Some Nitpicking on Ebonics.

In rushing to dismiss the DEA’s call to hire speakers of Ebonics, a lot of people are getting a small but important thing mixed up.

Here’s the Black Snob:

Ebonics, depending on who you ask, is either a real or a completely imagined thing. Proponents argued that some black people were speaking a whole different language independent of English. Other’s argued that augmented or “bastardized” English is not a whole other language. For example, I don’t always understand what British people are saying because I don’t understand most British slang, but I still agree that British people obviously speak English and I would be able to communicate with a British native without too much difficulty. Slang is slang. Colloquialisms are colloquialisms. But it’s all still in English, just with a different accent, different idioms, sayings and affects.

Meaning: My Arkansas-born Granny Snob is not speaking a different language from me. We communicate just fine even though she uses a different dialect, slang, affect and terminology at times because … we’re both native English speakers.

So, yeah, I fall on the side of “Ebonics is not a real thing.”

Let’s get this out of the way first. Saying Ebonics is “either a real or a completely imagined thing” is sort of like saying that “Barack Obama may or may not be a Muslim with terrorist sympathies.” Um, no. Just because one of those things is a popularly held belief doesn’t make it true. Ebonics, or  African American Vernacular English, has long been recognized by most linguists. And its loudest opponents were not linguists, but cultural conservatives who worried that the recognition of Ebonics — which first became a controversial part of the national conversation in the 1990s when Oakland’s school district tried to use it a tool to teach kids Standard American English — granted new legitimacy on what they felt was “inferior” English, or thought that it suggested that black people spoke some funky foreign tongue and were incapable of  learning how to speak “proper.” Culture of failure, and all that noise.

No one, of course, is suggesting anywhere that The Black Snob’s grandmother isn’t speaking English; speaking in a different dialect is not the same thing as speaking in a different language. Ebonics is also distinctly different from slang, as it’s less about alternative  nouns and verbs and more about syntax. In other words, Ebonics is less about what words you employ to say you’re “driving your car” and more about where and how those words fit in a sentence and how you pronounce them.

Update: At TAPPED, Gabriel Arana breaks it down a bit more.

I’d like to point out that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) — like all languages and dialects — doesn’t just refer to vocabulary differences. For some background: Linguistic differences tend to arise when groups are socially isolated. Over time, these difference can diverge so much from the original they are considered a different dialect or language (the litmus test is mutual intelligibility, so depending on whom you talk to, AAVE is either a dialect of English or a separate language). AAVE shares many features of the Southern dialect of American English, though as with standard English, there are regional differences.

Unfortunately, discussions about AAVE are generally limited to slang terms — in the case that Jamelle’s addressing, terms related to the drug trade. But in fact, there are a lot of other linguistic features that characterize AAVE.

On the syntactic front, AAVE speakers have a more granular tense-marking system. In standard English, for instance, “James is happy” can mean either that James is happy at the moment or that he is habitually happy. AAVE uses the verb “to be” to mark the habitual form, but omits it otherwise:

James happy = James is happy right now

James be happy = James is usually happy/a happy person

In terms of pronunciation, many speakers of AAVE have replaced the sound “th” — as in someTHing — with “f,” so you get “roof” instead of “Ruth.” AAVE speakers also pronounce vowels higher in the mouth when they precede an “m” or “n,” leading “empty” to sound more like “Impty” (this is common throughout the South).

These are just some of the features of AAVE that have been widely studied by linguists (for a look at others, you can go here). Not every speaker of AAVE needs to exhibit all of them, nor do they only occur in AAVE. For instance, in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you can hear him omit the “r” from the word “later” — a common feature of AAVE — but he otherwise uses the syntax and vocabulary of Standard American English. And omitting the verb “to be” is common in the world’s languages, including Hebrew, Russian, and Hungarian. Furthermore, speakers can switch between standard English and AAVE, a common phenomenon among bilinguals called “code-switching.”

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Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs about race and ethnicity for National Public Radio. He is a native of South Philly and reads and writes and runs and rants. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to him on Facebook.

27 comments to Some Nitpicking on Ebonics.

  • In linguistics, it’s often said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. In other words, divisions are completely political… We can look at people’s reactions to Ebonics and use that as a lens for what they really feel about the people speaking that dialect. It’s downright shameful; especially when people are trying to use dialects as a way to open access to power or economic class shift.

