LINGUIST List 8.165

Tue Feb 4 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. benji wald, Re: 8.134, Disc: BEV, tests, literacy
  2. Marc Hamann, Re: 8.150, Disc: Ebonics
  3. benji wald, the WORD Ebonics

Message 1: Re: 8.134, Disc: BEV, tests, literacy

Date: Fri, 31 Jan 1997 01:07:36 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.134, Disc: BEV, tests, literacy

Ron Anderson's last message to the list made more sense than his earlier
one in terms of both substance and humility, and is worth pursuing since he
is willing to discuss, and I characterised his earlier message as part of
the whole problem. So here's what his latest message suggests to me.

>I may be wrong on the why's and wherefore's, but the facts remain.

You can't ask for more as far as open-mindedness. My criticism was
directed toward the why's and wherefore's. Now let's look at the facts.

>Those who read in First Grade give future tense markers, those who
>don't read don't give future tense markers, typically. I have been
>looking at student responses to the Idea Oral Language Proficiency
>Test for over 10 years, and this pattern is one of the best
>descriminators between readers and non-readers. I can successfully
>predict reading levels based on response patterns to the test, as a
>general rule.

Fair enough. It's an observation from a standardised test. It doesn't
mean that students don't have future tense markers ("gonna"? or does it
have to be "will"? Even so) -- or the conceptual apparatus which comes
with/before them. It might just mean they don't know how to react to these
tests. And that could be in the same cultural complex as "reading
readiness" as she is practiced in schools. OK. I won't quibble, but it is
worth considering, there is some literature behind this notion, and in my
own research on the difference between proficiency test taking and
spontaneous speech in the second language among bilinguals (which Anderson
also mentioned) I noted that proficiency tests and examination of
spontaneous speech lead to different conclusions about what a child does
and does not have. "have" I said, not "*give* on tests". Furthermore,
different English proficiency tests do not correspond to each other, and
that has long been a well recognised problem, and was special problem when
it was necessary to have an "objective" test to decide which children were
to be classified as LEP (limited English proficient) and qualified for LAU
remedies (ESL, bilingual education, whatever). I hope I'm not talking too
much bureaucratese here.

The simple point is that the correlation may be just as Anderson says (I
have more ideas about this from my experience with ESL learners), but we'd
like to know the reasons behind it. And I'll allow that that may not be
essential to education. Maybe you don't have to know the reason to hit on
a remedy that works (such as teaching standard conjugation?), but let's at
least make sure we don't assume the wrong reasons, and underestimate what
the kid knows and would be confused and bored to be drilled in.
Waste our time, waste the kid's time. Come out with nothing.

 Exceptions usually relate to those with educational
>"disadvantage", or with a yet to be diagnosed disability. (I do see
>more than just future tense, there are other characteristics as well,
>e.g. an understanding of words which represent 'basic concepts" which
>relate to space and time).

The above comments still apply. The field of testing continues to develop.
It took a while for the educational system to recognise pathological
disabilities as distinct from dialect differences and second language
patterns. At one time, (and still in some places) they were all treated
the same way. It didn't work. So that's one thing for which "why's" and
"wherefore's" seem to be important. (Clearly different pathologies also
require different pedagogical approaches, e.g., autism vs. a hearing or
vision disability.) A BEV or Spanish speaking child could also have a
pathological disability, just like anyone else, so clearly it is important
to distinguish those who do from those who don't. Once again, treating
non-middle class non-standard cultures as "pathological" was once a widely
accepted sociological and psychological view of the matter, and it didn't
help. It didn't work. And it couldn't if "pathological" really means
anything more than "wrong answer! you lose."

 It would appear that it is the
>relationship between Oral language and Written language that needs to
>be better understood, not necessarily the oral language acquisition

Yes. There's a lot, but not total, agreement among scholars and
practitioners about this.
The problem comes out particularly in bilingualism where one very
influential theory (Cummins etc) says that literacy skills which are
distinct from oral skills should be developed in the first (stronger)
language first and once they are secure they can be automatically
transferred to the second language (even in the absence of oral skills in
the second language -- but that's another matter). Those of us who studied
Latin or (ancient) Greek etc agree (and also some modern languages for
reading purposes). But there are others who do not like this because it
might mean a longer period of development in literacy skills in, say,
Spanish before transfer to English. It's more expensive (maybe that's the
most important thing, but it's not stated as the most important thing), and
the payoff isn't quickly obvious.

