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When Worlds Collide
Trace the origins of African American English
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 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.
William and Flora Hewlett
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