Answers to some Questions about "Ebonics"
(= African American English)
Prof. Peter L. Patrick
University of Essex
Why "Ebonics" is a language:
language is a coherent system of signs - a grammar of elements and rules -
which is used in a regular way for purposes of communication, and also for
social symbolic purposes (such as making clear to listeners a speaker's
identity, how they feel about themselves and others, and how they perceive a
African American Vernacular English, or AAVE - which
is sometimes called "Ebonics", but not usually by linguists - does
all these things and more, in ways just like other languages do.
Why AAVE [="Ebonics"] isn't
a separate language, but a dialect of English:
of the time when people question whether AAVE is a language, they mean, “Is it
a separate system from English?” in the way that German, Chinese, or Jamaican Creole are separate systems. In this sense, a dialect is a complete
system that overlaps to a great degree with some other, super-system.
Thus Bavarian German is a dialect of German-in-general (but it's not a dialect
of Swiss German); London English
is a dialect of English, and U.S.A.
"Broadcast Standard" English is also a dialect of English.
AAVE is an English dialect, too. Most of its components in
the dimensions of grammar, lexicon, and pronunciation are widely shared with
English - either with standard American English, or with Southern White
English, or with vernacular dialects of English around the world. So it's not
as separate as German, Chinese or Jamaican Creole, which all have very
different grammars and lexicons, and which are all unintelligible to monolingual
speakers of American Englishes. On the other hand,
AAVE does have its own distinctive features and functions. It can be spoken
badly, or imitated inaccurately, by whites (or blacks) unfamiliar with its
rules; and it symbolizes community and cultural values for its speakers that no
other dialect of English in the world can convey.
Is AAVE [="Ebonics"] slang?
Ebonics is not slang. “Slang” refers to a relatively
small set of vocabulary items which are ephemeral - they gain and lose currency
rapidly, go in and out of style. Slang does not have a
grammar or rules of pronunciation; it is not a dialect or a language. Like
other terms which have technical definitions for linguists (such as
"dialect", "patois" and "pidgin"),
"slang" is often used by non-linguists - not in the way I have just
described, but rather to mean "a way of talking that I personally look
Is AAVE a "made-up" language?
languages are "made up" by their speakers, in a way, but this does
not happen in a single generation. (Some linguists believe that it does, for
pidgins and creole languages. But in my opinion - and
this is my special area of study - this is not true in any meaningful sense for
say that a language is "made-up" tends to imply that it is "not
real" in some important way -- not as good as languages whose existence is
undeniable. Languages are primarily spoken phenomena, and only secondarily
written. But it is a historical fact that written languages are more
prestigious than unwritten ones. This has nothing to do with the complexity or
richness or the systematic nature of a language's grammar, however. Unwritten
languages are just as rich, complex and systematic as written ones. They simply
tend to belong to cultures with a different grasp of technology - to groups of
people who have not acquired literacy, or who live in a literate culture but
have been disprivileged or denied access to education
and technology. (look here)
If it's a language, then why is
AAVE not spoken by any country?
existed long before the modern world became organized into
"countries", or nation-states. A languages
doesn't need to be the official speech of a nation-state in order to be real.
Yet it is a fact that giving such official status tends to increase the
prestige of a language. "African Americans", literally speaking, are
people with African ancestry whose cultural home is in the Americas, from Nova
Scotia to Argentina. There
is no reason they should all speak English, and they do not. There is no reason
they should not speak other languages and dialects than their national
standards (English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese), and many of them do.
of enslaved Africans are, by and large, peoples who have been discriminated
against, who have been denied access to technologies and education, or educated
in traditions foreign to their own experience. They are peoples who have had
power - power to govern their own lives and societies - withheld from them by
others. It shouldn't be surprising that the way they speak in their communities
is often slandered as poor, inadequate or corrupt, and even said not to exist
at all. It is not surprising that their speech forms have rarely been given
official status by governments or education systems. It is not even surprising
that many members of these communities have come to believe their native speech
is inferior, simply because it is different. This is part of a historical
pattern of discrimination, but it is not logically based on any facts about
is just one of many African American language
systems; others include Jamaican Creole,
Haitian Creole, Louisiana French Creole, the Gullah
language of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, Palenquero
of Colombia, Papiamentu of the Netherlands Antilles, and
the Maroon languages of Guyana and Suriname (Saramakkan,
Aluku, etc.), just to name a few. The speakers of
these languages all share some history related to the Atlantic slave trade and
colonialism, but are diverse in other respects; similarly, they share some
aspects of grammar but are diverse in others. The extent to which these two
dimensions (history and language structure) can be linked is the subject of the
discipline known as pidgin and creole studies. Many controversies
about the origins and resemblance of these language varieties are hotly debated
by linguists and creolists - but almost all of them
would agree with nearly everything I have said here.
Who exactly uses "Ebonics"?
reason linguists don't use the term "Ebonics" very happily is that it
is very vague, and so such questions are hard to answer. We generally use the
term "African American Vernacular English", or AAVE, instead to mean
the kinds of speech characteristically spoken by working-class U.S. African
Americans, within their community, at occasions calling for intimacy or
know very well that there are African Americans who cannot speak this dialect
with native fluency; that there are some non-African Americans who can (though
very few); and that almost all African Americans have some command of other
forms of English, including Standard American English. In fact, there are
characteristically African American ways of speaking the latter - which means
there is a Standard African American English, too. A
very large number of African American adults are perfectly at home with both
AAVE and Standard American English, and are skilled at using each in the
seems sensible, then, to speak of a generalized family of dialects - AAE, or African
American English - which includes all the various ways of speaking
characteristic of African Americans: standard and vernacular, working- and
middle-class, in settings formal and professional or informal and intimate. It
is sensible, also, to use the term AAVE for a particular branch of AAE. When
people say "Ebonics," they often refer to this system, which
linguists have studied the most.
So what's the controversy about?
you've gotten this far, you probably know that in December 1996 a decision by
the Oakland (California) United School District kicked off a nation-wide
controversy about "Ebonics" that is still ringing in many people's
ears. In the wake of Oakland, a lot
of important questions and views were aired, many of which haven't been
mentioned here. You can begin to explore these issues through some of the
sources on my AAVE links page.
Prof Peter L. Patrick's homepage
African American English homepage
Why a webpage on African American English?
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