Sep 9, 201108:52 AM
Joie d'Eve

Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans

Grammar School Grammar

I got a comment on my last blog from an anonymous poster who signed herself “another New Orleans mama.” She wrote: “I had many of these same feelings of pride in Morris Jeff until my preschooler came home the other day and said, ‘Mama, I don’t got no raisins in my oatmeal.’ I almost fainted. Quite honestly, I would have rather heard the n-word.”

Now, I can get very defensive about my choice to send Ruby to public school. I can get very defensive about my own public school education. But my first reaction to this comment was not anger or even righteous indignation. My first reaction was relief: So it’s not just my kid who has started saying “I don’t got no …” and “I don’t want no …” And I'm not the only one bothered by it.

It’s no secret that language is important to me. I have even corrected my 4-year-old when she says, “Well, if I was you,” by saying: “Ah, ah, ah, Ruby. Use the subjunctive mood: If I were you.” And I once gave her a high five because she said, “Mama, I want less carrots – I mean, fewer carrots.” Not eating your vegetables: OK. Mixing up “less” and “fewer”? Not my kid. Not on my watch. And saying “I don’t want no carrots”? Absolutely not. You don’t have to eat the damn carrots, but you better be able to speak properly.

This new manner of speaking in double negatives isn’t a cute developmental blip or something, like when Ruby, at 2, used to say “I runned” or “I sitted.” This is something that just started, started the week after she matriculated to a majority African American school. And I hate it. And I hate that I hate it.

I followed the Ebonics controversy closely when I was in high school (I have always been a linguistics nerd), and I still get annoyed – all liberal knee-jerky – when someone tries to oversimplify that whole thing and completely misunderstands it in the process. I never even use the term “Ebonics,” honestly, except when referencing the 1996 controversy, because the term itself has such strong connotations. I try – I really do try – to tell myself that language isn’t about rules so much as about communication. And I really do love all of the different accents in New Orleans; I love to hear the different cadences, dialects, slang words. I love to listen to different people talk, and I’ve never had trouble understanding what people are saying to me, nor have they had trouble understanding me, even though I am ridiculously proper about my own speech. (Side note, but this is also true of texting. I have friends who will text “u” or “2” or “b4,” and it doesn’t bother me – again, the whole point is communicating a message – but I will still text back in complete sentences with extensive punctuation and no abbreviations. To each his or her own, right?)

All that said, I can sit here writing and saying that one version of English isn’t superior to another so long as everyone understands each other – but try as I might, I can’t quite make myself believe it. I personally am a huge advocate for ridiculously proper standard American English.

And I can’t quite wrap my brain around how my daughter went from speaking ridiculously proper standard American English to speaking in double negatives and slang in such a short amount of time.
However, she also came home last week and started answering my ridiculously proper standard American English questions in Spanish.

“How was your day, Ruby?” I asked when I picked her up.
Muy bien, gracias,” she told me. “Y usted?”
“What color balloon do you want?” I asked at the store.
Rosado, por favor,” she answered, her accent perfect, her manner nonchalant.

And I was thrilled. I love the idea of my 4-year-old being bilingual. I love that she’s learning a language that is so useful, learning about other cultures, expanding her worldview. So why did I react so differently to “I don’t got no homework tonight” than I did to “muy bien, gracias”? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t like what even the question suggests about me and my own prejudices.

I want Ruby to be a citizen of the world. I want her to be exposed to kids of all races, religions, ethnicities and classes. I don’t want her to take her white middle-class perspective for granted, to assume that everyone shares her values. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care what her values are. Is that a distinction I can live with? Is it a distinction she – or even I –can understand?

For instance, I have friends and family members who are Jewish, conservative Christian, atheist, lapsed Catholic, practicing Catholic, all flavors of Protestant, pagan, Mormon, Muslim and Buddhist. I am entirely comfortable telling Ruby that religion is a very personal matter and that we respect everyone’s beliefs but that we believe X. Our religious beliefs aren’t superior, but they are different. Just because I don’t want her to assume that everyone believes – or should believe – what we believe doesn’t mean I don’t have beliefs I personally want to impart on her as my daughter.

But can I do that for language? Can I say, “It’s fine if your friends at school talk one way, but in our house, we say, ‘I don’t have any homework,’ not ‘I don’t got no homework’”?

Is that even a fair thing to ask? Can you believe in grammar the same way you believe in God? Does correcting her grammar or not correcting her grammar teach the wrong lesson? Has anyone been through this and have any advice?

Because, yeah, I’ll admit than when I first heard Ruby speaking so differently than I’ve taught her, my first thought was: “OK, this little public school experiment is over. I will just sell all of my belongings and perhaps a kidney and enroll her at Newman immediately.”

