All American Students Must Learn Standard English
What are words? A simple question such as this would in theory demand only a simple answer. Words, however, take such an abundance of forms that creating a truly inclusive definition for the notion of “words” is daunting. In its physical manifestation, a word is little more than air passing over taut tendons, forming sounds which are accented by flicks of the tongue against the teeth and roof of the mouth. These sounds are arranged in patterns that come to be recognized and accepted as words. But are these sounds all that words represent?—certainly not. Words command power. Although the defiant playground motto states that “sticks and stones may break bones, but words can never hurt,” we all know that words do have the power to hurt. They also have the power to heal, inspire, build reputations as well as destroy them, bring the purest of joys, and the deepest of sorrows. This power, however, cannot be credited to inflected patterns of sound, but rather to the thoughts, intentions, concepts, and emotions that such sounds come to represent. Indeed, the intrinsic power of a word is nothing, but the power of the ideas behind a word is limitless.
This distinction becomes important when considering the storm of controversy that surrounds the requirement of standard English. Although one viewpoint suggests that such a requirement is an agent of social imperialism (Smitherman 171), it cannot be forgotten that the true purpose of spoken and written language is to communicate ideas effectively. For adequate communication to take place, a speaker must use a medium that is understood by those with whom he wishes to communicate. Otherwise, both the ideas and the power they wield become lost in verbal confusion.
Historically, the rise of a language into common usage has been dictated by the effectiveness of that language in meeting a social demand. According to Geneva Smitherman, in her book Talkin and Testifyin, standard English as we know it today flourished in the eighteenth century to fill the void left by the decline of Latin (186). African American Vernacular English, or Ebonics, also formed to meet a specific need. Contrary to popular belief, Ebonics rose out of 19th Century southern slave culture, not out of repeated use of “sloppy” speech. Slaves who were strictly oppressed by their masters were not allowed to peaceably assemble or meet with each other for any purpose. Such freedom, slave owners feared, could foster coercive ideas amongst their slaves. Slaves, therefore, needed a language that would allow them to communicate with each other in a clandestine manner. Ebonics rose to meet this need (Smitherman 19). Using Ebonics, slaves were able to communicate behind their masters’ backs and form a unity that was instrumental in the perseverance of African American culture through the unspeakable trials of slavery.
Almost one hundred and forty years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation...