“The Lesson of Labov”
“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”
— Genesis 11:1–9
Anne Sullivan’s train arrived in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on March 3, 1887, at 6:30 in the morning. She had traveled from Boston to Alabama for a new job. She’d be working for the Kellers, who were waiting for her at the station when she arrived. They exchanged introductions. The Kellers told Anne how excited they were to have her there. They had sent someone to the station in anticipation of her arrival for the past two days. Kate Keller was young, not much older than Anne, who was herself only twenty-two. Arthur Keller, who served in the Confederate army and went by Captain Keller, greeted Anne enthusiastically and offered her a hearty handshake. There was a moment’s pause after the pleasantries had taken place. Then Anne’s face lit up. She asked, “Where is Helen?”
As they arrived back at Ivy Green, the Keller’s estate, Captain Keller pointed out Helen standing on the porch while they were still approaching up the long drive. Helen knew someone new would be coming to the house. Mrs. Keller had been bustling around the house all morning in preparation for the newcomer, and Helen could tell something was up. Anne walked up to the porch. Before she had even stepped foot on the porch Helen knew this was the special visitor. She flew off the porch, flailing into the Anne’s arms so wildly that she would have been knocked over if Captain Keller had not been positioned resolutely behind her. Helen reached up to touch the visitor’s face. Then she reached toward the vistor’s bag and began to search it for a key hole. She found it and made a gesture for a key. Mrs. Keller took the bag from Helen and tried to indicate that this wasn’t appropriate behavior with a new visitor. Helen became upset, having been prevented from getting at whatever goodies the visitor brought her. Anne took off her watch and began to amuse Helen with its mechanisms. Helen settled down.
Anne went upstairs to the room where she would be staying. Helen followed. Anne opened her suitcase. Again Helen inspected it eagerly. Anne pointed out into the hallway, then back toward herself, and nodded to indicate that she had a trunk as well, guiding Helen’s hand while she gestured to feel her movements. Then Anne made the sign she saw Helen use for eating, and nodded again. Helen bolted downstairs, exuberantly explaining to her mother through Helen’s informal signs that the visitor had brought her sweets. Helen went back up to Anne’s room to resume rumaging though her things. She put on Anne’s bonnett and, cocking her head from side to side, pretended to look admiringly in the mirror.
Anne recalls that first encounter with Helen, “Somehow I had expected to see a pale, delicate child… But there's nothing pale or delicate about Helen. She is large, strong, and ruddy, and as unrestrained in her movements as a young colt. She has none of those nervous habits that are so noticeable and so distressing in blind children. Her body is well formed and vigorous, and Mrs. Keller says she has not been ill a day since the illness that deprived her of her sight and hearing. She has a fine head, and it is set on her shoulders just right."
Helen found a doll in Anne’s luggage. It had been made by the children at the Perkins Instutite, the school for the blind that had placed Anne with the Kellers. Though not fully blind, Anne had herself had problems with her eyes. Helen took the doll and began to inspect it. Anne took Helen’s hand. She spelled d-o-l-l into it, pointed at the doll, and nodded. Helen looked puzzled. Anne was spelling into Helen’s hand with the manual alphabet. Usually the manual alphabet is used in the context of sign language, a means of spelling visually for someone who is deaf. But the same idea can be used with someone who can neither see nor hear. Instead of signing the letters in front of your body, you sign them straight into the hand of the person you’re talking to, so they can feel the signs. Anne repeated the letters, and Helen imitated the finger movements. Anne took the doll from Helen, meaning to give it back when she had made the letters once more, but Helen thought that Anne was taking the doll. She threw a fit and tried to wrestle the doll back.
Anne shook her head. She tried to get Helen to form the finger movements again, but Helen only got more and more angry. Anne forced Helen into a chair and tried to hold her there. Once she was nearly exhausted, Anne decided she needed a different tactic. She went downstairs and got some cake. She presented the cake to Helen and spelled into her hand c-a-k-e. Helen reached to snatch the cake from her, but she withdrew it. Anne spelled the word again and patted Helen’s hand. Helen quickly imitated the movements, and Anne gave her a piece of the cake. Helen scarfed it down, worried that it would again be withheld shortly. Then Anne returned to the doll, presenting it to Helen and spelling the letters into the hand. When Helen made the letters, she took the doll, ran downstairs, and wouldn’t return to Anne’s room for the rest of the day.
The next day, Anne gave Helen a sewing card. Anne strung the first row of lines, then let Helen feel the remaining rows of holes. Helen understood the task and finished the card within a few minutes. Anne then spelled the word for her, c-a-r-d. Helen repeated the first two letters, c-a-, then stopped and thought. Then she made her gesture for eating and pushed Anne toward the door, suggesting that she should go downstairs and get the cake. Anne finished the letters for her, c-a-k-e, then went downstairs for the cake. She returned to the room, but withheld the cake. Anne spelled d-o-l-l and commenced to look for the toy. Helen, always following Anne’s motion with her hands, understood that she was hunting for the doll. Helen thought for a moment, debating whether or not to join in the search, and elected to send Anne instead while she remained back to enjoy her sweets. Anne shook her head and spelled d-o-l-l again to get Helen to find the toy. Helen refused. After some prodding, she relented and went to retrieve the doll. Anne gave her the cake and again Helen disappeared from Anne’s room for the rest of the day.