Kenji (NOT Benji) Hakuta, a bilingual educationalist at Stanford, once said
in a presentation he gave that he had to go to Washington to talk to some
congressional committee about transitional bilingual education.
 How long should the transitional program be maintained?
was the constant question they asked him. He stumbled on, well, there are
different results from different experimental projects so ... but got
forced into saying something like "at least two years". "Two years!"
exclaimed one of the senators, "they oughta be able to do it in six months
max!" Kenji's point was that's a mentality in congress, but after his talk
I asked Kenji "why didn't you ask him how long it took him to learn another
language?" (But maybe I wouldn't have asked the congressman that either,
unless I had another congressman as a friend sitting next to him, or a
stiff drink before I went to testify.)

The theory I referred to above still insists, like Ron's spider metaphor,
if you transition them too soon you'll spoil the progress they've been
making in acquiring necessary literacy skills. It's a "critical mass"
rather than a "critical age" hypothesis. In view of Ron's spider tale
(anansi?) I wonder whether he has an opinion on this, since he also deals
with ESL kids. But in any case, we're also talking about BEV, not another
"language" that has a literate variety (other than standard English of
various forms, Zora Neale Hurston notwithstanding -- uh too "country").

I think that it is with the 2 language students that this
>relationship could be clarified, as relative reading skill compared to
>relative speaking skill could be assessed in the same student in two
>languages. This same kind of comparison is what I have been doing
>these past years.

Good. What have you found?

Next, for purposes of education, how important are speaking skills compared
to reading skills, and what, in fact, is the relation between them? I read
pretty good (= well), and I can write much better than this, and I even do
well on standardised tests (I know what "they" want and I know better than
to argue with "them"), but I talk like a "truck-driver" -- But I can fake
it if I have to. (A coupla big words, but used "correctly"!)

>I look at both 2 language speakers and one language speakers, and the
>same pattern occurs. The difference between the two groups is that
>the 2 language speakers more commonly have this problem. It may be
>because I specialize in the assessment of 2-language children, or some
>other factor. I know that the phenomenon exists. I would like to
>believe that I can guess the why, but I would certainly entertain any
>suggestions, and I would encourage a more formal study than mine with
>respect to this issue.

Very interesting and judicious. With regard to spoken skills in English, I
found that for fifth graders of Spanish-speaking background, control of
"would" in hypotheticals was a very good indicator of general skills in
spoken English. At this age, and in view of what they could do in Spanish,
there was no doubt that they had the conceptual ability to comprehend
questions like the English proficiency test one that goes "what would the
king have done if the dog hadn't eaten his food?", but according to their
general level of fluency in English they would respond "he eat it", or "he
*will* eat it" or "he *would* (have) ate it" etc. By the way, "I woulda
ate it" becomes dialectal, not degree of proficiency in non-standard
English. Standard English is a slightly different matter, but, for
practical purposes, that brings us back to literacy skills. In any case,
bilingualism and second language learning exemplifies the reality of the
distinction between speech production and underlying cognitive abilities.
We have less to go on with monolinguals, but we can't afford not to keep
the distinction in mind.

>Ya'll er tawk'n ta jes a gud 'ol cuntry bouey. Ah bin lukin fur a
>breedge ta baah. Ya gaught one tht goes ta Bruk-linn, Raht?

I forgot what this was supposed to be. It's not BEV. It's standard
English with odd spelling to indicate some kind of deep Southern
pronunciation, e.g., /ay/ monophthongised to "ah", -ing reduced to in',
etc. The only unusual pronunciation is "breedge". I don't know if that's
an actual dialectal form with tensing before palatals and velars, as in the
dialects that tense "egg" to "ague", "measure" to "may-zhure", etc., or an
18-19th c stereotype of English as a second language (e.g., spoken by a
first generation African American.)

