I recently sat down for a few minutes with a young man – just going off to college for his medical profession specialty – to coach him a bit on how to succeed in the world of higher ed. Two things were the focus of our talk: Speech and the “mechanicals.” Those are the “business points” of going to school.
Great young man, too (and a relative, BTW) – high school football star – but his dream of going to the NFL didn’t happen for two reasons: First? Well, his coach at his school played other players ahead of him…so he wasn’t seen as much after his junior year in high school where his numbers were excellent. The other reason (more an excuse not to play him, the way I figure it) was a minor injury, long-ago healed.
Caring breaks out at the damnedest times, times in the South, huh? But this is Friday Night Football land.
It was a great opportunity to help a young person – because he has medical rock star potential. What he DIDN’T have -until last weekend – was great spoken language skills.
Life has burdened him with a very heavy dose of Ebonics.
As luck would have it, since I’ve worked in black broadcasting as well as training hundreds of broadcasters, his speech problem was an easy fix. It will take practice, of course. But fixable? Hell-yeah.
This is one of those “inside secrets” of higher ed that should be more widely available for one simple reason: What we say implies our education and capabilities-levels more than anything else we do.
OK: Short course – Removing Ebonics
When I ran a broadcasting college, I helped dozens upon dozens of young broadcasters to lose their “street accents.” My contract lecturer on speech pathology (Jan whose last named I can’t remember for the life of me) taught every class these basics. And, she schooled me well in the “bullet points” that are easy to remember and pass on. It takes just a few minutes. So let’s do this.
First, a word about speech pathology: Few “break-it down” far enough in public schools to make Ebonics “correctable” to “standard American English.” But it’s a process. And as I tell everyone, there’s damn little that hasn’t been done before. To succeed at anything, just find some else who’s done something and copy their moves. Simple.
Ebonics may be characterized as “mumble-mouth” or “lazy-mouth.” No, that’s not racist or a reflection on the person. It’s a mechanical description of the speech pattern. Speech is a habit. A huge portion of implied educational achievement comes simply in one’s clarity of articulation.
Ebonics’ main feature is lazily-dropping the last consonant sound of words.
Try reading the following out loud and you will hear it distinctly:
“Lass nigh we wen ow…”
Next, read the same meaning out loud for comparison.
“Last night we went out.”
See? All this young man had to do was add the last letter which Ebonics habitually drops. Now, he’s instantly more understandable by people outside his social group. That’s Power 101.
Ebonics, interestingly, shares some components with Northeast American-English. Confusion of the ending R sound with the Ah sound, for example.
If you just heard the word “Lettah” would could be dealing with a down-easter accent from the coast of Maine OR Ebonics. Much is revealed by speech – right down to region – and how we speak! Down-easters tell is turning one-syllable words into two” Such that “There” becomes “They-ah.” Welcome to Kennedy-speak.
Maine ham radio operators use “Antenna tuna’s.” So do hams in the south. The rest of us use tuner‘s.
With the addition of last letters, about half the young man’s “street” speech disappeared. It was amazing. For a flash, I thought I caught that “No shit? This easy?” look. Way cool.
The second major Ebonics “tell” is in confusion between the “D” sound and the “TH.” As in…
“Diss tie we wen to da stoe”
OK…apply the “D” confusion “fix” and the “last letter” fix together:
“This time we went to the store.”
A minor note – depending on which “street” in which city: Middle of word “R” sounds can also be problematic: “Impoten…” versus “Important.”
This speech pattern is reinforced because in many minority communities, everyone in a particular social strata tends to speak the same. Unless someone explains Ebonics’ sounds and corrections, speech gets wrapped around the axle of cultural stress and doesn’t get resolved. You tend to “speak what you hear.”
Ever listen to Dr. Ben Carson? Damn well-spoken man. My point.
There’s an old joke about the US and (formerly) Great Britain being: “Two countries, divided by a common language.” Don’t look now, but that also applies inside our own borders and within our cities, too – regardless of size.
There’s more to, it, of course.
There’s a regionalism that’s mainly Caribbean: This is what I describe as the “Eye-lan taw” vowel-sound confusion. Eye-lan Taw’s main variances sound like this (go ahead and read ’em aloud!):
First is the SK versus KS confusion. Written phonetically:
“Lemme axe (aks) you…” versus “Let me ask you…”
The Caribbean variant of the D-Th confusion is often the dropping of the hard “H” in words where the hard Th sound begins the word. Again, try reading this out loud…
“Here’s dee ting…I taught you was derr…”
Instead of “Here’s the thing…I thought you were there…:”
The hard H sound can also “go missing” at the beginning of words, as well:
“Ay derr…” instead of “Hey there…”
Depending on island, the harder (but not long) A sounds can also be excessively softened:
“Ay mahn…” instead of “Hey man…”
Or, maybe “Dee bahnk” instead of the more (harder) sibilant “The Bank.”
Lose the residual was/were transpositions – an artifact of unequal educational opportunity, I expect…and presto: Ebonics can be turned into six-year advanced degree-sounding speech in a simple, short lesson that anyone can learn in just a few minutes.
In no time, my young college-bound relative just gained some important power to better present himself and his ideas to classmates and teachers. People judge others on what they say. That includes the how they say it.”
Oh, and yeah, it will almost certainly land this young man a better job because it will relieve any future employer’s concerns later-on in his career about working with the public. Given other factors being anywhere near equal, the articulating person will ALWAYS get hired ahead of the less well-spoken.
And that’s where the rubber meets the road: At the teller window at the bank!
If you know anyone who could benefit from knowing how to “change out of Ebonics into “six-years of college- speak” at will, please pass this along.
One of the greatest shortfalls of humans is they then to judge one another on their differences and not their similarities.
“Un yaw, mahn, dat’s da fuggin’ trute on dah stree. Axe me how I know’ed…”
BTW: A couple of personal background notes that helped me, as a FOWM (fat, old white man), be so “dialed-in” to people’s speech in general and Ebonics in particular:
When I was in high school in 1966 and 1967 senior year, every afternoon at 2:15, a sky-blue 1964 GTO with red-stripe Tiger-Paw tires and the Bobcat Valve and cam option on top of the 389-Tri-Power V-8 and 4-speed would show up in front of school. The driver was “Tom Cross, the Boss with the Hot Sauce” (go ahead, listen to his speech on that aircheck from KGFJ). He’d pick up his transmitter engineer (me) for read the meters and such during his afternoon show on “KYAC the Soul of the City.” 1460 AM and a Collins 21-EM transmitter on a three-tower array.
It was a 45-minute drive out to Kirkland, Washington from the Central Area of Seattle. We talked of many things including great speech for broadcasting. Tom, had come to KYAC from Rockford Illinois. He began to teach me a bit about Ebonics – and how he lost it – in an encyclopedic way. His success and speech in Los Angeles was brilliant.
Another beautifully-articulated voice I worked with was Sonny Buxton. He was hosting the weekend “Jazz Unlimited” show at KYAC. After Seattle, Sonny was for years – the co-owner of Pearls for jazz in San Francisco. Sonny is still heard on the Bay Area’s Jazz 91, KCSM.
I owe these gentlemen a huge debt in my life, along with the station’s then chief engineer, the late Lloyd Jones (Quincy Jone’s brother). Not just for the best music education in the world, but also many core lessons of how life that work on “either side of the tracks.” Amazing people all. It was an honor to have worked with them.
“Write when you get rich,