LINGUIST List 8.150

Sat Feb 1 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Rob Hagiwara, Re: 8.127, Disc: Ebonics
  2. John Konopak, Re: 8.119, Disc: Ebonics
  3. Alan Smith, Re: 8.54, Disc: Ebonics
  4. Sam Salt, Re: 8.128, Disc: Ebonics

Message 1: Re: 8.127, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Wed, 29 Jan 1997 11:10:15 -0800
From: Rob Hagiwara <hagiwaraWaisman.Wisc.Edu>
Subject: Re: 8.127, Disc: Ebonics

I'd like to reply to Karen S. Chung's comments on the term 'Ebonics'. The
press reported early on that "Ebonics" was a combination of 'ebon' meaning
'black', and 'phonics', meaning god-knows-what in this context.

I don't care for the word either, but this is because I regard the
language-form in question to be properly regarded as a variety of English,
although there is considerable controversy as to whether it may have
originated as a creole.

> I know how touchy people are about political correctness these
>days, but I find this term downright offensive - mainly because of how it
>screams out subservience to the tenets of PC. It reminds me of the
>magazine _Ebony_, and I can only guess that this might be its origin. I of
>course have nothing against the magazine; I just feel 'Ebonics' is an odd
>and inappropriate name for something we already have a more familiar and
>simpler term for.

Political Correctness is not about replacing 'familiar and simpler' terms
with 'odd and inappropriate' ones. The 'tenets' of PC are about courtesy
and accuracy. Whatever else might be surmised from the name 'Karen Steffen
Chung', I presume she would be offended by being referred to as a
'Chinaman', since I assume a) she is a woman who might feel excluded by the
inappropriate connatations of '-man', and b) that having a Chinese-sounding
surname is not the same thing as 'being from China', particularly when
combined with a middle name like 'Steffen'. From her e-mail address, I
assume she is 'from China' in one sense or another, but still, out of
courtesy, I will avoid 'Chinaman' because it could so easily be offensive.

> What in the world is wrong with 'Black English', as it always used
>to be called? Sounds so much more *normal* and comfortable to me. Why do
>we have to pussyfoot around like this? What is the point? I will refrain
>from thinking up names built on the 'Ebonics' analogy for the English
>spoken by various other minority groups and whites to try and make my
>point. Sometimes PC just goes *too* *far*.

While I agree that there is nothing wrong with 'Black English', or the more
recent term 'African-American Vernacular English'. There is equally
nothing wrong with 'Ebonics'. However, part of the controversy (at least
at the beginning) was whether or not 'Ebonics' was properly regarded as a
variety of English. If it is not, referring to it as it if were would be
inaccurate. The term 'Ebonics' arose to avoid the issue, both of 'English'
and 'Vernacular', which in popular use has many of the same connotations as

> This whole thing also points up how one coinage in one district of
>one state can change the language so quickly, something that is
>interesting in its own right. At least *I* never heard of the term
>'Ebonics' before the current furor. And I think the sensitivity of the
>whole issue had a lot to do with the rapid acceptance and spread of the
>neologism. Perhaps it was the awkwardness of a term no longer considered
>admissible in polite company that paved the way.

I absolutely agree that the quick acceptance of the term 'Ebonics' is
fascinating. However, I think the term itself has little to do with the
big issue. The original Oakland SB resolution referred to western-African
'origins' of Ebonics, and claimed (or was read to claim) that Ebonics was
properly regarded as a foreign language. "African American Vernacular
English" is still acceptable in 'polite company', but with the accepted
connotation that the language-form in question is a variety of English.

.......................... Robert Hagiwara, PhD ...........................
.. Waisman Center and Dept of Comm Disorders, UWisconsin-Madison ..
.. ..
.. "The absence of a sense of humor renders life impossible." -- Colette ..
................. ..................
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Message 2: Re: 8.119, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Wed, 29 Jan 97 12:19:20 -0600
From: John Konopak <>
Subject: Re: 8.119, Disc: Ebonics

Please accept these ruminations on the Ebonics affair. I think (I hope) 
they constitute a coherent statement of the my views on the problem, if 
not from a particularly "professional linguistic" perspective, at least 
from an informed and responsible social and (especially) pedagogical one.

