Ebonics: Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism


Dear Professor Helfers,

In your composition and Rhetoric writing class, we were given an assignment to write a mock essay which sided with one of two authors. The first author, David Foster Wallace, should we choose to side with him, has more of a prescriptivist view. Prescriptivism meaning that there is a set system and guidelines for any given language and to stray too far from those rules would be wrong; unethical even.

The other author, Steven Pinker, has more of a descriptive point of view. Steven Pinker believes that a language is a living thing, changing with the times and with those who speak and implement it. To an extent, Pinker agrees that languages must have parameters, so as to not get out of hand, but, like everything in life, the ideal amount comes in moderation. There are linguists, for example, who subscribe to the idea that ending a sentence with a proposition is a recipe for bad grammar. To which Pinker responds, “As for outlawing sentences that end with a preposition (impossible in Latin for reasons irrelevant to English) — as Winston Churchill would have said, it is a rule up with which  we  should  not put.”

It is my personal opinion that Steven Pinker to me more than Wallace does, simply because I grew up, and am still growing up, in an environment where my spoken tongue varies from that of scholars, professors, historians, scientists, and every other part of society. All because of the environment I’m in. A language isn’t meant to be written or spoken way of expressing yourself that needs to stick to a certain ruleset strictly, otherwise it will be wrong. There should be wiggle room – room to adapt to the language’s surroundings and to the language’s users.

I would like to bring forward the case of ebonics, or otherwise known as, African American English (AAE). When the Center for Applied linguistics defined ebonics, they recorded the definition as,”Like other dialects of English, AAE is a regular, systematic language variety that contrasts with other dialects in terms of its grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.” According to Pinker, ebonics wouldn’t be correct. AAE, or any other dialect of a language, such as yiddish, is wrong. There is no room for it in our lives, and it should be forgotten. Why, though, should everyone be forced to conform to the same rules of language? If two people of similar backgrounds choose to communicate in a way that is not the standard vernacular accepted in a Webster’s dictionary, who are they hurting? I might even go so far as to say they are helping each other by strengthening their interpersonal connections as two people with a shared background, and, perhaps, cutting down on time in the process.

In 1997, Leila Monaghan of Pitzer College wrote an article for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology column. In her column, she quotes THe Blueprint of Hip Hop, where they sing “Why isn’t young black kids taught BLACK? They’re only taught to read, write, and act. It’s like teaching a dog to be a cat.” And perhaps Boogie Down Productions are correct. Why are we teaching the same language to everybody when not everyone speaks the same language?

The Center for Applied Linguistics writes how, “Speakers of AAE do not fail to speak Standard American English [SAE], but succeed in speaking African American English with all its systematicity.” Why can’t ebonics be accepted as ebonics, instead of ostracized as SAE? John R. Rickford explains some ebonics terms, in his article labeled Ebonics Notes and Discussion dated December, 1996. “”Befo’ you know it, he be done aced de tesses.” (SE Before you know it, he will have already aced the tests.)” My question still stands then. If two people understand each other perfectly well, why is it considered wrong, at least to prescriptivists like DFW, for them to speak in such a manner?


One thought on “Ebonics: Prescriptivism vs. Descriptivism

  1. Dear Mr Fuld —

    I enjoyed your essay very much. Whether ebonics is “correct” or not is a matter of politics and sociology, *not* a question of language. SAE is the dialect of “the ruling class”, and therefore officially “high status”; AAE is the dialect of a group which is discriminated against, and therefore officially “low status” — since it’s the high-status group that “officially” decides what is high-status! But each is a perfectly good way of talking.

    I think there’s one slight mistake, though. You say “According to Pinker, ebonics wouldn’t be correct.” Surely you mean “According to Wallace”? Pinker defends it.

    Keep up the good work!

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