Many people are familiar with the story of Helen Keller. At least the generalities, anyway. She lost her sight and hearing when she was very young. She had a teacher named Anne Sullivan, who taught her language through touch. She went onto Harvard (women went to Radcliffe at the time), and developed into an inspiration cultural figure, representative of the human spirit’s ability to thrive in the face of any limitation. And the more you learn about Helen, the more you realize how incredible she really was. She was the kind of person who probably would have made a name for herself even if she hadn’t had to overcome such immense difficulties.
But the way we often tell story glosses over what I think is the most extraordinary part. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan. What she had to do was the ultimate act of communicating with someone who sees the world differently than you do. It’s one thing to communicate with someone with a different cultural background or someone who speaks a different language. Even for someone who speaks a different language, you both share the assumption that the other one has a language and can use it successfully. Helen Keller had no concept of language at all. The problem that Anne had to solve is how do you begin understand someone who not only isn’t able to use language, but doesn’t even have the sensory faculties that we typically use to communicate with one another? Reaching Helen was as profound a case of understanding another faction as the world has ever seen.
This is a chapter about overcoming the language gulf between factions, and about how language, context, and perspective work together to influence the way we think about others. More specifically, it is about how we judge other people when the way they use language is different than the way we do. And more importantly, it’s about how we’re often wrong.
There was a prominent theory in the late 1960s among educational psychologists. Everyone saw that black children were lagging significantly behind in key educational milestones, and this theory was meant to explain why. Its proponents called it verbal deprivation theory. They argued that black children lagged begin because they didn’t receive enough verbal stimulation. Black children, the idea went, do not hear “well-formed” language at home, and as a result aren’t able to form language well at school. The accusation was dramatic, with some psychologists arguing that not only can black children not speak in complete sentences, but they don’t even have the logical constructs to entertain the thought behind the sentence. “Unfortunately,” writes William Labov, “these notions are based upon the work of educational psychologists who know very little about language and even less about black children."
Labov was a socio-linguist. His work was based on the idea that you can’t understand a society without looking at its language it uses, and you can’t understand language without looking at the society in which it’s used. In a brilliant 1969 essay called The Logic of Nonstandard English, he single-handedly took down the verbal deprivation theorists. "The concept of verbal deprivation has no basis in social reality. In fact, black children in the urban ghettos receive a great deal of verbal stimulation, hear more well-formed sentences than middle-class children and participate fully in a highly verbal culture. They have the same basic vocabulary, posses the same capacity for conceptual learning, and use the same logic as anyone else who learns to speak and understand English."
The verbal deprivation theorists pointed to certain studies, which they said supported their claims. In one study, they interviewed black children from a school in New York City. Here’s an example of what one of these interviews looks like: An amiable white interviewer comes into a room, sits down with a black child, sets a toy on the table, and instructs him, “Tell me everything you can about this.”
(12 seconds of silence)
Interviewer: “What would you say it looks like?”
Child: “A space ship.”
Child: “Like a je-et.”
Child: “Like a plane.”
Interviewer: “What color is it?”
Child: “An’ whi-ite.”
Child: “An’ green.”
Interviewer: “An’ what could you use it for?”
Child: “A je-et.”
The interview is painful. This is what the verbal deprivation theorists are looking at and saying, “See? That child doesn’t have the ability to communicate.” But Labov looks at this and has a different take away. Think about the situation, he says. It’s completely asymmetrical. The interviewer has all of the power. Literally anything that the child says can be used against him. The child has, as Labov describes it, “learned a number of devices to avoid saying anything in this situation, and he works very hard to achieve this end.” It’s a strategy, “which black children often use when they are asked a question to which the answer is obvious. The answer may be read as: 'Will this satisfy you?’” It doesn’t tell us anything about the children’s verbal behavior but rather his "capacity to defend himself in a hostile and threatening situation."
So Labov and his colleagues conducted a series of their own interviews. Here’s an example. A black man named Clarence Robins is interviewing an eight year old black child named Leon.
Clarence: “What if you saw somebody kickin’ somebody else on the ground, or was using a stick, what would you do if you saw that?”
Clarence: “If it was supposed to be a fair fight—”
Leon: “I don’t know.”
Clarence: “You don’ know? Would you do anything?… Huh? I can’t hear you.”
Clarence: Did you ever see somebody got beat up real bad?”
Leon: “… Nope…”
Clarence: “Well—uh—did you ever get into a fight with a guy?”
Clarence: “That was bigger than you?”
Clarence: “You never been in a fight?”
Clarence knows that as a matter of fact Leon has been in fights recently, though he won’t admit it. Again, the situation elicits defensiveness. Leon is still worried that whatever he says can and will be used against him. So what if they go to a more neutral subject?
Clarence: “You watch—you like to watch television?… Hey, Leon… you like to watch television? (Leon nods) What’s your favorite program?”
Leon: “Uhhmmmm… I look at cartoons.”
Clarence: “Well, what’s your favorite one? What’s your favorite program?”
Clarence: “Yeah? Did you see Superman—ah—yesterday, or day before yesterday? When’s the last time you saw Superman?”
Clarence: “You rem—you saw it Saturday? What was the story all about? You remember the story?”
Clarence: “You don’t remember the story of what—that you saw of Superman?”
Clarence: “You don’t remember what happened, huh?”
Again, the interview is a no-go. This one is a bit more puzzling though. The context is more favorable. The adult is a black man raised in Harlem, who knows Leon’s neighborhood and the other boys well. He’s a talented interviewer and has a history of getting good responses from boys of other ages. The topic isn’t something that’ll get Leon into trouble. Still, Leon doesn’t say much of anything.
