Labov's 1972 book is still something to talk about

Anyone who remembers last year's controversy over the Oakland school board's decision to use "Ebonics" as an instructional tool knows that the subject of "black English" in the classroom is very much a live issue -- and an extremely sensitive one.

So perhaps it is fitting that the book that started it all is once again available at your local bookstore.

Linguistics Professor William Labov's book "Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular," first published in 1972, addressed itself to the very same question the Oakland school board asked: How can we improve inner-city black children's performance in reading and writing?

The question had already assumed some urgency in the late 1960s, and linguists and educational psychologists were already studying the speech patterns of black youth in several large cities. But much of the research was based on an assumption that these patterns were defects resulting from the children's impoverished backgrounds.

Most of this research was based on interviews with individual youngsters, and the children's limited responses led many to conclude that inner-city black youth suffered from a lack of verbal stimulation and a primitive verbal culture.

Labov and his research team went in a different direction: by spending time talking with gang members, vacation day camp participants, and other children in several large cities, they found that the speech patterns came from a well-established verbal culture. This culture had produced a distinct English dialect, one that had its own internal logic and followed consistent rules of construction and pronunciation.

Labov's research flew directly in the face of the established thinking of the time, and in an influential essay, "The Logic of Nonstandard English" -- Chapter 5 in the book -- he attacked that thinking head-on. In failing to notice the logic of black English vernacular and its ability to express complex ideas, he argued, educators and researchers mistakenly classed an entire social group as ignorant when all it lacked was the ability to use middle-class English to express itself. He even went on to argue that middle-class English speakers were often less clear in expressing ideas than were black English vernacular speakers.

Labov also attacked scholars who used the surface contradictions of black English vernacular to justify their view that blacks were innately less intelligent than whites, and noted the damage such views caused in the classroom. "There is no reason to believe that any nonstandard vernacular is in itself an obstacle to learning," he wrote. "The chief problem is ignorance of language on the part of all concerned."

It was a provocative argument then, and it remains so now: "'The Logic of Nonstandard English' has been frequently reprinted," he said.

Since the book appeared, he said, research into what linguists now call African-American Vernacular English has expanded. Some of the most important research has demolished Labov's original assumptions.

"What we didn't know then was that this dialect is a product of recent times, not a legacy of slavery," he said. And another assumption, one based on the historical evolution of other English dialects, also proved false. Instead of growing more similar, he said, "since 1972, the dialects have diverged.

"A lot of the findings [from more recent research] have been new and surprising and have revealed that our earlier explanations were incomplete."

Labov is at work right now on a second edition of "Language in the Inner City" that incorporates these newer findings. The new edition should appear next year.

So why reissue the original now, since so many of its conclusions have since been challenged? Labov offers four reasons. First, he said, "there has been such a demand for the book, given that much of the research since is based on it, that I decided to make it available again this year." And while some of the book's assumptions have been overturned, he said, "much of the research in the book stands confirmed."

The book also remains valuable because, as the first major work on black speech to use sociolinguistic research, it serves as the foundation for all the research that has taken place since. In France, he noted, the book has been in print continuously since it first appeared in French. The University of Pennsylvania Press is reissuing the book in the United States.

Finally, he said, "Many of the educational problems identified in the book remain to be solved."

While disagreeing with the "ebonicists" on the roots of the inner-city vernacular, Labov shares their view that knowledge of the dialect's logic and grammar might help teachers teach students standard English more effectively.

A service-learning project at nearby Wilson Elementary School, linked to Labov's course "Introduction to Sociolinguistics," has Penn students constructing an African-American Vernacular English dictionary. "We're trying to make this relevant in the teaching of reading," he said.

Originally published on February 26, 1998