human behavior

The new Ebonics

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Race & Ethnicity by humanb on October 21, 2009

So Obama is a hit in Japan. A New York Times piece discusses the growing popularity of his speeches there. The audio of his inaugural Address has sold 200,000 copies in Japan this year, and the English language instruction industry has seen an explosion in new materials based on his oratory. This is hardly surprising given Obama first became known after his riveting speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention – a speech which catapulted him to stardom.

There’s nothing more closely associated with the man than great speechmaking. So, it’s understandable that the English-speaking world would admire his rhetoric.

But those Japanese who don’t speak English very well…? On the editor of Asahi Press which publishes Obama’s CD:

Since the sales took off, he has received postcards from readers saying they had been touched by Mr. Obama’s speeches, but “those same people have said they were moved even though they didn’t understand English well…. Some even said the only phrase they caught was, ‘Yes, we can.’ They said they were in tears nonetheless.”

Mr. Yamamoto said there was a sincerity about Mr. Obama’s speaking style that listeners could perceive phonetically, combined with a delivery that was almost musical.

That’s funny and not a little remarkable. Still, the tradition of black American public speaking has long been characterized by artistic flair: poetic alliteration and repetition, interaction with the audience, cultural references and black American colloquialisms, slow build-ups of feeling with dramatic crescendos, empathy with the experiences of the audience, and humour at everyone’s expense.  When the black preacher or public speaker approaches the podium, he does sing.

So I get the Japanese appreciation for it. That pleases me. And I can understand these titles being published by Asahi Press:

Creating an Audience Frenzy: Learning From Obama’s Strategic Oratory

Speech Training: Learning to Deliver English Speech, Obama Style

Yes, I Can With Obama: 40 Magical English Phrases From Presidential E-mails

I feel something very different however, when I consider this new book and an interesting quote from a communications specialist in Japan:

Learn English Grammar From Obama

Mr. Obama’s English is easy to understand because he pronounces words clearly and speaks at a relatively slow clip.

Black English has been accused of being many things, but never slowly and clearly spoken, and never grammatical. Sure, there are those defenders of Ebonics who claim there are definitive grammatical rules to the black patois – some even say those rules hearken back to the grammar of certain African languages. But in the U.S., the term Ebonics is widely regarded as a euphemism for bad English.

I was an honors student all through primary and secondary school, but you wouldn’t know it by my spoken English. I was teased mercilessly by a few in my all-white classes for my pronunciations (“berfday”) and  suspect grammar (“I don’t got”). I learned to write English fairly well, but I had to make a conscious effort to produce articulate, grammatical verbal English. It just didn’t come naturally.

Obama never had my problem. Ebonics isn’t his first language. It’s not even his second (Indonesian) or his third (Hawaiian).  He may have had to make a conscious effort to speak Ebonics in his first few years in Chicago, because it just didn’t come naturally. Now, he’s not just bilingual in standard English and Ebonics. He’s found a way to marry the two languages into one way of speaking – an Obamaspeak – that charms and impresses blacks, whites and Japanese.

It may not be Ebonics exactly that he’s speaking, but after a childhood of taunts and verbal struggle, I absolutely love that a nation that highly values education, would seek to imitate a black man’s English.

Elsewhere: James Fallows of the Atlantic reports on the new Japanese verb “to Obama”.

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One Response

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  1. DarrylW said, on February 6, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Loves it! (a comment fitting for this post)


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