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A Survey of Cultural Linguistics:
The Superfluous Conformity of Ethnic Groups to the Mainstream

Sebastian Mahfood

Written as an entrance essay for a doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison

10 January 1999

The cultural stereotyping of minority groups in America is the equivalent of ethnic re-segregation. With the initial publication of J. L. Dillard’s Black English in 1972, a pedagogical debate was fueled as to whether it is better to train instructors of English in inner-city black dialect in an effort to enable them to establish a greater identification with the students under their charge. Dillard argued that it does no disservice to native speakers of Spanish for their English instructor to have some background in the grammar and syntax of the language of his students. In fact, if instructors are going to be even the least effective in their assignments, it behooves them to learn as quickly as possible the linguistic differences between the English language and the language-group from which their pupils come. If this logic works in English as a Second Language programs, then it must necessarily also work in approaching any group whose language patterns are different from modern-standard American English. The problem that arises when applying this theory to practice lies in the fact that there is no standard mainstream American English, as all speakers of English within this country are divided along regional lines that form dialectical borders with one another. These areas of difference appear to be constant, but pulsate with the evolution of American English, which has been accelerated through the popular media. While television and radio news programs have long broadcast mid-Western standard, sitcoms and prime-time dramas have over-ridden their influence, and expressions that were once used only in certain areas of the country are now in common use in all areas of the country. As we can no longer presume to have a prescriptive standard by which to approach the study of English, it makes little sense to enforce absolutely a modern-standard approach to the study of the English language. Forcing bidialectical and polylingual individuals to conform to the rigid dictates of modern standard formal English grammatical structures in an effort to mainstream them into American society, without taking into consideration the background from whence they come, consequently, has a deleterious effect on their cultural development without proving wholly beneficial to their social consciousness.

The prescriptive tradition of linguistic theory has long held to the belief that language should be preserved in its nascent state, that the evolution of the language should be stopped by the establishment of a definitive codification of its basic precepts. Among these include grammatical theory, where certain innovations in the structure of a language are disavowed by the conservative establishment. Split infinitives, for instance, were banned by the first English grammarians who tried to establish a common set of rules for the English language after others, like William Caxton, had established print shops and had begun systematic publication of English-based texts. The reasoning behind this ban was that, as English was a relatively new language to the world of print, the grammarians found it necessary to base their grammatical principles on the universal language of Latin. As Latin (agere) did not split its infinitives (nor for that matter did French (aller) or German (gehen)), neither would English (to go). The main difference to be noted is that English is the only language of this group in which the infinitive requires two words. If there are two words, however, then a word can be inserted between them, whereas in the other languages in which the infinitive required only one word, it was impossible to do so. Characteristic of the rebellion of modern American to this principle, the television series Star Trek, which made its appearance over thirty years ago, always introduced the by-line of its program with "its five-year mission to boldly go where no man has ever gone before." It would not have had the same effect had it come across as "to go boldly," or "boldly to go." In spite of the fact that split infinitives have been used in popular media and elsewhere for decades, Oxford University just last year (1998) approved them for use into its lexicon. The point not to be missed here is that a living language evolves, regardless of what the prescriptivists say, because society itself is constantly evolving. New concepts and new inventions necessitate the use of new words and new uses of grammatical structure, the latest example of which is the introduction of the Euro as the common currency of Europe, where the Russians are presently trying to ascribe a gender to the term. As the tradition out of which the prescriptivists come is fast becoming obsolete, so then are its dictates to linguistic theory.

