Answers to some Questions about "Ebonics"

(= African American English)

Prof. Peter L. Patrick

University of Essex


Why "Ebonics" is a language:

A 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 situation).
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.
So, it's a language!


Why AAVE [="Ebonics"] isn't a separate language, but a dialect of English:

Most 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 down on".

Is AAVE a "made-up" language?

All 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 them, either.)
To 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?

Languages 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.
Descendants 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 their languages.
AAVE 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"?

One 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 informality.
Linguists 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 appropriate circumstances.
It 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?

If 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?

last updated 20 November 2007