The Angry Grammarian

What can we learn from Ebonics?

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Aug. 27, 2008

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When I recently received a letter from Philadelphia Gas Works stating that my "2008 budget bill will include a yearly 'true up,'" I nearly threw up. What is this language? Ebonics? Please comment on a city-owned utility using a phrase that I don't use or understand, but perhaps is common slang in African-American communities. And maybe that's who PGW is reaching out toward.

It means exactly what it sounds like: that PGW is nice enough to make sure your bill is accurate. Try looking things up before inadvertently coming off like a racist prick. Which I'm sure you're not.

The definition of the verb "true," from the Oxford goddamn English Dictionary: "To make true, as a piece of mechanism or the like; to place, adjust, or shape accurately; to give the precise required form or position to; to make accurately or perfectly straight, level, round, smooth, sharp, etc. as required. Often with up."

So it's not "Ebonics," as you suggest. But what if it were? Might that be clearer?

You're not a racist prick, so I can't imagine you'd have any problem with that. Ebonics refers to the dialect and vernacular common in what you term "African-American communities." They're just that--communities, not nations or regions. Your issue isn't one of language, but of size and, more specifically, power.

The old, largely unattributable truism that predates Ebonics holds here: A language is simply a dialect with an army and a navy. Even better is James Baldwin's 1979 essay "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me What Is?"--predating the Ebonics controversy by almost two decades. "Language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power," he writes. "I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way they sound."

In the case of "true up," we have 19th-century English to thank, not black people. Maybe if Ebonics were to get a hold of your gas bill, though, it'd come out in language you could better understand.

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1. Funkypants said... on Aug 26, 2008 at 04:48PM

“Jeff Barg rocks my world.”

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2. Andrew Mathis said... on Aug 27, 2008 at 08:19AM

“Sweet!”

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3. Judith Raidman said... on Aug 28, 2008 at 10:10AM

“defensive douchebag is defensive.”

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