Some Nitpicking on Ebonics

By Guest Contributor Avon Snarksdale, cross-posted from Postbourgie

In rushing to dismiss the DEA’s call to hire speakers of Ebonics, a lot of people are getting a small but important thing mixed up.

Here’s the Black Snob:

Ebonics, depending on who you ask, is either a real or a completely imagined thing. Proponents argued that some black people were speaking a whole different language independent of English. Others argued that augmented or “bastardized” English is not a whole other language. For example, I don’t always understand what British people are saying because I don’t understand most British slang, but I still agree that British people obviously speak English and I would be able to communicate with a British native without too much difficulty. Slang is slang. Colloquialisms are colloquialisms. But it’s all still in English, just with a different accent, different idioms, sayings and affects.

Meaning: My Arkansas-born Granny Snob is not speaking a different language from me. We communicate just fine even though she uses a different dialect, slang, affect and terminology at times because … we’re both native English speakers.

So, yeah, I fall on the side of “Ebonics is not a real thing.”

Let’s get this out of the way first. Saying Ebonics is “either a real or a completely imagined thing” is sort of like saying that “Barack Obama may or may not be a Muslim with terrorist sympathies.” Um, no. Just because one of those things is a popularly held belief doesn’t make it true. Ebonics, or  African American Vernacular English, has long been recognized by most linguists. And its loudest opponents were not linguists, but cultural conservatives who worried that the recognition of Ebonics — which first became a controversial part of the national conversation in the 1990s when Oakland’s school district tried to use it a tool to teach kids Standard American English — granted new legitimacy on what they felt was “inferior” English, or thought that it suggested that black people spoke some funky foreign tongue and were incapable of  learning how to speak “proper.” Culture of failure, and all that noise.

No one, of course, is suggesting anywhere that The Black Snob’s grandmother isn’t speaking English; speaking in a different dialect is not the same thing as speaking in a different language. Ebonics is also distinctly different from slang, as it’s less about alternative  nouns and verbs and more about syntax. In other words, Ebonics is less about what words you employ to say you’re “driving your car” and more about where and how those words fit in a sentence and how you pronounce them.

At TAPPED, Gabriel Arana breaks it down a bit more.

I’d like to point out that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) — like all languages and dialects — doesn’t just refer to vocabulary differences. For some background: Linguistic differences tend to arise when groups are socially isolated. Over time, these difference can diverge so much from the original they are considered a different dialect or language (the litmus test is mutual intelligibility, so depending on whom you talk to, AAVE is either a dialect of English or a separate language). AAVE shares many features of the Southern dialect of American English, though as with standard English, there are regional differences.

Unfortunately, discussions about AAVE are generally limited to slang terms — in the case that Jamelle’s addressing, terms related to the drug trade. But in fact, there are a lot of other linguistic features that characterize AAVE.

On the syntactic front, AAVE speakers have a more granular tense-marking system. In standard English, for instance, “James is happy” can mean either that James is happy at the moment or that he is habitually happy. AAVE uses the verb “to be” to mark the habitual form, but omits it otherwise:

James happy = James is happy right now

James be happy = James is usually happy/a happy person

In terms of pronunciation, many speakers of AAVE have replaced the sound “th” — as in someTHing — with “f,” so you get “roof” instead of “Ruth.” AAVE speakers also pronounce vowels higher in the mouth when they precede an “m” or “n,” leading “empty” to sound more like “Impty” (this is common throughout the South).

These are just some of the features of AAVE that have been widely studied by linguists (for a look at others, you can go here). Not every speaker of AAVE needs to exhibit all of them, nor do they only occur in AAVE. For instance, in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you can hear him omit the “r” from the word “later” — a common feature of AAVE — but he otherwise uses the syntax and vocabulary of Standard American English. And omitting the verb “to be” is common in the world’s languages, including Hebrew, Russian, and Hungarian. Furthermore, speakers can switch between standard English and AAVE, a common phenomenon among bilinguals called “code-switching.”