We Should Celebrate Our Bilingual President

Barack Obama's ability to speak Ebonics is nothing to be ashamed of, says our resident linguist.


During President Obama’s address to the Congressional Black Caucus recently, besides riling some columnists with his message, he was, as one might phrase it, dropping some Ebonics. Or especially some g’s, spiritedly advising the assembled to “stop complainin’ ” and “grumblin’.”

The audience seemed to like it, but news sources varied on how they recorded the speech. Many outlets decided that the president needed some “correcting” in print, and had him referring to “complaining” and “grumbling.” But the Associated Press transcribed it complete with the missing g’s. Did the AP dis the president?

To some, the president’s ability to use Black English — or, as academic specialists often term it, African American Vernacular English — demonstrates an ability to tailor his message effectively to a different audience. However, just as many — and likely more — think that in this case, the medium of the message is inherently deficient. Under this analysis, “correcting” Obama’s language would seem germane. Wouldn’t not doing so imply that he, and black people in general, have a grammar deficit?

Easy as it is to think so, no. African slaves heard a mixture of colloquial dialects of Great Britain that few Americans hear today and created a new hybrid language. Adults rarely learn new languages perfectly, so Black English involves possibly a dash of African melody, plus some scattered elisions and reinterpretations.

For the record, a quick aside for linguist geekery: the “-in’ ” for “-ing” is not a drop but a switch. The “-ng” is a single sound, not an “n” and a “g.” Notice that with another consonant pair, like the “ld” in fold, if you say “fold it,” you keep the “d” and say “fol-dit.” But now say “sing it” — you don’t say “sin-git.” The “ng” is two letters — but a single little sound for which there is no letter. It’s the one in Debra Winger as opposed to fin-ger. One does not “drop a g” — one substitutes a single “n” sound for a single Debra Winger “ng” sound.

And in any case, before we clutch at our pearls on hearing “-in’ ” for “-ing” in public speech, if you still hear “-in’ ” as “short,” we hardly consider ourselves slumming to mention, in business clothes to a superior, “Looks like rain,” instead of “It looks like rain.” Or: On public language standards, despite what grammar books say about “I” as subject and “me” as object, would you chirp, “It is I!” — even if at the door of the White House, whoever was occupying it?