Views of linguists and anthropologists on the Ebonics issue (Part 1)

John R. Rickford
Department of Linguistics
Stanford University

Compiled by Leila Monaghan of Pitzer College for the February 1997 Society for Linguistic Anthropology column

"We're not here for glamor or FAshion
but here's the question I'm askin
Why isn't young black kids taught BLACK?
They're only taught to read, write, and act
It's like teaching a dog to be a cat
you don't teach a DOG to be a cat
you don't teach WHITE kids to be BLACK
why IS that?
Is it because we're the miNOrity?"

KRS-1/BoogieDownProductions "Why Is That?" From Ghetto Music: THe Blueprint of Hip Hop. Copyright 1989 Jive Records (BMG)

Leila Monaghan, Gender and Feminist Studies, Pitzer College

The Oakland School Board’s December 18, 1996 proposal to recognize "Ebonics," often known as African American Vernacular English or Black English Vernacular, raised a storm of protest from around the country. In this piece and in this month’s Society for Linguistic Anthropology column, a number of linguistic anthropologists and linguists examine some of the issues surrounding the debate and try to place the situation in linguistic and cultural perspective. In this discussion, Jack Sidnell summarizes a few of the technical differences between AAVE and Standard English. Leanne Hinton gives her perspective as someone who was at the Oakland School Board meetings where the proposal was discussed. Marcyliena Morgan emphasizes the connection of African American varieties of English to culture, social class, geographic region and identity. John McWhorter argues that linguistic issues are the least of the Oakland school district’s problems -- more important is understanding that the schools are chronically under funded and often awful. John Rickford gives us background information on how schools have failed many African American students and argues for linguistically aware teaching techniques. Ron Kephart, writing from the perspective of his experience working with Creole speakers in Grenada also supports the recognition of language differences as a positive step that can help.

These six views are only brief introduction to this large and complex topic. English used by African Americans ranges from the distinctive styles of master orators like Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, through urban and rural vernaculars influenced by Southern roots (this is what is most commonly called AAVE), to the language of recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, to Standard and local Englishes identical to those used by members of other communities. The discussion continues in the SLA column but also included there are ways to get more information on this topic -- a bibliography of the works mentioned below and some of the other key literature in this area and websites where further bibliographies, newspaper reports and discussions are available.

Jack Sidnell, Linguistic Anthropology, University of Toronto

Although there are important differences at many levels between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and White dialects in the United States (including in such crucial areas as discourse markers), I would like here to briefly outline a few of the most widely documented structural linguistic differences. AAVE is not simply an accent. It differs grammatically from other dialects in important respects. Some of these differences show a striking resemblance to patterns in Caribbean Creoles and West African languages.

A. A summary of major points (adapted from Labov 1982):

  1. It is a separate subsystem of English with a distinct set of phonological and syntactic rules that are aligned in many ways with the rules of other dialects. 
  2. It incorporates some aspects of Southern phonology, morphology and syntax but the influence is not unidirectional. Black and White speakers have exerted influences on each other.

  3. Present forms of AAVE may show evidence of an earlier creole close in structure to the Creoles of the Caribbean. 
  4. It has a highly developed "aspect system" (the way verbs reflect notions of time and activity whether activities are in progress or finished, are active or stative) which is quite different from the aspect systems of other dialects. 

B. Some specific points:

  1. Forms characteristic of SE formal registers - such as /test/, /hold/, /left/ and /stabd/ - variably reduce to /tes/, /hol/, /lef/ and /stab/ in some varieties of AAVE.

    This is not the tranference of a general rule from West African languages. Twi, for example does not have /st/, /ld/, /rd/, or /nd/ clusters in single syllables (unlike English) but does have /kp/, /gb/, and /jw/. Caribbean Creoles, on the other hand, do show such consonant cluster reduction quite consistently.

    Rickford (1977), however, argues that since both White and Black dialects have some consonant cluster reduction, that the real difference lies not in the presence or absence of consonant cluster reduction but in the different weightings of phonological (sound-oriented) and grammatical constraints. In AAVE phonological constraints are paramount, while in White dialects grammatical are usually more important.  

