African American Vernacular English and Ebonics Essay

Submitted By bctiger2017
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Pages: 5

At its most literal level, Ebonics simply means 'black speech' (a blend of the words ebony 'black' and phonics 'sounds'). The term was created in 1973 by a group of black scholars who disliked the negative connotations of terms like 'Nonstandard Negro English' that had been coined in the 1960s when the first modern large-scale linguistic studies of African American speech-communities began. However, the term Ebonics never caught on among linguists, much less among the general public. That all changed with the 'Ebonics' controversy of December 1996 when the Oakland (CA) School Board recognized it as the 'primary' language of its majority African American students and resolved to take it into account in teaching them standard or academic English.
Most linguists refer to the distinctive speech of African Americans as 'Black English' or African American English (AAE) or, if they want to emphasize that this doesn't include the standard English usage of African Americans, as 'African American Vernacular English' (AAVE). In theory, scholars who prefer the term Ebonics (or alternatives like African American language) wish to highlight the African roots of African American speech and its connections with languages spoken elsewhere in the Black Diaspora, e.g. Jamaica or Nigeria. But in practice, AAVE and Ebonics essentially refer to the same sets of speech forms. Here, we will use 'Ebonics' without ideological or theoretical qualification, preferring it to AAVE and other alternatives simply because it is the most widely-known public term right now.
What does Ebonics sound like?
To many people, the first examples that come to mind are slang words like phat'excellent' and bling-bling 'glittery, expensive jewelry', words that are popular among teenagers and young adults, especially rap and hip hop fans. But words like kitchen 'the especially kinky hair at the nape of one's neck' and ashy 'the whitish appearance of black skin when dry, as in winter' are even more interesting. Unlike many slang terms, these 'black' words have been around for ages, they are not restricted to particular regions or age groups, and they are virtually unknown (in their 'black' meanings) outside the African American community.
Ebonics pronunciation includes features like the omission of the final consonant in words like 'past' (pas' ) and 'hand' (han'), the pronunciation of the th in 'bath' as t (bat) or f (baf), and the pronunciation of the vowel in words like 'my' and 'ride' as a long ah (mah, rahd). Some of these occur in vernacular white English, too, especially in the South, but in general they occur more frequently in Ebonics. Some Ebonics pronunciations are more unique, for instance, dropping b, d, or g at the beginning of auxiliary verbs like 'don't' and 'gonna', yielding Ah 'on know for "I don't know" and ama do it for "I'm going to do it."
What does Ebonics look like?
These distinctive Ebonics pronunciations are all systematic, the result of regular rules and restrictions; they are not random 'error'--and this is equally true of Ebonics grammar. For instance, Ebonics speakers regularly produce sentences without present tense is and are, as in "John trippin" or "They allright". But they don't omit present tense am. Instead of the ungrammatical *"Ah walkin", Ebonics speakers would say *"Ahm walkin." Likewise, they do not omit is and are if they come at the end of a sentence--"That's what he/they" is ungrammatical. Many members of the public seem to have heard, too, that Ebonics speakers use an 'invariant' be in their speech (as in "They be goin to school every day"); however, this be is not simply equivalent to is or are. Invariant be refers to actions that occur regularly or habitually rather than on just one occasion.
What do people think of Ebonics?
That depends on whom you ask. Black writers from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Zora Neale Hurston to August Wilson have made extensive use of it in their work, and some, like James Baldwin ("this passion,…