The Scoop

A Mouthful

By Bob Harris

THERE’S A PLACE called Boone County in the mountains of West Virginia, allMail Pouch signs and old coal mines. The people are as honest as they arehard-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 itdoes get are often federal law enforcement types, so it takes a while to earntheir trust. They also have to deal with being considered stupid just becauseof where they live. Most of the folks down in Buckleyville–the big city inthese parts–consider themselves superior, even though all most of them knowabout the mountains is what they’ve seen on Hee-Haw.

Strangely, there’s also something of a language barrier. Because of theirisolation, Boone County’s soft Southern accent is still decorated byShakespearean-sounding Elizabethan phrases outsiders have troublecomprehending.

The challenge is cool–it’s neat to be addressed as “thou” with a straightface, but when you realize they aren’t just playing around and (gadzooks!)they really do talk this way, the effect is more off-putting thanyou’d expect. Still, it’s no huge deal. The Boonies, as they laughingly callthemselves (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 everythingchanged. Boone County is now off Exit 47, just up the hill from a Stuckey’sroadside restaurant. Roads lead to cars and buses. Recently, the mountainchildren began to attend Buckleyville’s posh new Rockefeller Elementary.

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

One of the Buckleyville soccer moms spoke for many when she wrote a column inthe 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 wherethey came from.”

Note how the grammar nazi herself misuses adjectives, adverbs, andparticiples–all in one sentence. (OK, I also misuse, bend, and conflatewords all the time. But I do it because it’s fun.)

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

The simple problem was obviously the dialect: Buckleyville teachers justcouldn’t understand what Boone children said, and vice versa. Both sidestuned out. Nobody’s fault. Easy to fix.

Solution: Recognize the differences, train teachers to understand themountain dialect (“Boonic”) so they can better assist the transition tostandard English, and go from there. Anything wrong with that? Of course not.Except that Buckleyville and Boonic are fictional. Oakland and Ebonicsaren’t.

The difference is truly just skin deep.

At its heart, the Ebonics controversy has nothing to do with the best way toteach kids. The Linguistic Society of America, which would know, considersOakland’s plan “linguistically and pedagogically sound.”

The only real problem here is that most white people just plain don’t likethe sound of black English, and those with race or class prejudicesmindlessly assume that the speakers are lazy, stupid, or even speaking in acontrived anti-white code.

The poor phrasing of Oakland’s announcement is also partly to blame for allthe 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 isthat it’s a recognizable dialect with its own rules (true), primarily spokenby one ethnic group (also true).

But while it’s not exactly encouraging to watch language professionalsstruggling to find the right words, at least someone is trying to finda way to improve our urban schools that doesn’t involve surveillance camerasand cavity searches.

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

That’s not Ebonics–that’s Shakespeare. Henry VI, Part 1 (Act 2, Scene4).

The Scoop is archived on the web andis available spiffy RealAudio.

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

Thispage was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
© 1997 Metrosa, Inc.

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