Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
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 Diversity
Understanding language
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 why, and how the term "Ebonics" came into being.  Read Full Essay.

Ebonics is greatly misunderstood, largely because of how it gained global attention during a racially charged education controversy. On Dec. 18, 1996, the Oakland (California) School Board passed a resolution declaring Ebonics to be the language of 28,000 African-American students in that school district. Before then, few people had ever heard of the term Ebonics.

Dr. Robert Williams, an African-American social psychologist, coined Ebonics in 1973 by combining 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 later recounted that at the time he felt it was important to:

define what we speak…to give clear definition to our language. …We know that ebony means black and that phonics refers to speech sounds or science of sounds. Thus we are really talking about the science of black speech sounds or language. (Williams 1997a, p.14)

 “Ebonics” was codified as a formal definition in 1975 when Williams published an edited volume, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks, in which 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, there was no single term to refer to 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 used in 1960s, succeeded by “Black English” or “Black English Vernacular” in the 1970s and most of the 1980s. Eventually “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE) became 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 William's 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 met their ill-advised assertion that Ebonics was the authentic language of their African-American students. In the face of public derision, board members 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.

Misunderstanding about the unique linguistic heritage of American slave descendants only served to exacerbate the scorn heaped upon Ebonics and its Oakland proponents. Critics did not seem to fully grasp the importance of the fact that while the vast majority of immigrants to the United States often arrived in poverty, they brought with them an asset: their mother tongue. Speaking it in the company of other fluent speakers allowed them to acclimate. Not so for African Americans. Slave traders isolated slaves from other speakers of their native languages whenever possible to restrict communication that could lead to uprisings. This isolationist linguistic sorting often took place in African slave factories prior to the loading of human cargo onto ships.

The incontrovertible linguistic consequence of this practice is that African slave descendants are the only immigrants who did not bring their fully functioning languages with them to America. Few Americans fully appreciate the fact that no indigenous African language survived the Atlantic crossing intact.

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”
  • Remarks on Ebonics
    by Robin T. Lakoff. “The Ebonics controversy is, finally and most importantly, a fight not only apparently about language, but in fact really about language -- that is, language as an instrument of influence and social control.”
  • 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.
Back to Top

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.

Back to Top

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