The idea of linguistic devolution, or the breaking apart of language into multiple dialects, did not materialize in response to the prescriptivist tradition, moreover; in fact, it probably did not even notice it. This is evident in the pidgin and creolized dialects of West African and Caribbean speakers of English. Because the residents of the West African coastline had to learn English as a language of commerce rivaled only by Portuguese, the commercial influence of English spread relatively rapidly. Alex Haley explained in Roots that slave traders who bought their cargo directly from West African tribes or Arab and Spanish middlemen were in the habit of mixing the rich diversity of languages found along the African coastline in order to avoid rebellion aboard the slave ships. The only language these tribes had in common was pidgin English, and when they were settled in America, the language they taught their children became creolized, according to Dillard, into gullah, or other forms of Black English. Dillard further argued that part of the dialect of white Southerners was derived directly from the influence of black slaves, as the children of aristocrats would grow up with black children and their association with these sons and daughters of slaves eventually tainted (or enriched) the white dialect. In many parts of the South today, the Ebonics signifier of third-person singular subject-verb agreement is carried over into white Southern dialect as standard spoken language. One is just as likely to hear, "It don’t make sense," from a white Southerner as from a black one. Other signifiers, such as indefinite article-noun agreement (a accident, a egg), lack of verb "to be" (he dumb, she bad), or inappropriate use of the verb "to be" to form the habitual tense to signify recurring action (he be comin’) are also found in common use in many areas. Prescriptivists would be quick to declaim these usages of the language as bad English, but there is very little consensus among the various ethnic and regional groups and areas in this country as to what, exactly, comprises good English.

Now, there is a definite advantage to being able to speak what is considered modern standard English in this country, an advantage which lies in the more expansive educational and employment opportunities speakers of modern standard have over speakers of non-standard English. No employer with international clients, for instance, would want someone in his or her employ who could not communicate with European or Asian nationals, whose primary understanding of English comes not from cultural affiliation with Americans, but from textbooks teaching the prescriptive standard. Nor would an employer who is trying to maintain the professionalism of his or her organization want someone on staff who could not speak intelligibly to American clients interested in business opportunities with his or her company. This issue has become so infused in American society that we have begun to make fun of such linguistic dilemmas, dating back to the eighties when the movie Airplane featured Barbara Billingsly of Leave it to Beaver as a translator who spoke jive. Moreover, an inability to speak and write modern standard can prevent one’s acceptance to a university or other institution of higher education. Students tend to write the same way they speak, and students with poor spoken communication skills in modern standard will more than likely have poor written communication skills. They will be more likely not to be able to perform to the level of their peers not only in writing but also in the volume of reading they will be able to digest and analyze. If non-standard speakers were to learn modern standard methods of communication, therefore, it would have a definite and positive economic impact for them.

However, while there is no doubt that understanding and being able to perform in modern standard are crucial to the success of non-standard speakers, the advantages that it offers do not outweigh the disadvantages of losing entirely the dialect of one’s cultural heritage. Zora Neale Hurston, a Harlem Renaissance writer in the twenties and thirties, was perfectly competent in the modern standard English of her time, but she was able to maintain her existence in both worlds, and was easily conversant in the Black English with which she grew up. In "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," she writes:

I remember the very day I became colored…But I am not tragically colored…Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past…Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all I have paid through my ancestors for it. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost…At certain times I have no race, I am me…I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall…in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless…could they be emptied, that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. (337-40)

The essay is written in modern standard English, with no reliance at all on the language of her culture, but it was not for essays like this that she achieved her fame. This just proved her level of education was on par with native speakers of modern-standard, and even excelled, perhaps, their education, as she had to move out of one linguistic code and settle into another, something which many of her educated contemporaries did not have to do. Her fame came with books like Their Eyes were Watching God, an excerpt of which reads as follows:

"Janie, you’se yo’ own woman, and Ah hope you know whut you doin’. Ah sho hope you ain’t lak uh possum—de older you gits, de less sense yuh got. Ah’d feel uh whole heap better ‘bout yuh if you wuz marryin’ dat man up dere in Sanford. He got somethin’ tuh put long side uh whut you got and dat make it more better. He’s endurable."

"Still and all Ah’d ruther be wid Tea Cake


"How come you sellin’ out de store?"

