Black English Vernacular Essay

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The term Ebonics, from the words ebony (“Black”) and phonics (“sounds”), was coined by social psychologist Robert Williams in 1973. Also known as Black English Vernacular (BEV) or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Ebonics is a social dialect spoken mainly by African Americans in the United States. It has long been a subject of controversy within K–12 education, since schools in the United States tend to view the replacement of students’ nonstandard speech with standard English as one of their main tasks.

However, as perhaps the most widespread and salient nonstandard dialect of English, and one with strong cultural associations to a historically subjugated and educationally marginalized population, Ebonics has proved impervious to official attempts to eradicate it. It has thus come to symbolize both the persistent crisis of inner-city communities of color and the persistent failure of public schools to adequately serve those communities. In more recent years, recognition of its systematic nature, and of its importance as a marker of ethnic identity and cultural resistance, has spread among many educators, resulting in attempts to shift assimilationist school policies toward a more tolerant view. Nonetheless, well-meaning attempts by linguists and educators to address the educational needs of African American children have clashed with powerful language ideologies associating Ebonics with poverty, ignorance, and delinquency. This entry discusses its history and chief characteristics, the related social and educational debate, and the outlook for its continued use.

Origins

Black English Vernacular emerged from the crucible of the Southern plantation life of millions of enslaved Africans. They had been forcibly abducted and brought to North America during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries and spoke various West African languages, and slaveholders often purposely intermingled slaves from different languages and regions, fearing that fluid communication might foster attempts at rebellion or escape. As subsequent generations of slaves grew up in this creolized context, English became their native language, albeit an English acquired informally and under conditions of intense repression and social segregation.

Sociolinguist John R. Rickford compares three different hypotheses concerning the evolution of Ebonics. The Afrocentric view holds that most of the distinctive phonological and grammatical features of Ebonics reflect features of the Niger-Congo languages spoken by the original enslaved Africans in the New World. The Eurocentric (or “dialectologist”)

view holds that African slaves quickly lost their original languages and that the distinctive features of Ebonics evolved through contact with the English dialects spoken by English, Irish, and Scotch-Irish settlers (including many indentured servants, who were in closer contact with African slaves). Rickford critiques both of these hypotheses in favor of the creolist view, which holds that as African slaves acquired English, they developed a pidgin that combined features of English and African languages; this pidgin eventually evolved into Ebonics. Evidence in support of this view includes the many similarities between Ebonics and English-based creole languages of the Caribbean, as well as Gullah, an English creole spoken by African Americans on the sea islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

Following the abolition of slavery, millions of former slaves and their descendants moved north, seeking employment in the burgeoning industrial centers of the North and freedom from the violent Jim Crow regime of the South. However, continued racial segregation prevented African Americans’ linguistic assimilation into Northern White speech communities. Later, as the United States expanded westward, Ebonics persisted and spread as a distinct dialect, although with regional variations.

Characteristics

The distinctive features of Ebonics are commonly recognized even by those who deride them as evidence of “lazy speech” or “bad English.” Linguistic research has shown these features to be systematic and rule governed; in some cases (e.g., verb tense and aspect) they encode subtleties that are absent from standard English. A much-cited example is the sentence He be runnin, which indicates an ongoing or habitual action. (In standard English, it would be rendered as “He is usually running.”)

Simplification of certain word-final consonant clusters is another salient feature, giving rise to such forms as tes’ for test and han’ for hand. Copula deletion (absence of linking verbs is or are) is a common feature of many creole languages, and appears in Ebonics utterances such as She married (“She’s married”) or They goin’ now (“They’re going now”). The word-final suffix /-s/, which in standard English is used to mark both possession and the third person singular, is omitted in Ebonics, giving rise to forms such as John house (“John’s house”) and He feed the dog (“He feeds the dog”).

Many of these features have been mistakenly interpreted (by schoolteachers and others) as evidence of Ebonics speakers’ failure to grasp abstract concepts such as past tense. Not surprisingly, those features of Ebonics that express semantic or grammatical distinctions that are absent from standard English generally go unrecognized by standard English speakers.

Social Status

As is true of the speech of ethnic minority groups the world over, Ebonics is highly stigmatized. Although its grammaticality, phonological regularity, and overall utility as a communicative system have been amply demonstrated, it continues to be perceived by the general public (and even sometimes by its speakers) as slovenly, lazy, and incorrect. This perception is continually reinforced by the social barriers to nonstandard speech that are maintained by the dominant (White) speech community, through institutions like schooling, the media, and the occupational structure.

