EBONICS: Q & A

By Johanna Rubba, Ph.D.,
Professor of Linguistics, English Department,
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo 2/3/97

© Johanna Rubba 1997

1 What is Ebonics?

Ebonics is a language system characteristic of certain speech communities in the United States, especially (but not exclusively) African American communities in urban areas and the South. Although it has many features that distinguish it from various dialects of English, it also has very much in common with kinds of English all over the world. It also differs from community to community. We must be careful to note that (a) not all African Americans speak Ebonics; (b) there are non-African Americans who do speak Ebonics, by virtue of having grown up in the communities where it is spoken.

There is a significant scientific literature on Ebonics. The field which studies it is called 'sociolinguistics'. Within sociolinguistics, Ebonics has been known as Black English, Black English Vernacular or BEV (pronounced 'bee-ee-vee' or 'Bev'), and (most currently) African American Vernacular English or AAVE (pronounced like 'have' without the 'h', or 'ay-ay-vee-ee'). Linguists of various races have studied its systems of grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, as well as its origins and history, since the 1960s. The term Ebonics was first used in the 1970s. Some highly respected linguists who have worked on Ebonics are: John Baugh, William Labov, John Rickford, Geneva Smitherman, and Walt Wolfram. All have published books and articles on the subject.

2 Where does it come from?

There are two theories about the origins of this language system. One, called the 'dialectal hypothesis', asserts that Ebonics is a dialect of English, which evolved, as all dialects do, through a history of social and geographic separation of its speakers from speakers of other varieties of English. The other, called the 'creole hypothesis', asserts that Ebonics evolved out of a pidgin language that developed in West Africa as a result of the slave trade and commercial trade between Africans and Europeans during the 16th-19th centuries. This theory says that the pidgin language grew into a full-fledged language (a full language that develops from a pidgin is called a creole language) used by slaves, who, because of deliberate mixing of Africans from different tribes in the slave trade, did not share a common language. Creole languages have arisen in many parts of the world where European colonization has taken place, including the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Papua New Guinea.

These theories are not mutually exclusive; both can contain truth. Establishing the history of any language system (but especially one that has not been written down) is complex and detailed work, and linguists are still working on the origins of Ebonics. It is, however, well-established that (a) Ebonics has some features that are also found in West African languages; (b) some American English words (tote, yam and others) may well be borrowings from African languages; (c) Ebonics shares many features with many dialects of English; (d) the evolution of Ebonics since the end of the slave trade and the migration of many southern Blacks to the north shows that developments typical of dialect divergence are also taking place.

3 Is it 'bad English', 'slang', 'dialect', 'language', or what?

Most linguists would characterize Ebonics as a dialect of English. Some (usually strong believers in the creole hypothesis) claim that, due to its pidgin and creole origins, it is a separate language. All linguists, however, agree that Ebonics cannot correctly be called 'bad English', 'slang', 'street talk', or any of the other labels that suggest that it is deficient or not a full-fledged linguistic system. Whatever kind of critter Ebonics is, from the point of view of grammatical complexity, it is the same kind of critter as what is called 'standard English', 'proper English' or 'correct English'.

4 How do linguists decide these questions?

The language vs. dialect question is difficult even within linguistics. Linguists usually rely on a criterion called mutual intelligibility to decide the question in scientific terms: if A and B speak different language systems, but can understand each other when each is speaking their characteristic language system, they are speaking dialects of the same language. If they cannot, they are speaking different languages. Other criteria must also be met: the two language systems must be similar in their pronunciation, grammar, and word stock. This prevents the absurd conclusion that Russian and Chinese must be dialects of the same language if two people, both fluent in both Russian and Chinese, understand each other when one speaks Russian and the other Chinese. Russian and Chinese do not have enough linguistic substance in common to be judged dialects of the same language.

All languages vary along lines of social demarcation -- age, gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, region of origin, etc. The best way to view the situation is to view a language as a set of dialects that are all still comprehensible to one another, and that share a good deal of linguistic substance.