  2. Rickford also argues that a distinct intonation contour is a characteristic of the speech of many African-Americans who would not normally be considered speakers of AAVE proper. 
  3. Among the semantic and syntactic differences between AAVE and SE is use of the verb /bin/, a stative verb implying a distantly initiated state which is still in force or relevant. Rickford found for the phrase "She bin married" that 23 of 25 Black people surveyed thought "she" was still married, while only 8 of 25 White people survey thought so. White speakers were more likely to interpret this as the Standard English present perfect: "She’s been married" which implies that she was married but now she’s not. 
  4. The copula system (the organization of the forms of the auxiliary verb "to be") in AAVE is different from other dialects of English. Where other dialects show two forms of the copula: "He is tired out" and "He’s tired out", AAVE has four "He is tired out," "He’s tired out," "He tired out," and "He be tired out." Labov argues that where other dialects contract, Black English Vernacular can delete the copula, (e.g. "He’s tired out" can become "He tired out" in BEV). The "He be tired out" in AAVE implies long and ongoing tiredness.

    Labov's work has been reassessed by Baugh (1983) who split apart one of the grammatical categories used by Labov into two separate ones - locatives (which identify where things are) and adjectives. Baugh found that AAVE strongly disfavored a copula before adjectives just like creoles - and favored the presence of copula before locatives - again like creoles. The situation for contraction in White dialects is generally reversed.  

  5. Some forms of AAVE are camouflaged forms, similar or identical to forms in Standard White English, but with a different accepted meaning. An example would be the use of the verb "come" to express the speaker's indignation about an action, "He come walkin' in here like he owned the damn place." That this "come" isn’t a verb of motion can be seen in the grammatically correct AAVE sentence "She come going in my room - didn't knock or nothing" which wouldn’t be allowed in SWE because it includes two verbs of motion that imply movement in different directions.

Leanne Hinton, Linguistics, UC Berkeley

The furor over Oakland's recently-adopted resolution regarding Ebonics is based in large part on these issues: (1) there is a misunderstanding that the Oakland school system wants to teach Black English in the schools; (2) there is a sense of outrage among some that a stigmatized variety of English would be treated as a valid way of talking.

When I attended the school board meeting where the Ebonics resolution was adopted, all discussion in support of the resolution, by board members, parents, and teachers, was centered around the importance of teaching standard English to children. This resolution is not about teaching Black English, but about the best way of teaching standard English. The children the board is concerned about have learned Black English at home, a linguistic variety that has many differences from standard English. In order to teach them standard English, the board has rightfully concluded that teachers need to understand and be able to teach children the differences between these two linguistic varieties. It has also rightfully concluded that Black English is not just some random form of "broken-down English" that is intrinsically inferior to standard English, but is rather a speech variety with its own long history, its own logical rules of grammar, discourse practices that are traceable to West African languages, and a vibrant oral literature that is worthy of respect. Black English has also been one of the major contributors of vocabulary to American English in general.

Whether Ebonics is a separate language or not in any technical sense is not really what I think educators are concerned with here. What they are after is elevating the status of African American English (AAE). While from a linguistic point of view, these notions are being carried to an unscientific extreme, the proponents of Ebonics are battling an even more unscientific set of extreme prejudices against AAE. The Oakland Board is trying to promulgate a new set of political ideas about AAE as a legitimate form of speech, partly for the sake of African-American pride, but mainly for the sake of teaching standard English in an emotionally positive way.

The notion that there is something just plain "bad" about nonstandard varieties of English is so deeply imbedded in the minds of many people that they tend to believe that children speak Black English out of contrariness, and need to be corrected by punishment. Educators have known better than that for a long time now, and don't want to be disrespectful of African American children’s way of speech; but that very respect has left them without a way of teaching standard English. The method being embraced now by the Oakland School Board fills that void. By escaping the trap of thinking of nonstandard Black English as a set of "errors," and instead treating it as really is, a different system, not a wrong one, standard English can be taught by helping children develop an awareness of the contrast between their two speech varieties, and learn to use one without losing their pride in the other.

