Albion Monitor /Commentary

Ebonics Critics Speak Ignorance

by Walter M. Brasch

(AR) BLOOMSBURG, Pa. -- It's now called ebonics (ebony + phonetics), after having been called colored speech, Negro English, Black English, Black English Vernacular, and some abomination called Pan-African Communication Behaviors. It's identified as a slang, dialect, or language.

But, whatever it is, ebonics is as controversial today as it was in 1855 when the first major linguistic study was done. At the center of the current controversy is a decision by the Oakland, Calif., school board to use ebonics in teaching.

Driven by ignorance and fueled by the media, the public argues that the nation's teachers are "dumbing down"
Misinterpretation by reporters has led the masses to believe Black English is "sloppy," "inferior," or "broken English," that Oakland's administrators want to replace Standard English with Black English, and that the 300 California schools and several hundred more in the nation's urban areas are condoning the students' use of slang.

The truth is that these educators, following long-established models for second language teaching, want to understand their students' own language in order to help them learn a different language -- in this case, Standard English. A federal court in July 1979, after hearing several days of expert opinion on a civil rights case, had ruled that the Ann Arbor, Mich., school district violated federal civil rights laws by not providing "equal educational opportunity" when it refused to accept Black English as a legitimate language of many of its students. The court ruled "no matter how well-intentioned the teachers are, they are not likely to succeed in overcoming the language barrier caused by their failure to take into account the home language system unless [they] recognize the language system used by the children... and to use that knowledge as a way of helping the children to learn to read standard English." Late last month, the 6,000-member Linguistics Society of America declared that instruction in Black English is an effective way to get many Blacks to learn Standard English.

Nevertheless, innumerable columnists and cartoonists, almost none of whom studied linguistics, have had fun portraying "jive- talking" teachers and their black students. However, most blacks don't speak any of the varieties of Black English, nor is Black English restricted to the lower classes. Driven by ignorance and fueled by the media, the public argues that the nation's teachers are "dumbing down" their students by even allowing such "substandard" speech in the classroom.

Black English is based upon African language, most probably of the Hamitic and Bantu language families
Richard Riley, the U.S. secretary of education, incorrectly stated that "elevating Black English to the status of a language" wasn't acceptable, apparently believing that a dialect can be "elevated" to a language. Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, who for almost two decades has vigorously opposed Black English instruction, incorrectly claimed this month that "virtually all" adult blacks know ebonics and there are no texts for ebonics instruction. The NAACP called ebonics "a cruel joke," 25 years after declaring it was "a cruel hoax."

These well-meaning but largely ignorant critics claim that because of cultural deprivation, Black English speakers have linguistic deficiencies, and that thought is restricted because Black English is a deficient, substandard language. Like all languages, Black English is composed of the lexicon (words), phonology (pronunciation), and syntax (grammar). The public and the media have focused upon the lexicon ("Hey, bro', slap me five!"), and only a couple of syntactic constructions, mocking such phrasing as "He be sick."

They do not understand that Black English is based upon African language, most probably of the Hamitic and Bantu language families. Ships' captains and plantation owners separated slaves from the same cultures to prevent them from talking with each other, and possibly planning escapes or overthrows. What the owners never realized was that many of the slaves spoke not only their primary language, but also Wes-Kos, a common trade language, composed of several African languages as well as British English.

Just as there are many varieties and dialects of Standard English, there are many variations of Black English, including the Gullah spoken off the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, which few Standard English speakers can even understand, and the mixture of several dialects of Southern Standard English and Urban American English spoken in Detroit.

During the past three decades, young blacks searching for their own identities and cultural heritage, began using varieties of urban Black English as their own secret "codes," much like their slave ancestors used language and music as a way of secret communication.

In Black English rules, the Zero Copula -- "He sick" -- indicates that the person is sick at this very time. The "Invariant be" -- "He be sick" -- indicates that the person is sickly or has a long-term illness. Critics point out that some Black English phonology -- for example, pronouncing "desk" as "des'" -- is sloppy speech, unaware that almost no African languages have consonant clusters in the final position, and that it is Standard English which has added such clusters, rather than the African languages {italic} reducing {end italic} them. Black English phonology markers (including stress, pitch, timbre, and intonation) are closer to West African languages than to Standard English. Even if all of this is true, argue the critics, Black English speakers must learn Standard English to survive in America. We arrogantly claim that Standard English is the "right" language for America, naively believing there is one correct language. But, Standard English itself is constantly evolving as millions of immigrants brought their languages to America. The Standard English we use today, with its several hundred dialects, has little resemblance to that spoken by the Puritans.

Failure of teachers and the public to understand the nature of a student's home language -- whether Black English, Yiddish, or Pennsylvania Dutch
During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, newspaper editors, most of whom faced all-white newsrooms, hired blacks. But, black reporters soon found that being the same color as their news sources wasn't the panacea their editors had hoped to achieve. Those black reporters who, for the most part acted white and spoke Standard English, found that Black English speakers were just as closed to them as to the white reporters. But, those reporters who were able to code-switch -- disguising their knowledge of Black English to their editors while using it within black communities -- found they could get stories others couldn't.

No one is suggesting that Black English should be the dominant language in education, commerce, or government. Nor is anyone suggesting that blacks who don't communicate in Standard English can succeed in assimilated American society. Since children usually have an ability to learn new languages, perhaps the school districts could work with 5- and 6-year old students in kindergarten and the first grade so they develop the basics of Standard English, while retaining the rich cultural and linguistic heritage of their own home language.

American white society tried to destroy the slaves' religions, then forbade them from entering white Christian churches; it denied them the vote or the right to own property; it kept them out of jobs and neighborhoods; it refused to air on radio stations black music, then reluctantly embraced white rockers Anglicizing black music in the early 1950s.

Now it wants to destroy the vestiges of black language, one of the most important indicators of cultural heritage. The failure of teachers and the public to understand the nature of a student's home language -- whether Black English, Yiddish, or Pennsylvania Dutch, then to hold it up to ridicule -- guarantees not only an inferior education, but also the trivialization of a culture.

Walt Brasch is author of two critically-acclaimed books and several articles about American Black English; his Ph.D. is in mass communications, with a concentration in linguistics, specializing in American language and culture

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Albion Monitor January 29, 1997 (

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