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February 21, 1999 - African American Vernacular English, Part 2 - 2002-02-12

INTRO: A local official here in Washington, DC, resigned recently over his use of a word. He eventually was reinstated to a job with the city government. But as VOA Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble report, the incident started a nationwide debate over the bounds of racial sensitivity in a country that is thirteen percent African American.

AA: The word was "niggardly." It comes from Old Norse and means miserly or stingy. David Howard, a newly appointed white official in a majority black city, used that word while discussing his budget. He was telling two aides that funds were tight.

RS: One of the aides was white, the other black. When the African American staffer heard that word -- niggardly -- he stormed out of the office. David Howard recalls what happened next:


"Rumors spiraled out of that, out of the use of the word, that I had actually used the N-word, and because of those rumors I felt that the trust that people would have in me was compromised."

RS: "The N-word" is the term many people now use to avoid offense when referring to one of the most volatile words in America:


"There is no hotter button that all African Americans agree upon than the word 'nigger.' It is the most highly offensive thing that anyone can say to us."

AA: John Baugh is a linguist and professor of education at stanford university in California.


"This is so highly charged in the African American community that one does not talk about it without substantial emotion. And you can refer to the dictionary and its literal sense and Make a case for why one should be able to do that, and in fact on our college campuses a few years ago the question came up as to whether or not students couldn't in fact use racial insults because our institutions of higher learning are places where language of all kinds should be tolerated. But for those of us that care about our fellow citizens, I would suggest that we refrain from anything that might even ambiguously be interpreted along those lines."

RS: But, in David Howard's case, not everyone agreed.

AA: In editorial comments around the country, some people said it was wrong to censor language just because of the way certain words sound or may be misinterpreted.

RS: But Mr. Howard -- who has since returned to the mayor's office -- says he learned a lesson:


"I think that a lot of good can come out of this, and I think that one of the good things is that it sparked a discussion about racial perceptions. And, I think that is really going to help all of us understand each other better. You know, we need to value our perceptions and our differences."

AA: At Stanford University, John Baugh studies those perceptions and differences. In addition to the David Howard case, we talked with him about racism. He told us about recent experiments he's done which showed that not just language but even accents can influence how people treat each other.

RS: Professor Baugh did the experiments with his students to study housing discrimination. The goal was to see if landlords would react differently, depending on the way someone calling to arrange housing sounded on the telephone:


"We've used a combination of Zip codes and telephone prefixes to target neighborhoods of different socio-economic incomes. I typically call with one of the minority glosses [accents], and I may be denied an appointment. Later I will call back with my professional voice, using the same grammar, and what we've seen is predictable: the non-standard dialects get a lot more rejections than does standard English. We've done the experiments in all neighborhoods as part of a random survey. And what's interesting is when you get the incredulity on the part of the low-income landlord who hears the standard English voice and asks, 'Are you sure you know what neighborhood we are?'"

AA: John Baugh of Stanford University has just written two new books on African Americans and language.

RS: Just a quick reminder, we're still accepting entries for our Wordmaster Name the Next Decade Contest. People are calling next year "y2k" -- but what about the next ten years? Our deadline is March 2.

AA: Everyone with a suggestion wins a prize, but the better the entry, the better the prize.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.