But I don’t want to do that. I believe in public education. I believe in Morris Jeff. I believe in Ruby. I believe it’s all going to be OK.

Reader Comments:
Sep 9, 2011 11:26 am
 Posted by  MollyM

I refused to "understand" non-standard English.

Son: "Me and Van are going to the pool, OK?"
Me: "Who?"
Son: "Me and Van."
Son: "Me and Van are going to the pool!!!"
Me: "What?"

-- repeated as long as necessary --

Finally, Son, sighing: "Van and I are going to the pool. Is that OK?"
Me. smiling: "Oh, yes!"

Sep 9, 2011 11:43 am
 Posted by  Aaron

My parents corrected me when I got home from school, even after going to a relatively good grade school. If I only learned from what the teachers said at school, I would have sworn that pencil was actually pronounced pee-an-cil.

She'll have a good understanding of how people in the city speak and she'll also have a good understanding of how you ought to speak properly from you, when she gets home.

Sep 9, 2011 11:44 am
 Posted by  Oceana6

Wow, how do you go from your daughter picking up bad grammar to an existential crisis about values. Just correct her and stop the cultural lamentations. You were thrilled with her Spanish but why do you not care what strain of the Spanish language she is speaking. But the fact that she is speaking what you think is "ebonics" has caused you a moral crisis. Instead of wallowing in your cultural crossroad, dig deeper and examine your own projection that bad grammar may lead your daughter to become the "n-word". You have clearly laid out the typical options of most White parents who fear the same thing. Enroll them in lily White environments where they will develop their own supremecist identity and of course speak correctly. I grew up in the Northeast in a Bilingual household. I had to work very hard to learn proper English grammar. Language is a reflection of your life and your identity, which hopefully evolves over time. That is the challenge for children of all races. Your child is just one of them. Help her evolve and she will help others.

Sep 9, 2011 12:11 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Actual dialogue heard on the streets of St. Bernard (with apologies to Bunny Mathews)
Son: "Mom, where's the milk at?"
Mother: "Between the 'A' and the 'T'"

Sep 9, 2011 12:14 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I am so glad you brought this subject to light. I am of average linguistic talents, but it is such a scary subject and no one will address it. Especially our school system. It is being allowed to happen.

I compare it to allowing kids to do dangerous things that could hurt them, if not addressed, eventually something bad will happen, like not passing a test, getting into college or a job.

And I too recognize the local flavor of our unique dialect and speech patterns, our first words are "who dat". We take pride in asking "where ya at?".

The bigger and more frightening problem is the parents. Yes, you and other posters may correct your children's language missteps and show them the right way, but you know the major violators of the English language could care less how their kids speak. The last thing they are concerned with is their children speaking "correkly".

Now, fast forward to our current business climate, go into any business, government office etc. and just observe. Do you honestly think that they are actually communicating? No. First, the majority of conversations are social in nature anyway, therefore, slang, opinion, & attitude are intertwined with improper speech, creating an entirely different language.

And this problem is not just part of a racial divide. If you think that this is part of your culture, and condone it, you contribute to and solidify the problem.

Time to face reality. The problem is an extreme lack of education. I am sorry, schools are doing what they can, but if you can not speak properly, you are viewed as uneducated, stupid, ignorant and sadly, overlooked. And this isn't just social class either, we have our share of biz leaders, politicians and even radio & TV hosts who can't form a sentence.

First step is to admit that we have this problem and that not everyone is perfect, I'm not. But an effort needs to be made to change this. So, yeah you right, bout time somebody be bringing dis up.

Sep 9, 2011 12:15 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Hmmm... you pose a good question. Let me tell you a little story. When my sister and I were kids we would giggle and laugh at my mother when she was on the phone sometimes. Why? Because we could always tell when she was speaking with "white folks". She would "code switch", that is, change the way she spoke to Standard American English (SAE). We just thought it was HILARIOUS. We also knew when she would be speaking to her sister or her mother. THAT kind of language was the "home language". She always taught us the difference between the two and never MADE us speak in SAE at home. But you better believe outside of the home in formal situations, it was SAE all the way. It's not black or white, it's grammar.

I believe Ruby will be just fine. I do think that you had better search your beliefs and your heart as Ruby gets older and, because she goes to school with a majority of African-American kids, she will begin to become more ingrained in the culture, nuances, etc... of those kids. Can you handle her bringing home a Black young man as her "boyfriend" years from now?

I say this in all sincerity. Great article.

A Black woman who code switches... :)

Sep 9, 2011 12:24 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I don't understand our problem here. Your daughter has picked up incorrect grammar. Why do you feel guilty correcting it? I'm sure you wouldn't if she started talking like a redneck or a Cajun or a Northeasterner, for example.

