Ebonics (word)

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Ebonics (a portmanteau of the words ebony and phonics) is a term that was originally intended to refer to the language of all people descended from black African slaves, particularly in West Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. The term Ebonics was created in 1973 by a group of black scholars who disapproved of the negative terms being used to describe this type of language.[1] Since the 1996 controversy over its use by the Oakland School Board, the term Ebonics has primarily been used to refer to the sociolect African American English, a dialect distinctively different from Standard American English.

Original usage[edit]

The word Ebonics was originally coined in 1973 by African American social psychologist Robert Williams[2] in a discussion with linguist Ernie Smith (as well as other language scholars and researchers) that took place in a conference on "Cognitive and Language Development of the Black Child", held in St. Louis, Missouri.[3][4] His intention was to give a name to the language of African Americans that acknowledged the linguistic consequence of the slave trade and avoided the negative connotations of other terms like "nonstandard Negro English":[5]

We need to define what we speak. We need to give a clear definition to our language...We know that ebony means black and that phonics refers to speech sounds or the science of sounds. Thus, we are really talking about the science of black speech sounds or language.[6]

In 1975, the term appeared in Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks, a book edited and cowritten by Williams:

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 descendants 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.[7]

Other writers have since emphasized how the term represents a view of the language of Black people as African rather than European.[8] The term was not obviously popular, even among those who agreed with the reason for coining it. Even within Williams' book, the term Black English is far more commonly used than the term Ebonics.[9]

John Baugh has stated[10] that the term Ebonics is used in four ways by its Afrocentric proponents. It may:

1. Be "an international construct, including the linguistic consequences of the African slave trade";[11]
2. Refer to the languages of the African diaspora as a whole;[12]

or it may refer to what is normally regarded as a variety of English: either

3. It "is the equivalent of black English and is considered to be a dialect of English" (and thus merely an alternative term for African American English), or
4. 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 English" but nevertheless a term for what others refer to by this term, viewed as an independent language and not a mere ethnolect).[13]

Common usage and controversy[edit]

Ebonics remained a little-known term until 1996. It does not appear in the 1989 second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, nor was it adopted by linguists.[14]

The term became widely known in the United States due 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 youths attending school, and to thereby acquire budgeted funds to facilitate the teaching of standard English.[15][16] Thereafter, the term Ebonics became popularized, though as little more than a synonym for African American English, perhaps differing in the emphasis on its claimed African roots and independence from English. The term is linked with the nationally-discussed controversy over the decision by the Oakland School Board, which adopted a resolution to teach children "standard American English" through a specific program of respect for students' home language and tutoring in the "code switching" required to use both standard English and Ebonics.[17]

While the term is generally avoided by most linguists,[18] it is used elsewhere (such as on Internet message boards), often for ridiculing AAE, particularly when this is parodied as drastically differing from Standard American English.[19] African American linguist John McWhorter argues that the use of the term does more to hinder black academic achievement than to help it, in that considering AAE to be a completely different language from English serves only to widen the perceived divide between whites and blacks in the United States.[20][full citation needed] Walt Wolfram, a long-time researcher into AAE, points out that discussion of this variety of English "gets politicized and trivialized by the very term Ebonics."[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "What is Ebonics (African American English)? | Linguistic Society of America". www.linguisticsociety.org. Retrieved 2021-08-20.
  2. ^ For Williams' background as a writer on issues related to IQ, see Baugh (2000:16). Baugh (2000) also flatly states (p, 18) that "Williams is not a linguist."
  3. ^ Williams (1997); quoted in Baugh (2000:2).
  4. ^ For conference details, see Baugh (2000:15).
  5. ^ Rickford, John R., What is Ebonics (African American Vernacular English)?, Linguistic Society of America.
  6. ^ Williams (1997:14)
  7. ^ Williams (1975:vi), quoted in Green (2002:7), and 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' 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' book.
  8. ^ For example, Smith (1998:55–7); quoted in Green (2002:7–8).
  9. ^ Baugh (2000:19).
  10. ^ Baugh (2000:74–5); he puts the four in a different order.
  11. ^ Williams (1975) and Williams (1997), as summarized in Baugh's words.
  12. ^ Blackshire-Belay (1996).
  13. ^ The equivalent, Tolliver-Weddington (1979); the antonym, Smith (1992) and Smith (1998); both as summarized in Baugh's words.
  14. ^ Baugh (2000:12), citing O'Neil (1998).
  15. ^ Green (2002:222). The use of the pedagogic approach called phonics, particularly in the context of reading, may have helped mislead people into thinking that the phonics from which the term Ebonics is partially derived has this meaning.
  16. ^ Ronkin & Karn (1999) argue that the board's objective was to build on the language skills that African-American students bring to the classroom without devaluing students and their diversity.
  17. ^ Perry, T. (1998). The Real Ebonics Debate. New York: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-3145-3.
  18. ^ For linguists' reasons for this avoidance, see for example Green (2002:7–8).
  19. ^ Ronkin & Karn (1999:361)
  20. ^ McWhorter (2000:?)
  21. ^ Carol Cratty, Ashley Hayes and Phil Gast, CNN, "DEA wants to hire Ebonics translators", CNN, August 24, 2010. Retrieved 24 July 2016.


  • Baugh, John (2000). Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic pride and racial prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512046-9.
  • Blackshire-Belay, Carol Aisha (1996), "The location of Ebonics within the framework of the Afrocological paradigm", Journal of Black Studies, 27 (1): 5–23, doi:10.1177/002193479602700101, S2CID 144259068
  • Green, Lisa J. (2002), African American English: A Linguistic Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-89138-8
  • McWhorter, John H. (2000). Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 9780684836690.
  • O'Neil, Wayne (1998), "If Ebonics isn't a language, then tell me, what is?", in Perry, Theresa; Delpit, Lisa (eds.), The real Ebonics debate: Power, language, and the education of African-American children, Boston: Beacon, ISBN 0-8070-3145-3
  • Perryman-Clark, Staci, "Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures (WRA) 125 - Writing: the Ethnic and Racial Experience.", Composition Studies, 37 (2): 115–134
  • Rickford, John R., What is Ebonics (African American Vernacular English)?, Linguistic Society of America.
  • Ronkin, Maggie; Karn, Helen E. (1999), "Mock Ebonics: Linguistic racism in parodies of Ebonics on the Internet", Journal of Sociolinguistics, 3 (3): 360–380, doi:10.1111/1467-9481.00083
  • Smith, Ernie (1992), "African American learning behavior: A world of difference", in Dreywer, Philip (ed.), Reading the World: Multimedia and multicultural learning in today's classroom, Claremont, CA: Claremont Reading Conference
  • Smith, Ernie (1998), "What is Black English? What is Ebonics?", in Perry, Theresa; Delpit, Lisa (eds.), The real Ebonics debate: Power, language, and the education of African-American children, Boston: Beacon, ISBN 0-8070-3145-3
  • Sweetland, Julie (2002), "Unexpected but Authentic Use of an Ethnically-Marked Dialect", Journal of Sociolinguistics, 6 (4): 514–536, doi:10.1111/1467-9481.00199
  • Tolliver-Weddington, Gloria, ed. (1979), "Ebonics (Black English): Implications for Education", Journal of Black Studies, 9 (4)
  • Williams, Robert (1975). Ebonics: The true language of black folks. St Louis, MO: Institute of Black Studies.
  • Williams, Robert (28 January 1997). "Ebonics as a bridge to standard English". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. p. 14.

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