Black English versus Ebonics

We need to define what we speak. We need to give a clear definition to our language- Dr. Robert Williams 1973

This essay was originally written March 2002

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 unique 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 on the theory of African American language. The African American language is a system of speech that demonstrates that continuation of African linguistics.

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 suggests that English is a language foreign and unnatural to the original language spoken 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 people- 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?  A better understanding of what predicts the ground relationship between certain languages can be seen in the relationship of vocabulary and grammar.  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”, grammar relates to: phonetics (sound), phonology (sound structure), morphology (word form), syntax (word arrangement) and semantic (meaning) 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 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 followed by Black Americans today do 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.

The proposition that vocabulary and lexicon is what institutes the characteristics of a language, 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. It suggests that 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 lack 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 informal 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. This is significant because most dialects are distinguished by region, which has also borrowed 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 descendant African language. They note the differences in clause phrase structure that is seen with in sentence structures. 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.  The term considers that this type of speech is not a dialect of English. Instead it is defined as 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 is not the “topic segment of the sentence”. In reality is 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.

References:

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

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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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