Beverley Gregory

Teacher: It’s because I’m awesome!
Student: That is soooo White!
Teacher: Care to explain how I could make it non-White
Student: Because I'm nice like dat

Above is an excerpt of a real conversation that I had with a student in my class during my first year as a New York City Public School teacher. Back then I had no idea that there was a marked distinction between Black speech and White speech. I just figured that language acquisition falls on a continuum and the various spoken vernacular has a place somewhere on it. Of course, I was aware that certain factors, like geographic location and educational level, might influence one's speech, but I had no idea that in a great country like America, non-standard English was considered "Black." I still remember telling a student to speak properly and I was shocked and disappointed to hear him tell me that, “I can speak proper…I can talk White.” Then he proceeded to say some gibberish in a mock haughty tone. I was devastated. But my devastation was not only a result of my American experience; in fact, I have had similar discussions with fellow Jamaicans about making patois Jamaica’s De jure language, and the language of instruction.

I am a part of an email group of Jamaicans--primarily professionals--who are scattered all over the world. We choose to call ourselves the Jamaican Diaspora. Oftentimes, we discuss issues that are current in our two prominent newspapers - The Gleaner and The Observer. One discussion that we had that was particularly emotionally charged was related to the use of patois (known in the US as ‘talking Jamaican’) in the country’s schools. Below is one of my responses to the group. The section in bold face is actually written in the style of patois that I speak:

"I totally reject the idea of patois becoming our official language. We must communicate in the global marketplace, and a language that only one country speaks and understands will not give us a competitive edge. All of us know how to talk and/or write some form of patois….we did not learn it in school, but we learned it because we were immersed in it. The good thing for us is that we also know the importance of mastering the Queen’s English. It annoys me….and comes across as hypocritical that people with our level of education (and by extension our ability to communicate in English) would even entertain the thought of Jamaica making patois official. Let me tell you what that would do….it would create a situation wherein as soon as a student finds an aspect of grammar challenging, they would throw in the towel….the way many of us did when we were studying French and Spanish in school.

In any event there are many variations of patois. The Kingstonians’ patois is different from the one spoken in the other parishes. And even in Kingston uptown patois is different from downtown, and educated is different from the illiterate. So which patois would be official? Furthermore, patois is the secret code for the Jamaicans at my work place….I don’t want the masses to learn how to break our code… doan seh nuttin’. Look here, I drove my taxi for a month afta mi tek it fram a ediat bwoy whey waan tek mi fe fool and even dough I rate myself as ragamuffin my passengers were not surprised when a nuff gal come inna mi car and ask if a masters degree people need now fe drive taxi. All a mi regula dem seh dem di noh seh something different bout how mi talk….and trus mi …mi no hype. Di holawi feel like a wee taak de bess patois….but a real patois man outdey would know seh yu a “bookgirl” ….to use a phrase a customer coined for me. "

The use of Ebonics – a word that is coined by combining Ebony, meaning black, and the tail end of the word phonics, in schools whose demographic makeup is predominantly Blacks would be injurious to an already disadvantaged ethnic group. Of course, there are some who would disagree with me, and purport that ebonics is "African American Vernacular English," and is a legitimate dialect of English with a regular, systematic language variety that contrasts with other dialects in terms of its grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. [Jason Feliciano] But to those individuals, I would ask one simple question: What is your agenda?

Gerrard McClendon, author of Ax or Ask? Came under tremendous criticism from within the Black community for daring to purport that speaking properly will give African-Americans the necessary skill to compete in the wider society. I must be a sell out too, because I endorse his views without reservations. I am well aware that Ebonics is the de facto language in most poor minority neighborhoods, and sometimes I find it useful to illustrate a scene from a literature text in Ebonics to ensure clarity; notwithstanding, it’s our responsibility as educators to prepare our students to operate in the global market place. Our students need the necessary skills to use a language that has universal appeal. Advocating the use of Ebonics will not help us to serve our students the way we should. Hence, for educated individuals to propose that Ebonics become the de jure language of Blacks is reckless at best; and holding obstinately to the misguided notion that its use is actually beneficial amounts to folly.

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(2007). "Ax or Ask?" - Racist or English Grammar? Retrieved June 2, 2007, from

Well put, Beverley. I am aware of dialects, and maybe dialects is too formal a nomenclature for them, but I have experience with a few European dialects. My mother's parents came from Alsace in France, which is on the German border and was also a part of Germany more than once. [In fact, she used to joke about waking up in the morning and not knowing if you were French or German that day.] I visited relatives there and the vernacular was a peculiar mixture of the French and German language, known as Alsatian. In fact, when counting to the number five in Alsatian, the numbers 1, 2 and 5 are French, and the numbers 3 and 4 are German. Most of the people in Alsace at that time knew how to speak French, German and Alsatian. Unfortunately I did not, though between those languages, some vague memories of English and my knowledge of Spanish, we could find a root word to convey understandings. The official language of Alsace is, of course, French and students there, and in other countries around the world are required to learn more than one language even in their early school days. The USA is an exception to that, which is a pity; it is much easier to learn a second language when you are very young.

In nearby Zurich, the vernacular is Switzel-Deutsch (sp?), and the official language is German. In other parts of Switzerland French is more commonly spoken. Once again, the local language is not taught in schools. In England there is something known as Cockney. It uses the English language, but substitues words that rhyme with other English words, and was developed among the working and servant class to elude upper class understanding. By the way, when I was in Luxembourg in 1970, I met a couple of British soldiers there. We attempted a conversation, but I barely understand them at all. It's too bad they could not speak the King's English. In Italy there were a number of dialects spoken at the beginning of the 1900's. My other grandmother knew at least three different dialects: Neopolitan, Roman and one from northern Italy where her family was from. Citizens of Naples would have difficulty understanding people from Milan. Her first cousin returned to their home town in the 1980's and found that the children no longer spoke the dialect and could not understand her if she used it. With the advent of a unified Italy and broadcast communications, these dialects have died out.

Language is not static. Perhaps in a few decades it will be acceptable business usage to use words that are now common only in instant messaging. Once upon a time it was incorrect to spell travelling, 'traveling.' Now both are deemed acceptable, and the spelling with one 'l' is preferred. I do believe, as you do, though, that standard English needs to be taught in every school in the USA. It serves no one to allow Ebonics to be used in place of English. I also think that native Spanish speakers, and there are numerous dialects of Spanish, also need to learn English as well. One reason is that even for them to communicate with other Spanish speakers, they may need to use English when they cannot understand other Spanish dialects. [Lynne Bailey]

This is a really interesting debate. I think that there needs to be standards, and there are for the most part.
While growing up in St. Vincent, we were taught to read and write in standard British English. That did not prevent us from having our own dialect when speaking in informal settings. We knew however, that in school we were to adhere to standard engligh whether spoken or written. I found this link very interesting and it might enlighten you further on the topic.

Overview of Cockney Rhyming Slang
Being an Englishman who lived and taught in London for several years I thought I would give you the low down on Cockney Rhyming Slang. Is a collection of phrases used by Cockneys and other Londoners. A true Cockney is someone born within the sound of Bow Bells. (St Mary-le-Bow Chirch in Cheapside, London) The term Cockney is now loosely applied to many born outside this area as long as they have a "Cockney" accent or a Cockney heritage. The Cockney accent is heard less often in Central London these days but is widely heard in the outer London boroughs, the London suburbs and across South East England. Rhyming slang phrases are derived from taking an expression which rhymes with a word. For example the word look rhymes with "butcher's hook". In many cases the rhyming word is omitted - so you find too many Londoners having a "butcher's hook", but you may find a few having a "butcher's". The rhyming word is not always omitted so Cockney expressions can vary in their construction, and it is simply a matter of convention which version is used. Cockney rhyming slang originated in the East End of London. Some slang expressions ahve escaped from London and are in popular use throughout the rest of the UK, but not too many people realize it is Cockney Rhyming Slang. In the last few years hundreds of brand new slang expressions have been invented - many betraying their modern roots e.g. "Britney Spears: beers". Modern Cockney slang that is being developed today tends to only rhyme words with the names of celebrities. There are very few new Cockney slang expressions that do not follow this trend. The only one I can think of recently that has bucked this trend is "Wind and Kite" meaning "Web site". For a list of Cockney Rhyming Slang and their meanings click the link below:

[Dave Manzalaoui]

It is a growing epidemic in this country that if you asked a student to speak or write proper english that they would probably have no idea what you were talking about. From what I have seen is that they write the same way that they speak, both are incorrect. Now with all the abbreviations it is getting out of hand. I listen to radio station on my way to work everyday and they play a game called abbreviation nation and it absolutely hilarious on how many people know these crazy abbreviations and how many there actually are. I was looking around and there are some ebonic dictionaries out there that are pretty interesting to look through, warning some of it really isn't appropriate but most ebonics isn't anyway.

(Doug Luciano)

Beverly your position is very well understood. As an African-American raised in a lower-middle class neighborhood I was immersed in an environment and a culture that used a lot of slang and broken english. It was very common for anyone that used proper english and complete sentences to be labeled as sounding 'white'. What was more interesting about this label was that it was meant as an insult. It was perceived that speaking correctly was the wrong thing to do and that only sellouts would sound like that.
I feel that a person should be able to communicate effectively in whatever environment they may find themselves. I tell my students that its ok to use street slang when you're in an environment where that is appropriate. However, in an environment where it is not appropriate, they should be able to speak properly and articulately.
Tim Sullivan


Ebonics? I call it butchery of the English language. Like you stated in your post. What's the real agenda?

Like you I have had many conversations with students that try to put a slang to the language. I always feel that the words are made up and have no real meaning. To tell you the truth I am not versed in the language of Ebonics so I couldn't tell you if there is a structure or format.

All I know is that when I was in elementary school, if I wrote an essay incorporating what we call Ebonics today, I would have failed and been sentenced to summer school for life!
Lee Nelson

It's an interesting debate alright. I am a native New Yorker born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn. I grew up in predominatley African American neighborhoods however, I am latino and my family spoke Spanish at home. I remember having tons of difficulty with speech as I had a very heavy lisp and needed speech therapy to correct it. but recall the therapist adressing the issue that I not only had a lisp but had a very heavy black/new york accent. making my time in therapy all the more difficult. However, I was never allowed at home (in english or spanish) to speak using slang or ebonics or anything of the sort. I family firmly believed that the ability to communicate with everyone around you was the key to a successful life and we all took great pains to make sure we could.
Joe Beauvais