So they change the context again. This time Clarence brings potato chips. He also lets a boy named Gregory come along, who is Leon’s best friend. Clarence sits on the floor instead of the table, bringing him down from six foot two to three foot six. And this time he incorporates the kind of things that six year old boys like to talk about:
Clarence: “Is there anybody who says your momma drink pee?”
Leon: “And your father eat doo-doo for breakfas’!”
Clarence: “Ohhh!!” (laughs)
Leon: “And they say your father—your father eat doo-doo for dinner!”
Greg: “When they sound on me, I say C.B.S. C.B.M.”
Clarence: “What that mean?”
The boys together: “Congo booger-snatcher!” (laughter)
Greg: “And sometimes I’ll curse with B.B.”
Clarence: “What that?”
Greg: “Black boy! (Leon crunching on potato chips) Oh that’s a M.B.B.”
Clarence: “M.B.B. What’s that?”
Greg: “‘Merican Black Boy.”
Greg: “Anyway, ‘Mericans is same like white people, right?”
Leon: “And they talk about Allah.”
Clarence: “Oh yeah?”
Clarence: “What they say about Allah?”
Leon: “Allah—Allah is God.”
Clarence: “And what else?”
Leon: “I don’ know the res’.”
Greg: “Allah—Allah is God, Allah is the only God, Allah…”
Leon: “Allah is the son of God.”
Greg: “But can he make magic?”
As Labov describes it: “The ‘nonverbal’ Leon is now competing actively for the floor.” Now Clarence can ask again about Leon’s fight. When Clarence brings it up there’s a flurry of accusation and defenses.
Clarence: “Now, you said you had his fight now; but I wanted to you to tell me about the fight that you had.”
Leon: “I ain’t had no fight.”
Greg: “Yes you did! He said Barry,”
Clarence: “You said you had one! You had a fight with Butchie,”
Greg: “an’ he say Garland!… An’ Michael!”
Clarence: “an’ Barry.”
Leon: “I di’n’; you said that, Gregory!”
Greg: “You did!”
Leon: “You know you said that!”
Greg: “You said Garland, remember that? You said Garland! Yes you did!”
Clarence: “You said Garland, that’s right.”
Greg: “He said Mich—an’ I say Michael.”
Clarence: “Did you have a fight with Garland?”
Clarence: “You had one, and he beat you up, too!”
Greg: “Yes he did!”
Leon, “No, I di—I never had a fight with Butch!…”
Leon still denies his fighting. But the debate isn’t about whether or not Leon is getting in fights. It’s about whether he can express himself. And by this time in the interview, he certainly can express himself as well as any other eight year old boy.
What is important to observe about this interviews is how much Leon’s behavior changes with context. When he first talks to Clarence, he can’t communicate in anything more than monosyllables. He can’t even remember what he did the day before or recall the plot of a cartoon. But then something changes. His friend joins in, the topics change, Clarence gets on the floor, they have snacks. Suddenly Leon is a totally different speaker. They can hardly keep him from talking over everyone else. Think about what this means in terms of, say, standardized testing or school exams. These aren’t going to be favorable contexts for Leon. He’s going to be on the defensive again. He’s probably going to do poorly. And it’s not necessarily because he doesn’t understand the material and certainly not because he cannot understand the material. It’ll be because context matters, and he’s being put in the wrong context. The problem is not so much that Leon is failing school, as much as the school is failing Leon. What we see with these interviews is that, as Labov summarizes it, “the social situation is the most powerful determinant of verbal behavior and that an adult must enter into the right social relation with a child if she wants to find out what a child can do."
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. It was customary on Southern estates of the time to build a small annex a short distance away from the big house. Captain Keller built such a house in the usual manner, and when he married Kate they went to live in it. They called it the garden house. It was strewn with meandering vines and covered in fragrant honeysuckle and roses. The house had a little porch, though often in the summer you could not see it because the yellow roses and southern smilax grew too tall. The garden house was a favorite spot of the hummingbirds and bumbleblees. It was in this little home that Helen was born and spent the first months of her life. Then when she was nineteen months old Helen came down with an illness. The illness went as quickly as it came, but not before leaving her completely deaf and blind before her second birthday.
Because Helen lost her ability to see or hear so early, she never developed her faculty for language in the way that children usually do. For most children, language is something they develop, piece by piece as they are exposed to conversation with adults and peers, and as their brain matures enough to process that information. But for Helen, language was something she had to discover. She was abruptly cut off from the experiences necessary to learn how to use language. Her mother and father and brother couldn’t communicate with her, because all of the avenues through which we usually think to do that—talking and writing—were closed. Helen’s mind kept puttering along in its development nevertheless. It was ready for information that wasn’t coming.
There were, of course, certain ways that Helen’s family could communicate with her. It was easy to indicate yes or no. They could put Helen’s hand to their face and nod up-and-down for yes or side-to-side for no. They could give her a piece of cake when she did good or slap her hand when she did bad—pleasure means good, pain means bad. They could also use simple gestures, as Helen did for eating or for using a key to unlock something. Everyone knows what those look like. So when you pantomime doing them it’s easy to get the general point across. But this left Helen in a world consisting only of the immediately present. One of the things we use language for is to talk about things that are not located right here in space and time. They may be in the past or future or far away or imaginary or abstract. We can talk about them because the symbols that we use are arbitrary. We can talk about the past because the word past itself in no way actually resembles the past. If it had to actually look like or sound like the past, then we’d be out of luck because the past doesn’t look, sound, smell, feel, or taste like anything in particular. Helen was trapped inside a linguistic existence that was entirely concrete.
