Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ebonics Essay

Ebonics-Slang, Dialect or Language?

African American Vernacular English

In 1996 a debate raged in the world of education over a resolution in the Oakland, CA school district to begin teaching children of African descent using Ebonics. On Dec. 18, 1996, the Oakland Unified School District had decided that the "primary language" spoken by many of its 28,000 black students was not English but a distinct language--not a dialect, not nonstandard speech--called "Ebonics" (a combination of "ebony," meaning "black," and "phonics"). They asserted that deficiencies in black educational achievement could not be remedied unless the this language difference was recognized and somehow dealt with. In the debate which followed, people tended to line themselves up into two camps. There were those who insisted that Ebonics, also called African-American Vernacular English, was a distinct dialect or language deriving from African languages that had incorporated a large amount of English vocabulary. On the other side were those who contended that Ebonics was nothing more than nonstandard English, or slang, even, spoken by uneducated persons of African descent and others who had “incorrectly” learned English.

Now is Ebonics just "slang," as so many people have characterized it? Slang refers to the small set of new and (usually) short-lived words like chillin ("relaxing") or homey ("close friend") which are used primarily by young people in informal contexts. Ebonics includes many of these words, but also includes many non-slang words like ashy (referring to the appearance of dry skin, especially in winter) which have been around for a while, and are used by people of all age groups. Ebonics also includes distinctive patterns of pronunciation and grammar, the elements of language on which linguists tend to concentrate because they are more systematic and deep-rooted. In essence, Ebonics has definite rules for how it is spoken that are consistent and have been for a long time. But is Ebonics a different language from English or a different dialect of English? Linguists (language experts) tend to avoid questions like these, noting, as the 1997 resolution did, that the answers often depend on social and political considerations rather than on linguistic ones. For instance, spoken Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible, but they are usually regarded as "dialects" of Chinese because their speakers use the same writing system and see themselves as part of a common Chinese tradition. They can not understand each other's speech, but use the same characters in writing. By contrast, although Norwegian and Swedish share many words and their speakers can generally understand each other, they are usually regarded as different languages because they are spoken in different countries. Despite this, most linguists might agree that Ebonics is more of a dialect of English than a separate language, since it shares most of its vocabulary and many other features with other informal varieties of American English, and because its speakers can understand and be understood by speakers of most other American English dialects. At the same time, Ebonics is one of the most distinctive varieties of American English, differing from Standard English [SE]--the educated standard--in several ways. Consider, for instance, its verb tenses and aspects. ("Tense" refers to WHEN an event occurs, e.g. present or past, and "aspect" to HOW it occurs, e.g. habitually or not.) Let's take a look at some of the rules of Ebonics that separate it from Standard English (SE). What follows is a description of variations in the construction of verb tense and aspect. As used in Ebonics:

1. Present progressive: In Ebonics one would say, “He runnin” to mean what in SE would be said, "He is running" or "He's running". (IS is dropped).

2. Present habitual progressive: An Ebonics speaker would say, “He be runnin'” to indicate that someone usually runs or runs habitually. In SE, "He is usually running" or “He runs all the time.”

3. Present perfect progressive: In Ebonics one says, “He been runnin” for the SE "He has been running" (has is dropped).

4. Present perfect progressive with remote inception: “He BIN runnin” (emphasis on BIN) means in SE, "He has been running for a long time, and still is!"

OK, so it's not just slang, but an English dialect, sharing a lot with other English varieties, but with some pretty distinctive features of its own. What about the idea that Ebonics is simply "lazy" English, as though it were the result of snoozing in a hammock on a Sunday afternoon, or the consequences of not knowing or caring about the rules of "proper" English? Well, if you remember the Linguistics principle that all languages are rule-governed, you'll probably see that this idea is as ridiculous as calling .Ebonics a different language. One reason people might regard Ebonics as "lazy English" is its tendency to omit word-final consonants, especially if they come after another consonant, as in "tes(t)" and "han(d)." But if one were just being lazy or cussed or both, why not also leave out the final consonant in a word like "pant"? This is NOT permitted in Ebonics, and the reason is that Ebonics does not allow the deletion of the second consonant in a word-final sequence unless both consonants are either voiceless, as with "st," or voiced, as with "nd." In the case of "pant," the final "t" is voiceless, but the preceding "n" is voiced. Not only is Ebonics systematic in following this rule, but even its exceptions to the rule--negative forms like "ain'," and "don'"--are not random. In short, Ebonics is not lazy English any more than Italian is lazy Latin. To see the (expected) regularity in both we need to see each in its own terms, appreciating the complex rule that native speakers follow effortlessly and unconsciously in their daily lives. Talking about native speakers naturally brings up the question of who speaks Ebonics. If we made a list of all the ways in which the pronunciation or grammar of Ebonics differs from that of SE, we probably couldn't find anyone who uses all of them 100% of the time. Although its features are found most commonly among African American speakers ("Ebonics" is itself derived from "Ebony" and "phonics," meaning "Black sounds"), not all African Americans speak it. Ebonics features are more common among working class than among middle class speakers, among adolescents than among the middle aged, and in informal settings (a conversation in the street) rather than formal ones (a sermon at church) or writing. These differences are partly the result of differences in environment, education and social network, and partly the result of differences in identification. Lawyers and doctors and their families have more contact than blue collar workers and the unemployed do with Standard English speakers, in their schooling, their work environments, and their neighborhoods. Moreover, working class speakers, and adolescents in particular, often use Ebonics to emphasize their Black identity, while middle class speakers (in public at least) don't.

Another part of the debate in academia were questions about the origins of Ebonics; Where did it come from? Some contended that most of the distinctive pronunciation and grammatical features of Ebonics came from African languages, since West Africans acquiring English as slaves restructured it according to the patterns of African languages. A second view is that African slaves learned English from White settlers, and that they did so relatively quickly and successfully, with little continuing influence from their African linguistic heritage. Vernacular or non-standard features of Ebonics are seen as transfers from dialects spoken by colonial English, Irish, or Scotch Irish settlers, or as features which developed in the 20th century, after African Americans became more isolated in urban ghettos. A third view, the Creolist view, is that many African slaves, in acquiring English, developed a simplified fusion of English and African languages which linguists call a pidgin or creole, and that this influenced the subsequent development of Ebonics.

Those in Oakland stated that the language their students spoke was a different language. They intended to institute something very like an English as a Second Language program to bring their students up to speed. The academic success of their students, they insisted, was at stake. Some in the debate argued, however, that the Oakland school board was simply seeking extra funding that adding additional second language programs, which and Ebonics program could be labeled, would bring. In the end, no such program was instituted and the debate faded from public scrutiny.