Black English vs Ebonics

        The features of the language of African Americans, U.S slave descendants of the West and Niger-Congo, are still present within African American speech.  Although African Americans have been in the United States for over 500 years and do not speak the native African language, they have developed their own language with in the English language.  This is present within African American dialect even centuries after the journey from the African coast.  The phenomenon has been recognized, described, and discussed recently within the educational system and the media.  Which was then called, ‘Black English’, has now been labeled ‘Ebonics’.  The former title of Black English is a term that has never been formally defined.  In this paper I will argue that the term “Black English” is something further from the truth.  Even before any term was invented for black slang, scholars argued since the 1930’s one main belief that is credible today, “African-American speech is an African Language System- the linguistic continuation of Africa in Black America.”

      When researching Ebonics, no real information was found giving enough credible evidence that English is the base that Black English comes from.  It is probable that Black English derived from old English baby talk that was taught to slaves.  With this in mind, when thinking of the term ‘Black English’, it indicates that Black English is derived or uprooted from the English language. It also probable from this term that English is a language that is foreign and not innate nor the original spoken language of African American people.    

      In order to properly identify weather or not one can claim that English is the language of Africans, or in this case African American peoples, we must discover what criteria is used to identify this.  The word “English” can be roughly defined as kinship with “the West Germanic language of the English divided.”  Though this tells us English is derived from German, how is the African language related to that of English.  For someone to have a better understanding of what predicts the ground relationship between certain languages, knowledge of vocabulary and grammar must be understood.  It is sited that words and vocabulary are borrowed amongst various languages. This is how there are Latin words found in the English language even though its kinship to German.  This form of borrowing is a direct result of cultural contact.  The key item that allows someone to figure out weather or not what constitutes the relationship between two languages is the resemblance of grammatical structure.  Language is a habit retaining its original grammatical structures that remains even though the vocabulary has been “replaced by another.” 

       When looking at the meaning of “grammar” it is learned that it is phonetic, phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic systems of a language.  With this in mind, one can easily argue that “Black English” is defined and classified as a dialect of English because there is a continuity in the grammar of “Black English” and the English of non-Blacks. It becomes apparent that English spoken by Black Americans is significantly different from English spoken by Europeans and Americans by the basis of grammar.  The grammatical rules that are followed by Black Americans today, does not match that which is spoken by European Americans.  The rules that African Americans match are that of their original decedents of West Africa.  From this fact, one can easily see that the term ‘Black English’ does not exist.  This Black language cannot be English if it does not follow the same grammatical rules and sentence structure.   


      If one were to go against the proposition that vocabulary and lexicon is what institutes the characteristics of a language, than it is an idea that is implausible.  With the knowledge that English contains large amounts of Latin and French vocabulary, why isn’t English identified with a kinship of Latin or French instead of German?  In this case, it is almost as incoherent for some people to describe the language spoken by African Americans as English. Just because it is based off the English lexicon does not mean that this language is English or a dialect of it.  

      It is a reality that Blacks are exposed to and live around and amongst those who speak Basic English with grammar borrowed from the Germanic language.  The language that is spoken by this group of people has not been created or adopted by European Americans.  Europeans were not in Africa long enough to learn and adapt the African language and to hold on to the grammar structure of various West African countries.  So the term Black English could also be thought of as cultural, an English language “spoken by a black person who has mastered and is ideally competent in his or her use of the grammar and vocabulary of standard American English.”  The “Black English” that is characteristic of Blacks is used fluently. They have knowledge of American English but simply choose not to use or adapt it into their basic speech patterns.

       This point can also be argued as done by Smith:  it is not a continuity in the rules of “grammar” but the etymology and continuity of the lexicon that is the criterion for defining the classifying languages as being related.  If these items determine kinship then Black English is simply what most think: a dialect or a slang of English that is distinguished upon ethnic ties and not region, which has also borrow vocabulary as was done by the English.   

       Ebonics has a direct definition. It simply comes from the combination of the two words, Ebony and phonics.  In direct translation Ebonics mean, Black sounds. Ebonics is a word that is associated with the language of West African, Caribbean, and U.S slave decedents who originated off the Niger-Congo coast.  Ebonics, unlike Black English encompasses many aspects of the language.  It includes verbal, linguistic, and non-verbal communications of Black people.   Many Africanologist and scholars make a strong point that it is the grammar of West Africa with the borrowed vocabulary and lexicon of English that makes Ebonics a distinct language and not a dialect of English.  It is inadequate to put terminology that has been systematically made to discuss the grammar of English to the African American linguistic structures.  African American speech is absent and consonant phoneme of clusters that have been lost, deleted, omitted, reduced, simplified, and weakened because in the West African languages these things never existed. 


                   Ebonics                                             English

Wes, tes, bes, las, fas                         west, test, best, last, fast

Lan, ban, san, han                            land, band, sand, hand

Lef, lif, drif, swif                                left, lift, drift, swift


          The conical form and shape of a syllable structure of Ebonics is also seen in the languages of the Niger-Congo area which emphasizes consonant vowels.  The phrase, “Did you eat yet?” contains the consonant vowel, as well as the reply, “Naw did you?” English scholars studying these same sentence structures would come to the conclusion, that words have been deleted, dropped, or omitted.  On the other hand, Africologist view this as a descendants language of Africa, noting the clause phrase structure that is seen with in the langue in sentences. Examples of this are seen in statements such as “You the teacher”, and “That teacher she mean”. This is because in the African language verb phrases with to be never existed.  Also when looking at these two sentences Africologist don’t separate the statements into noun phrase and verb phrase cotenant in the same manner observed in English.  With the consideration that this type of speech isn’t a dialect of English and is of another language, the division of the clause sentence structure is “into ‘topic’ and ‘comment’ constituents”.  This means that the pronoun that which follows another noun teacher in the sentence isn’t a “topic segment of the sentence”; it constitutes a recapitulative pronoun that should be with the ‘comment segment’ of the sentence.

      Other scholarly studies have found that African American speech is part of Black culture and history.  It is the few things that Blacks have been able to maintain from their original country of origin.  With the term “Black English” and “Ebonics” better defined, critiqued and analyzed, one can now easily demonstrate that African Language systems are genetically based and not a dialect of English.  For young people growing up, systems of government and education need to demonstrate that the language of West Africa and the Niger-Congo are worth studying. Understanding this and applying these principles can benefit African-American students.  Applying this ideology will both give an appreciation for their native language and better acquisition to further master English language skills.  All people from African decent residing in different countries speak the same language of English, spoken in a manner that is unique to their own.  Although these various cultures such as African American and Afro-Caribbean’s have never had contact with each other, the language and grammar structures are the same. If Ebonics really is a dialect of English, why is Ebonics a dialect spoken by geographic, which encompasses the majority of English dialects.  This key item is what makes Ebonics different from any other; it is a language distinct in Black Culture. “Ebonics is not a dialect of English.”  Pan African languages and African language systems are tie back to and refer to the continuity of the African language in Black America.  Even today most eurosentric scholars use the term Ebonics as a synonym for Black English, not taking the general meaning for its intended context. 





 Text of the Oakland School Board Resolution on Ebonics. The Black Scholar: Vol 27,no.1 pg 4


The Real Ebonics Debate: power, language, and the education of African American children. Boston, beacon press. Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit


About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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