"’Cause Tea Cake ain’t no Jody Starks, and if he tried tuh be, it would be uh complete flommuck. But de minute Ah marries ‘im everybody is gointuh be makin’ comparisons. So us is goin’ off somewhere and start all over in Tea Cake’s way. Dis ain’t no business proposition, and no race after property and titles. Dis is uh love game. Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine."

"What you mean by dat, Janie?"

"She was borned in slavery times when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me—don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak the told me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere. Ah felt like de world was cryin’ extry and Ah ain’t read de common news yet." (108-9)

In writing this, she was able to draw from the cultural experience that created her into who she was. This was black society in the twenties, and it represented a rich cultural tradition that cannot easily be left behind without first abandoning those that raised her and loved her as she grew into an adult. To leave this entirely behind in pursuit of a career in white America would not have bode well for Hurston’s sense of identity, nor for establishing any sort of meaning in her life.

Of course, this literary tradition did not die with the Renaissance but came to life with it in the later novels by Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and in the more contemporary works of Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. And it is not limited to dialogue, either, but to the very prose with which these stories are narrated, as in Toni Cade Bambara’s "The Lesson," written in 1972, the same year Dillard published his book, and found anthologized in a text published in 1998, about a little colored girl who comes to an understanding of the differences between the black and the white culture in America. Bambara writes:

So we heading down the street and she’s (Miss Moore) boring us silly about what things cost and what our parents make and how much goes for rent and how money ain’t divided up right in this country. And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don’t feature. And I’m ready to speak on that, but she steps out in the street and hails two cabs just like that. Then she hustles half the crew in with her and hands me a five-dollar bill and tells me to calculate 10 percent tip for the driver. And we’re off. Me and Sugar and Junebug and Flyboy hangin out the window and hollering to everybody, putting lipstick on each other cause Flyboy a faggot anyway, and making farts with our sweaty armpits. But I’m mostly trying to figure how to spend this money. But they all fascinated with the meter ticking and Junebug starts laying bets as to how much it’ll read when Flyboy can’t hold his breath no more. Then Sugar lays bets as to how much it’ll be when we get there. So I’m stuck. Don’t nobody want to go for my plan, which is to jump out at the next light and run off to the first bar-b-que we can find. Then the driver tells us to get the hell out cause we there already. And the meter reads eighty-five cents. And I’m stalling to figure out the tip and Sugar say give him a dime. And I decide he don’t need it bad as I do, so later for him. But then he tries to take off with Junebug foot still in the door so we talk about his mama something ferocious. Then we check out that we on Fifth Avenue and everybody dressed up in stockings. One lady in a fur coat, hot as it is. White folks crazy. (492)

Not only is there grammatical consistency in this excerpt, but there is a certain poetic rhythm that defines the narrator as unmistakably a part of her culture as any photograph would do. An inability of the author to have been able to represent the narrator in this way would have lead to a loss of her credibility in describing a little Northern black girl from the ghettoes of black America. Moreover, were the character herself made to speak modern standard in bromidic undertones of acquiescence to white culture, there would have been no story to write.

Another good example of an American minority who comes into conflict with linguistic prejudice is found in Amy Tan’s "Mother Tongue," where she argues that the academic English with which she wrote her college essays and with which she gave innumerable lectures paled in comparison beside the dialect with which she grew up by her mother’s side. Though she grew frustrated with her mother’s lack of communication skills when faced by mainstream society, she admits that it was a comfortable dialect for the both of them when they would converse together, and later evolved into a language of intimacy between her and her husband. An example of which she gives in this essay:

Du Yusong having business like fruit stand. Like off the street kind. He is Du like Du Zong—but not Tsung-ming Island people. The local people call putong, the river east side, he belong to that side local people. That man want to ask Du Zong father take him in like become own family. Du Zong father wasn’t look down on him, but didn’t take seriously, until that man big like become a mafia. Now important person, very hard to inviting him. Chinese way, came only to show respect, don’t stay for dinner. Respect for making big celebration, he shows up. Mean gives lots of respect. Chinese custom. Chinese social life that way. If too important won’t have to stay too long. He come to my wedding. I didn’t see, I heard it. I gone to boy’s side, they have YMCA dinner. Chinese age I was nineteen. (637)

The greatest part about writing her novels, which include the Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, she declared, lay in the response she received from her mother regarding them, where her mother praised her work by telling her it was so easy to read, by fulfilling that part of Tan’s culture which was intrinsically hers.

