Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 18, 1997

Linguist Puts
Ebonics Into

Leslie Rice
News and Information
Three months after "Ebonics" was first introduced to the American public, the word continues to be the inspiration of heated dinner table debates, vehement radio talk show discussions and impassioned newspaper editorials.

What Hopkins linguistic anthropologist Niloofar Haeri finds more interesting than the issue itself--the training of Oakland teachers in Ebonics, the speech of many inner city blacks, as a tool for teaching standard English--is the country's polemic reaction to this particular form of speech.

And the reaction does not surprise Haeri at all. That is her field of study: she examines the many ways languages, dialects and ways of speaking can interweave with a culture's political, social and economical landscape.

"I think it's interesting that other forms of expression associated with this group--jazz, blues, rap and art such as murals--are viewed as vibrant, beautiful and sources of pride among the black community," says Haeri. " [Ebonics] is a very rich and colorful dialect. Yet to hear many people describe it, including leaders in the black community, they seem to want to disown it. That's because in this country there is a longstanding rhetoric of integration and assimilation, and to say that a group not only has its own art and culture but also its own language is, for many, too threatening to their ideas of national unity."

Haeri says it is important to realize that in the midst of this, few people are basing their opinions on linguistic facts-- whether or not Ebonics is a legitimate dialect of English, sharing many rules of standard English and differing in others. That it is not, in other words, simply a collection of slang terms.

Like most sociolinguists, Haeri is long familiar with the Ebonics issue; it's been around for decades. There is vast literature on its grammatical and phonological features, she says.

"This is, however, the first time I've heard it called 'Ebonics,'" she adds. "Over the years, it's been called 'non-standard Negro English,' 'black English vernacular' and 'African American English vernacular.' These are all terms to describe what is basically a dialect spoken by many black inner city residents. It is simply a dialect of what is called 'standard English' but in certain respects, like its use of double negatives or treatment of the verb 'to be,' it is different from standard English."

She adds it should be made very clear that not all African Americans speak this dialect.

The idea of studying Ebonics linguistically has existed as a potential teaching tool for more than 20 years. Each time the notion has been ultimately dismissed by both black and white critics. In fact, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took a stand on the issue in 1971, voting that black English should not be represented as a language.

But then last December, the Oakland, Calif., school board passed a resolution stating that Ebonics was the primary language of its black students and requested federal funds allocated for bilingual education to train teachers to study it so they could better teach their students in standard English. This time, the proposal evoked a storm of criticisms on the national level, one that continues today.

"The resolution was incredibly misunderstood; I don't think Oakland took good care of the wording," Haeri says. "A large part of the outcry is from people who find this an example of the politically correct culture that they believe has gone haywire in this country."

The wording was cloudy enough that it led many people to believe mistakenly that the school board intended to teach Ebonics in the classroom.

"All we're talking about is shifting part of the burden of learning standard English from the student to the teacher," she says. "By training teachers in Ebonics--and honestly, we're talking about daylong workshops--they can develop the materials that will help students understand standard English. They'll be able to call attention to the differences of the two from a linguistic point of view. The teacher might say, 'In Ebonics you may say this, but in standard English it is done this way.' "

We should not pretend, she suggests, that our ideas about Ebonics are based on objective linguistical analysis, but on who it is associated with, what their history is and how society perceives this group. For many, Ebonics is considered the language of the jobless, the uneducated, the poor. To call this form of speech a language is considered by some critics supremely racist, they suggest it lends a sense of permanence to that state of poverty rather than looking at it as a dialect spoken temporarily, on the way toward education and jobs.

"The implication of this and similar views is that if only inner city kids learned standard English, they would then have no problems in climbing the proverbial ladder of upward mobility," she says.

So at what point does a dialect end and a language begin?

"Everyone speaks a dialect," she said. "Standard English is a dialect of English. The way many linguists see it, a dialect is simply a language without an army. Look, if the South had won the Civil War, and if the South was the center of this country's commerce and industry, what do you think we would all be speaking? Southern.

"That's what this debate is about. It's really not about what is going on in Oakland classrooms. It is about power and inequality.

Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage