The Ebonics (Black Vernacular) Language

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While the term Ebonics had been in common use in America for more than two decades before 1996, it was a court decision in December of that year which brought the term to national attention. And when it did, a hailstorm of controversy ensued that resulte

While the term Ebonics had been in common use in America for more than two decades before 1996, it was a court decision in December of that year which brought the term to national attention.  And when it did, a hailstorm of controversy ensued that resulted in social and academic division across the sectors the likes of which had never been encountered in American history.

Responding to the plummeting educational-achievement level of their African-American students, the Oakland, California School Board passed a resolution acknowledging Ebonics as the primary language of its Black students, and as such, should be the language of instruction in the classroom.

Included in this precedent-setting ruling, the Board’s use of the term “language” to refer to what had long been considered the slang jargon of an uneducated sector of American society--too lazy to learn “proper” Standardized English--quickly became the focus of media coverage, talk shows, Internet jokes, public forums, and water-cooler banter--causing division among American citizens where there had previously been none.

The idea of elevating what many middle and upper class Americans considered nonsensical dialect of the uneducated--also known as Black Language or African-American Vernacular English--seemed preposterous to the traditionally-minded of the United States, and a slam against long-established principles of American society.  And since that time, no language has spawned more debate nor resulted in more social change than Ebonics.

Rooted in the oral tradition of the slave trade that dominated American society for over 200 years, the infusion of the Niger Congo/Yoruba languages into 17th and 18th English America has resulted in a melding that can neither be denied nor dismissed.  And while many attempts to undermine its authority (like that of the Gullah Language of the South Carolina area) by arguing that it developed in defiance of American social and academic convention, history shows quite the contrary; that modern convention developed in defiance of what was the common language of the people--both educated and not.

To many people today, the first examples that come to mind regarding Ebonics are slang words like phat (meaning excellent), or bling-bling (meaning glittery, expensive jewelry), and other terms associated the rap and hip hop "hood" culture. And while these terms may indeed represent current Ebonics, so do many finely integrated terms like dig, tote, bad-mouth, and jazz.

Among Ebonics’ many recognizable pronunciation features, are, for example, the omission of the final consonant in words like “past” (pronounced pas) and “hand” (han), the pronunciation of the th blend in words like “bath” as t (bat) or f (baf), and the pronunciation of the vowel in words like “my” and “ride” as a long ah (pronounced mah, rahd).  While many of these pronunciation variations frequently occur in “White English” as well, they occur much more frequently in Ebonics.

Other patterns of grammar common to Ebonics are:

· Use of the invariant be for the future as in, “I be there in a minute.”

· No use of is and are indicative of tense as in, “She ready.” And, “They laughing.”

· The use of done for a completed action (often accompanied by been) as in, “They done been sitting there a whole hour.”

· Use of be done in future perfective (actions that will be past by the time it is completed in the future) as in, “She be done   graduated by June.”

 · Use of uhm and Ima for ‘am going to,’ as in “Uhm really tired.” And, “Ima show everybody up.”

 · Use of finna for immediate future as in, “We finna go.”

Prior to California’s momentous ruling, a conversation such as the following often left teachers not familiar with the grammatical system of Ebonics frustrated and believing a child was trying to be deceptive. (The teacher is interested in contacting the student’s parents, while the student is trying to explain that his mother is not at home at the moment, but is generally home most days.)

Teacher: Bobby, what does your mother do everyday?

Bobby: She be at home.

Teacher: You mean she is at home.

Bobby: No, she ain’t, ‘cause she took my grandmother to the hospital this mornin’.”

Teacher: You know what I meant. You are not supposed to say, ‘she be at home.’ You are to say, ‘she is at home.’”

Bobby: Why you tryin’ ta make me lie? She ain’t at home!”

While linguists remain divided as to whether Ebonics is a true “language” or merely a dialect, it seems irrelevant considering the prevalence with which Ebonics is encountered in day to day speech in the US. 

Far from a new linguistic phenomenon, Ebonics has had as much an influence on the evolution of the American/English language as English has had on it.  And in that American/English is a living language subject to a constant infusion of other languages, it seems likely that not only will Ebonics remain a permanet factor of the langauge, Ebonics too will continue to evolve in coming centuries. 


Language, Culture, and Education in African America, Dr. Geneva Smitherman

“Toward a New Perspective in Negro English Dialectology,” Beryl Bailey

Images via Wikipedia except Ebonics and Language Education cover

Related Articles:

>   Voyages to America Before Columbus

>   American Gangsters

  The Gullah Language

>   The Spanglish Language

  The Role of Blacks in Founding America

  The Pikey Language

>   Gunslingers of the American Old West

>   Who do the Rules of Grammar Actually Serve

  American Politics and the Media

>   Yoruba/Santeria Religion

>   The Role of Girls in the American Educational System

>   Linguistics and the Study of History



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