For most children, the idea that everything has a name—that water is called water, or that your mother is called mother—is not a discovery. There is no aha moment. It happens incrementally. It’s like the idea that every place should have a name. It wasn’t like someone was looking at a map one day and said, “Hey, we need to name everything on here.” Names developed for places as they were needed, and no one thought anything about it. Helen had to look at the map and discover from first principles that everywhere on there had its own name.
Helen's family was at a loss for how to deal get through to her. They would do anything to help her, and thankfully they had to means to do so. When she was six, they went to renowned occulist in Baltimore to see if anything could be done for Helen's eyes. Dr. Chrisholm examined Helen’s eyes and determined that he couldn’t do anything for her. Medically speaking, they were completely fried. But, he said, she could still be educated. He recommended a man in Washington D.C. by the name of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell.
While Bell is best known for inventing the telephone and founding the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, his family had long been involved in the study and teaching of speech, including his grandfather, uncle, and father. Bell’s father published a treatise in 1860 called The Standard Elocutionist. In it, he explains a method for teaching deaf children to communicate with others. One of his approaches was called Visible Speech. The idea was to map sounds directly onto symbols. So instead of having the letter a represent several different sounds as it does in English, it would only represent one, for example, the sound ah. Bell studied the system intensely. He got so good that he could read from texts in any language—even ones he didn’t know—like Latin or Scottish Gaelic, just by reciting from a transcript in Visible Speech. In the early 1870s, his father received an invitation to act as principal of the Boston School for Deaf Mutes. He turned the position down, but suggested that his son take it instead. This was the beginning of Bell’s extensive career working with deaf children.
When the Kellers arrived in Bell’s office he immediately endeared himself to Helen. He set her on his lap and let her play with his watch. He understood her signs. All the while he talked with the Kellers. Helen would later recall, "Dr. Bell advised my father to write to Mr. Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institution in Boston, the scene of Dr. Howe's great labours for the blind, and ask him if he had a teacher competent to begin my education. This my father did at once, and in a few weeks there came a kind letter from Mr. Anagnos with the comforting assurance that a teacher had been found. This was in the summer of 1886. But Miss Sullivan did not arrive until the following March."
As a young child, Helen acted out a lot. If she wanted something she would do her best to indicate it, then if she didn’t get it she could throw a fit. The exercise would continue until she got what she wanted. The standard rebuke from parents for a child to use her words wouldn’t work here. Captain and Mrs. Keller loved Helen very much. Neither one of them wanted to see her miserable. And they had no idea how to get through to her in a way that would meaningfully teach her manners or self-control. It was so difficult to give her any form of feedback that they just stopped doing it.
One day soon after Anne first arrived at Ivy Green she sat down for dinner with the family. Helen’s habit was to go around the table, put her hands in other people’s plates, and take whatever she fancied. The family—Helen’s father, mother, and brother—were used to it. But when Helen came to Anne’s plate she refused to let Helen put her hand in. The family encouraged her that it was best just to let it happen. Anne continued to thwart Helen’s efforts. Helen continued in an attempt to extricate food from Anne’s plan. It was no longer about the food. It was a dominance struggle—whose conviction will overcome the other’s?
It wasn’t a pretty sight. The rest of the family folded up their napkins and gingerly exited the dining room. Anne locked the door, determined to continue the fight until Helen learned her lesson. Anne went back to eating, as if everything was normal—fork in left hand, knife in the right, chewing and staring at the wall across the room. Helen, meanwhile, writhed about on the floor screaming and kicking. This went on for a good thirty minutes. Eventually Helen, curious, stopped screaming, and got up from the floor to view the results of her episode and check out what Anne had been up to. She found Anne eating and again tried to put her hand in Anne’s plate. Again, Anne stopped her. Helen pinched Anne. Anne, with 17th century flair, slapped Helen. Helen pinched Anne. She slapped Helen. This continued long enough for any outside observer to conclude with confidence that neither of these two ladies are ones with whom you should trifle.
Realizing she wouldn’t win the round with fisticuffs, Helen went to inspect the rest of the table. Everyone else had left. Grasping for a new offensive tactic, she went back to her own plate and began eating with her fingers. Anne gave her a spoon. Helen examined the spoon thoughtfully. Then she chucked it across the room. Anne indicated that Helen needed to go pick up the spoon. Helen, naturally, was disinclined to retrieve the object, but Anne compelled her to do so. Helen got the spoon, sat down, and commenced to eat. Though she couldn’t articulate it in so many words, she wordlessly assured Anne that she’s agreed to eat because she’s hungry, not because Anne has overcome her fortifications.
Dinner finished, Anne instructed Helen to fold her napkin. Freshly sated, Helen endeavored to make a new scene. She tossed the napkin on the floor, then ran to the door, only to find it locked. This made her upset, and with renewed vigor she embarked on another full hour of kicking and screaming on the floor. By the end of the hour, Anne succeeded in getting Helen to fold her napkin. Then she went back up to her room and, as she noted in her diary, had a well-deserved “good cry.”
