Smarter Than That: On the Assumptions Made About Ebonics and Intelligence

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by Jaylin Paschal

When I told my white friend that I was “finna” ask our teacher to clarify an assignment, she shook her head in disappointment.

“You’re smarter than that,” she said disapprovingly.

And although she displayed obvious disdain for my use of  “finna,” she couldn’t tell me what  exactly I was “smarter than.” She knew what I meant by “finna,” and she knew it was casual speech, but her elitist idea of intelligence was directly connected to vernacular and the use of slang. She couldn’t explain why she made this connection, but she also refused to admit that she was wrong in doing so.

I left the conversation feeling something in between inferiority and regret. I knew better than to speak with such vernacular around white people--people who most likely hadn’t spent their whole lives hearing the language in conversations, in songs, and on television. I knew that the use of such cultural speech, would be frowned upon. I had known that “finna” was underlined in red dots on Microsoft Word and considered erroneous outside of my own community. I knew that dialect from Mark Twain was brilliant, but from Paul Laurence Dunbar was idiotic. I had known that it would correspond with my perceived intelligence. You can’t have a 4.0 GPA, be editor-in-chief of your school’s newspaper, and say “finna.” You have to choose--intelligence or ebonics.

The connection between vernacular, or speech in general, and intelligence is ingrained in American culture. “Proper” or flawless textbook English is associated with intellect, while anything else is criticized. The idea that those who frequently speak using ebonics are less intelligent is mirrored in the way Americans perceive other speech characteristics, such as accents. Heavy accents and dialects of any kind--southern American or foreign--are often considered indicators of low education. This is, of course, illogical, as how “well” one speaks English has nothing to do with the components that actually determine intelligence: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.Vernacular also serves as a faulty indicator or basis for intellect, anyway. Any idiot can use a thesaurus, and any genius can use Urban Dictionary. Modern resources make it no difficult task to blur the line between intelligence and ignorance.

Americans are guilty of this nonetheless, and shake their heads, much like my friend did, at anything that doesn’t sound like classic literature. Vernacular has nothing to do with intelligence, but everything to do with perceived intelligence. There is a reason our mothers change their voices when on the phone. There is a reason we abandon our everyday speaking patterns when applying for a job, or talking to a bank teller. There is a reason we make minor speech adjustments when we want to be taken seriously. We have been taught and trained that the better your English, the better you will be received, and therefore, the better you will be treated. It is almost as if vernacular English is considered to be an impediment to success; a bad habit that must be etiquette-classed away; an ugly family heirloom that is hidden whenever guests come over. It is a senseless ideology that has permeated societal norms.

Instead of being frowned upon, vernacular should be celebrated as an important aspect of culture. It is simply one more element of life which offers diversity, and should be embraced as such. Speech is a major part of life, allowing us to express and communicate. The different ways in which this is done should be appreciated instead of snubbed. “Different than” should not equate to “less than,” especially not in a society as diverse of that as America. Vernacular adds an extra layer of culture to otherwise routine conversation. It tells a lot about someone--where they may be from, who they may have been around, or how they may have lived. But never what they have learned or how they think. Intelligence is not measured in something that can be identified in voice.

If I could go back to that moment, when I was comfortable enough to speak naturally and uncensored, I would tell my friend that ebonics is cultural, not intellectual. I would explain to her that intelligence cannot be inferred from colloquial euphemisms. Or that you do not lose an IQ point every time you replace a G with an apostrophe, or trade in a “going to” for a “finna.” Or that slang and dialect do not disable comprehension, problem solving, or critical thinking skills. Or that my colloquialism and vernacular both deserve respect and do not in any way subtract from my merit. I would tell her that there was nothing to be “smarter than.”

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Jaylin Paschal is a journalism student and a blogger who is passionate about politics and prose. Contact her by email at or through Twitter @creativelbrtn.

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