Few things can match the sadness of the extinction of an ancient language. When a human is on his deathbed, his friends and loved ones are there to bid him farewell. He says his final words and passes amid weeping and bowed heads. But when a language is on its deathbed, its natural heirs carry on obliviously even as they strengthen the life of its murderer – by giving their stolen breath to form words of the alien tongue. But the alien tongue does not even need their contributions. English would have survived perfectly well without stealing Irish children from Gaelic. Arabic would still have flourished without those last few Aramaic speakers. Spanish would still be doing quite well without speakers of those Amerindian tribal languages.
While the passing of a language is tragic even when its speakers willingly give it up in favor of a more dominant one, it is even worse when the stronger language is forced upon a vanquished population. I think that the demise of a dialect is also a tragedy. It is symbolic of the decline of the culture that produced it. When I lived in Israel I fought hard for the preservation of authentic Semitic Hebrew. It was an uphill struggle, with the entire weight of government, educational institutions and the media against me. Still, I was not alone and had some success. Similarly, Southern English has always held a place in my heart. It is pleasing to the ear and represents the authentic America. It is also subject to powerful forces that wish to eradicate it: the mainstream media, government and the education system.
One organization, which valiantly fights for its linguistic heritage, is the League of the South. This is from their website, DixieNet.org:
In an 18 June 1998 issue of the Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier, there appeared an article entitled ‘Are Accents Holding Us Back in Life?’ It begins with the questions ‘How much is your Southern accent worth?’ and ‘Could keeping it cost you a chance at a lucrative career?’ A professor at Mars Hill College in North Carolina proposes and ‘accent modifying’ center for Southern college students. She hopes to get funds (a big Federal grant, no doubt?) to study just how much of a Southern accent can hold a person back. Then the ‘modifying centers’ will reteach Southern students to achieve a ‘national standard.’ The professor cites the example of a top student who was a sure bet for a graduate fellowship in biomedicine at a top Southern university-until she had her interview, that is. The professor continues: ‘She had to go to a secondary institution. It was specifically her accent . . . . They needed her to be able to present at national conferences.’ One may question whether it is actually the accent that is wrong or the rank prejudice of the academics who denied the candidate her position on such grounds. One might also pose the question of whether the professor would do better by demonstrating such cases of true discrimination (and might we say, violation of an individual’s civil rights?) toward the purpose of eliminating the discrimination rather than the accent. It seems that once again in this crazy time of absurd reversals and values run amok, that the cart is put before the horse, Where too, we might ask, is the academic’s professed honouring of diversity-that sacred cow idol of current academia.
I highly recommend reading all of chapter seven, linked to above and I applaud their efforts. It is disturbing that, at a time that Southern American English is under siege, “Ebonics” is proliferating among young people. Even though it is true that “Ebonics” is largely derived from Southern American English, currently it is the embodiment of something radically different. A dialect is like clothing for a culture and is symbolic thereof. So, of these two dialects – Southern and “Ebonics” – which one should America be promoting amongst its youth?