As a consequence of the dining room debacle, it became clear to Anne that she couldn’t properly instruct Helen in her home with her family around. Helen needed to learn obedience. Her parents were too willing to indulge her. Not because they didn’t want her to learn manners, but because they didn’t want to put her through the pain that was necessary for her to learn them, if such lessons were even possible at all. It was going to get ugly—it already had gotten ugly—and it would get bad before it gets good. If Helen’s parents were around, they would always be tempted to interfere and allow Helen to take the the easy way out. Anne needed to be able to endure the long battles without interruption. And she couldn’t do that in the big house at Ivy Green. In order to reach Helen, she needed a change in context.
She asked Mrs. Keller if she could go away with Helen for a while. Mrs. Keller wasn’t sure. They talked it over for a while and eventually Mrs. Keller said to ask the Captain. He immediately recognized it as a good idea and suggested the garden house. It was a quarter of a mile from the main homestead. Helen and Anne could be alone without being too far away. Anne allowed that Captain and Mrs. Keller could come visit daily so long as Helen remained unaware of their presence.
They packed up Helen and sent her off with Anne. They took a circuitous route through the property, so Helen wouldn’t immediately recognize where they were or how they got there. The garden house had one large, square room. The room had a fireplace, a spacious bay window, a bed, and an adjoining room for a servant to sleep. There was a piazza in front, with a fall of dangling vines. Meals were brought from the house daily, and they would eat out on the piazza, surveying the estate.
On the first night, Helen played amicably with her dolls. When it was time to go to bed she put up a struggle. There was only one bed in the garden house. The idea was for Anne to occupy one side of it and Helen the other. Helen found this arrangement dissatisfactory. She refused to go to bed with Anne next to her. The struggle lasted for two hours. Eventually they reached a concord. Helen would sleep in the bed. Anne would sleep in the chair.
The next day Helen felt homesick . She would touch her cheek—her sign for mother—and shake her head sadly. She played with her dolls more than usual and wouldn’t interact with Anne. While Helen was playing, Anne obvserved that Nancy, Helen’s favorite doll, appeared to have some trouble swallowing the dosage of milk being provided her. Helen put down the cup suddenly and began to slap the doll’s back, turning her over on her stomache. This lasted for several minutes. Once the episode was finish and Nancy’s health had been restored, Helen carelessly tossed her out out of the way and moved on to another toy.
Looking back at the claims of the verbal deprivation theorists, we know to be skeptical of their conclusions, if not reject them out of hand. They were taking a complicated sociological phenomenon and reducing it to a simple cause—the fault of the individual.
But it wasn’t as if they didn’t have some evidence for their position. They had myriad studies like that first interview where the black child replies in nothing but single word answers. And it’s not like the researchers who were proffering those views were by any means intimately familiar with the urban black community. There was also certainly some element of racism as well. But the big difference between the verbal deprivation theorists and someone like Labov is how they’re interpreting the evidence. The verbal deprivationists look at a failed interview and say, “The problem here is obvious!” But Labov looks at the same interview and says, “What’s happening here is much more complicated.” In order to understand the difference between them we have to look at little at how people interpret the evidence for something when they already have a strongly held belief.
The classic study on “biased assimilation” of evidence is by Charles Lord and his team from Stanford. Lord recruited twenty-four undergrads who were proponents of capital punishment. Each of these students believed that it deterred people from illicit behavior and that most of the research supported their view. Lord and his colleagues also recruited twenty-four undergrads who were opponents of capital punishment. They also thought the evidence was on their side.
Lord put the students into groups of ten. In each group, a handful of the students were proponents of capital punishment and a handful were opponents. Lord brought each group into a room and sat them around a conference table. He told them that they would be reading two of twenty randomly selected studies on the “deterrent efficacy” of capital punishment. He asked them to use their own “evaluative powers” to think critically about the evidence and use it as an opportunity for them to update their opinions. The participants each got to pick one of ten index cards, on which was written the results of a study. This was the first wave of the twenty studies. That’s what the students were told, at least. The index cards were really all the same. Each participant got an index card that read:
"Kroner and Phillips (1977) compared murder rates for the year before and the year after adoption of capital punishment in 14 states. In 11 of the 14 states, murder rates were lower after adoption of the death penalty. This research supports the deterrent effect of the death penalty.”
The study seems to supports the views of the pro-punishment students. Actually, the “study” was made up by the researchers. They just wrote something that sounded like the kind of thing you’d read to support the deterrent effect of the death penalty. Then the participants rated how much that initial information changed where they stood on the issue. How much more or less were they in favor of the death penalty?
Everyone, it turns out, slightly increases their belief for the deterrent effect of the death penalty upon hearing this study. It’s hard to argue with. That’s exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see if the death penalty was in fact an effective deterrent for criminals. Imagine each of the ten students around the conference table with a number over their head. That number represents how much they’ve changed their belief about capital punishment. If they believe more in its deterrent effects, then the number is positive and green. If they believe less, then the number is negative and red. Right now, everyone’s number is green.
Next, Lord gave the participants an “in-depth analysis” of the study. What Lord had given them initially about the drop in murder rates for 11 of 14 states is a headline. Now they got a critical appraisal of the study. It talked about the specifics of the results and the details of the researchers’ procedure for collecting and analyzing data. It reiterated the results and showed them in both a table and a graph. It even talked about prominent criticisms of the study and the authors’ rebuttals to those criticisms. Again, this was fabricated by the researchers. Each student had to write a short paragraph about how well they thought the study was executed and whether or not it constituted solid evidence. Again, the participants then had to rate how much that information influenced their position. Now it’s about nuanced interpretations, not just cold hard facts.