Sep 9, 2011 12:38 pm
 Posted by  GYPSY

I have been a long term reader of your blog but I am disgusted and dissapointed in your showing today. This blog shows the height of hypocricy, cultural insensitivity, and the fallacy of the liberal do-gooder mentality of some "New New Orleanian". This attitude towards the speech of the majority of New Orlean's children is exactly what our city dosen't need. You cannot approach a community from the position of superiority and expect to be embraced or accepted.

I find it repugnable that you releif when reading that some ignoramus would rather her child use the n-word than bad grammar.So she would rather her child nurse an unhealthy hatred for others (or self) than fix a fixable issue? Utterly ridiculous and racist.

It is offensive that you think its "noble" to let your child associate with black kids in the public schools, so long as she dosen't actually "become" one of them. Its also interesting that you have no intellectual curiosity about what kind of Spanish your daughter is being taught. I can almost guarantee you it isn't the kind spoken in Spain. American Standard English, is just that "american". It is itself, a bastardized version of the "King's English".

The worst that will happen to your daughter will be that she will become adept at "code-switching", she will be fluent in the use of standard and South Louisiana Black Dialect. Not a shabby skill to have, depending upon the value place on black people and their contribution to society.

Imperialism was spread through the tongue first. While the languages spoken by Africans, Native Americans and Creoles has been largely eradicated in S. Louisiana the patterns survive. And if you are a student of linguistics as you say, maybe you should take the time to understand why people speak as they do in New Orleans before you denigrate it or clutch your pearls in fear that Ruby will become one of "them".


Sep 9, 2011 12:39 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

The negation system of AAVE doesn't use 'double negatives', it uses negative concord. IT's really not that different from standard English, which requires negative polarity items like 'anything' with negated verbs (e.g, "I didn't see anything", but ?"I saw anything" sounds weird and would be used under really particular circumstances).

Sep 9, 2011 12:45 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Oh, oceana6, I think you just proved the point about ignorance.

How in good conscience can you think that wanting people to speak correct English is somehow a bad thing? You need to examine your own cultural crossroads.

If this issue was being talked about in Mississippi, you would say she was lamenting the poor redneck white trash, if it was Houston, it would be the poor mexican immigrants, if it was jersey shore, it would be the guidos. And what makes you think that the issue is not important within various cultural communities. I have witnessed first hand my culturally diverse friends correcting their children’s speaking habits, just has I correct mine.

I think the cultural differences are taken into account. The issue is, again, "LACK OF EDUCATION". I didn't have the best education, and have a 2yr degree, but I certainly know when I butcher the English language and I am very aware of how bad that reflects on me. The problem , which you are a part of, is this “leave it alone” mentality. Tell that to the hundreds of young recovery school district teachers who have relocated their lives here to help with this very topic.

Maybe you are hiding behind your cultural and moral crisis issues. Maybe you are part of the problem. Apparently you don't care that a child will grow up, get put through the educational system, graduate, go to a job interview and not know how to fill out a job application. If you elevated yourself, why don't you encourage someone who speaks out, as this article did, instead of bashing them? The audacity!! Help others fix the problem and maybe this topic would be less of an issue.

If language is a reflection of your life and identity, as you stated, then what does that say about us? It clearly says we have not educated our children, and worse, we don't care and we prove it simply by opening our mouths and speaking.

Culture is one thing, ignorance is another. Don't confuse them.
Help others evolve...your words.

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Joie d'Eve

Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans


Eve is further proof, if any is needed, that New Orleans girls can never escape the city. After living here since the age of 3 and graduating from Ben Franklin High School, Eve moved to Columbia, Mo., where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Missouri School of Journalism and became truly, unhealthily obsessed with grammar.

She had originally intended to strike out to New York City and work in the cutthroat magazine industry there, but after Katrina, Eve felt a strong pull to return home, to her roots, her family, her waterlogged and struggling city – and a much more forgiving work atmosphere that would allow her to skip a routine of everyday makeup and size 0 designer label business suits and enjoy the occasional cocktail or three with an absurdly fattening lunch. She moved back home in January 2008 and lives in Mid-City with her two daughters, Ruby and Georgia; her stepson, Elliot; and her husband, Robert Peyton.

Eve blogs about the joys and struggles of living in post-Katrina New Orleans, the unique problems and delights of raising a child in such a diverse and challenging city – including her experiences with the public education system – and her always entertaining and extremely colorful family.

Eve has won numerous writing awards, including the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society Gold Medal, the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence award for column-writing and Press Club of New Orleans awards for her Editor’s Note in New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and for this blog, most recently winning the award for "Best Feature Affiliated Blog."

She welcomes comments, advice, empty flattery, recipes, drink invitations and – most especially – grammatical or linguistic debates.




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