Marcyliena Morgan, Linguistic Anthropology, UCLA

After sitting through a string of tasteless jokes about the Oakland School District's approval of a language education policy for African American students, I now realize that linguists and educators have failed to inform Americans about varieties of English used throughout the country and the link between these dialects and culture, social class, geographic region and identity. After all, linguists have been a part of language and education debates around African American English (AAE) and the furor that surrounds them since the late 1970s. Then, the Ann Arbor School District received a court order to train teachers on aspects of AAE so that they could properly assess and teach children in their care.

Like any languages and dialects, African American varieties of English, which range from that spoken by children and some adults with limited education to those spoken by adults with advanced degrees, are based on the cultural, social, historical and political experiences shared by many people of African descent in the US. This experience is one of family, community and love as well as racism, poverty and discrimination. Every African American does not speak AAE. Moreover, some argue that children who speak the vernacular, typically grow up to speak both AAE as well as mainstream varieties of English. It is therefore not surprising that the community separates its views of AAE, which range from loyalty to abhorrence, from issues surrounding the literacy education of their children. Unfortunately, society's ambivalent attitudes toward African American students' cognitive abilities , like Jensen's 1970s deficit models and the 1990s "Bell Curve", suggest that when it comes to African American kids, intelligence and competence in school can be considered genetic.

African American children who speak the vernacular form of AAE may be the only English speaking children in this country who attend schools, in their own communities, where the teachers are not only ignorant of their dialect, but refuse to accept it exists. This attitude leads to children being marginalized and designated as learning disabled. The educational failure of African American children can, at best, be only partially addressed through teacher training on AAE. We must recognize that when children go to school, they not only bring their homework and text books, but their language, culture and identity as well. Sooner, rather than later, the educational system must address its exclusion of cultural and dialect difference in teacher training and school curriculum.

John McWhorter, Linguistics and African-American Studies, UC Berkeley

In the weeks after the Oakland School Board’s proposal came out, I interviewed with just about every media outlet in the country on Ebonics. Often, I was selectively quoted as if to say that the whole issue is absurd because Black English isn't separate enough from standard English to justify concern.

This is not what I have been trying to say. My feeling, in a nutshell, is simply that the Oakland school board misidentifies the reason for black students' failure in attributing it, in any significant way, to the difference between the dialects. Black children fail because:

  1. Inner city backgrounds do not prepare many children to be receptive to education in school; 
  2. The schools are under funded and often awful; 
  3. Reading is not taught properly in many schools period, compounding the ill effects of the above.  

These are the problems which must be addressed with money and study.

I have no problem with taking Black English into account in schools. But when this goes as far as translation exercises or textbooks in Black English, I am opposed. This is because:

  1. Because translation between these close dialects is not the problem, doing this would be like trying to put out a house fire with an eyedropper. Sure, it might do some tiny, insignificant good here and there but WHILE IT WAS DOING THIS ---
  2. It would make black kids look stupid, as if they were incapable of making the two-inch jump between such close dialects while kids in Brooklyn, Appalachia and white Mississippi do it without comment (or -- if they fail in school, dialect is not thought to be the reason).  

There does need to be, however, a book for the general public outlining what a dialect is, how the concept differs from "slang", and how this relates to good old Black English. It has shocked me how ignorant the public is on this despite us teaching the concepts year after year at universities. Thinking about this, however, it occurred to me -- there already ARE books on Black English, at least, long readily available in paperback such as Dillard (1972) and Smitherman (1986). Both are accessibly written but seem to have had little impact on public perception. It is our responsibility to enlighten the public about these issues, to do something. The question of course is how?

John R. Rickford, Linguistics, Stanford

The Oakland School Board's decision to take Ebonics into account in teaching Standard English to African American (and other) students deserves commendation rather than the misinterpretation and vilification which it has received.