So what happens to everyone’s numbers? There is a big shift in the students who originally opposed capital punishment. They say, “Aha! This could be interpreted any number of ways—it could mean anything. If this is the evidence in favor then it’s not very strong.” They pick apart the study, find its flaws, and go back to their original position. Their numbers are red now. They believe less in capital punishment than when the experiment started. But the students who originally supported capital punishment stay green. Yes, the study may have its flaws, but the conclusion still stands. In short, the students have vastly different interpretations about what the study means based on whether or not they supported its conclusion to begin with.
After that Lord and his colleagues flipped the script. They gave the students a headline from a “study” that provided evidence against capital punishment:
“Palmer and Crandall (1977) compared murder rates in 10 pairs of neighboring states with different capital punishment laws. In 8 of the 10 pairs, murder rates were higher in the state with capital punishment. This research opposes the deterrent effect of the death penalty.”
This half of the study is symmetrical to the first half. This headline provides just as solid as evidence against the death penalty as the first one did for it. Then its followed by the critique. Again, it’s the same grounds for questioning the result.
What would would we expect an unbiased observer to conclude at the end of this study? She would look at the first headline. That would increase her belief in its efficacy. Then she’d look at the second headline. That would decrease it. Then she’d look at the critiques. Neither study is a slam dunk. Ultimately, she’d conclude that it’s really tough to say. She’d be more uncertain about her initial position, whatever it may have been.
But that’s not what happens. In the second half of the experiment, when the proponents of capital punishment read the headline that doesn’t support their view, they do in fact lower their certainty just a little bit. Their numbers don’t go all the way into the red, but they’re a little smaller. But then when they’re presented with the critique they go back up again. They did the same thing that their anti-punishment counterparts did in the first half. They discredited the study. The opponents of capital punishment, who were in the red after reading the first critique, go even further into the red. And even after they read the critique they still trust the study. The mixed evidence, instead of moderating everyone’s beliefs, made the participants more polarized. By the end of the study, they more strongly believed that the position they held at the outset was the correct one, supported by the evidence.
Anne made progress on Helen’s obedience during a week alone in the garden house. Eventually Helen got the message. She wouldn’t always be able to get her way. Having established this ground rules, Anne could turn her attention to teaching Helen language.
"Helen knows several words now,” Anne wrote in her diary, “but has no idea how to use them, or that everything has a name. I think, however, she will learn quickly enough by and by. As I have said before, she is wonderfully bright and active and as quick as lightning in her movements." Just by association, she was able to learn a handful of nouns. She knew: doll, mug, pin, key, dog, hat, cup, box, water, milk, candy, eye, finger, toe, head, cake, baby, mother, sit, stand, walk. There was one pair that gave her trouble though. She couldn’t get straight on the difference between mug and milk. She would use the word milk to refer to the mug and vice versa. She also doesn’t quite understand the point of using words either. On several occasions she tried to teach the family dog how to spell.
After a week in the garden house, Captain and Mrs. Keller came to Anne and asked her to return to the house. They missed Helen, and they were worried about her. Anne pleaded with them to stay for another few days but to no avail. She relented and agreed to return. But she made them promise that she could continue her strict regiment while back at the homestead. The Kellers agreed. Hours later, at dinner that night, Helen refused to use her napkin, throwing it on the floor. She was testing her boundaries. Anne would pick it up, put it around her neck, and as soon as she looked away Helen would throw it off again. After several bouts of this she began to kick the table. Anne took her plate away. Captain Keller thundered, “No child of mine should be deprived of my food on any account!”
When Helen came upstairs for her lesson after dinner, Anne had arrange some objects on the table as usual except that she withheld the cake. Helen immediately noticed its absence and made the sign for it. Anne presented her with the napkin and put it round her neck, then proceeded to tear it off and throw it on the floor. She shook her head solemnly. Anne did this performance several times. Helen understood. She slapped her own hand two or three times and shook her head. The lesson continued. Anne would give her an object, Helen would spell the name. “After spelling half the words,” recalls Anne, “she stopped suddenly, as if a thought had flashed into her mind, and felt for the napkin. She pinned it round her neck and made the sign for cake (it didn't occur to her to spell the word, you see). I took this for a promise that if I gave her some cake she would be a good girl. I gave her a larger piece than usual, and she chuckled and patted herself."
Labov’s point in arguing for the mental abilities of urban black youth isn’t to suggest that everything is just fine for these kids, and that their preparation for school is adequate the way it is. Certainly there are things which school expects from a student which they need to be able to do, like spelling, abstract mathematical thinking, and being able to use and define more advanced words. That’s certainly true. But it’s also not entirely to correct to assume that everything that school asks from students is completely necessary, or even beneficial. Are all of the habits that middle-class, well-educated develop really useful?
Anyone who has read an essay from a high school or college student will know that there’s one thing that certainly isn’t: complicated syntax. Students often think that the more complicated their sentence structure is the smarter they will sound. Most of us eventually realize that this isn’t the case, but by then it’s so ingrained that it’s actually difficult to stop overcomplicating our grammar. And in these terms, there can actually be a huge advantage to using black english vernacular over standard English.
Here’s an interview done by one of Labov’s colleagues, John Lewis, with Larry, a 15 year old black member of the a street gang called the Jets.
John: “What happens to you after you die? Do you know?”
Larry: “Yeah, I know.”
Larry: “After they put you in the ground, your body turns into—ah—bones, an' shit.”
John: “What happens to your spirit?”
Larry: “Your spirit—soon as you die, your spirit leaves you.”
John: “And where does the spirit go?”
