Talkin’ ’bout Ebonics

Oliver Willis hates Ebonics. Ben Kepple and Dean Esmay and Amritas respond.

The Oakland school board’s Ebonics proposal that set off the initial controversy was an attempt to get more money to educate low-income black students by equating their problems to the challenges facing low-income, Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants. Both groups typically start school with poorly developed English language skills. Extra money spent teaching standard English, as opposed to teaching black dialect or Spanish, is money well spent.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    If I were going to live in Ebonia, I would sure want to speak Ebonics. Since I am committed to living here, I find it expedient to speak the language of the land. Perhaps I might take a course in baby talk.

  2. The issue has never been about *teaching* Ebonics, a language the Oakland kids in question already know. It’s about using Ebonics as a tool to learn “standard” English. Linguistically the idea is quite sound and has been tested with success. However, I remain skeptical as to whether it can be pulled off in real life public school conditions: cf. the degeneration of “bilingual education” (another good idea) into something it wasn’t meant to be.

  3. While it’s possible that the Oakland school board’s resolution was an underhanded attempt to simply get more money by labelling their kids “bilingual,” they claimed in the aftermath of the controversy that all they really wanted to do was implement the compare-and-contrast teaching methodology. Upon furtehr investigation, I have discovered that they did in fact implement just such a program, and that it’s been operating ever since. It’s also apparently spread to several other major districts in California, including Los Angeles and Palo Alto.

    Such programs are also used to help Creole-speaking kids in Toronto, and pilot programs are being established to help kids from heavily Spanglish-speaking neighborhoods.

    As to whether they work or not: I reference several resources you can check right here:

    I also strongly recommend reading Stanford linguist John Rickford’s “Using The Vernacular To Teach The Standard,” here:

    I see much reason to be skeptical as to whether public school districts can always be trusted to implement these programs properly. I can see how they might be implemented in a half-assed fashion, or how they might initially work well but then deteriorate as those with less committment to Standard English lose their energy.

    Still, those look like concerns to be addressed, not assumptions to be made. The programs appear to have produced measurable improvements in struggling districts.

  4. Steve LaBonne says:

    Seems to me that this is very comparable to the situation schools face in many European countries, China, etc.- teaching the standard national language to kids who come to school speaking a local dialect which may be quite different from that language. One would hope that instead of reinventing the wheel and engaging in political fights, we would go out and learn how the same problem is solved elsewhere. Of course, that’s not something our educational system is very prone to do in general…

  5. Why not English immersion?

  6. Gosh, reading Dean Esmay was a pleasure.

    Be definition, Ebonics is a dialect.

    Clearly, students are at a disadvantage if they can’t speak standard English, and they’re even worse off if they’re limited to a dialect associated with an oppressed social class.

    So, what do we do about it?

    In the classroom, when a teacher corrects a deviation from standard English, does it matter if it’s a case of bad grammar or different grammar?

    Sure, it matters. But not much.

    The only real reason to discuss Ebonics is to study the interplay of ignorance with racism.

  7. Ebonics: What it be?

    In a language course prerequisit for education,
    our 400+ page textbook dedicated a page, or
    maybe it was a half-page, outlining Ebonics.

    Here are two points I recall from the text:
    Ebonics has its roots in native African
    languages. The example they gave was the slang,
    “dig” having its origin in a west-African
    language that used the word “digum” for the
    word “understand”.

    The second was the usage of “be”. The example
    given was somthing like: Vanessa is at home and
    answers the phone. The caller asks where her
    father is. Vanessa might answer, “He working.”
    or she might answer, “He be working.” The first
    means that he is probably around the house,
    doing some choirs. The second indicates a
    different stature; he is at his wage-paying

    So if I say, “I cooking.” That means I am
    waiting on two turkey-pot-pies in the oven at
    home. But if I say, “I be cooking.” That means
    I work as a chief at a resturaunt.

    Philisophical questions abound. Why has the
    usage of “dig” diminished in our society in
    general? Wheren’t most of the American slaves
    taken from the east coast of Africa? Many early
    white Rock-and-Roll groups like “The Beatles”
    attributed their musical style and development
    what they saw in black music artist.

    So when Paul sang, “Let It Be,” what “It” be?
    Or what be “It?”
    What be “Be” if “It” be “Be”?
    If you let it be, then be be be?

  8. Paulr,

    That book passage sounds a bit off.

    In normal linguistics usage, we (I am a former professor of linguistics with a PhD in the subject) don’t say that a language has “roots” somewhere just because some words and constructions come from that place. English has words borrowed from everywhere, but it doesn’t have “roots” everywhere; it is at heart a Germanic language with diverse elements added to this core. The core of Ebonics is of English origin, though some elements of Ebonics are of probable African origin, which leads to my next point …

    According to this dictionary, the use of “dig” for “understand” may come from Wolof, a language of Senegal in west Africa (as we’d expect):

    Lastly, if I’m not mistaken, “he working” refers to a momentary action, whereas “he be working” refers to a habitual action (which may not necessarily entail employment). So by analogy, I think “he drinking” means he’s drinking at the moment, but “he be drinking” might mean he’s an alcoholic (not that he drinks for a living!). I could be wrong, though.

    This demonstrates that Ebonics does have a grammar (albeit one that isn’t acceptable in most American social circles). If Ebonics really had “no grammar,” it would be a chaotic mess incapable of making distinctions like momentary vs. habitual, and it’d be impossible to make a “mistake” because anything would be OK.

  9. The foregoing confusion over “He be working” (as Clinton would say, “It all depends on what ‘be”be’s.'”) more or less resovles the question. Someone has attempted to convey an idea be transmitting the sounds “He be working,” and the transmission has failed. I shall not rule on whether AAE is a “dialect” or not, as I have not sufficiently researched the matter. I would like to do so, but I simple havn;t gotten around to it. We need to look at not just AAE, but also African-Portuguese, African-French, African-Dutch and the like, to look for survivals of the mutha’ tongue. I am quite open to whatever conclusion the evidence may indicate, although I must agree with the commenters who point out that it really doesn’t matter, one way or the other. Would any parent not blinded by racism wish his or her child to be thinking in a symbol-system that conceptualizes temporals and causation in an alien manner? Ask the Navaho if this is a good idea.

    Let me share a favorite example of a West-African linguistic survival. Dr. Carleton Coon, the renowned U of P anthropologist, writing is the late ’50’s and early 60’s (Don’t ask me for titles: I read him over 35 tears ago), declared that a strong example of West-African linguistic survival in AAE was an epithet for a mortal, “fighting-word” insult, transliterated as “M’fugwa,” which Dr. Coon felt accounted for a well-known universal noun-pronoun-article-adjective-adverb often encountered in “Ebonics.”


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