More important regarding the Ebonics issue is: Why is this question so important? The way the terms language and dialect are used by non-linguists is crucial here. If federal, state or local money for educational programs hangs on this definition, then clearly it is important. Money for education should hang on the needs of the children and on methods of helping children that can be shown to work. Whether this involves calling something a language or a dialect should only be important insofar as it can be demonstrated that language differences or dialect differences create special educational needs. This can certainly be shown in many cases of both language and dialect differences.

Public attitudes also depend on the classification. Many people consider a 'language' to be something fully structured and fully functional, and a 'dialect' to be a version of a language that is degenerate in some way, and therefore not as respectable. These are not the way the terms are used in linguistic science, and the public attitude is incorrect. All varieties of English, so long as they meet the criteria outlined above, are dialects of the language called English.

5 Is it a good or bad idea to use it in the classroom?

There is no danger in using nonstandard kinds of English in the classroom, as long as they are presented in an accurate context, and as long as children are also provided with plentiful models of standard English. Children are language-learning machines, and develop sensitivity to style and dialect variation early in life, if they are exposed to it. Dialect diversity can even be a topic of study in the classroom: Walt Wolfram, of North Carolina State University, has developed a set of lessons for teaching about dialect diversity in elementary schools (see the bibliography). Teaching children the known facts about language variation would be a service to the whole community -- it would prevent much of the misunderstanding surrounding the current controversy.

6 What does Oakland want?

Ask them, or read their resolutions and come to your own conclusions. Much of the reaction in this controversy has been due to people second-guessing Oakland's goals.

7 Is Ebonics 'genetically-based'?

No particular language comes with a human's genetic inheritance; only the ability to learn any language does. A child born in China to Chinese parents but adopted out in early life to an African family in Kenya would grow up speaking the language of her adopted family perfectly. We learn the language spoken by those who raise us and interact with us when we are small children.

The word 'genetic' is used in linguistics, however, as a technical term to describe the relationship between languages that come from a common source language (for example, Spanish, French, Italian, and Portugese all come from a variety of Latin carried by Roman soldiers and administrators to far-flung corners of the ancient Roman empire). In this sense, Ebonics might be said to be genetically related to other dialects of English, under both the dialectal and creole theories of origin (since creoles are mixtures of languages, and one of the languages contributing to the original African creole was English). Whether Ebonics is, in this sense, genetically related to West African languages or not depends on how true the creole theory proves to be.

8 Why should we pay attention to what linguists have to say about Ebonics, or about anything else, for that matter?

We know more than you do ... we have master's degrees (and doctorates) in ... Science! : )

Seriously, linguistics is not a very well-known or high-profile field. This is mostly our own fault, for keeping our heads in the clouds of theoretical research and disputes, and for looking down our noses at fields like education, foreign language teaching, and other areas that want to apply linguistics -- i.e., use it for something practical. The education community also rightly despairs of the rapid changes in linguistic theory and the many rather unsuccessful attempts to use linguistic theory to teach grammar.

The general public also uses terms like 'linguist', 'linguistics' in a way different from the way linguists themselves use them. For much of the public, a linguist is someone who learns or uses many languages, translates between languages, or studies 'proper' grammar and usage, and is an authority on 'correct' usage. These are not concerns of scientific linguists, however. Our concerns are like those of scientists who study any other phenomenon: entomologists study bugs; botanists study plants; economists study human behavior with regard to the exchange of goods; psychologists study the way human minds learn, experience emotions or mental disorders; linguists study the language behavior of human beings.

Linguistics has made important discoveries about what language is and how it works. Linguistics proceeds according to scientific methods, and does not approach the study of language with prejudices or value judgments. We know much more about language than we did 100 years ago: we know what the basic components of a language system are, and are making great strides in understanding how languages function in conveying meaning. The three most important discoveries of linguistics with regard to the current debate are:

(a) all languages and dialects are systematic, that is, they all follow rules that dictate pronunciation, word meaning, sentence structure, and the structure of larger items such as conversations or stories. There is no scientific basis for claims that one language or dialect is more 'grammatical', 'complex', 'logical', 'clear', or in some other way qualitatively superior to another.

(b) all languages are in a constant state of change, and that change is not degeneration, just change;

(c) dialect diversity within a language (such as English) results from the language of different groups undergoing separate paths of change.