At the same time, Ebonics has strong positive associations for its speakers, as a marker of ethnic identity, community membership, and resistance to White domination. Ironically, the gate-keeping function of standard English in both education and the more prestigious forms of employment means that speakers’ linguistic loyalty to Ebonics becomes yet another rationalization for their continued educational and economic marginalization. Many speakers learn to fluidly code-switch between Ebonics and standard English; however, even the nonexclusive use of Ebonics is thought by many to mark speakers as uneducated and coarse.

The Oakland Controversy

Ebonics became a focus of controversy in early 1997 when the Oakland, California, School Board passed a resolution calling for the acknowledgment of Ebonics (or “African Language Systems”) not as a mere dialect of English but as a valid, autonomous language that is the primary language of African American students. The resolution stressed the similarity between African American students and others with limited English proficiency (e.g., students whose home language is Spanish, Mandarin, or Punjabi), and evoked the Federal Bilingual Education Act of 1968 in calling for special programs to help African American students achieve English proficiency while respecting their primary language. In fact, the original form of the resolution recommended that Ebonics be used (along with English) as a medium of instruction for African American children and that it be not only respected but maintained. However, these provisions were later deleted under pressure, in favor of passages emphasizing the need to transition students from their home language patterns to (standard) English.

Predictably, the resolution provoked heated debate and even outrage from across the political spectrum. Some critics denounced it as an attempt to pander to African Americans by granting legitimacy to a clearly deficient speech variety and accused the Oakland School Board of succumbing to “political correctness” and/or divisive identity politics. Others, including notable African American leaders such as Jesse Jackson, called the move “disgraceful,” and accused the school board of embracing low standards for African American students and condemning them to a lifetime of linguistic and cognitive inferiority. The voices of linguists and educational researchers failed to carry over the din of (often uninformed) public debate, and the resolution was eventually withdrawn without being implemented.

Future Prospects

Although the Ebonics debate has largely died down within education, it has not completely disappeared. For the most part, teachers continue to “correct” students’ use of Ebonics, to lament its use by parents and public figures (e.g., professional athletes and musicians), and to enforce standard English norms and practices in the granting of educational credentials. On the other hand, the public airing of questions of race and language provoked by the Oakland controversy, combined with the diffusion and sociolinguistic research on Ebonics, led many Americans toward a more tolerant, relativistic view of African American Vernacular English and an acknowledgment of its importance to the cohesion and identity of African American communities. While U.S. society is still far from a consensus as to the legitimacy of Ebonics, recent debates have served to highlight the relationship, however muddy, between school language policies and other educational and civil rights issues.

Furthermore, through its association with certain forms of popular culture, such as rap and hip-hop music, Ebonics has gained considerable ground among U.S. youth subcultures, particularly those of White and Hispanic working-class and middle-class males. While such usage retains the air of countercultural resistance associated with inner-city minorities, this may change as the corporate culture industry appropriates this symbol of youth and rebellion for its own purposes. The literary use of Ebonics by Pulitzerprize-winning authors such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison has also increased its social capital in more prestigious circles.

Within urban schools, however, African American children continue to suffer severe educational inequities, manifested in high dropout rates, low college enrollment, and disproportionate failure on various measures of academic achievement. The language, history, and culture of the White majority continue to constitute the backbone of the public school curriculum. With schools currently more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s, Ebonics is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The role of dialectal variation in explaining academic achievement gaps among ethnic groups remains unclear but is probably not negligible. For the time being, educators will continue to seek solutions that are scientifically and pedagogically sound, informed by a concern for educational equity, and compatible with the predominant language ideologies of the larger population.

Bibliography:

  1. Baugh, J. (2000). Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic pride and racial prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Labov, W. (1998). Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  3. Perry, T., & Delpit, L. (Eds.). (1998). The real Ebonics debate: Power, language, and the education of AfricanAmerican children. Boston: Beacon Press.
  4. Rickford, J. R. (1999). African American Vernacular English: Features, evolution, educational implications. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  5. Smitherman, G. (1999). Talkin that talk: Language, culture, and education in African America. New York: Routledge

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