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SPOKEN SOUL by John Russell Rickford


The Story of Black English

by John Russell Rickford

Pub Date: Feb. 4th, 2000
ISBN: 0-471-32356-X
Publisher: Wiley

A lively, well-documented history of Black English with particular focus on the recent Ebonics controversy.

John Russell Rickford (Linguistics/Stanford Univ.) and Russell John Rickford, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, dispel myths

that Black English is simply substandard English. Too many people took the Oakland, California school board's decision on

Ebonics to be "one more spirited attempt at multiculturalism." The authors contend that ’spoken Soul," the dialect of

African-Americans, is rich and potent, with a distinct, consistent pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar largely derived from

African roots. For example, the ubiquitous "be" fills in the gap for a missing past and present continuous verb in standard

English, and "teses" is a correct plural for "tests" to avoid a triple-consonant ending. Though they agree that all African-

Americans must master standard English for survival in school and success in the business world, they emphasize the value of

Spoken Soul as a linguistic tool not only among black people, but in society at large. Culling examples from the work of such

acclaimed writers as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Maya Angelou, they show how even writers who had ambivalent

feelings towards Black English employed it to enrich American literature. Preachers, lyricists, and comedians still use it. How

then can educators teach their students standard English without debasing a rich oral linguistic tradition? They must, insist the

authors, develop an awareness and appreciation of Spoken Soul. They must avoid thinking of Black English as "bad English"

or "lazy English." They must learn its distinct grammar and pronunciation so that they can contrast it with standard English.

Only then will they be equipped to teach the masses of black youngsters the language skills they need to survive in the larger


A polemic that will enlighten and inform not only educators, for whom it should be required reading, but all who value and

question language.