junie b. good

a friend sent me this link to the new york times website recently. (i think it will require a sign-in, but should be free.) apparently a series of children's books is bringing the great grammar debate home to the parents of kindergarten-age kids.

junie b. is the name of the back-talking trouble-making main character of the series. junie narrates the book and her kindergarten and first-grade reading level make themselves seen in the text of the book. according to the article, the narration contains misspelled words, improper subject-verb agreement and incorrectly conjugated irregular past tense verbs.

many parents favor the spunky heroine and the books' humor, but just as many are incensed that they expose kids to potentially harmful improper grammar and bratty behavior. this forum on about.com is a treasure trove of popular opinions about usage and grammar. this is another incarnation of the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate that has raged in linguistics departments and usage textbooks for several decades. bluntly, prescriptivists believe that grammar rules exist for a reason and that deviations from what is currently known as standard english should be corrected. descriptivists acknowledge the room for variation in linguistic standards and try to describe 'deviations,' rather than eliminate them. real people, of course, hold all kinds of positions in between. what we'll call 'prescriptivist' parents believe that reading improper grammar will cause their kids to have lower reading scores and trouble with grammar themselves. 'descriptivists' believe that junie b.'s speech is normal for a young child and not harmful.

as with most things, i believe the right position is somewhere in the middle. a bit of digging into both the ny times article and the about.com forum reveal this position: the books are good because they entertain children and encourage them to read. all kids make errors while they're leaning; it's probably interesting for them to read about a character who makes the same mistakes. but prescriptivists are realists in one respect; one can't go through life in our society using improper spelling and grammar and be taken seriously in school or business. proper grammar is a mark of status and education just like personal hygiene or polite behavior. i would personally argue that kids should learn to recognize mistakes so that they can understand the social implications of making them and make informed decisions about whether or not they want to. the junie b. books could provide a great tool for parents to teach the meta-analysis that asks not just 'why did junie say that?' but 'why did junie say it that way?' Link


green me up, scotty

i've had a couple of run ins with greening in recent days. espn (i've been watching a lot lately) is greening in san fransisco: an advertisement behind home plate currently says
let's green this city(.com, i think)
and, in route 66, where i'm currently working, the all-natural window spray i use to clean glass surfaces is called

greening the cleaning

in the first usage is a a standard infinitive verb following after a modal. in the second it is a past participle. it's a weird sentence fragment, almost like they're saying 'we are greening the cleaning' or 'you are greening the cleaning.'

for some reason, when i think of other verbs that occupy these sentence frames, they all end up sound very hip. i would say things like let's rock this city
rocking the cleaning.

so, whatever this 'to green' is, it sounds like something i want to do. more importantly, it sounds like some change i might want to bring over various mundane objects. used, as it is, in the context of advertisements and brand names, it must be something good.

'green' is widely used as an adjective meaning 'environmentally friendly' as in phrases like, 'we're a green store,' or 'the green party.' so it seems to be a way of encouraging hip people to convert their environs to the environmentally friendly. i also believe, though, that uses like these change how we think about the process of making things green. maybe it makes it seem gradual or plausible. maybe it makes it seem like something one person can begin by buying one product. advertisers must hope so. the only question now is: will greening catch on? the proof will be in the language.


the ascent of aave

aave, or african american vernacular english (a.k.a. black english or ebonics) is a dialect of english most often spoken by african americans. it's often considered to be a substandard version of english, though many have argued for it to be considered a separate language or an equally accepted dialect and view its substandard status as the result of racism and prejudice.

whichever side of this great debate you fall on, you can't dispute what i saw on espn a few days ago. a couple of their shows (i can't keep them straight--i think it was sports center and baseball tonight) feature two to four men talking. the men tend to be of varied ages and races, as we'd probably expect in this day and age. but i'm fairly sure that it's only in the last few years that any commentators have been using aave on the air while sitting behind a desk and wearing suits. one of the young african american hosts especially used some of the hallmarks of aave syntax, such as the possesive 'they' as in, "they offense weak because they quarterback ain't performing." (that's a made-up example. i should have written down what he really said.)

most interesting to me, however, was the mcdonald's commercial that interrupted the show. the final tag line was, "get much love," or, "get much beef," or something. at any rate, it used 'much' to introduce a noun. i can see with with a helping verb as in, "i don't get much beef," or with another modifier as in, "get much more beef," or as the subject of a sentence: "much beef was damaged in the creation of this burger." but as a speaker of standard white english, i don't think the mcdonald's slogan is a construction i would ever use. though i haven't found it in any of the lists of aave syntactic indicators i've consulted, i have an intuition that this is a feature of aave. the only other example i can think of is from sir mix-a-lot's 90's rap, 'baby got back': "little in the middle, but she got much back."

i'm hypothesizing that the use of aave by announcers and in commercials are two sides of the same coin. the acceptability of the dialect in a formal setting (a sports commentary show) is directly linked to its economic utility in commercials. i'm deliberately avoiding saying which one causes the other, because i think that's harder to demonstrate. does the acceptance of aave from announcers prove to networks that it will get their attention in commercials? does the existence of young aave speakers with disposable income motivate advertisers to target them and thus inspire networks to hire aave speakers? consumers, programmers and advertisers are connected in a complicated circuit that i certainly don't understand. the juice that flows through it, though, is certainly money.

i'm hardly saying this is a victory for aave and its proponents. it's important not to confuse commercial viability with other kinds of acceptance. for example, there's a long way to go from sports center to an executive board meeting. but this is a great demonstration of the fact that migrations of language, up or down, are always accompanied by social and economic change. as the dollar goes, so goes the language.