  • examples, or links for the linguistic novices?

    • Gabe Arana at the American Prospect actually has a nice little prime on Ebonics.

      I’d like to point out that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) — like all languages and dialects — doesn’t just refer to vocabulary differences. For some background: Linguistic differences tend to arise when groups are socially isolated. Over time, these difference can diverge so much from the original they are considered a different dialect or language (the litmus test is mutual intelligibility, so depending on whom you talk to, AAVE is either a dialect of English or a separate language). AAVE shares many features of the Southern dialect of American English, though as with standard English, there are regional differences. …

      On the syntactic front, AAVE speakers have a more granular tense-marking system. In standard English, for instance, “James is happy” can mean either that James is happy at the moment or that he is habitually happy. AAVE uses the verb “to be” to mark the habitual form, but omits it otherwise:

      James happy = James is happy right now

      James be happy = James is usually happy/a happy person

      In terms of pronunciation, many speakers of AAVE have replaced the sound “th” — as in someTHing — with “f,” so you get “roof” instead of “Ruth.” AAVE speakers also pronounce vowels higher in the mouth when they precede an “m” or “n,” leading “empty” to sound more like “Impty” (this is common throughout the South).

      These are just some of the features of AAVE that have been widely studied by linguists (for a look at others, you can go here). Not every speaker of AAVE needs to exhibit all of them, nor do they only occur in AAVE. For instance, in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you can hear him omit the “r” from the word “later” — a common feature of AAVE — but he otherwise uses the syntax and vocabulary of Standard American English. And omitting the verb “to be” is common in the world’s languages, including Hebrew, Russian, and Hungarian. Furthermore, speakers can switch between standard English and AAVE, a common phenomenon among bilinguals called “code-switching.”

    • The Linguistic Society of America passed this resolution on Ebonics in 1997 when the whole Oakland thing was going on:

      http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/ebonics.lsa.html

      Whereas there has been a great deal of discussion in the media and among the American public about the l8 December l996 decision of the Oakland School Board to recognize the language variety spoken by many African American students and to take it into account in teaching Standard English, the Linguistic Society of America, as a society of scholars engaged in the scientific study of language, hereby resolves to make it known that:

      1. The variety known as “Ebonics,” “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE), and “Vernacular Black English” and by other names is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties. In fact, all human linguistic systems — spoken, signed, and written — are fundamentally regular. The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as “slang,” “mutant,” “lazy,” “defective,” “ungrammatical,” or “broken English” are incorrect and demeaning.

      2. 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.

      3. As affirmed in the LSA Statement of Language Rights (June l996), there are individual and group benefits to maintaining vernacular speech varieties and there are scientific and human advantages to linguistic diversity. For those living in the United States there are also benefits in acquiring Standard English and resources should be made available to all who aspire to mastery of Standard English. The Oakland School Board’s commitment to helping students master Standard English is commendable.

      4. There is evidence from Sweden, the US, and other countries that speakers of other varieties can be aided in their learning of the standard variety by pedagogical approaches which recognize the legitimacy of the other varieties of a language. From this perspective, the Oakland School Board’s decision to recognize the vernacular of African American students in teaching them Standard English is linguistically and pedagogically sound.

      I wrote one of my undergrad thesis on Ebonics; will see if I have more materials I can dig out, if folks are interested.

  • Could “Ebonics” be looked at as a US equivlent of Patois that is spoken in the West Indies? Just like in the West Indies, varitions in dialect vary from region to region. Just tossing it out there…

  • April

    The Snob’s post provoked a serious case of side-eye from me (and I just commented on it at her site). Hello, folks…this information is readily available on Google and taught in basic linguistics courses. It’s no longer a revelation. But of course, it’s more fun to say, “Ebonics is just ign’ant slang thrown together by black folks!”…although I suppose the Snob took a more charitable take by mentioning her grandmother. I will say, though, that the quotes in the AJC story only serve to reinforce the perception that Ebonics=slang. My hunch is that translators are needed to parse the vocabulary that is unique to Ebonics, rather than the other aspects of its grammar, such as syntax and morphology.

  • isista

    Does no one remember the black female officer on “The Wire” (the overweight one who spent a lot of time clipping coupons and once did an undercover thing with Lester) whose primary purpose within the special unit was to listen to the taped phone conversations and decipher the slang??

