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At no loss for words on the subject of Ebonics // A chance to earn big bucks with bad English

"'Sup?" the cabbie said.

"No, thanks," I said. After pigging out over the holidays, I was trying to cut back on my caloric intake. "Besides," I pointed out, "it looks to me like you've only got half a filet of fish and what's left of a small order of fries."

"What you be talkin' 'bout, my man?" he said. "I don't be offerin' you my grub; I be sayin' hello. You know, like, what's up?"

Now, I don't expect my cabdriver to speak like, well, a journalist. But I'd never heard him talk like this. "What's going on?" I asked.

"I'm studying Ebonics," he said, sounding like himself again. "And judging from your response, I'm guessing you don't know the language."

"That's not exactly true," I said. "Unless I miss my guess, you're talking about what, until a few weeks ago, was called Black English _ and what before that was called Ghettoese. Most African-Americans are familiar with it. It sounds rather like what our mothers used to call bad English."

"Looks like the man done got to you, my brother," the cabbie said. "Why does what we speak have to be "bad' anything? If a French dude tells you "bone jour,' you don't call that bad. But when I say "'sup,' you pretend you no Nintendo. Why you got to put our language down?"

He was winding up for his self-hating-black-man speech, and I was in no mood for it. "Listen," I told him. "I know a thing or two about this issue. I'm well aware that some linguists and a growing number of black educators _ and not just those in the Oakland, Calif., school system _ are making a deal of the fact that so-called Black English has all the earmarks of a legitimate language, including consistency. They make the further point that there's no basis for declaring one dialect inherently superior to another."

"You're not as dumb as I thought," the cabbie said.

"The prestige language within any culture is the language spoken by the prestige class," I continued. "And Black English _ Ebonics, if you insist, happens to be the language of the unlettered black masses. Do you really believe that the Oakland School Board can, by making Ebonics an "official' language, give it _ and the children who speak it _ more prestige?"

The cabbie was thoughtful for a moment. "Wouldn't you agree," he said at last, "that if teachers understood the legitimacy of the language spoken by many young black children, they might stop equating that language with stupidity? I mean, Hispanic kids might have trouble with English, but nobody puts down Spanish as a language."

It was a point, I conceded. "Do you imagine the teachers will be required to learn Ebonics in order to qualify as bilingual instructors?"

"And why not?" the cabbie said. "It's not that hard. As I told you, I'm learning it myself."

"How," I asked. "Tapes? Videos?"

"My brother-in-law," he said. "He says I'm coming on nicely, too."

"I noticed an error when you tried your French on me a while back," I said. "Just out of curiosity, who corrects your Ebonics?"

"That's the beautiful part," the cabbie said. "Ebonics gives you a whole range of options. You can say "she wish' or "they goes,' and it's all perfectly fine. But you can also say "they go' and that's all right, too. My brother-in-law tells me you can say pretty much what you please, as long as you're careful to throw in a lot of "bes' and leave off final consonants."

As a onetime proofreader, I couldn't believe my ears. "They'll have teachers learn a language that has no right or wrong expressions, no consistent spellings or pronunciations and no discernible rules? How will that help the children learn proper English? What, precisely, is the point?"

"Did you know that the federal government spends serious bucks for bilingual programs, including the training of bilingual teachers?" the cabbie said. "And don't you see, now that Ebonics is an official language, that we'll have a language program the white folks won't be able to test and certify?

"I mean if this thing catches on, a lot of us could pick up some nice extra cash teaching Ebonics in our spare time."

"Yo!" I said. "Maybe you be on to somethin' dere."

Washington Post Writers Group

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