By Joe Diorio
On July 21, The New York Times reported Dr. Henry Louis Gates was spearheading the creation of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English. I’m a sucker for reference books, and Dr. Gates’ project sounds like it has the academic chops to be worthy of joining a reference library.
For perspective, I asked Daniel Upchurch, Ph.D., chair of the psychology department at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, to share his thoughts. Dr. Upchurch’s perspective follows:
“When I read that Dr. Henry Louis Gates was overseeing the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, I was excited to see something of that nature being produced, but I was slightly perplexed by the implementation of the text. There are several questions that need answers before supporting something of this magnitude. First, will this dictionary cover multiple generations of words, or will it document terms that are already used through the United States? In addition, would this be an acceptable text in the classroom, whether in elementary or in college. Remember, students may logically say, ‘well, it’s in the dictionary so it must be a word.’ Would this change the entire grammatical structure?
“Nevertheless, this dictionary could address the issue with marginalized and underrepresented groups and standardized testing. When looking at testing, minorities will usually perform higher on fluid intelligence items versus crystallized intelligence items (fluid intelligence is the ability to think and reason abstractly and solve problems; crystallized intelligence involves knowledge that comes from prior learning and past experiences like vocabulary and reading comprehension). A great example I use when teaching on crystallized intelligence is the sofa and couch story. A child is asked, ‘what furniture is soft, cozy and you can lay down on it?’ If the choices were sofa, stool, and chair, some may select sofa, while others may have a hard time selecting the correct answer, possibly because ‘couch’ may be a more familiar word instead of a sofa. The moral to the story is that some cultures see things in different ways, and it is important to remember that culture is not simply tied to race, religion, beliefs, and values, but also History and generation.
“Words that are passed down from generation are altered and spoken in different ways. For some, it’s their way of communicating. For others, it is a form of community that allows individuals to relate to one another. The ultimate barrier is when an individual must travel outside of their community and try assimilating into another. The questions that may considered is, ‘Do I code switch, and will this transition be acceptable in my community?’ In addition, “Will my original language be acceptable in other settings?”
“The answer to those questions may vary, but one thing is for sure, establishing a dictionary on African American English would provide scholars in the respected field more information on the Black culture which may limit their levels of encapsulation. It could also be a way to better assess crystallized intelligence of African Americans and allow researchers the opportunity to obtain additional and respected literature on the Black community. However, I would suggest that experts in this field monitor the implementation carefully and use a collaborative model that involves the community, experts, school systems, and focus groups.”
Copy editing matters
One evening in 1960, a novice copy editor at The Wall Street Journal was hard at work when a rumpled old man shuffled up to him. “What are you doing?” asked the rumpled old man. “I’m trying to change some things here to make it more understandable,” said the novice editor.
“Good,” said the rumpled old man. “The easiest thing for the reader to do is to quit reading.”
As the rumpled old man shuffled off the novice copy editor asked a co-worker, “Who was that guy?”
“That’s Barney Kilgore, he runs the place.”
Kilgore was the managing editor of The Journal from 1941 to 1965. He also was the head of the Dow Jones Company. He thoroughly understood the need for good editors, as this article demonstrates. Let’s hope the understanding of good copy editing never goes away.
Hurricane Ian Relief
Hurricane Ian blew through Southwest Florida on September 29, causing damage that is beyond anyone’s comprehension. Our home was not damaged; we were just without electricity (or cell phone service – digital withdrawal is real) for three days. Most other people were not so fortunate. Southwest Florida looks like it went a few rounds with Mike Tyson. People are hurting. Please help. Here is a link to the Southwest Florida Community Relief Fund. One hundred percent of every donation goes directly to people in the community.
Let’s write carefully out there, people.
Joe Diorio is a writer living in Fort Myers, Florida. His triple award-winning book, A Few Words About Words, is available wherever fine books are sold.