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A Mouthful

Behind that Ebonics flap

By Bob Harris

THERE'S A PLACE called Boone County in the mountains of West Virginia, all Mail Pouch signs and old coal mines. The people are as honest as they are hard-working, and they work too damn hard to be as poor as they are.

Boone County doesn't get a lot of visitors from down the hill. The ones it does get are often federal law enforcement types, so it takes a while to earn their trust. They also have to deal with being considered stupid just because of where they live. Most of the folks down in Buckleyville--the big city in these parts--consider themselves superior, even though all most of them know about the mountains is what they've seen on Hee-Haw.

Strangely, there's also something of a language barrier. Because of their isolation, Boone County's soft Southern accent is still decorated by Shakespearean-sounding Elizabethan phrases outsiders have trouble comprehending.

The challenge is cool--it's neat to be addressed as "thou" with a straight face, but when you realize they aren't just playing around and (gadzooks!) they really do talk this way, the effect is more off-putting than you'd expect. Still, it's no huge deal. The Boonies, as they laughingly call themselves (even as others try to use the word as an insult) are as smart, funny, and kind as anyone.

Last year, I-62--the Sen. Robert Byrd Highway--was completed, and everything changed. Boone County is now off Exit 47, just up the hill from a Stuckey's roadside restaurant. Roads lead to cars and buses. Recently, the mountain children began to attend Buckleyville's posh new Rockefeller Elementary.

Problem: The kids from Boone were as curious and creative as any, but because of the language barrier, their English scores were terrible. This in turn affected all their other course work.

One of the Buckleyville soccer moms spoke for many when she wrote a column in the local paper stating that Boonie kids "just don't want to learn," preferring a "tortured, degenerate gutter offspring" of standard English. "Hopefully," she added, "they'll either have to learn right or go back where they came from."

Note how the grammar nazi herself misuses adjectives, adverbs, and participles--all in one sentence. (OK, I also misuse, bend, and conflate words all the time. But I do it because it's fun.)

Was an entire community of American children really failing, just because being born poor and in the wrong place makes you slow? Nope.

The simple problem was obviously the dialect: Buckleyville teachers just couldn't understand what Boone children said, and vice versa. Both sides tuned out. Nobody's fault. Easy to fix.

Solution: Recognize the differences, train teachers to understand the mountain dialect ("Boonic") so they can better assist the transition to standard English, and go from there. Anything wrong with that? Of course not. Except that Buckleyville and Boonic are fictional. Oakland and Ebonics aren't.

The difference is truly just skin deep.

At its heart, the Ebonics controversy has nothing to do with the best way to teach kids. The Linguistic Society of America, which would know, considers Oakland's plan "linguistically and pedagogically sound."

The only real problem here is that most white people just plain don't like the sound of black English, and those with race or class prejudices mindlessly assume that the speakers are lazy, stupid, or even speaking in a contrived anti-white code.

The poor phrasing of Oakland's announcement is also partly to blame for all the hoo-hah. Ebonics isn't a separate language, and by no means is it "genetically based." Turns out what the school board was trying to say is that it's a recognizable dialect with its own rules (true), primarily spoken by one ethnic group (also true).

But while it's not exactly encouraging to watch language professionals struggling to find the right words, at least someone is trying to find a way to improve our urban schools that doesn't involve surveillance cameras and cavity searches.

Come on, you really think folks out in WalMartPlatz know what poor city kids need more than the teachers who are right there in the room with them every single day? Unless my study and my books be false, the argument you held was wrong in you.

That's not Ebonics--that's Shakespeare. Henry VI, Part 1 (Act 2, Scene 4).

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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