 I first heard about the actions of the Oakland school board while
driving across the country during the Christmas holidays. I was 
certain that a furor would ensue, of course. As it happened, I had been
thinking abot the issue during the course of the semester because I 
had been teaching Jim Gee's wonderful treatment of precisely this 
issue and the associated ideological and political problems (Gee, J.P. 
1996. Sociolinguistics and literacies... (2nd ed.). Taylor&Francis.), 
and so was already immersed in the underlying premises and arguments of
discussion when it began. But I kicked myself that I had installed 
"no mail" messages on my servers before leaving (or so I thought).

 Upon my return in early January, I found to my delight that I had not 
been successful in suspending my mail deliveries, and that there had 
been and still was indeed much discussion on the question, discussion 
into which I quickly joined. I had had only a little opportunity to
articulate my thoughts on the issue, which basically reiterated Gee's
position (p6ff): that the argument of the nay-sayers--that Ebonics
represented the illegitimate reification of a deficient, or degraded, or
somehow otherwise sub-standard class of a pure, standard english--was a
disguise for a set of (usually tacit, or at least unarticulated) social
theories and beliefs that were more about the speakers than about the
speech, and more about using the speech to disqualify--in this case,
probably, literally preventing--the speaker from equal participation 
in the goods of society. Nothing I had heard on our cross-country jaunt, 
and nothing I have either read, or heard, in the press, or on the 
internet, since, has led me to change that opinion. And so, in response 
to a post on a multicultural education list, in which the author expressed
his outrage at the trivialization of the issue and the denigration of
Ebonics' proponents and advocates I wrote:

> Reviewing this corpus of communication en masse, instead of 
ad hoc, the first thing I was struck with was how long it took before a
message appeared that expressed the understandable outrage and affronted
dignity such as that conveyed by the impassioned discussion submitted 
by Mr. Holtzman recently. I have printed and copied that message and 
plan, w/ Mr. Holtzman's acquiescence, to distribute it to my colleagues 
on the faculty here, and to students in my doctoral seminar this spring. 
> For Mr. Holtzman's rebuke--which is what it is--resonates with
recognition that the single most important points to be decided in this
debate will be plotted along axes of power. (Btw, to call +standard 
english+ the "language of commerce" is to acceed to a hegemonic fiction.
Standard English is the language of class power; +Calculus+ another 
tightly and actively restricted code, is the language of commerce and by
implication economic power, and algebra is their grammar--both of which 
facts are usually conveniently overlooked in the schools of the lowly 
where their absence is itself a marker of social status.) 
> The issue of power involved in this debate for educators is 
located in the assumptions underlying the terms of the debate regarding 
the source and authority of valid knowledge. Standard English defaults 
both those crucial elements of learning to the teacher. Ebonics, for 
all its awkwardnesses, acknowledges that the child--and by necessary
extension, her community--not only has something important to say but also
has the right to say it in ways that are meaningful to that community and
that individual as part of a real, meaningful community. 
> The central issue, then, is who should be required to understand 
the other. Standard English places the onus on the child; the child is, 
per force, mere listener, a passive recipient of the outpourings of their
betters, forced to daily to fail to be heard, and to measure their
inferiority against such a scale and metric. And not even necessarily a
recipient; rather often an object upon which certain resources are spent. 
The incident of the face painting in S. Carolina recalls precisely such 
an attitude. When Standard English is the norm, the teacher has no
responsibility to understand the student, only to inscribe upon her.
> Ebonics places a responsibility on the teacher/school/system. The 
point of validating Ebonics or any other linguistic system--its 
systematicity I'll take as a given, for this audience--is to impose upon 
the system the necessity to listen to what is being said by the students
speaking their understandings to the institution. Even presuming 
"correction" to be the best metaphor for what teachers of english are 
about, how can a teacher presume to "correct" a student for the 
"improper" utterances when the teacher does not understand what the 
speaker/ learner wants to be understood in the first place?
> This strikes me as the core vanity of the Standard English
proponents: That not is there "one" only correct version of english, 
and not only is SE thate +only+ proper and correct version, but that,
astonishingly that it is the template by which all other variations 
may be understood. It is not unlike arguing that SE ought to permit 
the immediate, not only correct but also authoritative, understanding 
of Gaelic. Let's talk tucker, mates. But this vanity, in turn, highlights 
the implicit and usually unexamined assumptions of superiority based on
racial and class divisions that have underwritten this debate since its
onset. The outcry against Ebonics parallels and contributes to the 
expanding movement to install (of course, Standard) English as the 
official language of US officialdom, a move that overtly and prima 
faciely disadvantages non-native or non-English speakers in their 
first contact with officialdom which, under the prevailing national 
mind-set and life-boat ethos is likely to be adversarial.
> (e.g., easily recalled events involving Riverside County Sheriffs--
"Hands up, greaser! What, you "no comprendo, amigo"? Why, boy, that's
resisting arrest, too. You in a peck a trouble now, boy.")
> The most important message that the call for consideration 
of ebonics as a legitimate component of classroom discourse 
articulates is one we all recognize in our own experiences. Teachers 
teach best who know what their kids are saying. This is as true for 
students whose native discourses are spoken in "Ebonics" or"Wasponics." 
Its just that, for reasons that as a society and a culture we seem ,
unable to bring to the table, the latter is an easier transition 
than the former. And as with the difficulties that students 
experience with learning calculus and algebra--which are the codes of
commerce--this is not entirely an accident.

