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chapter 7 Ethnicity and Language t h o m a s p ur n e l l 97 Ethnicity is a major theme of this book: the fact that speakers use the language of the speech community they grew up in, speech communities that emerged from Native American, Yankee, or immigrant communities, is what makes Wisconsin Englishes a perpetual topic of lively casual and academic discussions around the state. These three ethnically affiliated groups are covered in other chapters, although we should recognize that in all areas the theme of ethnicity looms large. This chapter aims to clarify the often socially problematic place of a fourth ethnically affiliated speech community, the African American speech community, in Wisconsin language matters. In a community of speakers representing, at the national level, the most stigmatized variety of American English, language entangles with history, politics,education,housing,jobs,laws,anddiscriminationinmanyways. Race does matter, especially in language—but perhaps not in ways of which the public is aware. The goal of this chapter is not to give each nuance of race and language the depth and gravity the topic demands; instead, the aim here is to enable all of us to have a coherent discussion of race, cutting through language we consider, following Manning Nash and others, to be a surface pointer of more important issues. In The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World (1989), Nash argues that social groups are defined by boundaries that are perceived only through superficial, surface pointers. These pointers include such cultural objects as dress and language. We often, then, dress and speak like people we consider relatives, people with whom we share a meal or drink, and people who share our beliefs. This plays itself out in Wisconsin, community by community, especially where some defining characteristic is particularly strong. For example, German heritage runs through much of Sheboygan. It is such a strong feature of the community , in fact, that residents who are of Irish heritage from Sheboygan have admitted to being mistaken as German on account of the way they speak. In a similar vein, African Americans in the Milwaukee suburbs (e.g., Wauwatosa, Hartland, etc.), which are predominantly white, may sound “white.” This pattern arises because people living in mid- or small-size locales are going to similar schools, engaging civically with each other, and so on. In larger locations, the groups divide the community . For example, Milwaukee is segregated, and this segregation reinforces the boundaries leading to distinct speech patterns between blacks and whites. With this general framework in mind, we now turn to a consideration of what language variety is associated with African Americans in Wisconsin. What African American English Is and Is Not African American English is a term identifying a speech variety used by speakers—black, white, Hispanic, Italian, whatever—growing up in a geographic area that is predominately African American. Traditionally, Americans in general associate the most vernacular, that is, the most nonwhite, variety of English as being African American English. Just as some individuals with German heritage have a strong accent, while other speakers of English identifying strongly with a Teutonic heritage that lacks any hint of the motherland, so too African Americans span a range from Standard American English speakers to a nonstandard variety labeled “ebonics,” “black English,” “African American vernacular English” (AAVE), “black street speech” (John Baugh’s phrase), “jive,” “slang,” and so forth (Lisa Green, in her authoritative text on the subject , lists no less than fifteen different terms for the speech variety.) Each of these common terms has a history and focuses on a particular dynamic. In 1973, Robert Williams and other black academics coined 98 thomas purnell the term ebonics (ebony plus phonics, or, approximately, black sounds) as a means of reclaiming the African heritage of the speech forms. The historical narrative of the term—as told by both Robert Williams and Ernie Smith—is worth reading, and it can be contextualized as a way of taking a frontal approach to pervasive linguistic profiling and discrimination of African Americans. This approach is essentially one of language planning, that is, of making a conscious change to language based on public policy. Unfortunately, as Baugh points out in Beyond Ebonics, the term has gained, in large part due to public backlash to the Oakland School Board’s linking the term with failed educational policy in 1997, some degree of culturally negative and perhaps in the worst case comical associations. AAVE focuses on the differentness of the variety...


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