It is not just black Americans or other minorities who have this heritage, though. John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men in the southern white dialect of the migrant laborer from Oklahoma. The following begins with Whit inviting George to a brothel:

"What’s it set you back?" George asked.

"Two an’ a half. You can get a shot for two bits. Susy got nice chairs to set in, too. If a guy don’t want a flop, why he can just set in the chairs and have a couple or three shots and pass the time of day and Susy don’t give a damn. She ain’t rushin’ guys through and kickin’ ‘em out if they don’t want a flop."

"Might go in and look the joint over," said George.

"Sure. Come along. It’s a hell of a lot of fun—her crackin’ jokes all the time. Like she says one time, she says, ‘I’ve knew people that if they got a rag rug on the floor an’ a kewpie doll lamp on the phonograph they think they’re runnin’ a parlor house.’ That’s Clara’s house she’s talkin’ about. An’ Susy says, ‘My girls is clean,’ she says, ‘an’ there ain’t no water in my whisky,’ she says. ‘If any you guys wanta look at a kewpie doll lamp an’ take your own chance gettin’ burned, why you know where to go.’ An’ she says, ‘There’s guys around here walkin’ bow-legged ‘cause they like to look at a kewpie doll lamp." (92-3)

Had Steinbeck relied on the modern standard usage of the English language, he would have sacrificed a great deal of realism in his dialogue. The reason for that is that people do not talk like they are reading out of academic journals. Language has a life, a color of its own, which transcends academic rules, and moves into the realm of what descriptivists, those in opposition to the prescriptivists, would consider the conveyance of meaning.

The dichotomy between the non-standard and the standard forms of expression, therefore, becomes all the more transparent when looked at from the angle of the literature produced by speakers of both, who can move easily and effortlessly between their dialects and the prescriptive mainstream. Nevertheless, it is not without its consequences that total immersion in the prescriptive tradition is often practiced in schools throughout the country. Juan Chavez, in an essay entitled "Do You Understand?" makes it very clear that being immersed in the English language was detrimental to his cultural development and his sense of identity as an American. He writes:

With each new year, I feel a sense of distance growing between my parents and myself. The older we become, the less we seem to know each other…Our problem arises because of one simple reason: their limited comprehension of the English language and my equally limited understanding of Spanish…During (my) childhood years, when my English vocabulary was at its lowest level—the same level as my parents’—my father and mother and I were the closest to each other…With the start of school, this bond began to fray…It didn’t take us (pupils) long to learn that Spanish (in school) was regarded as something bad, something not allowed, something to be avoided if we wanted to succeed in the world of school…In this way, through the years, English became my primary language…The only place where I spoke Spanish was in our house…I spoke it every day, but my knowledge of Spanish never expanded—perhaps because I had already internalized the attitude of the anglo world, that it was of no value…Had my parents (then) ever really understood anything I tried to say?…Caught between two languages, neither of which feels like my own, I watch helplessly as my parents recede further and further into the distance. (292-4)

Not only did he lose the affinity he once shared with his culture, he lost the closeness he once had to his mother and father. While he may one day take advanced Spanish courses in college to learn how to adequately express himself in the language, he still will have lost the common nuances of family intimacy as his new words will not be a part of his family’s usual expression, and he will never be able to reclaim the lost years of his adolescence.

Of course, such is not always the case for every child trapped by his own bilingualism. The introduction of other cultures is not an intrinsically negative concept; however, it must assume a concurrent role with the development of the child’s mother tongue, not a primary one. America is designed to be a great melting pot, though it is increasingly becoming a salad bowl, copiously filled with different ethnicities, which mix but maintain their separate identities. Richard Rodriguez proffers in "Does America Still Exist?"

I speak now in the chromium American accent of my grammar school classmates…I believe I became like my classmates, became German, Polish, and (like my teachers) Irish. And because assimilation is always reciprocal, my classmates got something of me…In the blending, we became what our parents could never have been, and we carried America one revolution further. (315)

In writing this, Rodriguez demonstrates his obvious comfort with the diversity of the culture in which he experienced his formative years. Like Hurston, he has no tragic history linked to the destruction of his identity by association with others from other linguistic groups. This is more than likely due to the fact that, unlike Chavez, Rodriguez, was able to first establish his identity and discover the role he played in his world as a means by which to span the hiatus which separated him from others. If effective immersion to the mainstream is going to take place, it should be buttressed alongside the cultivation of the child’s home language. The key to effective linguistic development in a multicultural society, therefore, occurs symbiotically rather than competitively.

A similar thing happens to every child in America who leaves the region in which he or she grew up and moves away to be educated in another area. After living 18 years in East Texas, for instance, I had developed a healthy sense of expression, replete with Southern colloquialisms, a twangish drawl, and the grammatical anomalies discussed earlier. At 27, with a Masters degree, two years foreign service, and two years living in St. Louis, I no longer communicate with the dialect of my homeland. I speak English without an accent, clear, crisp, and concise, and I write on a level far superior, if that term can safely be used, than the brothers I left behind, who never achieved my level of education. When I return home, it take some gettin’ used’ta the dialect I used’ta’ could talk, and I slowly slip baack inta da axsent I wuz wontz so comfterble wif’. My ability to code-switch does not mean that I lose my education or my senses when I do so, but that I am educated enough to know what circumstances warrant certain modes of expression or shifts in dialect and changes in verbal grammatical usage. Taking children out of context with their culture and forcing them to adhere to a modern standard that does not allow for flexibility in syntax or semantics before they are fully cognoscente of the dichotomy being created between their regional or cultural dialect and that of the academy, therefore, can destroy their sense of identity and prevent them from achieving an honest picture of themselves, as they will lose touch with where they end and the world around them begins.

Annotated Bibliography

Bambara, Toni Cade. "The Lesson." The Prentice Hall Guide For College Writers. Ed. by Stephen Reid. Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1998: 490-497.

This short story is about a young urban black girl who one day stumbles upon the dichotomy between black and white America.

Chavez, Juan. "Do You Understand?" We, Too, Sing America: A Reader for Writers. Ed. by Chitra B Divakaruni. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998: 292-5.

This essay is about a young Mexican college student who examines his life and finds it lacking in the fundamentals, predicated entirely upon the loss of his intimacy with his family after being immersed in English to the detriment of his native language.

Dillard, J. L. Black English. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

This book makes a salient argument for the integrity of Black English as a language defined in terms of its cultural heritage and historical development.

Hurston, Zora Neale. "How If Feels to Be Colored Me." Encounters: Readings in the World. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997: 336-40.

This essay describes Hurston’s evolution from a Southern black child to a Northern black adult and the discovery of her race during that period of time.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

This book deals with the issue of black living and survival in the American South after Emancipation but before true liberties were attained by black Southerners.

Rodriguez, Richard. "Does America Still Exist?" We, Too, Sing America: A Reader for Writers. Ed. by Chitra B Divakaruni. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998: 313-7.

This essay deals with Rodriguez’s growing up in the United States and his coming to cultural awareness.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin, 1989.

This book deals with a pair of white Southern migrant workers who find employment on a ranch in the West, setting the stage for the catastrophe that follows.

Tan, Amy. "Mother Tongue." Encounters: Readings in the World. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997: 635-41.

This essay deals with Tan’s discovery of her mother tongue and the vibrant richness she perceives in it.

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