Ebonics Is Not Black English

By Smith, Ernie; Crozier, Karen | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Ebonics Is Not Black English


Smith, Ernie, Crozier, Karen, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Abstract

The December 18, 1996 resolution of the Oakland Unified School District Board officially recognizing Ebonics as an African Language System, and not a dialect of English, sparked anew much debate concerning the speech and language of African American people. In the aftermath of the resolution passed by the Board, due in part to some abstruseness in the wording, a considerable amount of confusion and controversy emerged. A great deal of the confusion had nothing to do with the abstruse wording, but rather, was due to the popular press and media's misapprehension and use of the appellation "Ebonics" as being a synonym for the phrase or appellation "Black English ". As an African centered term that legitimizes the language of Black Americans as an African based linguistic system, rather than allowing the deviancy model to persist, this article traces the true origin and meaning of the term Ebonics. In this article it is posited by the writers that inherent in the very use of the phrase "Black English" there is a tacit inference that the language being discussed is a variant of English and hence that, there is, ipso facto, a genetic kinship between "Black English" and the Germanic language family to which English belongs. The writers contend that since Ebonics was not coined as a synonym for the appellation "Black English" and when it is used as such those who do so reveal an ignorance of the in fact origin and meaning of the term "Ebonics" that is so profound their confusion is pathetic.

Introduction

The features of the language of Black or African Americans, i.e., United States slave descendants of West and Niger-Congo African origin, has been recognized, described and discussed for several decades. When an exploration is made of the literature on the language of slave descendants of African origin it will be found that the appellation "Black English" is a post 1950's label. This is because, prior to the 1950's Blacks in America were not referred to as "Blacks".

Prior to 1950 the most prevalent term used to designate the race of United States slave descendants of African origin was "Negro". Thus, in the pre-1950's literature on the language of the descendants of African slaves, the appellation used to designate their language was "Negro English", "The Negro Dialect", "Negro Speech", Non-standard Negro English or Negro Non-Standard English and "Nonstandard Negro Dialect" etc. (Defrantz, 1975)

In the late 1950's, during what is commonly called the civil rights era, the appellation used for the language of the descendants of African slaves changed. United States slave descendants of African origin began to call themselves "Black" and the word "Black" became acceptable. With the widespread acceptance of the word "Black" there was, in the literature on the language of the descendants of African slaves, a concomitant substitution of the word "Black" for "Negro" in front of the word "English". Throughout the 1960's and on into the 1990's, although the appellations "Vernacular Black English", "Black Vernacular English", "Black English Vernacular" and more recently "African American Vernacular English" have gained some popularity, the most prevalent phrase used is "Black English".

What is Black English?

In the 1970's and in the 1980's several books appeared on the language of slave descendants of African origin with "Black English" as their title. To name but a few, there is Black English: Its History and Usage in the United States (Dillard, 1972), Black American English: Its Background and Its Usage in the Schools and in Literature (Stoller, 1975), Black English: A Seminar (Harrison & Trabasso, 1976) and Black English: Educational Equity and the Law (Chambers, Jr., 1983).

Conspicuously, in none of these works is there a phrase that explicitly defines "Black English". Presuming, inherently, by the very use of the word "English" that the language of slave descendants of African origin is a variant of "English", the inference is also made that, being a dialect of English, there is a genetic kinship between "Black English" and the Germanic language family to which English belongs. …

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