William A. Stewart, a linguist who was one of the first to champion the controversial concept that black English is different enough from standard English to be considered a separate language, died March 25 in New York. He was 71.
The cause of death was congestive heart failure induced by diabetes, said a spokesman for the City University of New York Graduate Center, where Stewart had taught since 1973.
Stewart put forward his ideas about black English, or what has become known as Ebonics, in the early 1960s, when most scholars either ignored or denied the existence of a black vernacular.
He not only believed that black English was as distinct a language as, say, French or German, he believed it should be embraced by schools with low-achieving black youngsters as a bridge to teaching them standard English.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Black English--The April 13 obituary on linguist William A. Stewart misrepresented the phrases "he busy" and "he be busy" as belonging to the Creole dialect of Gullah. They are examples of American black English. Stewart was a pioneering researcher on black English who died in New York March 25 at 71.
"He was one of the founding figures in the movement to teach black children standard English as a separate language, and argued passionately for that approach until the end of his life," said John H. McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley.
A descendant of Scottish missionaries, Stewart was born in the cultural melting pot of Honolulu and grew up speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese and Hawaiian.
Moved to California As a Young Boy
He moved to California with his parents when he was about 8 and eventually added German, French, Dutch, Wolof, Haitian, Sranan, Gullah and Papiamento to the list of languages in which he was proficient.
Stewart was drafted into the Army and served as a translator in Paris and Frankfurt. After completing his military service, he earned a bachelor's and a master's degree from UCLA in 1955 and 1958, respectively.
His outspoken nature landed him in a Brazilian jail when he was a Fulbright scholar in that country in 1959-60. He was arrested for heckling a Brazilian general during a speech and was not allowed to contact the U.S. embassy for assistance because he spoke Portuguese so well that the Brazilian authorities did not believe he was an American.
In 1960, he became a staff linguist at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., which led to travels in Africa and the Caribbean.
While at the center he also tutored young black children who were having difficulty learning to read. He and a colleague, Joan Baratz, tape-recorded the children's conversations and produced a series of readers that incorporated their nonstandard English expressions. Using the primers, the children quickly learned to read.
In 1968, Stewart and Baratz formed the Education Study Center in Washington, which was devoted to helping inner-city children learn to read by building on the black English they spoke at home.
They distributed their primers to several Roman Catholic schools in the Washington area, planning to switch the students over to standard English texts as soon as they began to read.
But a hailstorm of protest quickly engulfed the project.
"Some misinformed people got the wrong idea, that he was trying to teach them how to speak [black] dialect," said J.L. Dillard, a linguist who worked with Stewart at the Center for Applied Linguistics and later wrote a definitive text called "Black English."
"They kind of hounded him out of the school system," Dillard recalled.
In 1973, Stewart won a National Science Foundation grant to study the evolution of Gullah, a Creole dialect that he believed gave rise to black English.
Gullah was spoken largely by rural blacks living on the southeastern coast of the United States, from South Carolina to Florida. He documented many of its features, such as "he busy" to mean he is busy at the moment, and "he be busy" to mean he is always busy.
These grammatical peculiarities had been widely seen by educators as evidence of ignorance or linguistic carelessness, but Stewart demonstrated that Gullah speakers adhered to rules of speech as logical as those in standard English.
"People are not prepared for evidence that the vocabulary and grammar of Gullah can approach the awesome level of standard English," he told the New York Times in 1977. "For teachers, this is terrifying. The notion that their own educational framework is totally inconsequential--that scares them."
In 1984, after teaching appointments at Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University and Teachers College at Columbia University, he became a full professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he taught various courses.
He was called as an expert witness in the landmark Lau case in 1974, which led to the establishment of bilingual education in California. He also testified in a 1979 Michigan case that forced educators in the Ann Arbor school district to understand and cope with black English.