I recognised the content as a challenge to say something substantial to be
helpful to people like Ron who have a job to do, and who realise there are
limits to what is known to help them do it. Their experience is valuable,
and sometimes they wonder about the connection of their work to the work of
people who criticise their work, make up their tests, etc., but are
removed from their situation. So I tried to say something substantial, and
asked some questions for further discussion. -- Benji
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Message 2: Re: 8.150, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Mon, 3 Feb 1997 10:48:25 -0500
From: Marc Hamann <>
Subject: Re: 8.150, Disc: Ebonics

>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

I just wanted to add to John Konopak's explanation of this phenomenon. I
agree with him that a sense of exclusion or "otherness" might account for
this, but I also wanted to add a dimension that I think has been lost in
this discussion (as is often the case when discussing race in the U.S.)
which is the issue of culture (in the anthropological sense.)

AAVE, or "Ebonics", like many linguistic entities marks the speaker as
belonging to a particular cultural group. Among the values of that group
might be that when you meet someone from your group, you greet them.

This possibility first occured to me a number of years ago when a friend of
mine who was from Malawi (a country in southern central Africa for the
geographical impaired.) told me that when he first came to Canada the thing
he found the hardest to adjust (aside from the weather) was that people
tend to ignore each other in public.

For example, he said, when you got on a bus in Malawi, as you were sitting
down, you would greet the people around you, and open the possibility of
conversation. The North American habit of trying real hard to pretend that
our fellow passengers do not exist struck him as lacking a community

Since many of the Africans I have met subsequently have echoed this,
regardless of their region of origin, this may be a common cultural element
which was inherited by Africans in North America.

Perhaps what is really striking here is not that African Americans have a
strong sense of community and greet each other, but rather that white North
Americans are sadly deficient in such a sense.

Marc Hamann <>

- ---
Marc Hamann
Database Developer/Programmer
Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario
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Message 3: the WORD Ebonics

Date: Sun, 2 Feb 1997 23:47:25 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: the WORD Ebonics

Let me try again.

First, for those who missed my original speculations on why SOME people
dislike the word "Ebonics", posted several weeks ago and buried under tons
of preceding verbiage:

"The "demeaning" thing must have to do with the whimsical structure of the
word: "Ebony" (like the magazine) but like a color and a piece of wood,
used to describe a human being. Ebony + Phonics = Ebonics. It's not as
clever to many readers as it was intended to be. .... And. finally, maybe
some linguists feel the -onics/phonics element is demeaning to the notion
of "language" since it is a relatively simple-minded approach to the
teaching of reading by sounding out spelled words"

That's not why I "dislike" the word. I dislike it for other reasons. I'll
get to that, although it isn't particular relevant to why I think the word
has become worse than useless, except as a reference to a specific
political controversy at a specific point in the history of American

Next, considering the above quote, was "Ebonics" intended to be "clever"?
Not really. I'm sure that it was intended to sound "scientific" in defence
of legitimising what it was intended to refer to. Science, linguistics
included, continually coins new words along similar lines, though usually
more accurately preserving the integrity of the Greek and Latin formatives

If the linguists among you are going to get reflective over that, at least
appreciate that "Ebonics" is a BLEND, so that the -on- element pays
literate (not phonetic) homage to both parents, "eb/on/(y)" and
"ph/on/ics". In fact, the method of combination that led to "Ebonics" is
most in tune with the various ways that commercial brand names are coined,
e.g., "Sominex", "Peptobismol", "Lysol", etc. (my favorite is the late
great "Serutan"; that's "Natures" backwards, as the commercials proudly
pointed out). But SO WHAT?

Do you disdain the word "aspirin" for its equally ignominious origin? And
don't you appreciate "infomercials"? (hmm, probably not) What about
"docudramas"? Aren't you worried when the economy goes into a state called
"stagflation"? Does your rug have "fleafestation"? ...

(OK, The worst you can say for "Ebonics" as a linguistic formation is that
it's "slogan-y". And that might not appeal to your sense of what is
traditionally appropriate to "rational scientific discourse" or "polite

Next -- and this is most serious. Even more than the continuously
increasing array of pharmaceutical brand-names (and the more *sedate*
generic pharmaceutical names marketed under the brand-names), "Ebonics"
has turned into POISON.

You cannot use that word in a serious linguistic discussion about language
varieties, and you most definitely cannot use that word with non-linguists
and have them listen to you without *prejudice and blinding emotion*. And
if you don't know that, what have you been talking about during the last
two months?

