Word on
The Street
Fact and Fable about
American English

John McWhorter
ny man who is as bored as we are when it comes to sitting through a play by Shakespeare can't be all that bad --- and we applaud him for the suggestion that we should be getting good modern translations of the Bard so that you and I could go to a performance of (for instance) As You Like It and not end up being bored out of our skulls and trying to remember whether we were to pick up the kids tomorrow at the day-care. He says,
    Indeed, the irony today is that the Russians, the French and other people in foreign countries possess Shakespeare to a much greater extent than we do, for the simple reason that unlike us, they get to enjoy Shakespeare in the language that they speak. Shakespeare is translated into rich, poetic varieties of these languages to be sure, but because it is the rich, poetic modern varieties of the languages, the typical spectators in Paris, Moscow, or Berlin can attend a production of Hamlet and enjoy a play rather than an exercise.

However, when McWhorter wanders into the potentially explosive question of Black English --- and the question of whether it should be taught in schools as a special language --- he does go on. And on. And on. This is not to say that his ideas are silly or stupid, for his main thesis is that Black English

  • Isn't another language, but, indeed, a variant of English and,
  • Didn't come from Twi, Fante, Ewe or Fon or any other African language --- but, rather, from black slaves working alongside indentured servants who spoke with the dialogues of central or northern England, many of which have the same characteristics as Black English.

    To claim that blacks suffer from having to learn "proper" English merely because that isn't what is spoken at home is countered, and countered well, by the author's showing that in Switzerland ,or Finland, or Scotland, the language spoken at home is a far cry from that they are required to learn in school --- and that none of the youngsters seems to suffer from this requirement.

    McWhorter is, without a doubt, an expert on a variety of obscure languages, and the roots of these languages (not the least of which are English and Black English), and he certainly isn't blind to the problems in black children's lives which ruin their schooling --- but claims that it is something that the teaching of eubonics is going to cure he finds fallacious. Rather, he claims it is the psychology of disinclusion:

      The pathology of the inner city is so frightfully, exponentially pervasive that assigning the structure of Black English even a minimal role in the poor grades of its victims is rather like venturing that a one-legged marathon runner came in last because of the cut of their running shorts.

    He says, rather, the problems of blacks in school is what we could call the "5th grade syndrome."

      Educators have often observed that black children visibly turn away from school in about the fifth grade. At the school I attended, the quality of education was excellent, the teachers attentive and gentle, the neighborhood middle class and quiet. Yet even there, it was exactly in the fifth grade that a group of the black students began to isolate themselves socially from the rest of the class, and most importantly, they become "problem students" inattentive to schoolwork.
    The fact is simply that for most young blacks, public education is just another meaningless ritual imposed on them by a white world, and, by their eleventh or twelfth year, most of them are ready to bail out. The author says that this truth of blacks and their regard for schooling can be found all the way through the educational experience:
      I will never forget when a fellow black graduate student told me that before meeting me, my dedication to [a] subject simply for its own sake in a report I gave made her wonder whether I was "a brother" or not. The implication here of a dissonance between having an African-American identity and delving into an academic issue just for the fun of learning about something is sad, and yet so typical that the comment barely threw me at the time.

    --- Lolita Lark

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