A snapshot of pertinent events
When Worlds Collide
Trace the origins of African American English
Understanding language diversity
is key to community cooperation
Library of Congress recordings of ex-slaves and their descendants
Immigrant groups from every part of the world have routinely brought their languages to the United States, save one: African Americans. John Baugh explains how the African slave trade impacted this unique variety of American, and how the term "Ebonics" came into being.
Ebonics is greatly misunderstood, largely because of how it gained global attention during a racially charged education controversy in Oakland, California. On Dec. 18, 1996, the Oakland School Board passed a resolution declaring Ebonics to be the language of 28,000 African-American students within that school district. Few people had ever heard of the term Ebonics prior to the passage of that resolution, to say nothing of how it was created or originally defined.
Dr. Robert Williams, an African-American social psychologist, coined the term Ebonics in 1973. His goal was to combine the words “ebony” with “phonics” to refer to “black sounds.”Williams and several other African-American social scientists had gathered that year at a conference sponsored by the National Institutes of Health to discuss the psychological development of black children. Williams and his associates had been displeased with the term Black English and began to ponder the alternatives.
Williams recounted the creation of Ebonics as follows:
We need to define what we speak. We need to give a clear definition to our language. …We know that ebony means black and that phonics refers to speech sounds or the science of sounds. Thus, we are really talking about the science of black speech sounds or language. (Williams, 1997a)
Although the preceding statement offers an early, vague conception of Ebonics, the term was formally defined in 1975 when Williams published an edited volume, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. In it, he classified Ebonics as the
…linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendant of African origin. (Williams, 1975)
The original Ebonics construct was intended to reflect the multinational linguistic results of the African slave trade. Prior to its coining, no single term described the linguistic consequences of this period in history. The vast majority of pertinent studies had all been in the United States, and terminology varied from year to year. “Nonstandard Negro English” was common during the 1960s, succeeded by “Black English” or “Black English Vernacular” (BEV) during the 1970’s and most of the 1980’s. Eventually the term African American Vernacular English (AAVE) was introduced as yet another synonym for the speech of most blacks in America. However — unlike Ebonics — “Black English” or “AAVE” never explicitly referred to the linguistic legacy of the African slave trade beyond the United States.
The practices underlying Williams' definition of Ebonics were indeed devastating. But even after slavery was abolished in the U.S., a recurrent combination of racial segregation and inferior educational opportunities prevented many African Americans from adopting speech patterns associated with Americans of European ancestry. As a result, generations of white citizens maligned or mocked speakers of AAVE, casting doubt on their intelligence and making their distinctive speaking patterns the object of racist ridicule.
The Oakland School Board did not expect the hostility that followed their ill-advised linguistic assertion that Ebonics was the authentic language of their African-American students. Facing a scornful public, they argued that their ultimate objective was to recognize Ebonics as a means to increase standard English proficiency among black students, many of whom were in dire need of culturally relevant linguistic enrichment.
Very few professional linguists beyond those who were familiar with the BEV/AAVE research knew of Ebonics or how it was originally defined. A series of coincidences triggered a transformation in the definition of Ebonics, from its original international orientation to multiple and sometimes contradictory definitions, including the following:
The Oakland School board began by adopting Smith’s non-English definition for Ebonics, but they modified their position in January 1997, more closely hewing to Tolliver-Weddington’s assertion that Ebonics is a dialect of English. Indeed, the best available evidence regarding Ebonics usage in the United States (i.e. AAVE) is that it is, undoubtedly, a dialect of English — albeit a very distinctive dialect born of the African slave trade (Williams 1975).
The 1997 resolution states Ebonics is a dialect of English
In the heat of that politicized moment, linguists attempted not only to redefine Ebonics, but also to illustrate some of the problems that can arise when one considers how languages in different parts of the world are actually defined. They stated:
That the variety known as “Ebonics,” “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE), “Vernacular Black English” and by other names is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties.
The distinction between “languages” and “dialects” is usually made more on social and political grounds than on purely linguistic ones. For example, different varieties of Chinese are popularly regarded as “dialects,” though their speakers cannot understand each other. But speakers of Swedish and Norwegian, which are regarded as separate “languages,” generally understand each other. What is important from a linguistic and educational point of view is not whether AAVE is called a “language” or a dialect” but rather that its systematicity be recognized.
When viewed from a purely scientific perspective, the relative linguistic or educational value of Ebonics depends upon its precise definition, including the specific criteria by which we come to identify the “systematicity” of a language (or dialect) and those who nurture it through their daily speech. Williams, a social scientist, explicitly pinpointed “African slave ancestry” as the common thread connecting all Ebonics speech communities. From a purely linguistic perspective, linguistic speech communities have never been defined based upon the race of their speakers. However, because all African slaves were selected, at least in part, because of their shared physical characteristics, Ebonics forces scholars, educators, policy makers and others to ponder the special linguistic circumstances of African slave descendants.
Colonization, wars, a growing world economy and other factors of capricious human intervention have altered the global linguistic map in defiance of simplistic racial classifications. Speakers of Chinese, French, English, Ibo and Italian (to name just a few) illustrate that language boundaries and racial groupings rarely coincide. Ironically, attempts to classify Ebonics overtly combine racial considerations (resulting from the African slave trade) with linguistic considerations regarding precise distinctions between “a language” and “a dialect.”
Effects on Education
Many educational policies and services are determined based on a child’s native language. Students who speak languages other than English may be eligible for special programs to help advance their English fluency. Oakland educators realized correctly that many of their African-American students were at a severe educational disadvantage because they lacked adequate proficiency in standard English. Rather than argue that AAVE speakers were in greater need of standard English fluency, however, Oakland educators argued that black students were linguistically akin to others for whom English is not native.
Depending upon which definition of Ebonics one chooses, ensuing policy and economic decisions can have profound social, educational, legal and political consequences. Imagine the budgetary impact of expanding bilingual education programs to include African Americans; clearly, neither educators nor politicians had ever pondered or planned for such a prospect. Moreover, the highly articulate speech of African Americans who are in the public eye, such as Bryant Gumble, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey serve as constant reminders that many blacks have mastered standard English without any benefit of (or apparent need for) special educational programs.
And so, we still do not have one single definition of Ebonics. Few
Americans who use the term know the care with which Robert Williams
painstakingly described the linguistic plight of enslaved Africans. Of
more immediate educational importance, efforts to increase standard
English proficiency among American slave descendants of African origin
have never been fully addressed. Yet, I know of no fair-minded U.S.
citizen who would claim that black students are any different from
other American students who are far more likely to succeed if they can
be helped to obtain greater standard English fluency.
William and Flora Hewlett
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