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Ebonics is a term that was originally intended and sometimes used for the language of all people of African ancestry, or for that of Black North American people; since 1996 it has been largely used to refer to African American Vernacular English (distinctively nonstandard Black United States English), asserting the independence of this from (standard) English. The term became widely known in the U.S. in 1996 due to a controversy over its use by the Oakland School Board.
What is claimed to be the initial mention of "Ebonics" was made by the psychologist Robert Williams in a dialogue with linguist Ernie Smith that took place in a conference on "Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child", held in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1973. In 1975, the term appeared within the title and text of a book edited and co-written by Williams, Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks. Williams there explains it:
A two-year-old term created by a group of black scholars, Ebonics may be defined as "the linguistic and paralinguistic features which on a concentric continuum represent the communicative competence of the West African, Caribbean, and United States slave descendant of African origin. It includes the various idioms, patois, argots, idiolects, and social dialects of black people" especially those who have adapted to colonial circumstances. Ebonics derives its form from ebony (black) and phonics (sound, the study of sound) and refers to the study of the language of black people in all its cultural uniqueness.
Other writers have since emphasized how the term represents a view of the language of Black people as African rather than European. The term was not obviously popular even among those who agreed with the reason for coining it: it is little used even within the Ebonics book, in which "Black English" is the far more common name.
John Baugh has stated that the term Ebonics is used in four ways by its Afrocentric proponents. It may (i) be "an international construct, including the linguistic consequences of the African slave trade"; (ii) refer to the languages of the African diaspora as a whole; or it may refer to what is normally regarded as a variety of English: either (iii) it "is the equivalent of black English and is considered to be a dialect of English" (and thus merely an alternative term for AAVE), or (iv) it "is the antonym of black English and is considered to be a language other than English" (and thus a rejection of the notion of "African American Vernacular English" but nevertheless a term for what others term AAVE, viewed as an independent language and not a mere ethnolect).
In an exclusively US context
Ebonics remained a little-known and little-remarked term until 1996; it does not appear within the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989 and thus over a decade after it was coined, and it was not used by linguists.
In 1996, the term became widely known in the U.S. owing to a controversy over a decision by the Oakland School Board to denote and recognize the primary language (or sociolect or ethnolect) of African American children attending school, and thereby to facilitate the teaching of standard English. Thereafter, Ebonics seems to have become little more than an alternative term for African American Vernacular English, although one emphasizing its claimed African roots and independence from English, a term linked with the nationally discussed controversy over the decision by the Oakland School Board, and one avoided by most linguists.
- For Williams's background as a writer on issues related to IQ, see Baugh 2000, 16. Baugh also flatly states (2000, 18) that "Williams is not a linguist".
- Williams 1997; qtd Baugh 2000, 2. Conference details: Baugh, 2000, 15.
- Williams 1975, vi; qtd Green 2002, 7, and qtd Baugh 2000, 15. Unfortunately there is something amiss with each reproduction of what Williams writes, and also possible incompatibility between the two. Green has a couple of what appear to be minor typing errors (whether Williams's or her own, and anyway corrected above following Baugh) but otherwise presents the text as above: an unexplained quotation ("the linguistic and paralinguistic features...black people") within the larger quotation. Baugh does not present the material outside this inner quotation but instead presents the latter (not demarcated by quotation marks) within a different context. He describes this as part of a statement to the US Senate made at some unspecified time after 1993, yet also attributes it (or has Williams attribute part of it) to p.vi of Williams's book.
- For example Smith 1998, 55–7; qtd in Green 2002, 7–8.
- Baugh 2000, 19.
- Baugh 2000, 74–5; he puts the four in a different order.
- Williams 1975 and 1997, as summarized in Baugh's words.
- Blackshire-Belay 1996.
- The equivalent, Tolliver-Weddington 1979; the antonym, Smith 1992 and 1998; both as summarized in Baugh's words.
- Baugh 2002, 12, citing O'Neil 1998.
- Green 2002, 222. Its use in the context of education in reading, often involving the pedagogic approach called phonics, may have helped mislead people into thinking that the phonics from which the word Ebonics is partly derived has this meaning.
- For linguists' reasons for this avoidance, see for example Green 2000, 7–8.
- Baugh, John. 2000. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic pride and racial prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512046-9 (hard), ISBN 0-19-515289-1 (paper).
- Blackshire-Belay, Carol Aisha. 1996. "The location of Ebonics within the framework of the Afrocological paradigm." Journal of Black Studies 27 (no 1), 5–23.
- Green, Lisa J. 2002. African American English: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-81449-9 (hard), ISBN 0-521-89138-8 (paper).
- O'Neil, Wayne. 1998. "If Ebonics isn't a language, then tell me, what is?" In Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit, eds.
- Perry, Theresa, and Lisa Delpit, eds. 1998. The real Ebonics debate: Power, language, and the education of African-American children. Boston: Beacon. ISBN 0807031453.
- Smith, Ernie. 1992. "African American learning behavior: A world of difference." In Philip H. Dreywer, ed., Reading the World: Multimedia and multicultural learning in today's classroom. Claremont, Calif.: Claremont Reading Conference.
- Smith, Ernie. 1998. "What is Black English? What is Ebonics?" In Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit, eds.
- Tolliver-Weddington, Gloria, ed. 1979. Ebonics (Black English): Implications for Education. Special issue of Journal of Black Studies 9 (no 4).
- Williams, Robert. 1997. "Ebonics as a bridge to standard English." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 28, p. 14.
- Williams, Robert, ed. 1975. Ebonics: The true language of black folks. St Louis, Mo.: Institute of Black Studies / Robert Williams and Associates. (Green 2002 and the Library of Congress online catalog say IBS, Baugh 2000 says RW&A.).
- Baugh, John. "American varieties: African American English: Ebony + Phonics". PBS, 2005.
- Patrick, Peter L. "Answers to some Questions about 'Ebonics' (African American English)". University of Essex.
- Ebonics discussion on LINGUIST List
- "Kweku" Shawnn Guthrie "Mary Hoover discussing Ebonics A Race for the Times, 90.5 FM KSJS San Jose, San Jose State University.