 This position was not met with universal acclaim, of course. 
But I posted it, and others reposted it, onto other servers and on 
the usenet where it generated some controversy. Subsequently I had 
occasion to expand these remarks, in reply to a use-netter who asked 
for examples, as follows:

> Now here is an example of the problem: 
In African American communities throughout the land, the query "Where 
John?" would be understood, as it would be by members of any other 
community, to mean (in Standard English) "Where is John?" In african 
American communities, the query could be rejoined by (possibly) one of 
two replies: (1) "John workin." or (2) "John be workin." the problem 
arises here, because Standard English automatically assumes that both of 
these answers convey the same content and amount of information, which in 
fact they do not. Reply #1 conveys the information that the work John is 
doing is transitory and soon to be completed. Reply #2, on the other 
hand, connotes that John has a long-term job from which he will return 
directly perhaps, but to which he is attached. There is undoubted 
subtlety and distinction in the information supplied by the addition or 
omission of the modal auxilliary "be." It is such subtleties that 
comprise the core of the debate.

>	Which is exacerbated by the feeling that most whites have 
here--though they are loath to admit it--that scares them--at least it 
makes them supremely uneasy. This is the sneaking suspicion they seem to
share that that all black people seem to KNOW 
each other. It seems to many of (us) them (whites) that among blacks, even 
perfect strangers meeting on the street immediately fall into intimate 
and animated conversations, a fact that puzzles and annoys most of 

>	Of course, that is primarily because the majority of american 
whites have never strayed far from the friendly confines of the USA. They 
have never actually had the experience of being "Other.;" they instead 
have always taken for granted the privilege of +defining+ others as 
outsiders. So they do not recognize the fellow-feeling that comes when, 
as a traveler say, and far from home, you hear someone speaking your 
language and immediately seek to form a bond with that person, no matter 
that until you heard their voice that person were a complete stranger.

> Add to that the feeling that (most/many?) whites have that if
someone is 
speaking in a language they do not command (a key point), then the white 
person must be the subject of the conversation and it probably poses a 
danger. Such are the perils of cultural domination. Uneasy rests the 
crown'ed head, as Shakespeare knew full well. Yet, because most white 
americans are still in absurd denial about the extent of the privilege 
(unearned) to which they believe themselves unquestionably due, and 
those who aren't in denial are terrified about the amount of debt that 
the continued exercise of that privilege entails, they turn on such 
cultural emanations as the real outcry from the oppressed communities for 
even slight recognition of those communities' relevance--which is 
represented in the arising of the Ebonics and Afro-centric 
movements--much less the possibility that they might have something to 
say to the communities of privilege that they don't want to but need to 
hear--that the toxic upwellings such as those appearing here, and in 
countless other newsgroups (look at alt.english.usage, for example) 

