Ebonics vs. WASPlish

This is a fascinating excerpt from a blog post about Newt Gingrich:

Linguists have long known not to be distracted by the decorative aspects of language, and that profound substance can often be found in unexpected packages; indeed, they are trained to find it there. A classic study, performed by the University of Pennsylvania’s William Labov back in the 1960s, shows that to be the case. Labov showed that in Philadelphia’s inner city, those speaking the roughest “Ebonics” were often reasoning more deeply than more educated, middle-class black neighbors. (This was just before middle class blacks started moving to the suburbs in the wake of the Fair Housing Act.)

Here’s a male teenager asked whether he believes in heaven:

Like some people say if you’re good an’ shit, your spirit goin’ t’heaven … ‘n’ if you bad, your spirit goin’ to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin’ to hell anyway, good or bad. ‘Cause, you see, doesn’ nobody really know that it’s a God, y’know, ‘cause I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods, all color gods, and don’t nobody know it’s really a God. An’ when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ t’heaven, tha’s bullshit, ‘cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven — ‘cause it ain’t no heaven for you to go to!

On the surface that hardly sounds like what we call sober reasoning. However, Labov laid out the clear formal lines of logic expressed in this slangy, nonstandard vehicle of speech:

1. Everyone has a different idea of what God is like.

2. Therefore nobody knows that God really exists.

3. If there is heaven, it was made by God.

4. If God doesn’t exist, he couldn’t have made heaven.

5. Therefore heaven does not exist.

6. Therefore you can’t go to heaven.

Compare this to the more bourgeois person asked whether there is such a thing as witchcraft:

I do feel that in certain cultures there is such a thing as witchcraft, or some sort of science of witchcraft; I don’t think that it’s just a matter of believing hard enough that there is such a thing as witchcraft. I do believe that there is such a thing that a person can put himself in a state of mind, or that something could be given to them to intoxicate them in a certain – to a certain frame of mind – that – that could actually be considered witchcraft.

A teacher would have no problem with the phraseology; we all see the basic confidence in self-expression. In a television debate, this may not have even been considered a gaffe. But technically this guy didn’t say a thing of use. Is there witchcraft or not? What is it that “could be considered witchcraft”? Smooth talking and smooth thinking reveal themselves to be hardly the same thing.

During my brief stint as a journalist, I found that taking notes as someone spoke was a good exercise in sniffing out this kind of rhetoric. If someone talks for three minutes and you’re unable to write down a declarative sentence summarizing what they’ve just said, they were speaking to distract you, not to inform you.

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