9 If all languages and dialects are linguistically equal, why do our schools and other institutions insist that only one kind of English is 'proper' or 'correct'?

This is the result of social prejudice, the favoring or disfavoring of particular social groups. It is no accident that the varieties of a language that come to be thought of as 'proper' or 'correct' are invariably associated with the upper classes, those who wield political, economic, and social power. These classes also control the educational and publishing worlds. Whatever kind of English, French, Spanish, or German they spoke became the standard dialect. Since these classes established the educational system and require mastery of the standard dialect in order to grant access to higher learning and powerful employment or social positions, they effectively impose their dialect on anyone who aspires to education or upward mobility. They also control what gets published. It is also no accident that the varieties of language that come to be called 'substandard' are invariably associated with groups that are the targets of prejudice: inner-city poor or working-class folk (Cockney English; African American English); rural peoples (Appalachian and 'cowboy' English); ethnic minorities (Native American English, 'Spanglish', African American English). The dislike of the groups was transferred to the forms of language used by them; the dislike of those language forms then became institutionalized with the establishment of an educational system, and continues to be promulgated and enforced today.

So the notion of 'good vs. bad English' is simply one more institutionalized prejudice. The belief that some varieties of English are inherently inferior to others is no different from the belief that some skin colors are inherently inferior to others: both are beliefs that rest on historical accidents of who had privilege and power at a crucial moment in history, not on scientifically-describable superiorities of one over the other.

Over time, attitudes towards dialects have been divorced from the groups that use them, so that many people now categorize a person as undesirable from the cue of how that person speaks: a black student who speaks 'well' (read: standard English) would no doubt be judged more intelligent, cooperative, and competent than that same student speaking 'Ebonics' (read: 'bad English'). Such results have been obtained in actual studies of language and dialect attitudes in other parts of the world.

Bibliography: (This is a relatively randomly assembled list of sources. Search words such as 'sociolinguistics' or 'Black English' turn up many useful sources in our library or on the Web.)

-Adger, Carolyn, Walt Wolfram, Jennifer Detwyler, & Beth Harry. 1993. Confronting dialect minority issues in special education: Reactive and proactive perspectives. The Third National Research Symposium on Limited English Students' Issues. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

-Burling, Robbins. 1973. English in Black and White. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

-Cleary, Linda M. 1993. A profile of Carlos: Strengths of a nonstandard dialect writer. In Linda M. Cleary and Michael D. Linn, eds., Linguistics for Teachers. NY: McGraw-Hill.

-CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication). 1974. Students' right to their own language. College Composition and Communiciation, Special Issue, Vol. XXV, Fall 1974, pp. 32.

-Gilyard, Keith. 1991. Voices of the Self: A Study of Language Competence. Detroit: Wayne State U. Press. A compelling personal story of conflict over cultural and linguistic identity.

-Labov, William. 1969. I'The logic of nonstandard English'. n Language and social context, Pier Paolo Giglioli, ed., Penguin, 1983.

-Labov, William. 1995. Can reading failure be reversed? A linguistic approach to the question. In V. Gadsden and D. Wagner (eds.), Literacy Among African-American Youth. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

-Simpkins, Gary A. and Charlesetta Simpkins. 1981. Cross cultural approach to curriculum development. In Smitherman, Geneva, ed., Black English and the education of Black children and youth: Proceedings of a national invitational symposium on the King decision. Detroit: Center for Black Studies, Wayne State University.Bridge readers experiment.

-The Story of English. PBS video documentary series. Available in Poly library. Episode #5 'Black on White' sets out the creole hypothesis and gives much information about the contribution of Ebonics to American English.

-Wolfram, Walt. 1995. Dialect awareness and the study of language. In Ann E. Robertson, and David Bloome, eds., The student as Researcher of culture and language in their own community. Hampton Press. Contains lessons on dialect diversity for elementary school.

-Wolfram, Walt . 1992. Dialects and American English. Prentice-Hall.
-Wolfram, Walt and Donna Christian. 1989.Dialects and Education: Issue and Answers. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics. Out of print, but available through El Corral Bookstore. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.