Larry: “Well, it all depends…”
John: “On what?”
Larry: “You know, like some people say if you're good an' shit, your spirit goin' t'heaven... 'n' if you bad, your spirit goin' to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin' to hell anyway, good or bad.”
Larry: “Why? I'll tell you why. 'Cause, you see, doesn' nobody really know that it's a God, y'know, 'cause I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods, all color gods, and don't nobody know it's really a God. An' why they be sayin' if you good, you goin' t'heaven, tha's bullshit, 'cause you ain't goin' to no heaven, 'cause it ain't no heaven for you to go to."
Larry is what Labov refers to as a paradigmatic speaker of black English vernacular. To a linguist, this means that he uses, for example, negative inversion (“don’t nobody know”), negative concord (“you ain’t goin’ to no heaven”), invariant be (“when they be sayin’), dummy it to stand for there (“it ain’t no heaven”), and forms that are standard for speakers in his community. But there’s another thing that he’s an exemplar of. He’s laconic. As Labov puts it, "He can sum up a complex argument in a few words, and the full force of his opinions comes through without qualification or reservation."
While it may at first be easy to write off Larry’s position as simplistic, unorthodox, or perhaps more than a little synical, what he’s saying actually comprises a complex change of reasoning and logical argument. Let’s think about what he’s saying in these terms.
There are two propositions in question:
(A) if you're good, (B) then your spirit will go to heaven
(Not A) if you're bad, (C) then your spirit will go to hell
Larry argues that you’re not going to heaven, and whether you’re good or bad you’re going to hell.
In logical terms, he denies B and asserts if A or Not A then C. Here’s his stated reasoning:
1. Everyone has a different idea of what God is like.
2. Therefore no one really knows what God exists. (He uses this to conclude God doesn’t exist.)
3. If there is a heaven, it was made by God.
4. If God doesn't exist, he couldn’t have made heaven.
5. Therefore heaven doesn't exist.
6. You can't go somewhere that doesn't exist.
Therefore, (Not B) you can't go to heaven, and (C) you are going to hell.
Labov notes that Larry’s argument here isn’t necessarily about firm theological commitments. It’s more about wordplay. Larry is, in a sense, playing a game with John. That game consists of Larry makes an assertion, John questioning that assertion, and Larrying having to come up with a logical basis by which to defend it. The point isn’t to be correct in a theological sense, it’s to win the argument. John then rightly points out a fallacy in Larry’s argument. If Larry’s reasoning in 2-6 is true, then that means there is no hell in addition to there is no heaven. That doesn’t support Larry’s conclusion that you’re going to hell.
John: “Well, if there's no heaven, how could there be a hell?”
Larry: “I mean—ye-ah. Well, let me tell you, it ain't no hell, 'cause this is hell right here, y'know!”
John: “This is hell?”
Larry: “Yeah, this is hell right here!”
See how Larry stutters right before he answers? He’s not offering a prepackaged conclusion. He’s coming up with his rebuttal on the spot. And it’s a good one, too. He says that the existence of hell is self-evidently true because it’s all around. “Larry’s answer,” Labov says, “is quick, ingenious, and decisive.”
So if black English vernacular is so great, then why not let the kids use it in school? If all dialects are equal, then why not let each kid write in her own most comfortable one? “The fundamental reason,” says Labov, “is, of course, one of firmly fixed social conventions." We use standard English because the people making the rules use standard English. That reason is sufficient. But even if that’s true, there is, I think, this lingering suspicion that standard English is better for something, right? It seems like it’s better built for what linguists call the analysis of surface forms—which is what we’ve been doing in looking at the linguistic specifics of the interviews. And this, at first, seems like it’s completely advantageous. But that’s not necessarily true either.
Labov describes an interview that Clarence (who interviewed Leon) did with a man named Charles, an educated, upper-middle class black adult. Clarence asks him, “Do you know of anything that someone can do, to have someone who has passed on visit him in a dream?”
Charles: "Well, I even heard my parents say that there is a such a thing as something in dreams, some things like that, and sometimes dreams do come true. I have personally never had a dream come true. I’ve never dreamt that somebody was dying and they actually died, or that I was going to have ten dollars the next day and somehow I got ten dollars I my pocket. I don’t particularly believe in that, I don’t think it’s true. I do feel, though, that there is such a thing as—ah—witchcraft. I do feel that in certain cultures there is such a thing as witchcraft, or some sort of science of witchcraft; I don’t think that it’s just a matter of believing hard enough that there is such a thing as witchcraft. I do believe that there is such a thing that a person can put himself in a state of mind, or that—er—something could be given them to intoxicate them in a certain—to a certain frame of mind—that, that could actually be considered witchcraft.”
Charles is decidedly not a speaker of black English vernacular. He speaks standard English, and very well at that. He’s clearly well-educated and intelligent. Here’s how Labov describes him: “He is a likable and attractive person, the kind of person that middle-class listeners rates very high on a scale of job suitability and equally high as a potential friend. His language is more moderate and tempered than Larry's; he makes every effort to qualify his opinions and seems anxious to avoid an misstatements or overstatements. From these qualities emerge the primary characteristic of this passage—its verbosity. Words multiply, some modifying and qualifying, others repeating or padding the main argument.”
Let’s do a logical analysis of what he said, like we did for Larry. Charles’ argument is as follows:
1. Some people say that dreams sometimes come true.
2. I have never had a dream come true.
Therefore, I don't believe 1.
That’s the first half of his statement. The second half essentially says, “But I believe in witchcraft.”
