The heated debate over whether Ebonics should be used in the classroom comes as no surprise to socio-linguists, who study how people mold language to their needs and how language molds people's views of one another.
So crucial is a common language to people's sense of security, experts say, that the smallest difference -- whether it's a foreign accent or a nonstandard grammar, as occurs in Ebonics -- can quickly bring to the surface deep-seated, ethnic fears.
"As soon as someone opens his mouth, we make judgments," said Stanford University linguist Merritt Ruhlen. "It's almost as visible as skin color."
Compared with skin color, language offers far more opportunities to discriminate. People speak approximately 5,000 different languages around the world, 1,000 of them in Africa alone. Countless dialects -- or variants of mother tongues -- enrich the linguistic spectrum further.
Yet from a linguistic point of view, linguists say, there is no such thing as a good language or a bad one. Nor are dialects subject to judgment, so long as they meet the basic requirement of having clearly defined rules. In that regard, Ebonics -- which most linguists call black or African American English -- passes the test.
That conclusion was formalized late last week by the executive committee of the Linguistic Society of America, which passed a resolution at the association's annual meeting in Chicago validating Ebonics as an acceptable derivation of English and supporting the Oakland school system's recently stated intention to use it to help students learn standard English.
"People used to believe that African American English was illogical, poorly constructed and inadequate for any cognitive or linguistic growth," said John R. Rickford, a Stanford University professor who serves on the society's governing board. "This is the same view we're hearing now from some white people who are upset that this should get any quarter in the schools. But while it is certainly different from standard English, it is not inferior.
"The important question is, Is it systematic, regular and complex insofar as it involves a vocabulary or lexicon, a phonology or sound system, and a grammar -- a set of rules?' " Rickford said. Black English meets those requirements, he said, and as such it deserves respect even as students are encouraged to learn the standard English they will need to advance in American society.
The public controversy over how schools ought to deal with black English has been exacerbated, some linguists said, because some people believed that the Oakland school system was endorsing black English as a separate language. The linguistic society resolution sidestepped this question, noting the distinction between a language and a dialect is often more political than linguistic. But experts tend to agree that black English is not a language.
Language is a spoken form of communication with rules of pronunciation and grammar that make it unintelligible to people who speak only other languages. That is not the case with Ebonics. Although standard English speakers unfamiliar with Ebonics may have trouble understanding some black English words or phrases, the similarities far outweigh the differences. Speakers of standard English generally are able to understand 80 percent or more of black English, the level of intelligibility that many linguists say indicates a shared language.
Many linguists call black English an English dialect that is as unique and well-defined as Australian English, Irish English or any of the dozens of other English dialects spoken around the world.
There are four types of dialects, said Harold C. Fleming, a retired Boston University linguist and founder of the Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory.
Regional dialects, such as American Southern English, are geographically based. Occupational dialects are pegged to jobs. (Among television news reporters, for example, "almost everyone sounds like Diane Sawyer -- even the men," Fleming said.)
Ideolects are personal dialects. William Buckley's hallmark English is an excellent example, Fleming said, consisting of a unique blend of mostly New England and Long Island English.
Social dialects, of which black English is representative, are specific to a cultural or social group and often a target of discrimination.
Remember the plight of Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," as the Cockney speaker struggled to say where in Spain the rain mainly falls, to break free of society's biases? "The situation with black English is so much like Cockney it's amazing," Fleming said.
George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the play "Pygmalion" upon which "My Fair Lady" was based, was well aware of how quick society is to judge people by their dialects. "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth," he wrote in the introduction to Pygmalion, "without making some other Englishman despise him."
Linguists, however, say such judgments are arbitrary.
"If history had gone differently and Africans had come over and founded America and raided Europe and brought white slaves over, and this country ended up with a 10 percent white minority that was kept in ghettos and spoke white English, you'd find the same problems in reverse," Ruhlen said. "People would be saying, Why can't the whites learn good black English?' We spend all our time in school learning good' and bad' grammar and can't see that it's an historical accident that white English is called the best."
That doesn't mean they are equally profitable in American society, and the linguistic society resolution encourages efforts to help speakers of black English learn standard English. Ironically, several experts said, the battle to keep Ebonics out of the schools may slow that linguistic integration. Some researchers have found that classes incorporating Ebonics can help some students make the transition to standard English.