 Subsequently, the following transaction occurred:
> Teach0629 wrote:
> >
> > I'm doing some research for my linguistics course and I would like to ask
> > you for your help. Ae you for or against ebonics and why?
> > Your reply is greatly appreciated.
> > Thank you--Irene
To which I responded as follows.
> Irene--
> I don't think the matter is amenable to its clearest understandin under
 the rubric of a dichotomy that is limited to being" for" or "against"
 ebonics. If you go out into any community in the country, to the
 elementary schools, in particular, you will hear children receiving
 instruction in a dialect of standard english. Here in Oklahoma, we might
 call it Rubonics,in south Loo-zee-yana, its Cajonics--Justin Wilson perorms
 frequently in schools throughout the region, and receives commendations
 from parents everywhere for his public spiritedness; elsewhere, say in
 New York's or Boston's or Philadelphia's elite schools, its Wasponics.
 Wherever, it is speech that will be full of localisms, rich in local
 allusions, pronounced without affectation or overt sensitivity by
> This traditionally has not been true in Oakland,
 or other urban situations where the predominantly black, but inevitably
 non-majoritarian cultures have been warehoused. It is probably a trueism
 but it will probably bear examination as a rule--with some exceptions, as
 with all rules--that the "purity"--the proximity to "Standard English"--of
 the english spoken by children in any given school will be directly
 proportional to the wealth and status of the parents and to the community 
 of the students and the (social) distance of the parents and the >
communities of the children from inclusion in the oligarchic class.
> The problem in Oakland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere has
 been that there has been a serious disjunction between the languages of
 the teachers and the speech of the children, because the teachers are too
 frequently not members of the communities in the schools where the
 students are socialized in recognizably "non-standard" speech. Instead,
 they tend to be socialized--by their profession in part, but also by the
 prevailing social and cultural attitudes in the communities where they do
 live, to construe difference as deficiency. 
> Few of us have actually critically examined our own discursive
 practices sufficiently well to discern our own deviations from the
standard. All the less so when our own linguistic 
 idiosyncracies are shared widely in the communities we inhabit. And when
 we encounter another voice speaking "non-standardly," our immediate
 impulse is to denigrate it, to find it "worse," meaning perhaps less
 communicative (at best) or degraded (at worst), in relation to our own
 habitual or conventional or otherwise unexamined and taken-for-granted
 practices of speech.
> By the same token, because teachers are socialized to a
 profession, they must ahve mastered the practices of code-switching, of
 changing courses, sometimes in mid-sentence, from "local standard" to
 (assumedly) "national(but really class) standard" almost at will. But it
 is easier in schools and classes where the "local standard" more closely
 approximates the dominant class standard. It is easier, so it is less
 noticeable. It is less noticeable, so it doesn't occasion the kinds of
 attention that is inflicted upon speakers who begin already with the
 disadvantages imposed by formal practices of institutional racism.
> So Oakland was trying to get some federal grant money to try to
 perhaps hire--and by coincidence, perhaps, also inspire--teachers who
 were fluent in the home dialect of the majority of its students? So what?
 Does it work? Well, how were you educated? Did you go through school,
 especially elementary school, but practically all school, pretty
 satisfied that your teachers really understood what you were trying to
 say when you spoke, no matter whether you spoke Rubonics, Cajonics, etc.?
 How is your education? Would you think it was adequate to suggest as a
 "standard" for everyone? Does it work? You know the answer if you did't
 have reason to doubt that when you spoke you'd be understood. How can you
 deny the same to your fellow citizens?

 I have participated in other conversations, and DEJANEWS
thoughtfully archives most of them, as well as many others. At last count
there were over 13,000 "hits" on the word "ebonics"; it's not that many
messages--I don't ahve an accurate count of that, but it has to be in the
thousands--many of which should not be viewed by the faint of heart or the
discriminating of sensibility. But the foregoing pretty fairly encapsulates
the central premises of my position. Thank you for your attention.

