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from sea to shining sea
robert macneil and john baugh, charles h. wright museum of african american history, detroit, mi

Ebonics Timeline
A snapshot of pertinent events

When Worlds Collide
Trace the origins of African American English

Hooked on Ebonics
Validating Home Language

Managing Language
Understanding language diversity
is key to community cooperation

Up from Slavery
Library of Congress recordings of ex-slaves and their descendants

Additional Resources
African American Index

Comprehending  Ebonics
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.
Read Summary.

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)
exhibit, charles h. wright museum of african american history, detroit, mi

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.

Competing Definitions

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:

  1. Williams’ original (1975) international definition, extending the linguistic consequences of the African slave trade from West Africa to all countries where African slave descendants now reside.
  2. Ebonics is the equivalent of Black English and is considered to be a dialect of English (Tolliver-Weddington 1979).
  3. Ebonics is the antonym of Black English and is considered to be a language other than English (Smith 1997).
  4. Ebonics refers to language among all people of African descent throughout the African Diaspora (Blackshire-Belay 1996).

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

Scholars who gathered at the 1997 annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America attempted to guide this discussion by passing a resolution that indirectly asserted the prevailing linguistic opinion — namely, that Ebonics (viewed in the American context) is without question a dialect of English. By this thinking, Ebonics in Brazil is a dialect of Portuguese, and Ebonics in Haiti would be a dialect of French.

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.

And:

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

school children in los angeles learning standard translations

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.

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Coalition on Language Diversity in Education
    Proceedings of the Coalition’s 1998 conference: Language Diversity and Academic Achievement in the Education of African American Students.
  • Stanford University Ebonics Page
    Links to  writings by scholar John Rickford, as well as many useful links
  • Ebonics and Linguistic Science: Clarifying the Issues
    Walt Wolfram lays out some of the arguments surrounding the controversy
  • Ebonics, Math Scores, and the Way Children Learn
    by Richard "Doc" Rioux -  “No matter how I've tried to understand the logic of declaring Ebonics a language, I can't escape the view that the effort is demeaning to American children of African descent”
  • Double Standards
    Geoffrey Nunberg discusses press coverage of the Oakland controversy and linguists' reactions.
  • Baugh, John. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Blackshire-Belay, Carol. “The Location of Ebonics within the Framework of the Africological Paradigm.”  Journal of Black Studies, 27 (no. 1) (1996): 5-23.
  • Linguistic Society of America. “Resolution on the Oakland ‘Ebonics’ Issue.” Washington, D.C.: Linguistic Society of America, 1997.
  • Smith, Ernie. “What Is Black English, What is Ebonics?” The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language and the Education of African American Children. Eds.Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. 49-58
  • Toliver-Weddington, Gloria. “Ebonics (Black English): Implications for Education.” Journal of Black Studies 9 (no. 4) [special issue] (1979).
  • Williams, Robert. Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. St. Louis: Robert Williams and Associates, 1975.
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John Baugh joined Stanford University as Professor of Education and Linguistics in 1990. Prior to his tenure at Stanford, Dr. Baugh served as Associate Professor of Linguistics and Foreign Language Education at the University of Texas at Austin and as Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Black Studies, Sociology, and Anthropology at Swarthmore College. Dr. Baugh has published extensively in the fields of Anthropology, Education, Legal Affairs, Linguistics, Sociology and Urban Studies. His work bridges theoretical and applied linguistics, with particular attention to matters of policy and social equity in the fields of education, medicine, and the law. He has conducted extensive research regarding the social stratification of linguistic diversity within the U.S., Austria, Brazil, Hungary, South Africa, and the UK, and is actively engaged in ongoing research that examines the evolution and dissemination of English and other European languages in post-colonial contexts throughout the world. Dr. Baugh is a past president of the American Dialect Society and a member of the usage advisory committee for the American Heritage English Dictionary. He has also served as consultant on several documentary films related to American language and as an expert witness in court cases where matters of voice recognition and language attitudes have been central. Dr. Baugh received his B.A. in Speech and Rhetoric at Temple University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently sits on the Boards of the Consortiuum of Social Science Associations, Eastside Prep, Raising a Reader, and Project Pericles.

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Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York