Note: The following essay appeared in The Herald-Mail, Hagerstown, Maryland (my hometown), on Sunday, February 2, 1997, under the title "There's a Reason for Ebonics."  A regular contributor to the newspaper, Dr. Alan Powell, had written a piece which I felt misrepresented the linguistic facts about African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics as it is sometimes called.  So, I wrote this reply...
January 22, 1997
The Herald-Mail
Hagerstown, Maryland


I am a transplanted Hagerstonian, living in Jacksonville and teaching at the University of North Florida. Now and then, knowing that I am an anthropologist and linguist, a friend sends me interesting tidbits from the Herald-Mail. I just received Professor Allan Powell's piece on "Ebonics" (January 12) and I feel compelled to write a response. I usually find Dr. Powell's writing to be insightful; in this case, however, he has stepped beyond the bounds of his expertise.

The relationship between African American Vernacular English (AAVE, the term I shall use here), or Black English Vernacular, or Black English, or Ebonics and "standard" English is a topic of heated discussion among linguists. What is not up for debate among serious linguists is its status as a realization of the human language potential. It is not "slang," although that's how many of its speakers refer to it. It is not a copy of the speech of poor whites from England who setteled the southern United States. It is not "ungrammatical English," or "bad English," or "lazy English," nor is it the reflection of any sort of cognitive deficit, as psychologists tried to claim several decades ago.

African Americans in the English speaking Caribbean, contrary to Dr. Powell's assertion, usually speak as their home language some variety of Creole English, such as Jamaican Creole, Trinidadian, Guyanese, etc. These too are fully "grammatical" realizations of the human language faculty; I am just completing a manuscript which describes the structure of Creole English as spoken on Carriacou, Grenada. Of course, people from the Caribbean typically learn, in school, a more standard kind of English, often with a British accent which makes them sound "impeccable," but this is not their native language.

There are clear connections between AAVE and these Caribbean Creoles. This is especially evident in the structure of sentence predicates, which in all varieties allows for sentences such as "The girl pretty" meaning 'The girl is pretty'. In these languages, a predicate may consist of just an attributive adjective, with no linking verb. This sentence structure is sometimes used to illustrate "linguistic deficit" or "lazy speech" or even inability to think in complete sentences. People who make these claims appear to be unaware that Russian and Ancient Greek, among other languages, also allow for such complete sentences. In Russian "Dyevushka krasivaya" means 'The girl is pretty'. It's a complete sentence, not lazy Russian, although the only two words are "girl" and "pretty." Interestingly, a number of indigenous languages of West Africa, also allow this construction.

In my opinion, the key question in the "Ebonics" debate is to what extent features like this, as well as others too numerous to mention, hinder the acquisition of "standard" English. Historically, what has happened is that the existence of these structures as a system has not been recognized; the result is that educators have assumed that AAVE-speaking children are simply speaking "bad" English; such children have even been placed in special education classes. Some, perhaps even many or most of these children, learn to "translate" unconsciously between the two systems, but they typically do not have overt or explicit knowledge about how that translation is made, and their comprehension typically exceeds their performance.

My understanding of the Oakland program is that they want to make the translation process explicit, so that children are aware of the task and can focus energy on it. This approach assumes that the children are intelligent enough to understand that there are two linguistic systems operating and that, given that understanding, they can deal with it. I found this to be the case during my work with Creole English in Grenada. Personally, I think this approach is far healthier than treating the differences as either nonexistent or as a pathology, as has been the custom.

For linguists, deciding what is a "language" and what is a "dialect" is not a linguistic, but rather a political issue. The people in control get to call what they speak a "language"; people who speak other varieties speak "dialects" with all that implies, which is usually negative. From a linguistic perspective, there is nothing about AAVE that is remarkable as a manifestation of the human language potential. What really is remarkable is the tenacity with which antiquated, even racist ideologies about African Americans and their speech are perpetuated within our society, despite the overwhelming linguistic and anthropological evidence against them.

Ronald Kephart
Assistant Professor