    I appreciate Black Snob and others bringing a more nuanced perspective to this; being from the North, I sometimes feel like I need an interpreter when listening to people from Louisiana or other spots in the Deep South. We’re all speaking English, just differently sometimes. However, the first thing that came to my mind when everyone started making a big deal out of this was the female officer from “The Wire.” Not really flipping out over it.

  • Val

    My question though is why isn’t Redneck speak or valley girl speak or surfer/ sk8ter speak labeled as a different language?

    All of those examples employ different use of words as well as non-standard syntax? So why is it only African Americans that supposedly speak a different language?

    • could you give an example of how those things are syntactically different from standard English?

    • Dylan Morgan

      First, Ebonics/AAVE is a dialect. MAYBE a creole. Not a distinct language. Valley girl and surfer/sk8r speak seem (in my limited experience) to be subsets of general American Slang, using a specialized vocabulary but not significantly different grammar or syntax. Similar things could be said about technical or business speak.

      As an aside, it seems like the fact that a dialect requiring “separation” may be a driving force in the “Ebonics is made up” movement-acknowledging the dialect means a tacit acknowledgement of the marginalization of black people in America by way of ghettoizing our cities and economically separating black people from white people.

  • Christian

    Come now…BlackSnob hit the nail on the head (except that ebonics is, in fact, alive and well). Slang is not a language and should not be recognized as one. It is only the butchering of standard and grammatically correct English. Sure, it’s fun and insanely creative, but let’s not go overboard. Too many of the children I volunteer with have no idea how to hit the ‘off’ button on their slang usage. Those who use such language above (James be happy *sigh*) chronically and consistently without an off switch are not reaching the upper echelons of education or career.

    Therefore, ebonics should only NOT be considered a language, it should not be used at all until grammatically correct English is mastered. It is a shame when young Latin American children, who come to this country with only a cursory understanding of English, outpace Black children, whose first language is English, in the subjects of English and Reading Comprehension. The ACT and SAT are not, nor will they ever be, in ebonics.

    • does anyone else find it ironic that so many of the Ebonic-is-not-valid folks seem to lack even basic reading comprehension skills?

      Ebonics, again, is not slang. That’s been said repeatedly in this post, and elsewhere. You’re making the same roundly debunked arguments that have been made a million times.

      Again, the fact that Ebonics is not SAE has no bearing on its validity. If millions of people speak it, or a variation of it, and can transmit their thoughts to other speakers, how is it not linguistically valid?

      The issue of “proper” English is about the kind of English — Standard American English — that is valued in professional settings (or settings preparing them to be professionals). But the problem is that many people don’t have access to those contexts. This seems to be what you’re talking about when you say your kids don’t know how to “hit the ‘off’ button on their slang usage.” That’s because switching back and forth like this is a gradually learned skill. If you’ve never been in a setting where SAE is valued — and this is true for socially and economically isolated groups whether they speak Spanish or AAVE — then you’d have little use for it. If no one you know is a professional or middle-class, when would you ever learn how to code-switch?

      The entire goal in Oakland was to address this. The educators recognized that the only time the kids were being asked to speak in Standard American English was in school. They’d leave school and they’d speak in a dialect, with its own grammatical and syntactical rules, that was being reinforced by their parents and peers. So they decided that they acknowledge that Ebonics was a real and valid way of speaking, and teach them, essentially, how to code-switch. It was an acknowledgment that James be happy is valid in one context, and still trying to explain the subtle differences so that the kids could capably make the jump to James is often happy in another. The acknowledgment of the validity of Ebonics was being used to, as you say, help kids learn “grammatically correct English” to better prepare them to interact with people in different environments. You know, like on the ACT and SAT.

      (This isn’t even about “grammatical correctness”— it’s perfectly possible to speak Ebonics improperly, and for someone attempting to speak Ebonics to muck up a sentence in such a way as to muddy its meaning to someone who does speak it properly. And it’s important to note that no one speaks “grammatically correct” Standard American English in real life all the time.)

      your dislike of all these facts doesn’t make any of them not fact.

      Ugh.

      • Christian

        Ugh to you, too, haha.

        Your appreciation of it does not make it so in my book, either. We simply disagree on the matter.

