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
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
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]niu.edu
northern illinois university PEACE !!!