A "Wobbly" Start for The Undefeated, Or: We Can't Talk About Race Without Talking About Language

FiveThirtyEight just ran a piece from The Undefeated, an ESPN website that "explores the intersections of race, sports and culture,"  called ‘We Gonna Be Championship!’: A New Approach To ‘Fixing’ Sports Quotes: The cultural terrain we travel when quoting athletes verbatim.

In it, they discuss the tradition of journalists "cleaning up" quotes, and argue "This is a tradition that needs to go." They (correctly) argue:

"For one, it’s patronizing, with the implication that anything that deviates from the norm is inherently inferior and must be corrected. Black English, for example, isn’t a referendum on intelligence — it’s a reflection of centuries of segregation, just as American English is a linguistic representation of our country’s split from Britain. Passing judgment based on speech can often say more about the listener than the speaker."

However, it seems like the author has not yet really figured out how exactly they feel about African American English, Chicano English, and other non-standard or non-prestige varieties of English. Moreover, while correctly arguing that these varieties are not inferior, the author immediately launches into any linguist's least favorite argument: "Technically, it should be..." While clearly their heart is in the right place, they're actually wrong about the technicalities, likely in part because there's still almost no linguistic education at a compulsory level in the US, and we can't expect everyone to have taken an intro to sociolinguistics class.

In the interest of accuracy, I'm going to add a linguists' perspective to their discussion of language. That is, not just my own, but one I'm confident any linguist would share. These are the kind of things people interested in the intersection of [insert literally anything here], race, and culture should be thinking about.

  • They refer to Leandro Barbosa's statement "We gonna be championship!" as "wobbly" and use it as an example of where there's "no fix to be found." They're correct there's no fix, but that's because there's literally nothing wrong with it, especially if he learned to speak English from teammates who speak AAE. I can think of two possible things people might think are wrong with it, and I'm not entirely sure which one is the issue, so I'll address both:
  1. African American English allows deletion of verbal copula -- meaning the words is, are, etc. --  in the present tense, when it's not first person. That is, you must say "I'm," but you can say "we are gonna," "we're gonna," or "we gonna." The Toronto Raptors get this: We The North is their motto now.
  2. Championship is clearly functioning as an adjective here.
  • They write: "Do we consider Yoda any less wise because of his mixed-up syntax?" This is a decent argument when we're talking about non-native English speakers, like Carlos Gomez. When we're talking about native speakers of non-prestige dialects,  as is often the case, it kind of falls apart -- they don't have "mixed-up" syntax, they just speak different, equally complex and systematic dialects. It's just that the rules are slightly different, not that there aren't any.
  • Finally, they discuss someone saying "he's a idiot." The author writes: Technically, it should have been “He’s AN idiot.” This is incorrect. In the prestige dialect -- something we'll call, say, classroom English -- there should be an -n there, however I wonder to what extent the author could explain why. The word an is an allomorph, meaning it's a different shape for the same word, and it is only used before words that start with a vowel (think about it: a pie, an ice cream). Note that "vowel" has a specific meaning in linguistics, and it's not about letters: vowels are sounds that are made in such a way that there is not an obstruction of airflow in your mouth. African American English, and a number of other language varieties have a different allomorph: they have a glottal stop, represented by /ʔ/, instead of an /n/. Glottal stop is the sound in the middle of "uh-oh." Standard English doesn't have a good way of writing glottal stops, despite using them everywhere (think of Jason Statham saying "British" to Idris Elba). So both varieties use a different form of 'a' before vowels, but only one marks it in writing. Linguists avoid this by using the International Phonetic Alphabet, which has one letter per sound, and where you can see the difference (in bold) between "an idiot" and "a idiot" : [ən.ɪdiət] [əʔ.ɪdiət]. Notice that BOTH avoid putting "a" directly before a word-initial vowel.

I'm glad to see that ESPN is starting to think more about race and culture. For many people, professional athletes are their only regular exposure to some of these dialects, and it's only natural that when we hear things that aren't familiar to us, we think they might be wrong, rather than just different -- especially if we don't have enough exposure to see how thoroughly systematic they are. I hope The Undefeated will take language seriously, and not rely on "common-knowledge," folklore, and common fallacies to do it. Perhaps they need a linguist on their staff?


EDIT: A friend mentioned that Barbarosa's native language is Brazilian Portuguese, I've made some slight tweaks to reflect that. The broader point -- that athletes speaking AAE are often "corrected" -- still stands, and there are countless examples, from the recent discussion of Marshawn Lynch or Richard Sherman, to older examples, like the fact that Oscar Gamble's "They don't think it be like it is, but it do," has become an internet meme often used when people think something is gibberish.


©Taylor Jones 2016

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