"However, the idea is englarge to exactly 100 words and it is difficult to see what else is being said." As Labov sums it up, “The initial impression of him [Charles] as a good speaker is simply our long-conditioned reaction to middle-class verbosity. We know that people who use these stylistic devices are educated people, and we are inclined to credit them with saying something intelligent. Our reactions are accurate in one sense. Charles M. is more educated than Larry. But is he more rational, more logical, or more intelligent? Is he any better at thinking out a problem to its solution? Does he deal more easily with abstractions? There is no reason to think so. Charles M. succeeds in letting us know that he is educated, but in the end we do not know what he is trying to say, and neither does he."
Recently, I received an email from the President of Harvard, Drew Faust, and William Lee, a senior fellow of the Harvard corporation, sent to the entire campus population. The email was about their recent deliberations on the status of "unrecognized single-gender social organizations" at Harvard. That is, should Harvard continue to allow fraternities, sororities, and finals clubs to exist? The email was almost two thousand words long.
In the email, they state: "The USGSOs have a very different relationship to the campus than was the case a generation ago, and it cannot be seriously disputed that the overall impact is negative. There has been wide agreement on this point during the discussions of this Faculty. It has been noted by College visiting committees, as well as by College and University committees, including the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault and the USGSO Faculty Committee. Most recently, the president and vice president of the Undergraduate Council, reporting on the results of a survey of the undergraduates, concluded that “The status quo is untenable. Final clubs are omnipresent and omnipotent. The negative externalities of Harvard’s divisive social life cannot be ignored. The stratification that many of these groups insert into our community is striking and their impact is widely felt.”
If we were to do a labov style analysis on the email's argument, it would look like this:
1. Everyone agrees that fraternities are bad.
Therefore, we are going to do nothing about them.
As Faust and Lee state, "Given these principles, the Corporation at its meeting yesterday voted to adopt one of the options recommended by the USGSO Faculty Committee: namely that the existing policy, adopted in May 2016, should remain in place." Basically, the policy states that you can't be Harvard class president if you are in a fraternity. Other than that, there are no consequences and everything is free to go on as normal.
The email is full—indeed, with the exception of the two above statements consists almost entirely of—of platitudes such as: "The process of making those types of judgments, the struggle of defining oneself, one’s identity, and one’s responsibilities to a broader community, is a valuable part of the personal growth and self-exploration we seek for our undergraduates."
And this is endorsed the president of Harvard, from the people who are making decisions at pinnacle of higher education.
I don’t necessarily think that the important point from Labov’s work is that black child are capable of abstract thinking just as much as any other child. That might have been a headline in the 1960s, but I don’t think that it’s a necessary point to make today. Rather, what Labov points out is essentially that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Just because someone talks a certain way on the surface doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the quality of their thoughts underneath the surface.
The lesson of Labov is this: Just because someone talks different doesn’t mean they think different.
On one warm Alabama summer morning Helen was playing with a new doll. Anne took this as an opportunity for a lesson and spelled d-o-l-l into Helen’s hand. Helen had not yet learned the connection between these messages given by Anne and the objects they represented. Earlier that morning Anne had tried in vein to teach Helen the difference between m-u-g and w-a-t-e-r. Helen couldn’t quite grasp the difference between the vehicle and the liquid it carried. She still didn’t understand that everything had a name.
While Helen played with her doll, Anne tried again to explain to her the difference between mug and water. Helen, becoming frustrated with this lesson, took up her doll and through it on the ground. The doll broke into pieces, and Helen celebrated its demise. “Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst,” wrote Helen years later. “In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness.” Hoping that a change of scenery might bring a change of mood, Anne took Helen outside. Helen recalls, “I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensations may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure."
As they walked through the fog of fragrant honeysuckle down a garden path, they occasioned upon a servant drawing water from the well. Anne led Helen to the spout and she placed Helen’s hand under the cold flow. That’s when it began to dawn on Helen. She writes,
“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”
Helen stood, in Anne’s words, “as one transfixed.” She spelled w-a-t-e-r back to Anne several times. Then she immediately dropped to her knees, touched the ground, and asked for its name. She touched the pump and asked for its name. Then she went to the trellis and asked for its name. She stood silent for a moment, then put her on Anne. What was her name? Anne spelled teacher.
At that moment, a nurse was bringing Helen’s baby sister down the path. She rushed over and asked for the child’s name. She pointed to the nurse and asked for her name. She went to every object they passed on the way home and asked for its name. She went to the door, asking for its name when closed and its name when opened. She asked for the name of what it was called when she passed through it. She, for the first time, asked for the name of her mother and father.
Helen had, so to speak, restored her world to the state it was in before being fractured at the tower of Babel. Her language confounded, she had been isolated from those around her. She had returned from her exile and now, to her, the world was as it was written in Genesis: “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”
There is a passage from Helen’s autobiography that gives an account of the first time she understood the word love. It speaks for itself:
“I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, 'love.' This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me; but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, 'I love Helen.'
'What is love?' I asked.
She drew me closer to her and said, 'It is here,' pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understanding anything unless I touched it.
I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, 'Is love the sweetness of flowers?'
'No,' said my teacher.
Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.
'Is this not love?' I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came, 'Is this not love?'
It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.
A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, 'Think.'
In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.
For a long time I was still—I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for 'love' in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.
Again I asked my teacher, 'Is this not love?'
'Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out,' she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at the time I could not have understood, she explained: 'You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play.
The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others."