____	____ _ _	
 |	| \ | / John Konopak ------------------------ 
 |	| | | / EDUC/ILAC		 | You can lead a horse |
 |	| / |__/ University of Oklahoma | to water; but you |
 |	|--/ | \ Norman OK 73019	 | can't make him surf! |
 | |hD | \ ------------------------
|__/ _|_ _|_ _\_Ph: 405-325-1498||FX: 405-325-4061

"People know what they do; and sometimes they know why they do it.
But what they don't know is what what they do does." -- M. Foucault
 |	[Standard Disclaimer: Irremediable intertextuality,	|
 |	and/or consequent and/or collateral intersubjectivity	| 
 |	notwithstanding,opinions here are as much "my own"	| 
 |	as I can make them. But still I wish I'd said: 		|
 |	"Those who can, do; those who understand, teach."	|
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Message 3: Re: 8.54, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Thu, 30 Jan 1997 10:59:56 GMT0BST
From: Alan Smith <>
Subject: Re: 8.54, Disc: Ebonics

I have followed the ebonics debate closely and I think it's about 
time you got more views from the other side of the herring pond.

I would particularly like to comment on an issue raised by Stirling 
Newberry, who made the following statement regarding standard 

"So we are not dealing with an abstract "preference" based on bigotry,
force or bias, but the reality that there are a core set of dialects
which have developed to deal with the intricacies of codifying
knowledge needed to run a modern society and to be able to communicate
with other such dialects." 

I would not dispute that standard dialects are "special" 
dialects in the sense that they have been elaborated in order to deal 
with new technology etc. Nor would I dispute that they can be 
understood my more people than non-standard dialects and that 
therefore they serve an important communicative purpose.

What I do take issue with is the implication that standard dialects
develop in the first place out of the worthy and democratic motive
of providing people with more effective vehicles of communication. 
Rather, standard dialects are born as a means of creating linguistic
distance between a social elite and the vast majority of speakers by
the attempt to impose a set of arbitrary rules. I think this is more
obvious in the case of French than it is in English if one looks at 
the history of the French language. 

Following codification, it is only the standard dialect that changes 
to meet new communicative needs, while non-standard dialects are 
in a sense "petrified". This helps to perpetuate the myth that the standard 
is intrinsically "superior", whereas it is only another dialect that 
happens to have received special attention.

In general, in Britain I don't think speakers of non-standard
dialects have much trouble communicating with each other. Certainly
the problems are not as acute as those existing between speakers of
AAVE and speakers of other dialects in the U.S. However, there is
persistent stigmatisation of non-standard pronunciation variants and
I don't think we should underestimate the linguistic insecurity these
prescriptive attitudes breed, nor indeed the human suffering caused. 
This sort of bias, need I repeat, has nothing to do with promoting
better communication but with pure snobbery. In conclusion, I
believe that linguists should always make a clear distinction
between the social function of standard dialects and their practical
function. Otherwise, we risk confusing two very separate issues. 

Alan Smith,
School of Modern Languages, Dept of French
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
U.K. E-mail:
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Message 4: Re: 8.128, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Thu, 30 Jan 1997 14:58:26 +0000
From: Sam Salt <>
Subject: Re: 8.128, Disc: Ebonics

Kate Gladstone reported on the text of Robert C. Roberson's letter to Los
Angeles Times where he stated that:

>One thing that they do do in Europe, that we don't, is teach grammar. I
>know many Americans would say that is not true, but until tenses are
taught to
>every student in the United States, there will always be confusion as to
>what to
>do with the English language. I myself was adrift in this matter until I was
>confronted with having to teach English as a foreign language, and had to
>It has always been perplexing to me that this idea is never even mentioned
>in the average school curriculum. It is taught to every native speaker in
>every country that I've been to, and that is a few. So could someone tell
>me, why is America so special that we can forgo this little detail that is
>the base of every language?

He is certainly incorrect as far as the majority of schools in the UK are
concerned. Teaching formal English grammar has not been on the curriculum
for the last twenty years. The interesting thing about this state of
affairs is that I cannot make the judgement that people's linguistic skills
are on the decline.

I teach a university course in computational linguistics and most of the
English students have little idea what nouns and verbs are, let alone
tenses, at the start of the course. However, these same students pick up
and understand these constructs very quickly indeed as they are simply
classifying the language that they already use. On this (albeit anecdotal)
evidence these students do not seem to have been disadvantaged in the
slightest by not having been formally trained in English grammar at school.

Sam Salt
School of Maths and Computing
University of Derby
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