear from a lecture

platform as used by an educated speaker, was (usually) a learned second

language. It was regarded as a special, and desirable, variety of

"proper English". Its model was whatever elocution teachers taught.

Its most-emphasized norms may well have been deliberately chosen as

markers precisely because they did not occur in anyone's normal, native

speech. Unlike English U as it is still taught to members of the

British upper class, Platform English was not supposed to serve as a

class marker in everyday speech. Platform English was not supposed to

be spoken in everyday life: it was meant for the lecture platform alone.

Platform English is (or, rather, was) not "General (Midwest) American"

at all. Neither was it Leonard Bloomfield's SAM, or Standard Average

Midwestern. The conscious goal of speaking platform English was to

remove all regionalisms -- an obvious impossibility. The goal was

widely held, nonetheless.

Schoolteachers tried to produce something similar when trying to teach

"proper English" to their students. I still remember a fourth or fifth

grade teacher who tried to teach me and my classmates not to "drop our

aitches". What she meant was that she wanted to hear us say things like

"HHHwhy was Moby Dick a HHHwhite HHHwhale?" That was far from anything

any of us would say. It was far from anything we had ever heard a

midwesterner say. When she wasn't around, just inserting a single

"aitch" before word-initial "w" was a guaranteed laugh-getter.

I'm laughing at myself when I say that Platform English is my only

native language. Still, I do have to make a conscious code switch if I

want to talk like a normal human being. The switch is always to a fair

approximation of some other specific dialect of English, not any

generalized average of all the Englishes I've ever heard.

-- mike salovesh salovesh[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

anthropology department

northern illinois university PEACE !!!