LINGUIST List 8.349

Tue Mar 11 1997

Disc: Ebonics

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Johanna Rubba, Ebonics
  2. DWILMSEN, RE: 8.317, Disc: Ebonics

Message 1: Ebonics

Date: Tue, 4 Mar 1997 16:51:57 -0800 (PST)
From: Johanna Rubba <>
Subject: Ebonics

In view of recent comments on Ebonics, separatism, and disservice to
AA children in education, I'd like to cite the study reported in
Simpkins & Simpkins 1981. This study used a set of transitional
readers called Bridges. The children began their reading instruction
using readers written in AAVE, dealing with topics and story types
familiar to them from their community experiences (NOT Dick & Jane at
Grandma's farm). They then moved on to readers written in a mix of
AAVE and standard English, and then to readers written exclusively in
standard E.

540 children, 530 of them AA, participated in the study, in several
cities across the country (27 classes). 417 of the students used the
Bridge readers and 123 stayed in the ordinary local remedial reading
program. Results: in four months of instruction,Bridge children in
grades 7-12 made 6.2 months of reading proficiency gain as measured by
the standardized Iowa Test of Basic Skills in Reading, Level 12 Form
5. The children in the ordinary remedial program made an average gain
of 1.6 months of reading proficiency over the same four months of

As the authors write, "the Bridge program attempts to start where the
students are and take them to where their teachers would like them to
be" (p. 231). It apparently was successful -- 417 students developed
skills in reading standard English through this program.

It seems to me that a program like this is (a) effective in teaching
children to read both their own dialect and standard English; (b)
equips them with the skills they need to succeed in standard English
reading; (c) does not serve to separate, but to assimilate AA children
into 'mainstream' society.

It is certainly worth repeating the study.

Interestingly, the Bridge readers were not adopted due to objections
of parents and school administrators. I don't know where they were
looking, because they weren't looking at the data. It seems downright
criminal that this approach was not further tested and explored -- how
many generations of children might have become fluent readers instead
of school failures if we had been using programs like this since
Simpkins & Simpkins?

Wm. Labov has a recent paper reviewing and critiquing Bridge. I
haven't had time to read the paper yet, but I refer those interested
to it. Labov is usually pretty savvy on these matters.

-Labov, William. 1995. Can reading failure be reversed? A linguistic
approach to the question. In V. Gadsden and D. Wagner (eds.), Literacy
Among African-American Youth. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

The full Simpkins reference is:

-Simpkins, Gary A. and Charlesetta Simpkins. 1981. Cross cultural
approach to curriculum development. In Smitherman, Geneva, ed., Black
English and the education of Black children and youth: Proceedings of
a national invitational symposium on the King decision. Detroit:
Center for Black Studies, Wayne State University. Reports on the
Bridge readers experiment.

Johanna Rubba	Assistant Professor, Linguistics ~
English Department, California Polytechnic State University ~
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407 ~
Tel. (805)-756-2184 E-mail: ~
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Message 2: RE: 8.317, Disc: Ebonics

Date: Tue, 4 Mar 1997 19:04:13 GMT
Subject: RE: 8.317, Disc: Ebonics

I would like to comment on something that is not directly realted to
the ebonics discussion, which I have been following sporadically. I
notice the use of the term "african americans". since this term has
been ressurected out of the sixties, when it was "afro americans", I
have found it difficult and even offensive. why? because what the
people who use it really mean by the term is "americans descended of
the native popluations of sub-saharan, west africa or those who
resemble them in (mostly) skin color". that is is so is clearly
demonstrated by a court case brought in detroit against his employer
by an egyptian american, (whose skin was somewhat dark and whose hair
was more-or-less tightly curled). he was suing to be classed as an
african american. the suit was denied by the courts. I cant remember
the wording of the decision, but the upshot of it was that what was
meant by "african american" was something other than "north-african

If people mean to classify others by their skin colour (a questionable
proposition at best), why dont they name the color itself, rather than
pretending that they are talking about something more vague like area
of ancestral descent?

I had once intended to marry an egyptian. had the union borne fruit,
the offspring would quite literally and legally been african
americans, in that they would have been issued an egyptian birth
certificate by the ministry of interior and an american passport by
the united states embassy. fortunately egyptain birth certificates
cannot bother themselves with trivialities like "race". my own birth
certificate does as does that of my daughter. (she is listed as a
Celt, because in the part of america in which i was living at the
time, those people of european background who were not specifically
descended from ancestors of the iberian peninsula or the basin of
mexico or the yucatan peninsula, were referred to as "anglos". i
resisted that classification for two reasons 1) my daughter has no
traceable anglo-saxon ancestry and 2) i think the whole idea of
tracing people by the place of origin of their (sometimes distant)
ancestors is silly at best, pernicious at worst. when i would tell
people that she was not anglo, it would generate great confusion,
becuase what they meant by "anglo" what "white" (or worse) and her
complexion is very pale.

the same is then true for "african american". what is meant is
"black". its just that no one wants to say this anymore.

i also have my reservations about the term "ebonics". from "ebony"?
why on earth? because it is dark? i also saw on this list the term
"nigritic ebonics" from the latin /niger/ meaning 'black'. (BTW it
looks like /ebony/ comes from egyptian /hbnj/ through greek through

i'm a bit at a loss with this. i have seen people trying to argue
that the ebonics movement is based in some sort of scientific
conception of language. i usually ignore the news sources from out of
america so i am not certain that this is actually the claim of those
who coined the term. if it is, however, to use some metaphorical
coinage like that seems to me to hurt the cause, and invite the scorn
of its detracotrs. after all, if it really comes from the word
"ebony", the first thing that comes to my mind is the magazine by that
same name. who wants to name a reputable scientific movement after a
popular magazine?

so much for tirades
director, arabic and translation studies 
american university in cairo
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