BLACK ENGLISH is as good a language, with its own rules and eloquence, as any, a distinguished professor of English was telling me a decade ago.
It was hard to dissent. The man, white himself, spoke stage American English with exaggerated diction to perfection.
No doubt, I replied. But could a bright, motivated youth speaking this tongue win admission to your college? His bell-clear elocution dissolved into mumble and cough.
In discovering Ebonics, the Oakland, Calif., school board is on solid ground, or at least sharing it with contemporary philologists, linguists, lexicographers and the like -- all who try to ascertain what the language is rather than what it ought to be; and who, following Noah Webster and H.L. Mencken, applaud the differences.
Afrocentrists are on quicksand, however, in linking it to African origins. In my non-expert opinion, Black English has more to do with jeans than genes. Native English-speakers from West Africa sound to my ear nothing like uneducated black American teen-agers.
Black English reflects alienation from the larger American culture, but it is growing and inventing, not preserving.
English, having conquered the known world, is behaving as Latin did a millennium ago. Can Bawlamerns, Singaporeans, Daccans, Ghanaians and Etonians understand each other? If not, English is breaking into dialects that will become languages, as Latin did into Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian and Romanian.
Anyone who encourages this may be adding to the rich variety of human language, but is condemning those who speak in code to marginalization. Black English is the language of ditch-diggers, not of Webmasters, in a market that discards ditch-diggers and values communicators.
This is no quarrel with the Oakland school board, which agrees with its critics that the need is to teach standard American English, disagreeing only on how.
The lexicographers who created ''Webster's Third New International Dictionary'' for Merriam-Webster Inc. in 1961, fanned this debate between description and prescription.
Their heir, R. W. Burchfield of Oxford English dictionaries, has ''edited'' a third edition of ''The New Fowler's Modern English Usage'' (Oxford University Press), repudiating most of what H. W. Fowler prescribed and proscribed in the first edition in 1926.
That is no good for me. My job is to break the rules (even as Ebonics-speakers do). I cannot, if there are none.
Policing the language is the search for the Holy Grail. It cannot succeed in the end, but the attempt ennobles humanity. Tragic premonition that the effort will fail is no excuse for not making it.
I break the rules because I write in a hurry, trying to look things up and get them right, sometimes failing and sometimes attempting an innovation that someone else finds atrocious. (One man's bright coin is another's nattering neologism.)
Fortunately for my ilk, ideologues plunge in where experts quit the pool. Conservatives are forever claiming to conserve the language. William Safire was hired by the New York Times to write right thoughts, and wound up arbiting right words.
Now someone has brought out ''Buckley: The Right Word,'' (Random House) a compendium of thoughts and words on usage from the indestructible William F. Buckley Jr. Lest there be doubt about relative value, Mr. Burchfield's permissive guide costs only $25 while Mr. Buckley's uncompromising dicta cost $28.
Standard English is an indispensable tool of communication, the world language of air controllers and the Internet; getting it wrong can cause a crash. Everyone should know how to use it well when the occasion requires. I am trying to learn it myself.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 1/04/97