        If children learned proper English today, and raised another generation of proper English speakers, we would not need code switching lessons. That is ridiculous in and of itself as Black people have had to code switch for centuries and did not require classes to do so.

        Additionally, we have no time for code switching classes. Black children are falling behind at an alarming rate. Who cares about code switching? They can’t read! They must learn proper English and they must learn to read quickly!

      • To add to what GD is saying, I used to point out to my students that while not speaking/writing “standard English” handicaps one in academic and professional circles, there are many situations in which speaking/writing *only* “standard English” handicaps one. Language dialects are tools. A hammer isn’t going to replace a screwdriver, and insisting that a hammer is better and that people shouldn’t use screwdrivers at all only demonstrates that you aren’t a carpenter (or if you are, you’re a pretty bad one).

    • Alisa

      Therefore, ebonics should only NOT be considered a language, it should not be used at all until grammatically correct English is mastered.

      So as far as you’re concerned people who don’t speak perfect SAE should just not talk to their kids? *tilts heads to one side quizzically*

  • shani

    I love the discussion on Ebonics. But I’m a little confused on the statement that its not a real thing. If we’re defining it as a dialect or vernacular, how is it not real? Its certainly not another language but I didn’t think anyone was claiming that.

  • Darth Paul

    AAVE is a correct term, not ebonics. It is to English as Calo is to Spanish; and characterizing them as separate languages is specious, divisive, and conducive to class and ethnic bigotry.

    Syntactically, there are no major differences. Sentences follow SVO order, all verb cases are employed (and no new ones included), and allomorphy is identical. The only real differences are in vocabulary, register, pronunciation, and random enhanced grammar (dropping the possessive “‘s” or helping verbs).

    So YES, African American Vernacular English DOES exist, but it is not an independent language any more than Appalachian English is.

    • April

      It should be kept in mind that the notion of what constitutes a distinct “language” is socially, culturally, and political charged. For instance, linguistically, Hindi and Urdu are the same. AAVE and Appalachian English, on the other hand, have distinct grammars. This isn’t to say that AAVE and Standard American English, or Appalachian English and SAE, aren’t mutually intelligible: they are for many speakers. But their grammar isn’t “random,” as you put it; grammar, by definition, is not random but follows specific rules. By the way, AAVE does have at least one instance of syntactical difference: lack of subject-auxiliary inversion in questions (e.g. “Why I can’t go?”)

  • distance88

    Discussing the ‘existence’ of AAVE seems like a smokescreen (but it’s important to note that there is no universally ‘black’ way to form sentences–dialects are regional and fluid). I think cultural conservatives and others are bristled by AAVE because any discussion of sociolinguistics shines a critical light on SAE–while standardized rules governing speech/communication are important, there is nothing inherently more proper, correct, or qualitatively better about these rules. A lot of people would even say that SAE is needlessly complicated and unintuitive.

    Hopefully with this frame of mind, any real or perceived language barriers become, at worst, minor inconveniences–as opposed to misguided political ideologies (see: the ‘English Only’ movement).

  • haiba

    Yeah, I’m kinda late entering this discussion, but I don’t really care. I think what really strikes me is the refusal by some to recognize the social and political issues that make us view dialects and their so called ‘validity’ the way we do. It’s like the notion that those who don’t speak English clearly or at all are stupid or inferior – as if speaking that ONE language is somehow a marker of intelligence (despite the fact that over half the world’s population DOESN’T speak it, and they seem to have gotten on just fine).

  • Oh man is there anything more politically fraught than discussing language (besides abortions… or LeBron James :) ). The fact that the United States government needs translators kind of points to difference between AAVE (or Ebonics) and American Standard English (or as I like to call it, English). But make no mistake, language is always tied to power. The emergence of nationalism, in any form, requires a people with a common nation. What makes the nation? Language. Of course, whether the ‘people’ speak the language in question is not important. For example, The majority of people in the geographic entity of France did not actually speak French until the 1860s if I recall, and government workers who left the confines of the city were filled with terror at the prospect of meeting savage peasants who spoke crap nobody could understand. AAVE’s validity is not the issue, its getting the people that speak it to speak with the rest of American society that is important.

    If you want to look at a crazy but effective language policy, look at Mandarin in China. But that’s another story altogether…

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