One good thing about the Oakland decision is that it brings to national attention the fact that existing methods of teaching English work are often failing miserably for working class African American children. For instance, in the 1990 California Assessment Program, third grade kids in the primarily white, middle class Palo Alto School District scored on the 94th percentile in writing; by the third grade, they had topped out at the 99 percentile. By contrast, third grade kids in primarily African American working class East Palo Alto (Ravenswood School District) scored on the 21st percentile in writing, but by the sixth grade, they had fallen to the 3rd percentile, almost to the very bottom. Several other studies also show that the longer African American inner city kids stay in school, the worse they do. Labov (in Gadsden & Wagner, 1995) reported that in 1976, 73% of the kids in one African American elementary school scored below the mean; by the senior high level, that failure rate had soared to 95%, and the 1992 results were equally ominous.

Another good thing about the Oakland decision is that it is putting into practice findings from over three decades of research, both in this country and abroad (e.g., Sweden) that show teaching methods which DO take vernacular dialects into account in teaching the standard work better than those which DO NOT. For instance, Hanni Taylor (1991) reported on a study where she tried to improve the Standard English writing of inner city university students from Chicago using two methods. With the experimental group, she raised students' metalinguistic awareness of the differences between Ebonics and Standard English through contrastive analysis, and tailored pattern practice drills. With the control group, she did not do this, but simply followed "traditional English department techniques." After nearly three months of instruction, the experimental group showed a 59% reduction in the use of Ebonics features in their SE writing, while the control group, using traditional methods, showed a slight INCREASE (8.5%) in the use of AAVE features.

Other studies have shown similar results for the teaching of reading. Students at all levels who are taught by methods that take the dialect into account show dramatic improvement in their skills in reading and writing as well as in the standard variety (J Rickford & A. Rickford, 1995).

Ron Kephart, Linguistic Anthropology and English, University of North Florida

My take on the "Ebonics" issue has to do with my being a linguistic anthropologist, and also with my having conducted research on reading in Creole English on Carriacou, Grenada. In both cases, one of the hardest problems seems to be making people understand what you are doing.

For example, a major criticism of the Oakland proposal I have heard is that teachers will be wasting time "teaching" AAVE when the kids should be learning standard English. On Carriacou I often found it necessary to explain that I didn’t have to "teach" the children Creole; they were already native speakers of it when they got to school. I was giving them access to literacy through Creole and then attempting to test to what extent this helped them acquire literacy in standard English.

On Carriacou, "educational experts" claimed that my taking children out of their standard English classes and working with them in Creole would slow them down and confuse them. I found neither to be the case: while working in Creole they continued to improve in reading standard English as fast as other children who were working entirely in standard. And, they never seemed to confuse the two (it helped, no doubt, that I wrote Creole with a broadly phonemic spelling system that it made it look different).

My research was interrupted by the coup and subsequent US invasion of Grenada and Carriacou in late 1983. As a result, I was not able to draw the strong conclusions I would have liked. Still, I showed that spending time working on Creole did not slow down or confuse the children, and I was able to present some evidence that reading Creole helped their reading of standard. On a more qualitative note, they enjoyed it. Other teachers told me they had never seen children fight with each other over who was going to read to the class. And, they had rarely taken school books home to read before getting the little booklets in Creole that we produced. Even children who were not in the Creole class asked for the booklets.

Ultimately, of course, this is a political issue. My experience on Grenada suggests that recognition of AAVE in Oakland can’t hurt. Surely it can’t hurt children to discover that what they bring with them to school, as a realization of the universal human potential for language and culture, is worthy of respect, worthy enough to be valued and used in their formal education. And, it can’t hurt teachers (those who need to) to learn this, either, although some of them will be most resistant. How much will it help? We have research from all over the world on the positive effects of native language first literacy acquisition and early schooling. Since it can’t hurt, it seems to me worth finding out whether these results can be replicated in Oakland, and elsewhere, for AAVE.

At the same time, we have to remain skeptically (realistically?) aware that simply gaining greater command of the standard language will not help unless the society is willing to adjust its attitudes toward the people involved. Otherwise, discrimination and exploitation will continue as before; the racists will have one less justification they can trot out, that’s all. Perhaps this is where anthropologists and linguists have their most important work to do, in raising public awareness and understanding of what linguistic, cultural, and biological differences mean and, most importantly, what they don't mean.