Ebonics and Black English

Ebonics is a term applied to various forms of non-standard English dialect or slang spoken by some members of the African American community. The term derives from the combination of the words "ebony" and "phonics." It carries political undertones and its usage and acceptance remains controversial. Another commonly used name is "black English," also known as "African American vernacular English (AAVE). There are various other designations for African American slang, including "jive."

In her article The Evolution of Ebonics, researcher Synthia J. Johnson attributed the first usage of the word "ebonics," by psychologist Robert L. Williams in 1975. Johnson positioned the ebonics dialect within a historical and ethnographic context. She said that the linguistic form arose from the origins of Africans transferred on slave ships across the Atlantic. It grew and solidified in the harsh lives they faced toiling in cotton fields, and subsequently in impoverished urban ghettos. According to Johnson, contemporary ebonics moved away from its racial base and socio-economic context and influenced spoken English, with slang phrases and patterns of speech now common among all Americans.

In his book Spoken Soul: the Story of Black English, Russell John Rickford, a linguistic scholar, analyzed the original context and the contemporary version of ebonics. Rickford argued that like most regional spoken language forms, ebonics has rules of pronunciation and distinct vocabulary, as well as its own grammatical structure. These derive in part from the distinctive oral traditions and musical aptitudes of the former slaves and their descendants who have shaped the new language form.

In terms of vocabulary, Rickford pointed out that ebonics has recently been systematized in dedicated dictionaries such as Clarence Major's 548-page Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang (a revised, expanded version of his 1970 Dictionary of Afro-American Slang) and Geneva Smitherman's 243-page Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. In Rickfords view, black vocabulary expressions such as "bougie ('an uppity-acting African American'), busting out ('looking good'), and fresh (for 'cool')," have an important function to "connect blacks from different social classes," by expressing notions with which white audiences are often unfamiliar. While street slang terms popular with teenagers are sometimes relatively short-lived, Rickford mentions several fashionable slang words and expressions that have been handed down over generations. He claimed that the word "pad," has been used as a colloquial name for "home," since 1800. He cites more than 60 expressions and words, which have successfully passed from ebonics into common English.

Regarding pronunciation, Rickford systematizes several important rules such as an ending vowel "ah," in words such as "my," or "side," or missing the first "a," syllable in words such as "about," and "afraid,". He also cites findings of numerous studies that illustrate that African Americans have very little difficulty recognizing other African Americans by their pronunciation and tone of voice alone. One particularly interesting anecdote he relates pertains to the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s, when witness evidence characterizing a suspect's voice as "black," may have been improperly dismissed by the court on racism claims.

Ebonics' grammar is another characteristic that has been the subject of debate. Rickford contended that ebonics has some established grammatical rules, such as the slang form of plural formation known as "an dem," or the elimination of third-person singular in present tense. Grammatical forms considered as common mistakes in formal English, such as an invariable form of "be," are in fact entrenched and accepted among Black English speakers. Rickford said that some variation in grammar exists, mainly due to social stratification among African Americans and the ensuing differences in fluency and expression.

Scholarly articles published on the topic since 2000 have voiced concerns over the purity and propriety of the language form. This is especially true with respect to the virtues of teaching the AAVE form in American classrooms. A 2007 article titled African American English: Implications for School Counseling Professionals recommended tolerance to Black American English spoken by students in classrooms, coupled with counseling strategies aimed at improving Standard American English (SAE) fluency in "linguistically diverse," student populations. So far, new recognition and appreciation for AAVE has not elevated it to a formal SAE-equivalent status.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children
Theresa Perry; Lisa Delpit.
Beacon Press, 1998
Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice
John Baugh.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Ebonics Is Not Black English
Smith, Ernie; Crozier, Karen.
The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 1998
Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English
John Russell Rickford; Russell John Rickford.
John Wiley & Sons, 2000
American Earlier Black English: Morphological and Syntactic Variables
Edgar W. Schneider.
University of Alabama, 1989
African American English: A Linguistic Introduction
Lisa J. Green.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America
Geneva Smitherman.
Routledge, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Part One "Ebonics, Language Theory, and Research"
Handbook of Language & Ethnic Identity
Joshua A. Fishman.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "African American Vernacular English"
Black Linguistics: Language, Society, and Politics in Africa and the Americas
Sinfree Makoni; Geneva Smitherman; Arnetha F. Ball; Arthur K. Spears.
Routledge, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "'Whassup, Homeboy?' Joining the African Diaspora: Black English as a Symbolic Site of Identification and Language Learning"
Language and Cultural Diversity in U.S. Schools: Democratic Principles in Action
Terry A. Osborn.
Praeger, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Accents and Dialects: Ebonics and Beyond"
Language and Social Identity
Richard K. Blot; Charles L. Briggs.
Praeger, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Ebonics, Language, and Power"
African American Communication: Exploring Identity and Culture
Michael L. Hecht; Ronald L. Jackson II; Sidney A. Ribeau.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Black English" begins on p. 143
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