The phenomenon is familiar. There are lots of other words and expressions
that that has happened to. We talked about this on list once in the case
of the expression "political correctness". That's why I found it odd that
Rob Hagiwara would write the following:

"Political Correctness is not about replacing 'familiar and simpler' terms
with 'odd and inappropriate' ones. The 'tenets' of PC are about courtesy
and accuracy."

That's wrong. The attitude of acknowledgment and respect that is intended
by certain forms of linguistic and other behaviors is PUT DOWN/DEMEANED
with the term PC. Rob had acknowledged that earlier, but here he fell into
the trap, either in order to condense what he wanted to say, or by
misplacing the scare quotes. As an expert in communicative disorders, I
was surprised that he let this communicative disorder get past. The word
"Ebonics" has become a communicative disorder.

You are not free to use words any way you feel like ( if you want to be
understood). You cannot say "I think everybody should be politically
correct and those who sneer at political correctness are cycloptic
troglodytes -- or worse!". It simply doesn't say what you want to say.

(take note, ye linguists using words like "language", "dialect" and
"grammar" in public. Gauge your audience, and the audience of your
audience. Your audience can understand you -- maybe -- and they can let
THEIR audience MISunderstand you.

Maybe you should say, "everybody USED TO think that
"language/grammar/blabla" was ... but then linguists made the AMAZING
discovery that blablabla!" So if the audience still thinks what everybody
"used to" think, they're still living in caves, get it? OK, I tried.)

And you cannot say "Ebonics is a legitimate language in its own right." In
fact, if you read the list and most other current discussion you'll see
that "Ebonics" is used to refer to the political movement and/or topic of
discussion originating in the flap over the Oakland School Board's first
resolution. That's how it's used. Other uses have been marginalised,
and cannot be understood by most people. The word has been poisoned, and
it POISONS conversations that have to do with language.

(N.B. The Oakland school board understood that very well when they
expurgated the word "Ebonics" from their revised resolution -- but only
altered the intent of the original resolution minimally. And it worked.
They were ignored as the fire set by their initial use of the word
"Ebonics" raged on and ravaged the countryside -- and the cityside.)

Finally, why do I dislike the term "Ebonics"? For linguistic reasons. For
social and political analysis I think it is going to be fine, even useful,
to refer to "the Ebonics movement", "the Ebonics controversy", etc.
Doesn't even need scare quotes.

But, again, as a linguistic term applied to the first language of most
African Americans
- long before the controversy, it was already associated with perhaps
well-intentioned but inaccurate, superficial, premature and immature
characterisations of that language. Its linguistic sponsors never went
beyond finding any similarity they could between AAVE (I'll call it that
without saying what the "E" stands for) and a number of Africal languages,
primarily West African Niger-Congo languages, and asserting that these
features were historically continuous with those languages.

(I'm not saying *all* their identifications were *totally* wrong, but that
they had no method to recognise whether they were right or wrong -- unless
you consider wishful thinking to be a methodology, rather than a
distracting factor to be constantly guarded against in developing and using
a methodology.)

They dismissed any contradictory or confounding data, and dismissed any
arguments questioning that theory, as irrelevant. And they ignored such
data and arguments in propagating their theories.

(In mitigating my condemnation of them, I'll note that they chose to focus
on some equally methodologically ignorant and lousy theories which denied
the possibility of continuity between (almost) any feature of any African
language and AAVE. So their attention might have been somewhat distracted
by the racism and anti-Africanism of theories which had previously found
their way into print. But that doesn't excuse them for ignoring legitimate
issues that had arisen before them and have continued to arise. )

Even worse (according to my standards of scholarship), they ripped all
their pet features off of AAVE and reified them as a separate language.
The result is at best a bunch of language fragments, incoherent and
unusable alone, and it leaves what it ignores in AAVE similarly incoherent
and unusable as a language. This does as much damage to the concept of
AAVE as a language as does the false and intentionally vicious concept that
AAVE is not a language. Ebonics is not a language, but a parody of AAVE,
and the methodology used to assert that it is a language is not
linguistics, but a parody of it.

- Benji
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